Brooklyn-based author Joshua Henkin, who also directs the Fiction Writing program at Brooklyn College, is about to publish his third novel, The World Without You (June 19, Pantheon Books). This touching family drama tells the story of the Frankels, a non-practicing Jewish family coming together on July 4, 2005, for a memorial one year after the youngest sibling, Leo, was killed in Iraq where he was working as a journalist. And although each member of the family—Leo’s parents, his three older sisters, and his widow, Thisbe—struggles to keep things together for their reunion in the Berkshires, Massachusetts, several bombshells hover beneath the surface, not the least of which being the crumbling marriage of Leo’s parents, Marilyn and David.
Henkin’s previous novels, Matrimony and Swimming Across the Hudson, were named a New York Times Notable Book and Los Angeles Times Notable Book respectively, and significant advance praise for this latest work is already coming in. Publishers Weekly gave The World Without You a starred review, saying “the author has created an empathetic cast of characters that the reader will love spending time with,” while Entertainment Weekly gave it an A- grade, declaring that “tenderness spills from these pages—so much so that the reader misses Leo too.”
In the midst of his promotional tour for his new book, which launches next week, the author took the time to speak with Bookclub-in-a-Box from the busy streets of Manhattan.
Bookclub-in-a-Box: What made you want to tell the story of this family dealing with a tragic loss in their various ways?
Joshua Henkin: “A lot of people have been asking about Daniel Pearl [the journalist who was kidnapped and killed in Pakistan in 2002] and the analogies there. It’s funny—I obviously know about Daniel Pearl, and he was in the air when I was writing the book; so on a subconscious level it was on my mind, but it wasn’t really what I was thinking about. It was more inspired by this cousin of mine who died when I was a toddler. He was in his late 20s, and 30 years later his mother still said she had two kids [though only one was still alive], and it was weird for us to hear that, because he had been dead for 30 years. And that tension between my aunt and my cousin’s wife, who subsequently moved on and had a family, was very, very strong. It got me thinking about how different it is to lose a partner than to lose a child. You can’t move on in the same way. And so the initial conception of the book had Thisbe, Leo’s widow, as the central character, the central tension being between Thisbe and Marilyn.
What else inspired the writing of this novel? How was the process different from your first two books?
Whatever you think when you start writing a book, it’s going to change—if it doesn’t change, you’re in trouble. It’s okay to have a plan, but if you’re right, that’s usually bad news. So as I wrote, it became the story of these sisters who were at least as important as Leo’s parents and widow. And then I realized over time that unlike my first novels, there isn’t really one single protagonist—it’s much more of a group book.
In some ways it’s inspired by some other books I’ve read recently, like Rick Moody’s novel The Ice Storm—Ang Lee turned it into a movie a few years ago. That is also a group novel that takes place over a single holiday, in that case Thanksgiving. And there’s also tragedy at the centre of that book, although the tragedy happens over the holiday, as opposed to having happened earlier. And then there’s Richard Ford’s Independence Day, because that’s another novel that takes place in compressed time. My novel Matrimony takes place over 20 years, and I think a book is like a relationship in some ways—they rebound, so I wanted to write a book that approached time differently; I wanted to write in compressed time. So I think a combination of a wish to write in compressed time and this memory of my cousin—those were the original seeds of the book, and then the book goes in directions I couldn’t possibly have anticipated.”
The book has a fairly large cast of narrators. Was it difficult to balance that many characters?
“There was something about the book that made the family seem greater than the sum of its parts. As I was writing it, it became clear to me that this book was really about the collective. […] For me, fiction is about characters, and that’s where my heart lies, so [balancing them all] wasn’t particularly hard. What was harder to do was to make sure the book didn’t fly out at the centre; that it didn’t become diffuse. What I tell my graduate students all the time is that when you start to shift points of view, that kind of spaciousness can lead to a lack of focus in fiction. […] When you start to have a more roving point of view, there is a risk of having the book or the story be diffused and incoherent and all over the place, and there’s no spine, there’s just a lot of nerves flying out.
In some ways this book is a flip of Matrimony: that book plays over 20 years, but is really focused on Julian and Mia, so only two characters’ points of view. Whereas I did the opposite thing here: I was much more focused in terms of time and space, and that allowed me to be more spacious and more sprawling in terms of vantage point. It’s all taking place in 72 hours, and much of the book takes place in that house—all of it except for the first couple of chapters takes place in the Berkshires. So I think the fact of the confined time and space, along with the two central things—Leo’s death and David and Marilyn’s impending separation—give the book a kind of spine that allow me to move around to different points of view without it feeling like, ‘What’s the book about?’ We know what the book’s about: It’s about what’s happened to this family in the wake of Leo’s death.
Why did you decide to have Leo be killed in Iraq, and to have the specific political spin on the book involving Marilyn’s dislike of President George Bush?
“Just to be clear, it’s not my [personal] political spin. That was the era in which I was living while I was writing the book in 2007, and I think it was more interesting to have him die that way than to have him die in a car crash, say. Even though Leo did die in Iraq, the book is a domestic drama more than a political novel, but I think it’s one of the things that interested me about writing this. I see the Frankels as privileged, confident people who probably didn’t know anyone who was in Iraq before—certainly no one who was killed there. If Marilyn wanted to bond with other mothers [of men killed in Iraq], she would be met with the kind of people she feels culturally very different from.
Also, I’m from an Upper West Side family, and we’re very different from the Frankels in a lot of ways, but not in other ways. I’m from a middle-class family that’s very educated and privileged, so I speak for a lot of my peers, and although we all have strong feelings about the Iraq war, I’m not sure how much it touched us in a daily way. But for anyone who was related to or was friends with someone who was in Iraq, that’s a huge thing. So I was interested in setting the book in the Berkshires, which seemed to me like the most privileged, kind of remote place, and having real-world topics touch them. What is that like? And that’s why I set it over July 4th—everyone is celebrating, but they’re grieving. All their friends have only a political, abstract attachment to the Iraq war, but this family has a very direct attachment. So it’s a kind of contrast I thought was interesting, and it allowed the book to be richer.”
Do you have any plans for your next writing project?
“I direct the Fiction Writing program at Brooklyn College, and I’ve been on teaching leave this year. I’ve been wanting to go back to writing short stories, because I wrote short stories in graduate school and I love them, but it seems like I haven’t written one in 20 years. I wrote the first draft of two or three stories in the first semester, although the story was 200 pages in one case, and 150 pages in another, so I don’t really know if they’re going to be stories!
I’m also kicking around an idea for a novel, but it’s still incubating. I wish I’d started my new novel by now, but the last several months have been focused on getting this book out there. But over the summer, I hope to work on those stories, and to get started on this new novel.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for space.