Joshua Henkin: Condensing 20 Years to About 300 Pages

Yesterday, I shared an essay from Joshua Henkin about how he dealt with the characters in his new novel, Matrimony, over such a long stretch of narrative time. In this second essay for Beatrice readers, he expands upon that theme. If you’d like to read more from Henkin, he’ll be appearing on The Elegant Variation on Monday, November 12.

joshua-henkin.jpgMatrimony is about the twenty-year history of a marriage. Weighing in at just under three hundred pages, it is, as Dani Shapiro put it, “at once sprawling and economical.” But how does a writer do that? How do you decide what to include and what to exclude in a novel that takes place over so much time?

Lorrie Moore was once asked what’s the hardest thing about writing fiction writing, and she said, “Getting my characters into their cars.” She was being funny, of course, but she was also, I believe, being serious. The question of how to move your characters around, how to get them from one place to the other without giving the reader a blow-by-blow account (“She took forty-two steps, turned left out of the door, reached into her handbag, pulled out her keys, checked to make sure all was well in the glove compartment, etc.”) is the question every writer faces. How much more so when you’re trying to get your characters not simply from the house to the car but from late adolescence to their late thirties.

Although my novel is made up of scenes from a marriage, it couldn’t rightly be called Scenes From a Marriage. I was picking and choosing, and what I picked and chose needed to be illustrative of something, though not so obviously illustrative as to be reductive. A novelist, it’s important to remember (and I try to hammer this into my MFA students again and again), is never trying to make a point. Points are for anthropologists, political scientists, and mathematicians. A novelist is trying to tell a story and, through story and language, he is trying to convey character.

Here’s a time map of the sections in Matrimony:

  • Fall of 1986-Spring of 1987: freshman year of college

  • Fall of 1989-Spring of 1990: senior year of college
  • Fall of 1994-Spring of 1995: fourth year of living in Ann Arbor, where Mia is in graduate school in psychology and Julian is writing a novel.
  • Spring of 1999: still living in Ann Arbor. Julian goes out to Berkeley for Carter’s graduation from law school.
  • Fall of 2000-Spring of 2001: Julian at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop
  • Spring of 2004: Julian and Mia in New York City, having moved there three years earlier.
  • Spring of 2005: 15th-year college reunion
  • Winter/Spring of 2006: epilogue

A couple of important things. First, Matrimony is structured in this fall/spring fashion because much of the novel takes place in college towns and the characters’ lives revolve around academic schedules. Second, even within this framework there’s a good deal of jumping around in time. Choices about inclusion and exclusion are always being made.

OK. So why did I make these choices? I’ll do my best to explain my reasoning without giving away too much of the novel. Freshman year of college is when my protagonists, Julian and Mia, meet, and so it’s the obvious starting point for the novel. Senior year of college is when family tragedy strikes, and this family tragedy helps set the course of Julian and Mia’s life together. The fourth year of living in Ann Arbor feels like a random place to go next, but my goal wasn’t to depict what it’s like for Julian and Mia to adjust to a new town. Instead, I wanted to give a sense of how their concerns and preoccupations have changed now that they are a few years removed from college.

Spring of 1999 I chose both to give a sense of what it’s like for my characters to be spending as much time as they have in a kind of late-twenties limbo, and also because it’s the scene in which Julian learns something that will throw his and Mia’s lives into disarray. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop is the place where Julian goes to work on his novel and to get away from Mia. The spring of 2004 would seem like a random time to place the next section, but it’s when Mia has a health scare that harks back to an earlier health problem in the novel. The fifteenth-year college reunion is a good ending point for the book because it circles back to the place where the principals met and it thrusts into contact people who haven’t seen each other in a while. And the epilogue is, well, the epilogue.

A few general trends to note. In a novel that takes place over as much time as Matrimony does, the key is to get at the specific and the general simultaneously. If you try to cover too much ground by summarizing in fairly linear fashion what happens next, you may describe the passage of time, but you’re not evoking it, and evocation is what’s crucial in fiction. By making fairly big leaps in time, I’m able to do a number of essential things. First, I’m letting the reader know what’s more important and what’s less so. Second, I’m allowing those leaps in time to illustrate and underscore change. In real life, when you don’t see someone for a number of years you are much more likely to notice how different they are than if you see them every day. The same is true in a novel.

Third, the reader is dropped down into the scene, and slowly, over the course of pages, s/he learns where s/he is. I needed to be very careful in doing this. Although some of my graduate students like to think otherwise, it’s never in the writer’s interest to confuse the reader; subtlety is different from obfuscation. So I had to make sure that the reader knew everything s/he needed to know when s/he needed to know it. But that’s not the same thing as saying that the reader needs to know everything at once. By dropping my readers down in a new section several years forward, I was able to heighten suspense.

Fourth, and finally, the jumping around in time allowed me to maintain a nice balance between what I revealed in the here and now and what I revealed in flashback. It’s often thought that what’s important in a novel should be told in the here and now, in scene, and while I generally ascribe to this belief, it’s not a hard-and-fast rule. Variety is the spice of life in narrative choices as in anything else (contrast is essential in fiction), and it’s worth noting that in a novel called Matrimony we never see the actual wedding take place. There are good reasons for this, just as there are good reasons for our not being given other important events in the here and now (Mia’s mother’s funeral, for instance, and Julian and Mia’s move to New York). I don’t have the space to explain the reasoning behind these decisions. I point these examples out simply to suggest that it’s possible to reveal important information in flashback, and that dropping the reader into the middle of the action is another way to evoke time’s passage—by suggesting how what has already taken place is connected to what is taking place now.

FacebookTwitterTumblrGoogle+Blogger PostRedditEvernoteSlashdotDeliciousStumbleUponEmailShare/Bookmark

11 November 2007 | guest authors |