Episode 54: MATRIMONY, Joshua Henkin
Upon editing my conversation with Josh, I realized this interview is as much for writers as it is readers. Josh, folds his life philosophies and his writing tips adeptly into MATRIMONY and our interview. He is an engaging conservationalist and a natural teacher, not to mention, of course, a gifted writer.
How would you summarize Matrimony?
(From Josh's website)
Jonathan Franzen once said that the better a novel is, the more difficult it is to summarize. The protagonist in Martin Amis's novel The Information says something similar. He's a writer himself and he's being interviewed about his novel and the interviewer keeps asking him what his novel is about. Amis's protagonist, who, like many Amis protagonists, is a pretty difficult fellow, says something to the effect of, "It's 150,000 words, and if I could have said it in any less I would have." I sympathize. But if I had to describe Matrimony, I'd say it's about the twenty-year history of a marriage (it's about two marriages, actually--arguably three) and that it's about love and friendship, and the pleasures and perils that attend to those things. More generally, the novel is about what it's like to be in your twenties and thirties--even your forties in some cases--when you're waiting for life to begin and you find to your surprise that it already has begun and that the decisions you make have consequences that you're not even aware of yet. This is particularly pronounced in the case of my protagonists, Julian and Mia, since they get married at twenty-two, right out of college, and find themselves a year later living in Ann Arbor among friends for whom marriage is the last thing on their minds. College towns can perpetuate an eternal adolescence--I know; I've lived in a lot of them. And there's a real divide between married people and single people, the way further down the line there's an even bigger divide between people who have children and people who don't. So Julian and Mia have done what seems like the supremely adult act--getting married--even as in other ways they are far from fully formed. This is certainly true professionally. Julian is struggling to finish his novel; Mia is slogging away on her psychology dissertation. In that sense, the book is about what happens when life calls even when you're not ready for it to come calling.
Josh's advice about writing that first draft:
"Write by hand...to move forward and not back" and "Write, write, write and read, read READ!"
Oops, one question from Mari I missed (Thank goodness Josh was willing to answer via email):
Mari: The dialog was so meaningful throughout the book, I would like to know if the author was able to reflect his life (did his parents share tidbits of wisdom or is this his creativity)? Here’s an example: Page 59 – “My father’s always saying that college is the great equalizer. Here, we’re all taking the same courses and eating the same meals. But then we graduate and gravitate toward our own kind.” What a strong statement/wisdom. I noted several phrases in the book that read like “ah-ha” moments to me.
Josh: That's a great question. That actual line of dialogue, like all the dialogue I wrote--like everything in MATRIMONY, in fact--is made up. But a writer is always on the lookout, always thinking, always observing, and you absorb the things that people say to you. Certainly my parents shared tidbits of wisdom with me over the years. It's hard to imagine a parent who doesn't, and perhaps my parents especially--my father was a professor for 50 years, so teaching came naturally to him, and to my mother as well, even if in a different way. But neither of my parents ever said that line of dialogue. Almost everything I write comes to me only at the moment I write it, though of course there are years of having lived and thought about things stored away somewhere in the recesses of my brain. In general, I love writing dialogue. How people speak characterizes them so deeply. it's interesting to me (and pleasing) that you chose the line of dialogue you did. It's not a major moment in the novel, it would seem, but to me it is a major moment and one that I often bring up when I talk with book clubs. I'm more than twenty years out of college now, and I'm struck by how different many of my college friends are from what they were like in college, but how similar they are to what they were like before college, and to what their parents are like. I think college is a time of real experimentation for a lot of people. Economic concerns, while still present, may be less pressing than they are later, and so people are more on the same playing field. It's the great equalizer, as Carter's father says. And in some ways, though I didn't realize it as I was writing the book, this idea, this tension, is the driving force behind everything that happens in MATRIMONY. You take a couple that meet in college, you take friends that meet in college, and you subject them to what life is like after college, and interesting things happen. What is it like to fall in love in college and to try to stay in love many years later? That, to me, is what MATRIMONY is about."
To read an excerpt of MATRIMONY and Josh's SUGGESTED READING, and find out how to have Josh "visit" your book club, check out the Words To Mouth website.