Joshua Henkin: Going the Distance with Your Characters

I began reading Joshua Henkin’s new novel, Matrimony, last month while I was serving jury duty, and the story immediately engrossed me; the following two days just flew by. His fame is beginning to spread to other parts of the literary world; Jennifer Egan liked the novel and said so in the NY Times Book Review; the same week, his short story “What My Father Looked Like” appeared at FiveChapters.com.

One of the aspects of the novel that impressed me most as I was reading was the way that Henkin stayed with his characters and their intimate relationship over such an extended period of narrative time, and I asked him if he would comment on this for Beatrice. He was kind enough to oblige, and more than patient as I scrambled to find time, and then the right time, to share his reflections with you.

joshua-henkin.jpgMy new novel, Matrimony, took me ten years to write. I threw out literally thousands of pages—some of them perfectly good pages; they just didn’t belong in this book. A novel isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon, but when you get to the end of that marathon, you’re not the person you were at the beginning. Your voice has changed; your preoccupations have, too. And so you need to go back and revise yet again, so that what happens at the beginning of the book and what happens at the end feel conceptually and tonally part of the same endeavor.

When I began to write Matrimony, I was thirty-three and living in Ann Arbor, where I had gone to graduate school; my first novel, Swimming Across the Hudson, had recently been published. I had also just met the woman I would eventually marry, and though our relationship would be long-distance for the first two years and we wouldn’t get married for several years after that, I knew from the start that this was the person I would spend my life with. And I sensed, in knowing this, that big changes lay ahead, changes I couldn’t yet comprehend.

I had also recently attended my tenth-year college reunion, and so I suppose I had reunions on the brain. When I started Matrimony, I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about. Hardly any novelist I know does; you just put your characters in a situation where something will happen, and you hope that over time you figure it out. I had this image of a couple attending their college reunion. That was all I knew—the beginning of the book. As it turns out, I didn’t know even that. Yes, there’s a college reunion in Matrimony, but it comes 250 pages and twenty years into the novel and it’s a relatively short scene.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was writing about the history of a marriage—what happens when a couple meet in college (he’s a WASP from New York City, an aspiring novelist, the son of a wealthy investment banker; she’s Jewish, from Montreal) and end up marrying earlier than they expected and the ways that their choices (faithlessness, failed ambition, the decision whether to have a child) and things out of their control (health and sickness, the death of parent) test the endurance of their relationship.

Beyond that, I was writing about what it’s like to be in your twenties and thirties—even your forties, in some cases—when you’re waiting for your life to begin and you find to your surprise that it already has begun and that the decisions you make have consequences you’re not even aware of yet.

In the end, though Matrimony isn’t about my marriage, the process of writing it tracked my own marriage, and it’s hard to believe that that’s simply a coincidence. Like Julian, my protagonist, I’ve ended up in New York City, where I was raised, and like Julian, I’ve spent close to half my life in college towns. There’s something about college towns that perpetuates the myth of eternal youth. There are the familiar signposts—football Saturdays, homecoming, Thanksgiving, spring break, finals—and then the process starts over again with a new group of students. In the meantime, another year has passed and you’re getting older.

My characters have this idea (for a long time I had this idea, too) that someday they would become adults, that there would be a watershed moment. But there is no watershed moment. Adulthood catches you by surprise. You make decisions—what town you move to, what job you take, whom you live with and love—and those decisions ramify out in ways you hadn’t anticipated. Life is what happens when you’re not paying attention. This is what I started to understand as I wrote Matrimony, and what I’ve tried to capture in its pages.

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10 November 2007 | guest authors |