Jeff Grunthaner speaks with author Joshua Henkin about his latest novel, The World Without You, about an American family contending with elements beyond their control.
Joshua Henkin’s latest novel, The World Without You, details the emotionally complex homecoming of the estranged Frankel family, an event prompted by a memorial service in honor of the recently deceased Leo Frankel—a young journalist whose untimely and public death in the Iraq War has catapulted the Frankels to the status of reluctant national celebrities. What impressed me about the novel was that Henkin never uses the plot of the novel to make partisan statements on the political state of the US. Rather, he dedicates himself to the cause of realism, creating an impartial world which doesn’t reduce itself to a single meaning or message. I recently had the chance sit with the author and talk to him about the creative process underlying The World Without You, why he deliberately avoids political commentary, and how his use of language reflects his views on the art of the novel.
Jeffrey Grunthaner Your novel is about 300 pages long. How much did you originally have, and how much was ultimately edited out?
Joshua Henkin I had about 2,000 pages. In my last book, my first draft was about 3,000 pages. I just throw out a lot of pages. To me, it’s all part of the rewriting process. You need to write a lot of bad pages in order to get to the good ones.
JG Did you edit it yourself?
JH Absolutely. I take responsibility for every last comma. But I also showed early drafts to a few people I really trust—my editor at Pantheon, for one, and a friend from my graduate school days who’s been a great critic for me. I made some huge changes. In the first draft, for instance, Marilyn and David weren’t even splitting up, and now that’s the engine that sets the book in motion. In the final draft there’s a character, Jules, who shows up at the memorial for about half a page, but in an earlier draft he was a major character—he appeared in about 300 pages. My novels always get compressed as I revise. I write several thousand pages, and then I find the book hiding in those pages
JG It seems The World Without You is less about family and more about attachment.
JH In the abstract sense, you mean?
JG In a concrete way. As concrete as attachment can be. Every character in the novel has a corresponding mate, for example. And then they’re all together in this house—they all have to deal with their attachments to each other and what that means. Could you elaborate on how you viewed the development of this theme?
JH I don’t think in terms of theme when I write. It’s not that there isn’t a truth to what you’re saying, but I see that as the perspective of the critic. That’s what I meant when I said attachment in the abstract sense. People have said to me, “Oh, you’re writing about family,” but I don’t think about it like that. I see myself as writing not about family in general, but about a specific, singular family—the Frankels.
Some people have said my book is about the Iraq War, but I don’t agree with that either. It’s a family drama. I mean, obviously, the Frankels are people with strong political opinions. But I always start with the particular. I think when you start with the general, your characters end up feeling like lies. I do see this as a family that’s tight, but it’s more complicated [than that]. There’s a reason Noelle ended up in Israel. She says that herself. She couldn’t find enough distance between her and her sisters; she needed to find her own path. And I think these are characters who are very attached to each other, but they also need their own space. And there’s something about the confined space of this novel that I think is important. I mean, the book takes place—except for the opening couple of chapters—entirely in Lenox, and most of it takes place in a house. It’s very claustrophobic. You’re taking people who grew up together, but there’s a lot of distance between them. You lock them up in a house, and that does things to people.
JG Do you start with characters more than incidents or situations? Do you think of a character first or . . .?
JH I guess my heart is most in character. If the characters aren’t interesting or complicated, then to me the novel is no good. No matter how many twists and turns of plot, no matter how lovely the language, it’s not going to do anything if it’s not in the service of character. But I do think that you develop your characters through narrative. I mean, you don’t just have them sitting around. Things happen. For instance, if the brother hadn’t died, the parents wouldn’t have split up. The novel would be entirely different. The book is really about how this single moment changed everyone’s lives.
So I don’t think you can disentangle plot and character. This is true of our own lives—we create our own stories but are also created by them. I start out with a line, or a situation, or some sense of what could potentially happen, depending on who the characters are, and then the characters develop from that. It’s all trial and error. I say to myself, “Well, that sounds interesting, what you’ve done, but actually this character wouldn’t do that. This character turns out to be x, when I thought this character was y!” It’s really a matter of proceeding blindly.
JG Politics seemed very much to lie in the background of the novel. To be honest, I think one would be hard-pressed to find a definite, political position in the book.
JH You mean on my part?
JG Well, yeah, on your part as the author.
JH That’s how I want it. John Gardner once said that a character should never make an argument in a work of fiction and that if he does, the author should disagree with it. I think Gardner’s overstating things, but there’s a core truth to what he’s saying. I see this problem a lot in my students’ writing. In much of their work you can see the author’s allegiances. One of the characters is too obviously a mouthpiece for the writer, and that’s never a good thing. I don’t believe in political messages in fiction. I think if you have a message, then you reduce your characters to something less complex than they should be. If you want to write a message, go be a speechwriter for Obama, or for Romney, if you must. So if you were to read my book and feel that there was a political message, that would be, at least to my mind, a failure of the book.
One of the interesting things about writing this book was that these are upper-middle-class people. The Frankels don’t know soldiers who were killed in the war. They’re people who have strong opinions about the war, but they come from a demographic that doesn’t send its sons and daughters to die in the Middle East. It’s not that they aren’t political; they certainly are. Marilyn and Lily went down to Florida for the Bush-Gore recount. They went to Ohio and Pennsylvania to campaign for Kerry. But they weren’t cast out on the streets because of Bush’s election, the way some people were. Because of their position in society, they’re fairly well insulated; they have a cushion. But then the war came and touched them in the most horrific way imaginable. I think one of the isolating things for this family is that they’re grieving alone. It’s not like they have friends who are in the same position as they are.
JG You’ve written some criticism, but The World Without You doesn’t read like it’s coming from someone who writes critical essays.
JH I come from an academic family. My dad was a law professor. He wanted me to get a PhD. I was studying political theory in college. I was probably going to get a PhD in political theory. So I certainly have academic, critical inclinations, and I came to writing fiction as a critic in the sense that I . . . well, I have friends who are more naturally intuitive writers than I am. I had to teach myself to become a more intuitive writer. Before I could do it myself, I was able to figure out what wasn’t working in other people’s stories—in that sense, I come to fiction writing as a critic. You’re a poet. You’re not a super-narrative poet. You’re interested in language for language’s sake in a way that most fiction writers are not. The kind of fiction I write . . . it’s fiction where the language is trying not to be obtrusive. When my work succeeds, it’s not because someone says, “Wow, I’ll never forget that line!” It’s going to succeed through a different kind of beauty, a slow accretion of sentences and details and insights that shed light on character.
JG I found the language does achieve a kind of intensity that does not negate the banality of the Frankel family, or what they’re about.
JH All a writer has is language, so language is really important. But for me the language isn’t there to call attention to itself. Now, there is some fiction that does that and does it well, but that’s not what I’m interested in as a writer. It’s not what I do.
Joshua Henkin is the author of the novels Matrimony, Swimming Across the Hudson, and most recently, The World Without You. He lives in Brooklyn and directs the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College.
Jeffrey Grunthaner is an MFA candidate at Brooklyn College, concentrating in poetry. Recent work can be found at BOMBlog, Art Comments, and in the staple-bound publication The Death and Life of American Cities.