The Gravity of Understatement: An Interview with Joshua Henkin

July 5, 2012   •   By Roxane Gay

HOW DOES A WRITER convey grief without mining overly familiar territory and without succumbing to the melodramatic? Joshua Henkin answers these questions deftly in his third novel, The World Without You, as he scatters the grief borne of a man’s untimely death across a sprawling family, the Frankels. The feeling becomes as well defined and compelling in itself as each family member, and yet it is never overpowering. At times this grief is almost muted, but it is always there, shaping the novel and driving it forward.

From the outset, we know the Frankels are coping with the loss of a son, father, and husband — Leo, a photographer who is killed on assignment in Iraq. The novel follows Leo’s parents, on the verge of separation after a long marriage; his sisters Noelle, Lily, and Clarissa, each dealing with their own problems (marriage, anger, infertility); the sisters’ significant others; Leo’s widow, Thisbe; and the siblings’ grandmother, Gretchen. Each member of the family wants to find a way to move forward from their problems. Meanwhile Leo’s mother, Marilyn grieves nakedly, unabashedly, and yearns for those around her to do the same.

The World Without You works well as a character study. Henkin manages to tell the story of a moment, of this family coming together, while also telling us about their histories and wounds — how they have found their way to the present. That thoroughness, coupled with the empathy the writer shows toward his characters, elevates what might have otherwise been just another novel about a large, privileged East Coast family.

Also of note is the way Henkin highlights the dynamics between the Frankels — particularly the women—exposing sibling rivalries and loyalties, the insecurity of a daughter-in-law who is moving on, the sister who has moved half a world away to change the course of her life, and the complexity of a mother who does not know how to contain her grief. As the novel unfolds, you begin to realize how each character is able to see the people around them for who they really are. That honesty, even when it isn’t fully expressed, only pulls you deeper into the Frankels’ world.

The World Without You tackles difficult issues, but a sense of hope resonates throughout, perhaps because each member of the Frankel family is, in their own way, both pragmatic and foolish. This odd combination makes all things possible and allows the novel to end on a note of hope that is unexpected.

I had the opportunity to talk with Joshua Henkin in a series of e-mail exchanges about The World Without You and his writing. I was struck, more than once, by the confidence of his convictions and how well he seems to know what he wants his writing to be, the kind of writer he is and is not.


Roxane Gay: Grief is one of the more difficult emotions to write. How did you think through writing it? 

Joshua Henkin: That’s a hard question because grief is abstract, a concept, and fiction writers aren’t (or at least shouldn’t be) interested in concepts. They should be interested in their characters, in flesh and blood people. I don’t see myself as writing about grief. I see myself as writing about a family of two parents, three daughters, one dead son, one grandmother, various in-laws and grandchildren and other folks orbiting around them, each of whom is unique. Yes, they’re grieving, so that comes into play, but I’m always thinking about the particular, never about the general. The only other thing I’d say is that grief is a powerful emotion, and a writer always wants to write about those. You need to go somewhere emotionally dangerous in order to take your readers somewhere emotionally dangerous.

RG: Where does The World Without You fit within the literature of grief?

JH: Here, too, I’m going to say it’s not something I think about. I mean, I’m certainly writing within a tradition and I’m respectful and mindful of that. But that’s just another way of saying that a writer who’s any good has to read a lot — that you can’t be a writer without being a deep and wide reader, that great literature is really a writer’s greatest teacher. I’d also say that on some level all literature is the literature of grief. Think of what Tolstoy said about unhappy families. Without grief, there is no story.

RG: A lot of the Frankels’ grief is not explicitly expressed and I loved that choice. Was it deliberate?

JH: Everything I do as a fiction writer is at once deliberate and subconscious. It’s deliberate in that a writer must always be attuned to how his readers will respond. A writer should always be trying to generate a precise emotional response in her reader; if she isn’t, she’s not in control of her material. But being in control of your material is not the same as saying that you set out to do something consciously. The more a writer plans things out in advance, the more she gets into trouble.

I tend to gravitate toward understatement. My novels and stories are animated as much by what’s not said as by what’s said. It’s the silences in fiction (and in life) that, if rendered well, can be most illuminating. Is that an intentional decision on my part? I don’t know. It’s just who I am. I’m reminded of Richard Bausch’s wonderful short story “What Feels Like the World,” which certainly belongs in the literature of grief. It’s about a grandfather and his granddaughter, Brenda, who’s ten and who’s both socially and physically cloddish. The entire story takes place over the course of a single day during which Brenda is practicing for that night’s PTA meeting at which all the fifth graders will have to jump over the exercise horse at the school gymnasium. This is a task Brenda feels ill-equipped to do. But the story is more fundamentally about grief. Brenda’s parents are divorced. Her father isn’t around, and her mother has been killed in a car accident, which is why she is living with her grandfather in the first place. At some point in the story, the next-door neighbor says, meanly and fatuously, that there really are no such things as accidents, implying, without ever directly saying so, that Brenda’s mother essentially killed herself. Later, Brenda tells her grandfather that she doesn’t like the next-door neighbor, and the grandfather says (I’m going from memory here, but this is roughly accurate): “Don’t listen to him, there are accidents, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” And Brenda responds: “That’s not it. He smells. He wears too much cologne.”

To me, this captures something essential. People are indirect. They rarely say exactly what they’re thinking. Of course, what Brenda’s really upset about is that the next-door neighbor said her mother wanted to die, but she won’t say it; she may not even allow herself to feel it. What she focuses on instead is the seemingly trivial — the fact that the man wears too much cologne.

JH: There is a sprawling cast of characters in The World Without You. How did you keep track of the Frankels and the concerns each person was dealing with? How did you make each one seem both distinct and part of the larger ecosystem of the family?

A writer friend of mine once said that you have to think of your minor characters as major characters in another novel who are simply making a cameo appearance in yours. You need to treat even the most insignificant-seeming character with complexity and respect. If you live with your characters day in and day out for years, they become distinct. It’s the other part of the equation — the ecosystem of the family as a whole—that was more of a struggle, at least in the early drafts. I’ve taken quite a number of strong-willed people, all of whom have lives and preoccupations of their own, and stuck them in a house for seventy-two hours. The challenge was to juggle all these characters and points of view and not end up with a muddle. I think the compressed time and space allow the book to stay focused, but more important, two central events give the novel a cohesion it wouldn’t otherwise have. I’m referring to Leo’s death and Marilyn and David’s impending separation. Together they form the book’s spine, and if you have a solid spine you can accommodate many nerves shooting out from that spine.

RG: Do you find yourself drawn more to certain characters than others? Who were you drawn to in The World Without You?

JH: You have to love all your characters — you have to take them seriously and respect their humanity and complexity. If you don’t, they won’t be real and you won’t be speaking the emotional truth. So while I could tell you that I’d rather go out to dinner with one than another, rather be stranded on a desert island with one than another, as characters, as my creations, they’re all equal; I play no favorites. In fact, it seems to me that one of the pleasures of good fiction is that it allows us to enjoy the company of people on the page whose company we wouldn’t enjoy in real life.

RG: Many of the plots do end up resolved, almost happily. Do you believe in happy endings? Did you want happiness for the Frankels?

JH: But the key is almost happily, and the resolution, if you can call it that, is tentative. We know Thisbe and Wyeth will get married and that Marilyn will attend the wedding, but beyond that we don’t know much. Marilyn tells David she wants to give their relationship another shot, and David says, “We’ll have to see what happens.” Do they work things out? A novel needs to have a kind of resolution so the reader feels the book has reached an end point, but that’s not the same as saying things are resolved. Unless you kill off your characters (rarely a good idea), there’s still more to come for them. As for happy endings, I don’t believe or not believe in them. I believe in being true to my characters.

RG: You allude to certain political issues in this book — the war in Iraq and the cost it has exacted, for one. Are you a political writer? Do you feel writers have a responsibility to the political?

JH: I believe it was John Gardner who said that you shouldn’t have a character make an argument in a novel, and if he does you better disagree with it. Gardner’s overstating things, but at core he’s right. With my graduate students’ stories, with some published work, too, I’ll often see a character who’s too obviously the mouthpiece for the author, and it’s not a pretty sight. My feeling is if you want to be a political writer, go write speeches for Obama or, if you must, for Romney. Go be a political scientist. Don’t write fiction. Which is not to say that I don’t have strong political opinions. But you should be able to finish The World Without You and not have any idea how I feel about the Iraq War or any other matter of electoral politics.

RG: I feel nearly the opposite about writing politically. I haven’t always had this stance but in recent years, I’ve come to believe that writing as a woman is a political act. This is not to say I approach fiction with some kind of social agenda because, as you note, when a character is a writer’s mouthpiece for an agenda, it doesn’t make for good fiction. At the same time, I think of a book like Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy, which is by no means perfect, but which blends fiction and the political in a necessary way and I feel like the import of the political in writing cannot be denied.

JH: Fair enough, but you could believe that writing is a political act without being a political writer, just as I might believe that the choice to be a parent is a political act without being a political parent. I’m not saying there’s nothing to be learned politically from a good novel, but whatever can be learned is amorphous and irreducible. I’m reminded of the protagonist in Martin Amis’s The Information, who’s a novelist on book tour, and he goes on a radio show where the interviewer, who clearly hasn’t read his book, keeps asking him to tell the listeners what his book is about, and he refuses. “It’s not about anything,” he says, and I’m paraphrasing here. “It just is. All 200,000 words of it. If I could have written it in fewer I would have.” I think there’s a core truth to what Amis’s character is saying. There are no shortcuts in good fiction, no simple lessons learned, no summaries that can substitute for the experience of reading the book. Also — and for me this is the most important point — the way to be broadest in fiction is, paradoxically, to be narrowest. You need to focus on the particular.

RG: You wrote intimate relationships really well. Where does the instinct for writing human interaction well come from?

JH: That’s a little bit like asking where the instinct for love comes from. It’s a human instinct, a primal instinct. This is not to say that everyone is equally good at love, just as not everyone is equally good at writing human interaction. But the two are more similar than you might think. You get to a level as a writer where the problems you face aren’t problems of skill or effort or even execution in the narrow sense. The problems are ones of personality. I can think of a number of writers who are gifted and determined, who have everything going for them in terms of talent and perseverance, but whose personal blind spots get in the way of their work. We all have blind spots, of course, but some writers are better at navigating around them than others are.

RG: This is your third book. What have you learned about writing a novel from actually writing a novel?

JH: That most of the time it’s pretty near impossible. One thing you gain from experience is the ability to deal with the mess, with not knowing whether the book is going to come together. You’ve been there before when things were utterly hopeless and somehow you got the book right, so you know it’s at least theoretically possible it might happen again. But that doesn’t mean it will happen again. The page is just as blank every time you sit down to write. The fraud police are always hanging over you.

RG: Like many writers, you’re on Twitter. In her BEA keynote, Jennifer Weiner talked about how she was resistant to Twitter, but then embraced the platform because it taught her the discipline of making meaning in 140 characters or fewer and it allowed her to connect to readers. Why are you on Twitter? Do you enjoy participating in the medium?

JH: I’ve been on Twitter for only a couple of months now, so I’m still learning. There are things I like about it (I’m in touch with people I wouldn’t otherwise be in touch with and I find out about things I otherwise might not learn), but I’m not nearly as sanguine about Twitter as Weiner is. Writing with a word count can certainly be helpful, but there are word counts and there are word counts. While Twitter has been used interestingly for fiction (I’m thinking of Jennifer Egan’s recent story that got Tweeted by the New Yorker and of Rick Moody’s story written entirely in Tweets over at Electric Literature), overall I think the constant noise of it is bad for writing. There’s a reason that I write at the Brooklyn Writers Space, where I haven’t learned the Internet password.

And it’s not just the Internet. A very astute student of mine once said that cell phones were the worst thing for fiction, and I couldn’t agree more. Fiction is in large part about frustrated desire, but cell phones are about fulfilling desire. Anyone in the world is immediately there. Think about all those novels that depend on the fact that people are out of touch, that they can’t reach each other. You live across the world and I write you a letter and you don’t receive it for a couple of weeks. Now that’s an anachronism. Take the prosaic example of going on a blind date. You wonder what your date will be like. You fantasize about them. Well, that’s not how it works any longer because before you’ve even met your date you’ve Googled them and now you know more about them than they themselves know. You don’t even need to go on the date. You’ve already had your date on the computer. You could argue, I suppose, that there are fictional possibilities that arise from this very fact, but on balance I’d say we’d do better if we all set our novels in 1979.

RG: In June 2012, The New York Times asked six writers if fiction is changing for the better or worse. These sorts of questions are always a bit odd and open-ended but they also allow for interesting answers. Jane Smiley wrote that, “Reading fiction is and always was practice in empathy — learning to see the world through often quite alien perspectives, learning to understand how other people’s points of view reflect their experiences.” I was curious, given that you are both a teacher and a writer, how you characterize the changes we are seeing in contemporary fiction. 

JH: It’s hard for me answer that question. I’m not a “think-about-the state-of-fiction” kind of guy, whatever kind of guy that is. I mean, there are changes wrought by technology like the ones I mentioned above that novelists certainly have to contend with, and if you were asking me about the state of publishing, which of course has an impact on writers’ lives and therefore, indirectly, on fiction writing itself, I could give you an earful. But the state of fiction? When I was starting to write, in the late eighties and early nineties, traditional realist fiction reigned. Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Ann Beattie, Tobias Wolff — those were the writers who were hugely influential for my graduate school classmates and me. Ten years later the pendulum swung, and now it may be swinging back. For a time among our graduate applications we were seeing a lot of Lorrie Moore imitators. Then we were seeing a lot of George Saunders imitators. Soon we’ll be seeing something else. That’s just how it is. Fashions come and fashions go, but what doesn’t change is good writing.


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