December 3, 2008
In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).
Contest: Leave a comment, and be entered into a drawing for one of four signed copies of the novel.
Musician Karen Kanan Correa of Demander interviews author Joshua Henkin about his novel, Matrimony:
Karen Kanan Correa: I once heard that reading a good first line of a novel is like falling in love with somebody. Do you think that's true and how did you settle on "Out! Out! Out!"? That, followed by the line that simply and completely presents your protagonist, is amazing.
Joshua Henkin: Thanks, Karen. First lines are, in fact, so important. I’m always telling my writing students that you can do absolutely anything for the first word of your story and then the possibilities constrict. The second word is beholden to the first word, the third word is beholden to the first and second words, and so on. Gabriel Garcia Marquez said that once he has the first paragraph of a novel, everything else follows. I think that’s his way of saying how important (and how hard) first paragraphs are, and that’s certainly the case for first lines. Although I didn’t realize this at the time, all of Matrimony is there, incubating, in the first paragraph.
I came up with the first line because, when I was about fifteen months old, I was on a long bus ride with my parents, and I apparently spent the whole trip screamin, “Out! Out! Out!” Mind you, it wasn’t a seminal moment in my life; it was simply an anecdote my parents recounted to me years later. But in Matrimony I give it added signficance because, according to Wainwright family lore, those are the first words Julian ever says. And they end up becoming a kind of subconscious mantra for him—an emblem of who and what he aspires to be. He’s determined to get out from under his parents’ influence. He refuses to be his father’s son. The world of Sutton Place, of Republican investment bankers—he wants none of that. He’s hoping to be a fiction writer, and he’s determined to set his own course. And he does set his own course, though in the end things prove to be much more complicated than that. As they do for all the major characters in my novel. In a way, “Out! Out! Out!” is an emblem for all my characters, and I see Matrimony as a Freudian novel. It’s about the ways the past hangs over us, the way we try to transcend it, with only mixed success.
KKC: I know there are a bunch of important themes winding through the novel, but I really felt that the inevitability of change - especially in love - was the big one for me. The idea that even a deep love can change and end up hinging as much on decisions as on meant-to-bes. Did you intend for that to come across?
JH: I think that theme is in fact there, but no, I didn’t intend it. I don’t intend anything thematic because a novelist (at least this novelist) doesn’t think in terms of themes. Flannery O’Connor once said that a fiction writer needs a certain amount of stupidity, and I agree. You can overthink things, plan out your novel too much, have too many ideas that you want to convey, and this gets you in trouble. People who are interested in themes are better-suited to being critics than being novelists. My job is to tell a story and to make my characters jump off the page. I want those characters to feel as real to my reader as the actual people in their lives, and the way to do that is to allow my characters room to breathe, not to have any preconceived plans for them.
A friend of mine in college wrote her psychology thesis on how adults group objects versus how kids group objects. The adults group the apple with the banana, and the kids group the monkey with the banana. This is another way of saying that kids are more natural storytellers than adults are. I see my job as a writer and as a teacher of writing to get myself and others to think more like a child again, albeit like a smart, sophisticated child. And the way to do that is to avoid thinking in terms of themes and ideas. This doesn’t mean that a novel is devoid of themes and ideas. But they come in through the back door; a novelist shouldn’t be focused on them.
KKC: Two-part question! Just like the old days. Your protagonist spends a lot of time trying to navigate the expectations and definitions of artistic success - both his own and those of his parents. "...what Julian heard his father saying was that he should write something like The Crucible, that if he was going to be a writer he might as well make some money at it."
a. What is the novel's conclusion about these things? Or are you posing an open question?
b. Do you think artists really know if they should be creating art? Or do we decide we have enough passion and talent and just charge ahead like deranged Vikings?
JH: I don’t think Matrimony draws conclusions about art, or about any other issue, broadly speaking. As an example, I’ve been visiting a lot of book groups to discuss Matrimony, and I was on the phone with one book group from Michigan, which was composed of about ten women in their fifties, all of whom were still married to the men they’d married in their early twenties. (How’s that for a statistical anomaly!) Anyway, at the end of the discussion one of the book group members said to me, “Josh, if you could give us one piece of advice about marriage, what would it be?” Well, I just had to laugh. I’d been married for five years, and they’d each been married for thirty years. I should have been the one asking them for advice. I guess that’s what happens when you call your novel Matrimony!
But I think beneath their question lies a misconception about the role of art. I can’t tell you the number of people who have asked me what Matrimony is trying to say about marriage. Matrimony isn’t trying to say anything about marriage. It’s a novel, and novels don’t do that, certainly not directly. Novels are about particular characters in particular circumstances. They’re stories; they’re not political treatises. I of course have opinions—about marriage, and many other things. But you can’t deduce those opinions from reading my book.
Another example. Around the time Matrimony came out, I published an essay in POETS AND WRITERS called “In Defense of MFA Programs” in which I responded to the criticism leveled at MFA programs and at the teaching of creative writing in general. Several interviewers read the piece and wanted to know how I could write an essay in support of MFA programs when Matrimony is so critical of them. But Matrimony isn’t critical of MFA programs. It’s true that Julian has a bad experience at Iowa, but that’s due to the particularly circumstances surrounding his decision to go there as well as the particular workshop he’s enrolled in. I’m not saying there isn’t anything to criticize about writing programs, but it’s a mistake to read Matrimony as an indictment of them, or of anything else.
So, finally, round-about-ly, I get to your question. I don’t think Matrimony takes a position on the role of art, in the same way that I don’t think it takes a position on anything. Julian’s father looks at art as widgets. He’s a businessman, and he bascially thinks that if you sell a lot of copies that’s good art, and if you don’t sell a lot of copies, that’s bad art. That’s obviously not how Julian feels, and it probably won’t surprise you to know that I’m with Julian on this one. But Matrimony itself isn’t taking a position on the issue.
In terms of my own feelings about creating art—and I wonder, Karen, whether this is true for you as well, and for musicians in general—I think it’s not too good an idea for a writer to spend a lot of time thinking about it. It can lead to solipsism and self-importance. I’m of the belief that, as you say, you should charge ahead like a deranged Viking and hope for the best. I treat writing like a job, because it is a job. I get up in the morning and put in the hours. Day after day, year after year (Matrimony took me ten years to write). Then you look back after endless rewriting and revision and hope that you’ve achieved what you set out to do.
KKC: After his parents separate, Julian's mother says she could have fallen in love with someone else before his father because it's easy for her to see different paths. This idea of branching realities - do you think her decision to not choose to explore other paths makes her a romantic or a realistic?
JH: I see Julian’s mother as someone with a lot of regrets, starting with her marriage. She’s a creature of her times, as we all are to some extent. She went to Wellesley in an era when, even with a Wellesley degree (perhaps especially with a Wellesley degree), you were expected to marry well and marry early. Julian’s mother certainly marries early. And on paper, she marries well. She marries someone suitable—a handsome summa cum laude Yale graduate from a prosperous family. But in deeper ways, Julian’s father isn’t suitable for her. I see both of them as living quiet lives of desperation. They’re tragic figures, in different ways, and I think Julian’s ability ultimately to see them as tragic figures and not simply as objects of derision marks a real turning point for him—a sign of maturation.
KKC: I've been working in the sustainable, local and organic food movement for the past four years and hey! You mentioned Alice Waters! Did you mean to bring attention to the sustainable and slow food movements or was inclusion of Waters and Chez Panisse just to show the characters economic and social success?
JH: As I think you’re starting to get the sense, nothing I do in my novels is meant to bring attention to any movement or theory or idea. For me, it’s about character and narrative. Carter is a guy who all his life has wanted nothing more than to be stupendously rich. He’s been battling this huge inferiority complex, particulalry with respect to Julian. And now he’s become fabulously wealthy, though he remains deeply insecure. Julian comes out to Berkeley to visit, and what Carter wants to do is show off (though to appear not to be doing so). He wants Julian to know not only that he dines regularly at Chez Panisse, but that he’s friends with Alice Waters.
KKC: I'm often asked as a musician who as influenced my music. Who has influenced your writing?
JH: So many people. I’m always reading, and I believe that other writers are a writer’s best teacher. But so much of influence is subconscious. I can’t tell you the number of people who have asked me whether Matrimony was influenced by Wallace Stegner’s CROSSING TO SAFETY. So many people see similarities between the two books. Well, I had read CROSSING TO SAFETY years ago, but I didn’t consciously remember much about it. So I went back and re-read it and, sure enough, it clearly influenced me. And it’s a great book, so I’m flattered by the comparison. But it wasn’t like I was thinking about Stegner as I was writing. I love John Cheever and Richard Yates. I certainly hope they have influenced me. I read a lot of short stories. Alice Munro and William Trevor are among my favorites. I thought Jonathan Franzen’s THE CORRECTIONS was a great book, and Richard Russo’s EMPIRE FALLS and Ian McEwan’s ATONEMENT. I love Lorrie Moore’s work. The list goes on.
KKC: So Julian's a writer. And you're a writer. Is he a version of you? (I have to ask! My writing friends all tell me that writing characters as versions of yourself is unavoidable...)
JH: Actually, for me it’s all too avoidable. I don’t think I’d have been able to spend ten years on Matrimony if I’d been writing about myself. I’d have gotten bored. I already know myself. I want to meet new people. Matrimony is very deeply made up. I didn’t meet my wife in college, her mother didn’t die of breast cancer, my wife didn’t cheat on me with my best friend (or if she did, she hasn’t told me yet!), and, alas, I’m not nearly as wealthy as Julian is. The only character in the novel based on a real character is the dog, who, breed and sex aside, is a dead ringer for my wife’s and my golden retriever, Dulcie. But all the other mammals in the novel are the products of my imagination.
People assume that if any character is me, it must be Julian. He lives in New York and I live in New York; he’s a writer and I’m a writer; his name begins with a “J” and my name begins with a “J.” But in many ways I’m more similar to Mia, certainly in terms of my background. She’s Jewish and I’m Jewish; she’s the daughter of a professor and I’m the son of a professor. Not that there aren’t a lot of differences between Mia and me that go beyond gender. But I’m far more familiar with the world Mia comes from than with the world Julian comes from.
It’s of course true that any writing that’s heartfelt has to come from somewhere, so that inevitably a writer is borrowing from his or her own life. But the form that borrowing takes is amorphous and hard to pin down. Like Julian and Mia, I’ve lived in a lot of college towns. I spent four years in Cambridge, Mass, three years in Berkeley, and eight years in Ann Arbor. And, broadly speaking, Julian, Mia, and Carter share my concerns. They’re not me, but if they showed up at a party I was at, I wouldn’t think they had landed at the wrong party. In a sense, I was doing what Professor Chesterfield suggests a writer do: write what you know about what you don’t know or what you don’t know about what you know.
KKC: How on earth did "intents and purposes" not make it into your misused idioms list?!
JH: Good question! I wish I’d included it. I remember that episode from “Eight Is Enough” when Tommy Bradford gets a “C” on his English paper for writing “For all intensive purposes” instead of “For all intents and purposes.”
KKC: This isn't really a question. I just wanted to say that I think my favorite sentence in the book (though it's not technically IN the book) is the end of your acknowledgment to your wife: "I have lived a fortunate life, but that was the greatest fortune of all; without her love, none of this would matter, not this book or anything else." Woah.
JH: Funny. When I open a book, the first thing I look at is the Acknowledgments Page. It’s the gossip in me—and I think all writers are gossips. You can’t be a novelist if you’re not endlessly curious. As for that sentence, what can I say? It’s true. Writers go through life so focused on their work that they can lose sight of what matters. Not to go all maudlin on you, but I do believe that. My wife, my two daughters, they’re what’s most important to me. Everything else pales in comparison.
Joshua Henkin links:
the author's website
the author's Largehearted Boy Book Notes music playlisy for Matrimony
the book's page at the publisher
an excerpt from the book
Boston Globe review
Denver Post review
January magazine review
Jerusalem Post review
Los Angeles Times review
New York Times review
One Minute Book Reviews review
Small Spiral Notebook review
Washington Post review
Baby Got Books guest post by the author
The Happy Booker guest post by the author
Oy Bay! interview with the author
Karen Kanan Correa & Demander links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
previous musician/author interviews
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
2008 Online Year-end Book Lists
2008 Online Year-end Music Lists
guest book reviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)