Oy Bay interviews Joshua Henkin, author of Matrimony
Posted by chutzpaleh on January 20, 2008
Matrimony is a story which encompasses 30 years of time, tracing the lives of the characters throughout, from childhood to college life to marriages and domesticity and the death of parents. Henkin has a careful, restrained style which builds the characters slowly, and moments where other authors would result in unrealistic dialogue and melodrama are acted out through attention to the details of relationship and everyday life.
Ch: In your novel, Julian struggles with his expectations of his own performance and overcoming his writers block. How do you feel like writing and creative expression in general function as symbols in our lives?
JH: Well, this book broke some of the “rules” of writing – we always tell students not to write about writing, and the first edition of this book reflected an attitude that was much more arch and knowing. Finally I had to accept the fact that these really were my characters, and that they themselves were sincere, and that I could write the story taking the characters seriously. Another thing that writers often find is that there’s a real correspondence between our writing and our lives, that when things are working that things are working. Writers dont have to be miserable. They just have to write.
Ch: What advice would you give our readers, who are mostly young adults, about friendship over time?
JH: I wouldn’t presume to be the kind of person who gives advice. But if you’re asking me what I’ve learned over time, I can give you that. I think that your friends early in life are really important, in particular your college friends, which is this really interesting period in life for a variety of different reasons. There’s this tendency once you get in a serious love relationship to just buckle down and concentrate on that relationship to the exclusion of your other friends, but I think it’s really important to work on developing and maintaining your other friendships. Life is what happens when you’re not paying attention.
Ch: How does your writing feel like an expression of your Jewishness?
JH: Who I am and how I was raised is a large part of who I am as a writer, but I can’t sort out what parts of me are Jewish, it’s not like I’m 10% Jewish and 15% male. I’m very interested in time, and that feels like a particularly Jewish concern, which isn’t to say that I wouldn’t feel the same way if I were Roman Catholic or some other religion. As a child, I was very interested in time, how the time of Shabbat would change from week to week. Once we were changing the clocks and I asked if non-Jews changed their clocks also. So this book takes place over a long time, and time is a major theme, which feels very Jewish.
JH: Do you want me to talk about intermarriage, seeing as you write for a Jewish publication?
Ch: Sure, if you want to.
JH: Well, what’s come up in discussion around the book is that it isn’t discussed within the book. The characters marry each other, and the reason it’s written that way is because it’s true to the characters. My first book was a much more obviously Jewish book, but I think this book still is quite Jewish. She doesn’t marry Julian out of context. She marries him in the context of her life, and her mother having just passed away. I could imagine a context in which intermarriage would have been discussed in her life, but that wasn’t what happened in the book.
There was a lot of discussion by Jewish groups who I’ve spoken to about this – a lot of people wanted me to take some kind of moralistic stance about the intermarriage in the book. My job is to make my characters as real and authentic a character as I can. If I do that, I’m doing my job as a writer. I don’t have opinions in my writing; that’s not my job. The same thing is true with Judaism – I’m not trying to make a point. That’s not what writers do. They don’t make arguments.
My job is to describe lives as they are. The job is of the novelist is to allow the reader to see the world through someone else’s eyes, seeing the world is a different place from someone else’s perspective.
Autographed copies of Matrimony can be purchased at Booksmith’s, at Haight and Cole in San Francisco, and non-autographed copies can be purchased at your local independent bookstore or, of course, on Amazon.com.