In The World Without You, Joshua Henkin’s latest novel, the Frankel family comes together one year after the family’s only son, Leo, a journalist, was killed on assignment in Iraq. That death has cast an all-consuming shadow on the family: siblings, marriages, and grandchildren are troubled; Mom and Dad are breaking up after forty years; and Leo’s widow is moving on. This is Henkin’s third novel to remind us that literature can be thoughtful, intelligent, and also wildly entertaining.
Henkin directs the MFA program at Brooklyn College and also happens to be a true gentleman: we met at a café in Park Slope where, at first, he sort of interviewed me, asking where I was from, how I grew up, and how did I like my coffee? This would have gone on, I think, for the remainder of our conversation if I hadn’t remembered we were actually there to talk about him. And so we went on to talk about King Lear, character and the family drama, MFAs, and why “show, don’t tell” is mostly bullshit.
Scott Cheshire: I want to start with something of a problematic question because I think there is a certain type of reader who will ask it. And that is: does serious literary fiction need another family drama?
Joshua Henkin: To be honest, it’s a question that’s hard to take seriously. I mean, think of Flaubert, of Tolstoy. Is every work of great literature a family drama? No. But are many — perhaps even most — family dramas? I think so. We’re born into families. Lots of us create families. And, yes, we live public lives but we also have private lives. And fiction is singularly suited to the private life, the internal. I think there is probably an anxiety of influence there, too. Some writers get worried, thinking that every story has already been told. You know a teacher of mine once said there are only two kinds of stories: a stranger comes to town, or a person goes on a trip. Which are really the same story but from different perspectives. So really there’s only one story. But I’m not perturbed by that, because every story is different if it’s told well. Look at King Lear, which, if crudely summarized, is basically a clichéd plot — a family drama in which the father has to decide which of his daughters gets the money. But it doesn’t matter if the story has been told. It’s all about how it’s done.
Come to think of it, even the Hebrew Bible is basically all family drama.
Absolutely. And actually I think it’s the anxiety about your first question that leads to a lot of bad literature. I see among my students and out there, in general, some really talented writers who are so worried about being original that they dress up their books in pyrotechnics and they do all these wacky things just be sure the work is different — but the way in which it’s different is not interesting or even organic. If people would just chill out and live with their characters and tell a story, then if it’s good it will be remembered, and if it’s bad, it won’t.
Is that anxiety something you see a lot of in an MFA program?
Flannery O’Connor said anybody who has survived childhood has enough material to write for a lifetime. And she wasn’t advocating writing autobiographical fiction, and my new book isn’t autobiographical at all — I think what she’s really saying is a writer should take their own experience seriously, and take their internal life seriously. When I was in grad school — I went to Michigan for my MFA in the ’90s — traditional American realism was in vogue. People were reading Carver, and Ford, and Beattie. And then the pendulum swung to more experimental writing, but then it swung back again. There’s good and bad in both schools. But if you do something interesting with language and take your characters seriously and take narrative seriously, you’ll make something good.
I like your use of the word “organic.” A lot happens in your novel and yet it doesn’t feel necessarily plotted. Everything that happens is, in its own way, surprising, even though nothing especially surprising happens. It’s really lovely in that way.
Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life is a model book for me in that it feels not so much written as it feels like the writer has stepped out of the way and simply let the characters tell the story. But I also know how hard that is to do. You say the new book feels organic, and that makes me happy, but I also threw out 2,000 pages along the way. I mean, in the first draft the parents, Marilyn and David, weren’t even splitting up, and now . . .
It’s the main story.
Exactly. I start with character, and story grows out of that. My goal as a writer is to have my reader feel like they know my characters like they know people in their own lives. Now, I don’t care if they like my characters. Fiction is not a popularity contest. Think of Edward St. Aubyn. Those are great books about detestable characters. Think of O’Connor, Martin Amis. The issue is not likability. It’s whether or not they feel real and you can put them into an interesting situation.
The book also directly and indirectly deals with politics and religion. A character at one point announces, “I hate Bush.” Some writers would be afraid to write a line like that.
We’re all afraid to do a lot of things and I think those are precisely the things we should do as writers. Teaching writing, I see a lot of students who are talented, but are so afraid of being over the top they wind up with stories that are subtle to the point of obfuscation.
I imagine you want say, “Please, just tell, and stop showing so much.”
I actually think “show, don’t tell” is the great lie of fiction writing. I mean, I know what it means, but I actually think it’s more of a mantra between a lazy student and a lazy teacher. I mean, if a student writes, “she’s happy, she’s happy, she’s happy,” I’m probably not going to feel it. But I think the mantra of “show, don’t tell” has been so misinterpreted that now so many students, all they want to do is describe a couch. They’re afraid to show what a character is actually feeling because if you don’t do it well, you sound like a hallmark card, but if you describe a couch badly, nobody really cares. It’s all about a kind of discomfort with emotion and sincerity. But a writer has to risk sentimentality in order to achieve sentiment. And you need sentiment. When I was in 11th grade my mom made me take a typing class so I would be ready for college, and there was this typing sentence: the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. It has every letter of the alphabet, so it’s a good typing sentence, but it’s a lousy fiction sentence. And yet I see those kinds of sentences all the time — endless description with no purpose at all. Someone like Richard Bausch is so good at letting you know how a character feels without seeming maudlin. And it’s very hard to do, but just because it’s hard to do doesn’t mean a writer shouldn’t try and do it. Tell Proust, “show, don’t tell.” Tell Alice Munro, “show, don’t tell.” And it breaks down when you think about it. Not to be obtuse, but the only thing you’re really showing are these black markings on the page. She was nervous versus she bit her fingernail. I would choose she was nervous. She bit her fingernail is such a clichéd image.
And nervous is a damn good word.
My students always have characters rolling their eyes. If I could only get rid of eyes — they’re always pools, or windows to the soul. If I could eliminate eyes, the world would be a better place.
The book is dedicated to your father who has passed away. That, coupled with the lovely moment of kaddish in the novel, makes the book kaddish-like. Was this your intention from the beginning?
In order for a book to be effective, the writer has to think about the particular, not about theme. A friend of mine has written a paper on how adults group objects vs. how kids group objects [and found, for example, that] the adults group apples with bananas, while kids group monkeys with bananas — suggesting that children are more natural storytellers. Adults think more according to category, and I think writers need to try and think more like children — smart children, but children.
O’Connor talks about how a writer needs a certain amount of stupidity, and you certainly do for at least the first draft, and then you put your brain back in. Nothing is planned. Theme comes in through the back door. And it sort of comes back to what you said before with regard to the family drama. If writers have anxiety about their book they wind up making grand claims that a book is about grief, or about war, or about humanity, but I don’t think that’s the way to write. If you want to do that, be a politician, or a theologian, a rabbi, or a priest. I’m not saying you don’t learn something from fiction. It’s just very hard to reduce. Franzen says something like the easier it is to summarize what a book is about, the worse that book is. I think he’s right. It’s an apple-banana idea. For instance, the politics of the book are important, but I arrived at it by way of character.
Who do you read?
I try to read eclectically. Obviously, I have a strong interest in traditional realist character-driven fiction, like Cheever, and Fitzgerald. I read Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Richard Yates. But I also read DeLillo. Look at Joyce, who wrote Ulysses and Dubliners. Some writers can do both. For me, reading is about living in the world in which I live and being taken into another version of that world. I don’t need any more magic than there is in discovering what it’s like to be someone else. I read my students’ stories. I just read Tom McNeal’s To Be Sung Underwater, a great book. I’m always reading; it’s important.
I like to think of an MFA as a reading degree, more than a writing degree.
Absolutely. What you do is you teach someone to be a better and more self-conscious reader. I do think that you can’t teach talent, but you can teach someone to get out of the way of their mistakes. You can teach them that every thing you put on the page, every comma, every mark has an effect on the reader. I have writer friends who wouldn’t think of teaching, or don’t want to teach, but I feel very strongly about teaching, and it’s integral to my writing. Long before I was able to put anything good on the page I was able to figure out what was and wasn’t working on the page in someone else’s work. I feel like even though I’m the teacher, we’re all in the same position, and we’re learning from each other and from reading each other’s stories. The sooner the student realizes this, rather than considering the MFA to be a manuscript consultation service, the better the experience will be.
In other words, stop worrying about how to get an agent.
You know, a lot of these more expensive programs have to worry about that stuff to justify the cost. What’s nice about a place like Brooklyn or Hunter is we don’t have to worry about that. I’ve seen a lot of instances where writers get published way too early, but we have the opposite problem. A lot of our students are good enough to be publishing but don’t feel psychologically ready to be sending their work out. And I’m okay with that. That said, we do live in New York and so I don’t want to ignore that the publishing world is centered here, so in the fall we usually have a publishing day, and editors come in and agents come in. We have a panel Q and A. I think we owe it to the students to not be so ivory tower about it all. And if our students are ready for an agent, then we’ll help them get an agent. But anyone who enters the program simply for connections or because they think it’s a smart career move . . .
Well, it’s just not a very good career move.
It’s not, and if all you care about is getting published then just go to a party every night and meet people. But the real way to do it is to just keep writing, and if you’re good you’ll get published. Maybe not immediately, but it will happen. You may not get rich, but that’s the world we live in, and if the first book or the next one doesn’t work out there is always another book. And that’s how it should be.
You really enjoy teaching.
Teaching gets you out of yourself. There’s something very isolating about being with your characters all day, and of course I like it when people say, “I enjoyed your book,” but to touch someone’s life in a very real way — not to mention the relationship you develop with your students day in and day out — it’s a very special thing.