Brooklyn Eagle recently published a Q&A with Brooklyn-based writer Joshua Henkin, who has just released his latest novel, “The World Without You.” In the book, Henkin portrays the Frankels, a family coping with the loss of Leo, the youngest of four siblings. Set during the summer of 2005, the Frankels are heading to their home in the Berkshires to commemorate Leo, who was killed in Iraq the previous year.
While each family member is grieving, all are simultaneously distressed about distinct issues. Leo’s parents, consumed by grief, encounter new challenges in their marriage. Clarissa, the oldest daughter, is struggling with infertility. Lily, a lawyer, is harboring anger. Noelle, an orthodox Jew, visits from Israel with her husband and children and feels out of place within her own family. Leo’s widow, Thisbe, and their three-year-old son, also join the family from California, only to complicate the mix of emotions and tensions that are brewing.
Narrated in the present tense, which adds to the drama with a sense of immediacy, “The World Without You” paints an intricate and engaging portrait of a family learning to deal with a heartbreaking loss.
Brooklyn Eagle checked in with Henkin, who shares with us his source of inspiration for “The World Without You,” and offers a book recommendation.
What inspired the story you tell in “The World Without You”?
I had a first cousin who died of Hodgkin’s disease when he was in his late twenties. I was only a toddler at the time, but his death hung over my extended family for years. At a family reunion thirty years later, my aunt, updating everyone on what was happening in her life, said, “I have two sons….” Well, she’d once had two sons, but her older son had been dead for thirty years at that point. It was clear to everyone in that room that the pain was still raw for her and that it would continue to be raw for her for the rest of her life.
Meanwhile, my cousin’s widow eventually remarried and had a family. This got me thinking how when someone loses a spouse, as awful as that is, the surviving spouse eventually moves on, but when a parent loses a child they almost never move on. That idea was the seed from which “The World Without You” grew, but then the book went in a direction I hadn’t anticipated. That’s how it should be. A writer can think he knows where he’s going, but he better be wrong. If he’s right, he gets what a friend of mine calls Lipton Cup-a-Story.
Did you spend much time researching the war (or other topics) for this book?
I basically decided to write fiction so as not to have to do research. Obviously, you need to get your details right, but for me that simply means spending a little time on Google. I needed to get to know the Berkshires better, so I drove up to Lenox and walked around like a dork with my tape recorder. I bought Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War, which I had heard great things about, but then I got scared to read it while I was writing my novel; I thought it might send me down the wrong path.
The same goes for Mariane Pearl’s memoir. So many people assumed I was writing about Daniel Pearl that I thought, hey, I better check out what everyone thinks I’m writing about. But then I reconsidered. I’ve read too many novels that are over-researched. My version of research is to buy the book and let it lie on my bookshelf.
As a Brooklyn-based writer who directs the MFA program in fiction at Brooklyn College…what’s your take on the Brooklyn writing scene?…Do you find it more supportive or competitive?
You’d think I would know more about the Brooklyn writing scene, given my day job. But the truth is I don’t know much about it. I don’t gravitate to other writers. I like my students and my colleagues, but when I’m not writing or teaching I’m spending time with my wife and my daughters and with my friends, most of whom aren’t writers. If I find out they’re writers I won’t disown them, but it’s not a particular draw for me.
How do you balance writing and teaching?
By sleeping less than I’d like to. During the semester I try to write from nine until noon five days a week. Some weeks I’m more successful at that than others. During the summer and school vacations I write much more.
What’s the best book you read this past year?
I don’t believe in bests, but Alice Munro’s “Dear Life” would have to be up there.
Are you working on any new projects now?
I’m working on several, which may be another way of saying I’m working on none. I’m not a good multi-tasker. I have first drafts of seven different short stories. A few of these stories are well over 150 pages long. My work gets compressed in revision. I also have two hundred bad pages of a new novel. I believe things have to be bad before they can be good.
Where in Brooklyn do you live?
“The World Without You” has been named an Editors’ Choice Book by The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune and is the winner of the 2012 Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American Fiction and a finalist for the 2012 National Jewish Book Award. Joshua Henkin is also the author of the novels “Matrimony,” a New York Times Notable Book, and “Swimming Across the Hudson,” a Los Angeles Times Notable Book. His short stories have been published widely, cited for distinction in Best American Short Stories, and broadcast on NPR’s “Selected Shorts.” He lives in Brooklyn, NY, and directs the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College.