Joshua Henkin, author of the New York Times notable book Matrimony, is back with his next novel, The World Without You, an insightful and elegant portrait of a family in grief. The Frankels have lost their son, Leo, a journalist on assignment in Iraq, and are memorializing him over July 4 weekend at their home in the Berkshires. Various domestic crises have erupted with the remaining siblings and the two parents in Henkin's page-turning narrative, which has earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. I spoke with the author about the inspiration behind the book, his thoughts behind melding a novel of interior lives with political content and what the hokey pokey really is all about.
When did you start writing this novel, and what inspired it -- particularly, a novel whose inciting event is the death of a journalist in Iraq?
My agent went out with Matrimony and the first hundred pages of The World Without You, and I ended up with a two-book deal with Pantheon. So the first draft of the first hundred pages of The World Without You was written a while ago, but then it wasn't until Matrimony was published and I was done with my book tour that I started to work on this novel in earnest. In total, it took about five years to write.
In terms of the inspiration, I had a first cousin who died of Hodgkin's disease when he was in his late twenties. I was only a toddler at the time, but his death hung over my extended family for years. At a family reunion nearly thirty years later, my aunt, updating everyone on what was happening in her life, began by saying, "I have two sons...." Well, she'd once had two sons, but her older son had been dead for thirty years at that point. It was clear to everyone in that room that the pain was still raw for her and that it would continue to be raw for her for the rest of her life. By contrast, my cousin's widow eventually remarried and had a family. This got me thinking how when someone loses a spouse, as awful as that is, the surviving spouse eventually moves on; but when a parent loses a child they almost never move on. That idea was the seed from which The World Without You grew. Although there are many tensions in the novel (between siblings, between couples, between parents and children), the original tension was between mother-in-law and daughter-in law, caused by the gulf between their two losses, by the different ways they grieve.
When I tell people what the book is about, they immediately say, "Oh, Daniel Pearl." The fact is, I wasn't consciously thinking about Daniel Pearl when I wrote the book, but his death was in the air at the time, as was the death of other journalists. The Iraq War more broadly was in the air, too, and that's probably what got me thinking about it for this book. Beyond that, on a practical level, it seemed to me much more interesting to write about a journalist who was killed in Iraq than about a guy who died in a car crash.
What were your strategies for introducing an incendiary political element to a novel whose action is otherwise situated firmly in the domestic sphere?
You're right, Teddy, it is a domestic novel, but the political element you mention is important, too. My characters have private lives and I write about those private lives, but they also have public lives. In different ways, they're quite political people, out there engaged with the world at large. Marilyn and Lily went down to Florida for the Bush-Gore recount, and they took leaves of absence from work to campaign for Kerry after Leo died. And Marilyn has been spending the past year writing op-eds about the war. People like to say the personal is political, but for the Frankels the political is personal.
Also, I think I chose to have Leo killed in Iraq as a way of illustrating how far-away conflicts have an impact on even the most privileged of people. I come from the same socioeconomic background, roughly speaking, as the Frankels, and while I know a lot of people who have very strong feelings about the war, it often feels at one remove. I don't know any soldiers who were killed. I suspect the Frankels didn't, either. But then the war came and touched hem in the most personal, horrific way.
It's a cliché, but you truly seem to know everything about your characters; I was struck by how many private jokes and family histories are related. How do you come up with these?
I imagined it. I made it up. That's how it is with most of the details in this novel. You live inside your characters, you breathe the air they breathe, and things come to you. True, a lot of things that come to you are just plain wrong, and so you have to change them. You revise and revise and revise and revise. I threw out close to two thousand pages in writing this book. That's just how it has to be. But there's very little planning. I do carry a notebook with me, and when I hear an interesting anecdote or line of dialogue I write it down. But then when I'm actually writing my book and I go back to those notes they seem all wrong for the character and so you can't use them. There's nothing worse than trying to shoehorn a clever line or a detail you like into a book just because you like it. You have to write from character; if you don't, your book will be a lie.
This isn't to say that there aren't details that I come across that I do end up using. Toward the beginning of the novel Clarissa is wearing a T-shirt that says "What if the hokey pokey really is what it's all about?" That's a T-shirt I once saw someone wearing. And Thisbe refers to Nora, Leo's former girlfriend, as "the girl with the extra toe." Well, I did know someone years ago who had an extra toe on her foot. Would that detail have made it into The World Without You if I hadn't known this person? Maybe not. But the vast, vast majority of the details in the book come simply from my imagination.
The tension between Noelle's Orthodox practice in Israel and the rest of the family runs throughout the book. How important is Judaism to you personally and as a subject of fiction?
I don't think about subjects; I think about characters. Any fiction writer who's any good focuses on the concrete, not the abstract. You're telling a story. You're trying to make your characters come to life. These are very hard things to do, and you can ill-afford to focus on anything else. That said, I suspect it's not a coincidence that two of my three novels have characters who engage Jewish religious observance directly. My grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi who lived in the U.S. for fifty years and never learned English. My father remained an observant Jew until the day he died. My brothers and I went to Jewish day school and Jewish summer camp. My daughters go to Jewish day school and my wife for the past nine years has taught at a Jewish seminary. My own relationship to Jewish observance is idiosyncratic, but it's safe to say that being Jewish is a big part of my life.
What's next for you?
A trip to Hawaii, I'm hoping! Writing a novel takes a lot out of you. Right now, I'm trying to figure out what comes next. I promised myself I would go back to writing short stories. It's weird, I've spent the last nearly twenty years writing novels, when in so many ways I think of myself as a short-story writer. It was certainly my first love, and because I teach MFA students, I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about short stories. So last fall, when I finished the final draft of The World Without You, I immediately sat down to write a short story, and what happened? The draft I wrote was 113 pages along! And then the second short story I wrote was over 200 pages long! I still think I'm capable of writing a regular old twenty-to-thirty-page short story, but we'll have to see. In the meantime, I'm tossing around some ideas for a new novel, but it's still in the very early, incubating stages, so I'm not saying more than that.