In Joshua Henkin’s latest novel, The World Without You (Pantheon, 2012) journalist Leo Frankel has been killed while covering the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. One year after his death, when Leo’s family gathers to commemorate his passing, his mother announces she is separating from his father. The World Without You evokes this and other complex family dynamics with finesse and humor while painting a subtle and intricate portrait of grief. Henkin is the author of two previous novels, Swimming Across the Hudson, a Los Angeles Times Notable Book, and Matrimony, a New York Times Notable Book. He directs the M.F.A. Program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College.
Hirsh Sawhney (Rail): One of your main characters, Marilyn, seems to loathe Bush. She has strong feelings about the dubious Florida recount that handed him the 2000 election against Al Gore and eventually paved the way for the War in Iraq. For her, Florida is “a state that will forever in her mind be the state of shame.” She wonders “how different the world would be were it not for Florida. How different her own life would be, the life of her whole family.” Is your novel telling us something about the connection between the personal and the political?
Joshua Henkin: For me, fiction is first and foremost about character. I don’t believe there’s ever a message in good fiction. My feeling is if you want to convey a message you should be a priest or a rabbi or a politician or speechwriter. So whatever anyone gleans politically from my book they get from my characters, not from me. These characters, many of them, have strong political opinions. Lily, one of Leo’s sisters, and Marilyn protested Bush v. Gore and took off work to campaign for Kerry. The youngest sister, Noelle, on the other hand, voted twice for Bush. So since there are tensions in the book between the characters, those tensions play out between them in many arenas, including the political. But I see this as a character-driven novel.
Rail: So thematic considerations are secondary for you. You don’t attempt to explicitly engage with specific ideas or polemics.
Henkin: I think it’s a big mistake for fiction writers to think about theme. 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. And I think a fiction writer needs to think like a child again, albeit like a smart, sophisticated child. I’m a monkey-banana guy, and themes are for apple-banana people. Not that there aren’t themes in a novel, but like ideas, they have to slip in through the back door. The author should be focused only on his characters and his story; everything else is a distraction. It’s not that I’m uninterested in politics. I’m very interested in politics, and I have strong political opinions. But when I sit down to write fiction I check those opinions at the door. You should be able to read The World Without You and have no idea how I feel about the war in Iraq.
Rail: Can dwelling on intellectual concerns actually undermine the creative process?
Henkin: I think it can. Fiction is a very intuitive, subconscious process. Flannery O’Connor once said that a fiction writer needs a certain measure of stupidity, and I think she’s right. I see it all the time—writers who are too smart for their own good, and so their fiction suffers. One of the paradoxes is that the more you try to write the great American novel, the more you try to directly address big themes, the less likely you are to succeed because by losing focus on your characters you end up telling a lie, whereas the narrower you focus your gaze the more likely you are to write the great American novel. Take Yates’s Revolutionary Road, a great, great book that does indeed say something about America and about the suburbs, but it does so because Yates isn’t trying to say something about America and about the suburbs. He’s concerned only with Frank and April. But in evoking their lives so accurately and honestly, he evokes something bigger.
Rail: Let’s talk about some of your characters. Leo’s sister Noelle is particularly interesting. She started off as a promiscuous young teenager, and she ends up a devout Orthodox Jew who covers her head and is steadfastly kosher. Can you talk about her evolution?
Henkin: I see Noelle’s orthodoxy as a response to her promiscuity. She’s someone who in various ways has always felt out of control, and the rules of Orthodox Judaism give her a kind of structure that she desperately needs. I think the same could be said of her marriage to Amram who’s controlling to the point of being a bully, and while she often resents him for that, I think she has come to rely on it, too.
Rail: What about the character that lies at the heart of this novel, Leo, the journalist who was killed in Iraq. What drove him to report in Iraq?
Henkin: Because we never see Leo in the here and now (he’s dead), all we have are the other characters’ competing memories of him. Marilyn, his mother, thinks that he went to Iraq for political reasons having to do with his opposition to the war, but Thisbe, Leo’s widow, thinks politics were beside the point for Leo, and he was simply drawn to danger like a moth to light. My own sense is Thisbe’s take on things is closer to the truth.
Rail: Does his being drawn to danger in this way—to the drama of violence and war—have anything to do with his being American?
Henkin: That’s hard to say. I think it has to do with his being Leo. I believe every character in fiction has to be sui generis. Even the most minor character should be himself or herself only. Fiction is always about the particular. Would Leo be Leo if he weren’t American? Certainly not. But he also wouldn’t be Leo if he weren’t male, the youngest child, someone with three sisters, a decent basketball player, and so on. I don’t think you can disentangle these things and say, this percent of me is because of this and this percent of me is because of that. One’s identity is elusive and mysterious, and in order to capture that, fiction has to be elusive and mysterious, too, by which I mean it needs to render character in a complex, non-reductive fashion.
Rail: This novel, which is more than 300 pages long, takes place over just a few days. As a result, plot might not be as important as your characters’ interior worlds—their dialogues about grief, about global politics, and family politics. Why did you choose this framework?
Henkin: That’s a good and complicated question. Although it’s a character-driven novel, plot is important here, too. A son has died. Two parents are splitting up. A widow is moving on much sooner than she or anyone else expected her to. There are plenty of big events in this novel even if they’re treated in a quiet way. That said, it’s true that if you set a book over three days a lot less can happen and feel plausible than if you set it over three years. I think of novels being like relationships—one is a rebound from the previous one—and my last novel, Matrimony, took place over 20 years and was told in only two points of view.
Rail: So you wanted to change things up.
Henkin: I wanted to write a book that was broader in terms of point of view (we’re in the heads of many characters) but much more focused in terms of time and space. That kind of claustrophobia was essential for this novel.
Rail: Was one approach more challenging than the other?
Henkin: With Matrimony I had to figure out what to exclude, whereas with The World Without You I had to figure out what to include. More specifically, I needed to employ flashback more than I would have to with a novel of greater time frame, but I needed to do so in a way that didn’t slow down the forward movement of my story. Both kinds of books are hard—everything in fiction is hard. This book took me five years to write and I threw out 2,000 pages.
Rail: In The World Without You, you created a third-person narrator that fully delves into the mindsets of about 10 different characters, and this narrator also has a certain amount of omniscience. It sees things about the world that your characters might not see.
Henkin: There is a sort of omniscience here, but it’s not the deep omniscience of many 19th-century novels, that sort of dear-reader omniscience. It’s more a ping-ponging from point of view to point of view, which to me felt in sync with what this novel was trying to do. It’s very much a group novel in the way that Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm, say, is a group novel. I think this kind of revolving point of view helped give the collective feel that I wanted the book to have. The book initially was inspired by a family anecdote. I had a cousin who died of Hodgkin’s disease in his late 20s when I was only a toddler, so I didn’t really know him, but his death hung over the family for years. Once, 30 years later, his mother, my aunt, got up at a family reunion and said, “I have two sons,” and we all were startled, because she’d once had two sons but her older son had died 30 years earlier. But that was her point—that her son’s death was the singular, seminal event in her life and nothing would ever be the same again. Meanwhile, my cousin’s widow moved on. She got married again; she had a family. And it got me thinking about the difference between what it’s like to lose a spouse and what it’s like to lose a child. I’ve been fortunate not to have either of those things happen to me, but my sense is that if you lose a spouse, as awful as that is, most people eventually pick up the pieces and start a new life, whereas it’s much harder to do that if you lose a child.
Rail: But in the end, your book is about much more than the grieving spouse and mother.
Henkin: That’s right. The initial spark of the book was the gap between the grief of a mother and the grief of a wife, and I saw the book as taking place principally between Thisbe and Marilyn. And while they remain important characters and their tension is central to the novel, the book went in a direction I hadn’t divined, which is how it should be. A writer can think he knows where he’s going, but he better be wrong.
Hirsh Sawhney is the author of a forthcoming novel, South Haven, and the editor of a fiction anthology, Delhi Noir. He has written for The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, and The TLS. He teaches at Wesleyan University.