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On Publishing a Second Novel and Other Matters: An Interview with Joshua Henkin

On Publishing a Second Novel and Other Matters: An Interview with Joshua Henkin

by Erika Dreifus

Among the books to be released in October you’ll want to take note of Joshua Henkin’s second novel, Matrimony. (Book Sense already has, and the book is an October “pick.”)

I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of Matrimony several months ago. It’s a difficult novel to summarize, in part because it travels so far in both time and place: Protagonists Julian Wainwright and Mia Mendelsohn meet during their freshman year in a New England college; their path to matrimony (and well beyond) takes us to New York, Montreal, Ann Arbor, Berkeley, and Iowa City. And in part it’s difficult to summarize because, to put it bluntly, “life happens” to Julian and Mia along the way. They face birth, death, illness, infidelity, and more; their relationship is tested again and again.

Author Joshua Henkin lives in Brooklyn, New York, and teaches in the creative writing programs at Sarah Lawrence College and Brooklyn College, and at the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y. Recently he responded to our questions.

Erika Dreifus (ED): Matrimony is your second novel; Swimming Across the Hudson was published 10 years ago. Tell us how your approach to publishing and promoting Matrimony differs from your approach to those processes with your first novel. I imagine, for example, that the Internet is playing a far greater role in your publicity efforts this time around?

Joshua Henkin (JH): Publishing Matrimony was harder; promoting it has been easier. I sold Swimming Across the Hudson to Putnam based on the first 50 pages, which is almost unheard of now for a first-time novelist. The publishing world even in the last 10 years has gotten so much worse, so much more bottom-line. And as hard as it is to sell a first novel, selling a second novel can be harder unless your first novel was a huge commercial success, because with a second novel there are numbers in the computer and unless those numbers are great, publishers begin to worry. With a first novel, anything seems possible. And though Swimming Across the Hudson did very well critically, its sales were middling.

This time around, I wanted to finish the book before I sold it. But there were many rewrites along the way, literally thousands of pages thrown out, and it took my agent a while to find the perfect editor and perfect house. But I’m glad to say she did exactly that. My editor and publicist and everyone else at Pantheon have been absolutely amazing, and they’ve really gotten behind the novel. I’ll be going on a big book tour, and everyone’s really hopeful. As for the impact the Internet has had on book promotion, I can’t even begin to describe it. The things that are possible now that weren’t possible 10 years ago are flabbergasting. I wouldn’t be doing this interview, for one, and that’s just the beginning of it.

ED: You are fast earning a reputation as a voice of authority on MFA programs. Next month you’ll have an article on the subject in Poets & Writers; you’ve also published a series of terrific posts on M.J. Rose’s well-known blog (Buzz, Balls and Hype). You teach in two MFA programs and demonstrate a considerable faith in their worth. Yet several years after finishing college, Matrimony‘s Julian rejects his wife’s suggestion that he seek admission to the University of Michigan MFA program (they’re living in Ann Arbor, where Mia is pursuing graduate work in psychology, at the time). And if I’m reading the novel correctly, Julian doesn’t finish the MFA program he ultimately does apply to and begin (the Iowa Writers’ Workshop); he goes to Iowa after having separated from his wife, and seems to leave the program as soon as he and Mia reconcile. Formal graduate study really doesn’t seem essential to Julian’s success. Late in the book, we read this: “Not until after [Julian] came back to her did he tell Mia the truth: that he’d stopped working on his novel when he left her and hadn’t been able to return to it until he came back.” As someone who teaches in two MFA programs, what kind of counsel might you offer someone like Julian? How could an MFA program benefit (or have benefited) him?

JH: You’re right–I’m a big advocate of MFA programs. That said, they’re not for everyone. You have to be of the right mindset. Julian kind of backs into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, in that he’s convinced by someone else to apply, and he really does it from a position of weakness. He’s in a rut, he’s been teaching composition for several years, and he needs to get out of Ann Arbor and away from Mia. So I don’t think he’s predisposed to like his experience at Iowa. Also, he’s trying to get back to his novel, and while it’s certainly possible to discuss novel chapters in a writing workshop, workshops are really made more for the short story. Unless you’re in a workshop geared exclusively toward the novel, it can be difficult to have a meaningful discussion of novel excerpts. Finally, Julian took writing workshops throughout college, so in a way he went to an MFA program as an undergraduate. I myself didn’t start to write fiction until after I finished college, so workshops were a fresh experience for me. But you do start to see more and more people who took six workshops in college and then they move on to an MFA program, and by the time they get there they’re jaded–they’re workshopped out.

ED: Julian achieves significant success with his short fiction (publishing in The Missouri Review and Harper’s) many years before he sells his novel. You, too, have enjoyed success in both these fictional forms. It seems to me (and the writing workshop scenes in Matrimony, as well as your comment just above, would appear to bear this out) that short stories are far more easily suited to the workshop setting. Yet novels are often what writers (and agents) want to be dealing with outside the workshop. Given your experience both studying and teaching fiction in workshop settings (and your evident continuing commitment to both the short story and the novel as forms for your own writing), I’m curious about any specific advice you have to offer those writers seeking to develop their novels in workshops, as well as tips that might help those of us leading workshops with a “mixed” population of short story writers and novelists.

JH: There certainly is a tension between MFA programs, which emphasize stories, and the publishing world, which has no interest in story collections. This wasn’t as true 10 years ago. What I’d say is this: I think there are things novelists can learn from story workshops that will help their craft as novelists. The two forms are quite different, but not so different as to have nothing to say to each other. In general, I believe novels are easiest to discuss in workshops that are dedicated to the novel. At Sarah Lawrence and Brooklyn College, the two programs where I teach, there’s one novel workshop a semester. I also think that, whatever kind of workshop you’re in, it’s best not to bring a novel in unless you’re very far into it–ideally not until you have a first draft completed. A lot of people get feedback too early. That’s one of the hard things about a novel. You’re swimming on your own for a really long time. But that process is necessary. People try to help you before you’re ready to be helped. You need to make your own mistakes in order to figure out what the book is really about.

As for mixed workshops, where some students are writing stories and some are writing novels, I’ve taught a lot of those, and I think it’s important with the novelists to treat the work differently because you’re seeing something partial. You need to be a lot more tentative. You tell the writer what seems most promising, what interests you most, what you think the work is going to be about, what potential problems you see, even as you recognize that you may be wrong because you simply don’t yet know where the novel is going, and sometimes the writer herself doesn’t know, either. The potential pitfall here is you can be so tentative that you end up being unhelpful. Novel excerpts can promote laziness in the reader. The students say, “Well, I’m sure you’ll take care of that in 100 pages.” And maybe the writer will. But, in the meantime, the reader hasn’t really said anything.

ED: Your next novel, a work-in-progress provisionally titled The World Without You, focuses on a family reunion commemorating the loss of a son who was a journalist in Iraq. And there are snippets of major public issues and events in Matrimony as well. I’m thinking of one example in particular: “It was late August when Julian and Mia moved to New York, just weeks before the Twin Towers fell. Welcome to New York City, Mia thought at the time [….] She and Julian were leaving for work when the planes blew up, and from in front of their apartment building they could see the smoke and hear sirens.” At this point, it seems that fiction writers have begun to approach the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, almost as an “historical” topic (even here, we hear about it in retrospect). What challenges are you encountering now, writing a novel that appears to be intimately connected with something that’s part of the daily news, something that’s still so “present,” and ongoing?

JH: That’s a great question. In Matrimony, the World Trade Center attacks are used merely as a backdrop, a kind of positioning in place and time and a contextualizing of the novel’s central relationship in the face of bigger world forces. The novel is in no way about 9/11, unlike a lot of novels that have come out recently that focus on 9/11 much more centrally. Matrimony certainly has political and cultural references (the anti-apartheid shanties when the protagonists are at college in the eighties, O.J. Simpson’s slow car chase on the California freeway a number of years later, and other instances), but in no deep way is it a political novel.

The next book is different. It’s not a political novel, either–at least not in the traditional sense–but it’s certainly a novel that grapples with world events, and there are dangers to that. What if world events surprise you as you’re writing? Imagine a novel being written in August 2001 set in lower Manhattan that is about characters in the here and now. Well, then the World Trade Center gets hit, and everything changes, and the book has to change along with it. I think that’s why some writers set novels in imaginary locations, so as to prevent world events from interfering. In my own small way I was doing that with Matrimony at the beginning of the book. By setting the first section in the fictional town of Northington and at the fictional college of Graymont, I gave myself more free rein.

In terms of The World Without You, I’ve already had reality sideswipe me. When I started the book, I had this idea that the mother would in a very public and incendiary way be opposed to the war in Iraq. Her son is a journalist who gets killed there, and when President Bush invites her to the White House in an act of consolation but also of PR, she publicly refuses to meet him. Well, that meant something else at the time when I wrote it than it means now. It’s not meaningless now, certainly, but with so many people protesting the war, it’s a lot less significant, a lot less stark. It characterizes the mother in an entirely different way, and so I’m going to have to go back and rethink things. I believe every novelist lives in fear of the real world making his work obsolete. It’s an incentive to get the book done–you need to beat world events before they beat you.

ED: Where can writers learn more about you, and your work?

JH: The best place to go is my Web site, www.joshuahenkin.com. It has lots of information about Matrimony. It also has my blog, a schedule of events and readings, a couple of videos about the book, a contest (the winners get free books) for individual readers as well for reading groups, and much more.

ED: Thanks so much for taking the time to “talk” with our readers, Josh.

(c) 2007 Erika Dreifus

(A very slightly altered version of this interview originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of The Practicing Writer.)

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