Matrimony: An Interview

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Joshua Henkin’s new novel Matrimony hits bookstores today. You can read a description of the book here and order it here. But first you can read an interview I did with Josh here…

Your first novel, Swimming Across the Hudson, was published more than 10 years ago, so you’ve had a long gap between books. Was writing Matrimony difficult for you? Were you working on other projects?

It’s funny, at some point in that ten-year period, my agent called — I think she wanted to make sure I was still alive. A lot of things have happened in the last ten years — I got married and had two children; I’ve been teaching creative writing; I’ve published a handful of short stories — but mostly I’ve been working on Matrimony.

Swimming Across the Hudson took me three years; Matrimony took me ten. I threw out literally thousands of pages — many of them good pages; they just didn’t belong in this book. My hope is my next novel will take me less time, but you never know. Writing a novel is a very long process. And in my case, stopping to write stories slowed me down. I don’t regret it. I love writing stories. But I thought I could just churn stories out on the side while I plowed forward with my novel, and that proved not to be the case.

Matrimony.jpg

Writing fiction takes incredible focus, and in general I’m not much of a multi-tasker. I’m a serial monogamist when it comes to fiction, which may not be such a bad thing when you’ve written a book called Matrimony.

While many issues come up over the course of Mia and Julian’s relationship, their different religious backgrounds isn’t one of them. Did you consider using this as a source of conflict? Anything in the thousands of discarded pages?

God knows what’s in those thousands of discarded pages. I suspect some Jewish content got thrown out, but I’d be surprised if I found anything that went on at length about Julian and Mia’s religious differences. As was the case in Swimming Across the Hudson, there’s an intermarriage in Matrimony, but whereas in Swimming it was the cause of considerable anguish and discussion, in Matrimony it’s not even remarked upon.

Intermarriage simply isn’t a big deal for Mia and Julian. The novel recounts how Mia as a teenager had a brief flirtation with Orthodox Judaism, but by the time she meets Julian she has gone back to being secular like her parents.

It’s worth noting, also, that Mia marries Julian while her mother is dying of breast cancer. It’s possible that in another context the question of religious difference might have come up, but in light of her mother’s illness, the fact that Mia loves Julian and that he’s been there for her through some very hard times makes his being not Jewish seem trivial to her.

I’m forty-three now, and I have a number of single friends, women in particular, who are feeling pressure to get married — internal pressure and pressure from their families. I’m thinking of one woman specifically who comes from a relatively traditional Jewish home and has fallen in love with someone not Jewish. And what has interested me is not simply that she has gone forward with this relationship but that her parents, who ten years ago would have practically disowned her, are much more receptive. Now, I’m not saying being a woman in your forties is analogous to having a mother dying of breast cancer, but, rather, that everything in life comes embedded in context and what’s important to us in a mate may be quite different in one context than it is in another.

Matrimony is set in places similar to many you’ve spent a lot of time in: Ann Arbor, New York, college in Massachusetts, an MFA program. And Julian is, of course, a writer. I know the book is not autobiographical, but in what ways do you find your life dialoguing with your work?

The dialogue between life and fiction is always complicated, and often difficult for the writer to figure out. I have in fact lived in many of the places in which the novel is set, and like Julian, I’m a writer, and I teach creative writing, so some of the writing workshop scenes are inspired, at least broadly, by some things I’ve witnessed in the classroom. And I was single when I started Matrimony, and during the course of writing it I got married and now have two small daughters.

So in some way my own marriage was taking place parallel to Julian and Mia’s, even though the details are very different.

It’s always interested me that people want to know whether a novelist’s work is autobiographical. I’m interested in the question myself. That’s probably because, like most fiction writers, I’m a snoop, a gossip, and a voyeur. But when you think about it, what’s most revealing about a novelist — what is, in the deepest, most tangled way, autobiographical — is not what’s actually true but what the writer has made up. What the writer imagines is really what lays him bare. By comparison, the truth is paltry.

What are you working on now?

I’m about 150 pages into my next novel, tentatively titled The World Without You and due at my publisher much sooner than I’d care to admit. The book takes place over a single July 4th weekend and is about a family reunion. Three adult sisters return with their parents to their vacation home in the Berkshires to commemorate the anniversary of the brother’s death. He was a journalist killed in Iraq four years earlier. The sisters come with spouses, boyfriends, etc. There are some surprise guests, too. More than that, I’m not saying.

Posted on October 2, 2007

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