Monday, February 02, 2009


Blog Interview: Joshua Henkin Author of Matrimony

(Of course there's a contest! Enter your comment! Winner drawn on Thursday.)

Please join me in welcoming author Joshua Henkin for a blog interview.

Be sure to visit Joshua's site Joshua Henkin to learn how to invite him to speak with your book club. Here's the book on AMAZON so you can buy a copy for your best friend. It's out in paperback so you can buy TWO!

Hi, Joshua and welcome to my blog. My readers are authors, aspiring authors, parents and lots of autism Moms who are always looking for a moment of respite in a good book. Will you tell them how we "met?"

First of all, Kim, thanks for having me as a guest on your blog. I really appreciate it. We met as all good people meet these days—on the web! Specifically, Google Alerts sends me an email every day with the blogs that mention me/MATRIMONY, and one day, there your blog was. So I checked it out and contacted you. Google Alerts has been a great tool for helping me get in touch with people who are writing about MATRIMONY, and in the process I’ve been introduced to a number of fantastic blogs, such as your own.

How did you become a writer? Was it difficult to secure an agent and sell Matrimony?

I always wanted to be a writer, but then I also always wanted to be a basketball player, and at some point you realize you’re neither good enough nor tall enough. That’s kind of how it was with writing—it seemed to me like an unrealistic fantasy. I studied political theory in college and was planning to get a Ph.D. in political theory, but I took off what I thought would be a year before going to graduate school and moved out to Berkeley. I ended up working for a magazine, and one of the things I was doing was being the first reader of fiction submissions. And I saw how terrible most of them were, and I felt oddly inspired. It wasn’t that I thought I could do any better, but I thought if other people were willing to try and risk failure, I should be willing to try and risk failure too. And that’s a lesson I take with me to this day, because a writer is always risking failure; day in and day out, the page is just as blank and the fraud police is whispering in your ear. In any case, I started taking some workshops in Berkeley, got some encouragement, and ended up moving to Ann Arbor to pursue my MFA. I wrote short stories in graduate school and published a handful of them in literary journals, and then, shortly after I finished my MFA, I began my first novel, SWIMMING ACROSS THE HUDSON. It was a real good-luck story in that I found an excellent agent quite quickly, and a week later she sold the book to a good publisher based on the first fifty pages.

MATRIMONY was a longer and more drawn-out process. It took me ten years to write MATRIMONY and I threw out more than three thousand pages along the way. The novel got turned down by many publishers in a number of different incarnations. But in the end, I landed at Pantheon/Vintage, which was a real blessing—I had a great publisher, a great editor, great publicity and marketing people. I can’t say enough about Pantheon and Vintage. And in the end, the book has done very well—a good deal better, in fact, than SWIMMING ACROSS THE HUDSON, despite the fact that the journey to getting there was longer and more difficult. Go figure. With publishing, as with so many things, there’s a whole lot of luck involved.

How did you come up with the premise for Matrimony?

I didn’t. I just tied myself to my chair (figuratively, mind you) and started to write. Day after day for ten years. That’s how you write a novel—at least that’s how I write a novel. You don’t plan things out; you don’t think about themes or premises. To me, fiction is first and foremost about character, and the way to make characters come to life is not to go into the book with any preconceived notions. You have to give your characters autonomy; you have to let them surprise you. When I started MATRIMONY, I thought it was about a love relationship and that it was taking place at a college reunion. Well, it is about a love relationship, but it’s about a lot of other things too—friendship, class, career ambition, maturing over the years. And though there’s a college reunion in MATRIMONY, it doesn’t take place till around page 260 and it lasts for all of seven pages. So pretty early on in the writing process it became clear to me that I didn’t have a clue. Which is a good thing. I think it’s dangerous for a novelist to have too much of a clue—at least during the first draft. There’s a time for having a clue, but that comes later, when you’re rewriting, when you have this huge mess in front of you and you have to make sense of it.

It's so refreshing to read a novel about dating, family, friendship and marriage from the male perspective. And yet, you never made Matrimony feel like a frat house frolic. How did you avoid the male clich├ęs while maintaining a masculine voice?

Thank god about the frat-house frolic! I wouldn’t know how to write something like that. It’s a very good question, and I wish I could give you a better answer that that it’s the voice that came to me over the course of many years. The writing process is such a mystery, even to (perhaps especially to) the writer himself. And though it’s true that I write from Julian’s point of view, almost as much of the book is written from Mia’s point of view, and I know that for some readers, at least, Mia was their favorite character. In any event, I think writing from both the female and the male points of view ended up keeping the book balanced in the way you’re referring to.

As I've told you, I'm head of heels in love with the idea of authors attending book clubs via cyberspace. Can you share some stories about your forays into readers' homes via the cyber book club? The good, the bad and the ugly??

It’s a lot more good than it’s bad or ugly. I’ve done it all in terms of book groups—in person, by phone, online, and now I’ve even done one by video, through Skype. I’ve now talked to close to 100 book groups. Prior to the rise of book groups, the only people writers ever heard from were their friends and book reviewers. Now there’s the opportunity for a writer to talk to readers, most of whom are really smart and who have very interesting things to say about your book. And for a lot of book group members, their book group is their one opportunity to read and think about literature—it’s a real break from the rest of their lives, and so they take it really seriously. I’ve learned more than I can say from book groups, and I’m incredibly grateful to them. And they keep you on your toes because most of them have just finished your book, so they know it better than you do. There can be an occasional awkward moment (I once had someone say to me, “I hate to say it, but I really just didn’t like your book!”), but for the most part people have been incredibly generous and gracious, and I’m OK with the criticism; you learn to develop a thick skin. You probably make more of a connection when you talk to a group in person, but I’ve had great conversations with book groups both on the phone and online, and I’m continuing to do more and more of those.

How does an author find the book clubs to secure dates? Can you do it yourself?

It’s a combination of hard work on the author’s part and hard work on the publisher’s part. I have a long email list and I’ve connected with book groups that way, and through my website. And my publisher has connected me to book groups as well. And eventually word spreads. As with so many things, word-of-mouth is key. Book groups talk to each other, and every time I talk to a book group, members let other book groups know. And it’s helped that I’ve gotten some publicity for talking to so many book groups. There was an article about my book group visits that appeared several weeks back in the Philadelphia Inquirer (HERE) , and another one recently appeared in the Brooklyn Paper (HERE.)

What are you working on now?

I’m a couple hundred pages into my next novel, which is tentatively titled THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU. It’s a very different book from MATRIMONY, in that MATRIMONY takes place over twenty years, whereas the new novel takes place over a single July 4th weekend. Three adult sisters (mid-late-thirties) and their spouses/significant others return, along with their parents, to the family’s country house in the Berkshires, the occasion for which is the fourth anniversary of the brother’s death; he was a journalist killed in Iraq. When he died, he left a pregnant wife, who subsequently gave birth to a son, who’s now three. The wife is now a graduate student at Berkeley, and she’s fallen in love and is living with another man. She may very well marry him, and even if she doesn’t, she’ll likely marry someone else at some point, and that person could end up adopting the son. The late son’s wife and the son come to the reunion as well. As you can imagine, a lot happens, but in the broadest sense the book is about the struggle over this son. To the parents and the sisters, he is their grandson and nephew, respectively, and the embodiment of the dead brother. To his mother, he’s that too, but he’s principally her son and she’s moving on. In a sense, then, the book is in part about the different ways spouses and parents cope with grief.

So, can we wangle a signed copy from you for one lucky winner??

I’ll do you one better, since I’m feeling generous and February brings us Valentine’s Day, a good day and a good month for a book called MATRIMONY. How about I make it two signed copies?

Thanks, Joshua! I'm sure my readers will love Matrimony as much I did.


Joshua Henkin said...

Hi, everyone. Joshua Henkin here, checking in. I'd love to hear your comments and will be happy to respond to them. Have a great day.



John Elder Robison said...

It sounds like an interesting story. I'll have to go hunt up a copy.

It's hard to imagine writing a book over ten years, though. I don't think I'd have the persistance to do that.


Kim Stagliano said...

John, you're a master of providing a unique perspective. I thought Joshua did that in this book. We usually hear/read about marriage from the woman's perspective - I like that Matrimony was from a male's POV.

What? You didn't want Joan Rivers' book? LOL!


Gayatri Rampal said...

I enjoyed the interview and I am intrigued. I would love to win the book.


Kim Mack Rosenberg said...

The book sounds fabulous and I admire Josh's dedication to the art of writing it over 10 years! I would love to win a copy but even if I don't, I am definitely going to read it soon. Kim, thanks for bringing Josh over for the interview.

Kim (in NYC)

Jenn said...

If I don't win it, I will get it from barnes & noble. I always wonder what a man is thinking.

Sleeping with Ward Cleaver said...

It is indeed a small world! When Kim told me you were a guest today I knew I had to stop over to say howdy! Glad to see you're still doing well with Matrimony!

Amy in Idaho said...

Thanks for bringing us this interview! I too meet all of my most interesting friends over the internet. Looking forward to reading a book that's NOT about nutrition, brain biology, methylation cycles (which I still can't seem to wrap my mind around), behavioral therapies, oh - you get the point.

Laura said...

I'd love to read this, too, though if I don't win will go buy it. Add me to the women who want to read about marriage from a man's viewpoint.

Joshua, I loved what you wrote about here: "I thought if other people were willing to try and risk failure, I should be willing to try and risk failure too." I need to share that with writer friends, and maybe get on the ball and risk some failure, too, and start writing again.

Diane Yellis said...

A man's point of view? Wow! I need to be enlightened.

Grace Wallis Gibson said...

Hi Kim,
This sounds good.
It sounds like you are recommending a book that has no connection to chronic nuerological brain disorders. If that is true I hope I win a copy. I have hid all my information books for a while since I am on overload. I will share this with my book group.

ORION said...

Very cool...your new book sounds wonderful. Don't you find it hard to talk about work in progress? I'm always a combination of superstitious and unable to articulate what my next novel is even about before it's finished lol!!!

3CrazyBoys said...

Thank you for the interview--I am a wanna be author (with a book currently out HOPING for publication), but the thing I loved most, was that you wrote for ten years. I am the same way. I have novels, never finished, that have been in my head and my computer for the better part of a decade. What kept you going? How did you know it would really happen--be finished, get published, or just matter?
Love to hear your thoughts! And, congrats--I am very interseted in your new project!

Full Soul Ahead! said...

Great interview Kim! Congrats on all your writing success Joshua. Your book sounds really good.

Sign me up to win it K-Stag. I'm feeling lucky again!

K Fuller said...

I would love to win this book. I am trying to fulfill my New Years resolution to read one book for fun for every book I read to help my boy!

Laura said...

Yay! Thank you so much for running these contests, Kim! It's so nice to win something every once in a while, plus you introduce us to great writers!

MaNiC MoMMy™ said...

Damn, I'm sorry I missed this contest! I so have to get this book! Looks great! And from the man's perspective!