*This Contest Has Concluded
Planet Books’ MAY/JUNE book club selection was MATRIMONY by Joshua Henkin. I am delighted to say that Josh has taken time to write a very in depth and wonderful guest post here at Planet Books. Without further adu, I would like to welcome author Joshua Henkin!
I counted the other night, and I have now participated in 55 (!) book group discussions of MATRIMONY in person, on the phone, or online. At each one, I confess that it took me ten years to write MATRIMONY and that I threw out more than three thousand pages. Whenever I say this, I’m met with a collective gasp. Why, people want to know, did it take me so many years, and how did I manage to stick with it? The simple answer is that I’m a stick-with-it kind of guy and a novel takes as long as it needs to take. But book groups have forced me think more deeply about this question. What specifically about MATRIMONY made the process so drawn out?
The broadest answer is that I was learning how to write a novel. You never learn exactly (or, better put, you’re always learning), in that every novel poses its own unique challenges. But what I mean here is that I wrote short stories in graduate school (I still do. I love short stories), and the form of the story is so different from that of the novel. Then I wrote my first novel, SWIMMING ACROSS THE HUDSON, which, though it didn’t literally grow out of a short story, nonetheless has the sensibility of a longer short story. It’s told from a single point of view and takes place over the course of about a year. MATRIMONY, by contrast, is told in more than one point of view and covers a period of twenty years. So it was new territory for me.
More specifically, there were four big problems I was struggling with, and it took me a long time to figure them out. First, how do you write about a twenty-year period without turning the novel into a boring chronology: this happened, then that happened, then that happened. I reread Richard Russo’s Empire Falls and found it very helpful. Russo does a really good job of skipping time—of deciding what to fold in through back story and when to pause for scene. In his book, you often find out very important information after the fact. Rereading Russo’s novel reminded me that when and how things get told is often at least as important as what gets told. And it was from rereading Empire Falls that I finally figured out the structure of MATRIMONY—the jumping in time and place from section to section of the book, such that you skip four or five years, like in presidential elections. I was able within this structure to figure out what to include and what to exclude, what to skip over and what to reveal through back story.
Second, the role of Carter. Sometimes in real life you have a friend you’re really close to in college whom you never see again. That’s fine. But what’s fine in life isn’t always fine in fiction. In fiction, it’s hard to have a character be really important for 100 pages and then just drop him. So I needed to figure out how to keep Carter important (he is important, after all), even as his role in the book becomes less central on a day-to-day level, thanks to the fact that he’s living elsewhere, has made different decisions, and so on. Originally, I had Carter appear only in the college section at the beginning of the book and then not again until the end, at the college reunion. But that struck me as a too easy (and therefore contrived) symmetry. I needed to find a way for Carter to be present in the middle of the book so his reappearance at the end wouldn’t feel too narratively convenient. I did this through brief references of him throughout the book, but most centrally through the long section when Julian goes to Berkeley for Carter’s law school graduation. Once I figured out that section (and the middle of the book in general), everything else fell into place.
Third, Mia’s sleeping with Carter. The fact of this was true from the beginning, but what kept changing was when Julian found out, and from whom. Everything is different if Julian were to find out at the time of the betrayal, or nine years later, if he were to find out from Mia, or from Carter, or if he were to discover on his own what happened. This reminded me of the important lesson (in fiction and in life) that the how, when, and why of things is at least as important, usually more so, than the what, and that fiction (again like life) is about meaning and interpretation more than it is about pure event narrowly construed.
Fourth (and in some ways this was the biggest struggle of all) was the question of writing about a writer. Writers are told not to write about writers—that to do so is narrow and self-regarding. Writers are supposed to get out of their own experience and live. They’re supposed to run with the bulls in Pamplona and hike the Himalayas. Never mind that this is bad advice (if a writing student of mine asked me whether it would be better for her as a writer to spend the year trekking through Nepal or to hole herself up in the library reading the classics, I would, without hesitation, say the latter). The taboo of writing about writing runs deep. I had this internal voice telling me I shouldn’t write about a writer, and so in early drafts of MATRIMONY I ended up doing it without owning up to doing it. I was doing it with a wink and a nod, in other words, the effect of which was that the book (certainly in the writing sections, but in general, really) took on a more outlandish, farcical tone. It was a much more deeply comedic book, and while I’d like to think that the published version has funny moments too, MATRIMONY is at core a domestic drama. By writing it as farce, I was writing away from my strengths. At some point in the writing process, I thought, This is ridiculous. If I were writing about a chef, a lawyer, an engineer, a secretary, or a mobster, and he took his work seriously, then I would take his work seriously as well. So why shouldn’t I do the same for a writer? What happened, in the end, is that I gave myself permission to write about a writer straight-on, honestly, without apology, and when I did this, the whole tone of the book changed for the better—not just the writing sections, but all of it.
So what’s next for me? My publisher may be asking the same thing, since my new novel was due last month and, like a chastened college student, I had to ask for an extension. But I’m starting to make some progress. A lot could change, so everything I say about it is tentative, but for now, the novel, at this point titled THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU, takes place over a single July 4th weekend. Four adult sisters and their spouses/significant others return with their parents to the family’s country house in the Berkshires, the occasion for which is the fifth anniversary of the brother’s death; he was a journalist killed in Iraq. When he died, he left a pregnant wife, who is now the mother of a four-year-old. She, too, comes to the reunion, along with her son. She’s an anthropology graduate student, living in Berkeley, and she’s seriously involved with another man. She may marry him, and even if she doesn’t, she’ll likely marry someone else down the line, and that person could end up adopting the child. So the book is about what happens over the course of this weekend, but more broadly, it’s about the struggle over this child. To the grandparents and the aunts, he’s the embodiment of the dead brother, but to his mother, he’s just her child, and she’s moving on. In this sense, the novel is about what, to one extent or another, most of my fiction is about: the way the past pulls on/holds sway over the present.
OK, that’s all, folks. While I’m at it, I want to remind you that MATRIMONY will be out in paperback the last week of August and that I remain available to speak to book groups. Paperback MATRIMONY will have a brand spanking new cover. In fact, you can already get a sneak preview of that cover online. Go to Amazon or Barnes andnoble.com.
Joshua Henkin has offered to give one lucky Planet Books reader a signed hardback copy of MATRIMONY! To be eligilbe for the random drawing please share with us your personal definition of the word MATRIMONY in the comments section of this post. The contest will end on Monday, June 30th at Midnight EST. Remember to check back here on Tuesday, July 1st to find out who is the winner.