“I didn’t think he’d do it. I really didn’t think he would.” That’s how I open my book, with a short “midrash“ – a short readers and writer’s response to the story in the context of all the Abraham stories that come before.
And then, in the next chapter, I introduce the author of Genesis 22 and the writing of the story. Those pages are pure speculation. No one knows for sure who wrote those nineteen lines of scripture, let alone what he (I explain much later in the book that no one thinks the story was written by a woman) was thinking as he wrote, let alone his interaction with his editors or his wife, or even when the story was written or what parts of the cycle of Abraham stories (of which it is the climax) were written before (in my version it is late to the Abraham cycle) and what parts were written afterward.
Jane Smiley called those pages amusing and shameless, and I would add wholly anachronistic. There is, I believe, plenty of literary and figurative truth in them, starting with the first line of Chapter 2 (“He was a writer”: no one who appreciates the story as a story would deny that) but the historical truth comes later.
And already people are asking why? Why open a non-fiction book with speculation. The answer is pretty simple: The subject is as close to infinite as a subject can get. In a book of 250 pages I have probably not even sampled one percent of one percent of the exegesis that’s been translated into English, and the vast majority of it probably hasn’t been translated into English. My book moves chronologically but it is less a survey than a series of soundings. There is, inevitably, a lot of repetition, and for it not to be tedious (or more tedious than it is) it had to be written from a point of view.
But what point of view? I struggled with that question for years, and in fact I probably have more than half a dozen versions (not drafts, but very different versions) of the opening 30 pages, the pages which I establish the narrator’s point of view and voice. They are still on my hard drive. One is simply from my point of view, James Goodman, writer and professor of history, from soups to nuts. But I was never happy about the way that version sounded, the way I sounded as narrator. It was too serious, too straight, too stiff. One is from the point of view of the author of the story, an author who feels he wrote a pretty straightforward story about obedience to God. He likes the story, which makes it all the more frustrating as he discovers that every Tom, Dick, and Harry (or Jubilees, Philo, and Josephus) feels free to revise it, add characters and dialog and scenes and thereby twist the story and its meaning in every imaginable way, including versions in which Isaac actually dies. Another is from four points of view, Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, and God. There are, alas, others.
In the end I settled on the perspective of writer (and reader, since all writers are the first readers of their own work) who thought the author got the story wrong and who wanted to revise it. He is not able to revise it (for reasons you need to read those pages to understand). So he pins his hope on (and takes some consolation from) the idea (provided by his wife) that the story will ultimately be revised by others. “Someone will revise it,” she says. The perspective of a writer who thought he got the story wrong provided the moral center I wanted (grave reservations about the story) as well as the tension I wanted (Was she right? Would the story actually be revised? If so, how, when, and why?). It also provided the forward momentum I thought my narrative needed (as I watched the history or life of the story unfold).
“But where,” my real wife asked recently, when she started reading the book, for the first time, “did your narrator’s voice come from? Who is it? I like it, but it isn’t you.”
“No, I said it isn’t.”
“It never is,” she said. “But this one is more so.”
“I think that’s right,” I said. My narrator is, like all narrators and then some, a character all his own, some amalgam of voices, a writer, a reader, a father, a historian, a skeptic, and a Jew.
It’s amazing how many North Londoners have taken me aside in a furtive, conspiratorial kind of manner, in order to ask me for the truth. ‘Go on,’ a new acquaintance might urge, within moments of our meeting, ‘you can tell me. Who is it based on? Who are they really? I won’t tell anyone.’ Many people share the conviction that fiction must draw its cast members, if not its story lines, from the writer’s own life, and that conviction seems to be redoubled when the fiction in question takes place in a specific, familiar world. I grew up in Golders Green, a small Jewish suburb in North London, and my novel The Innocents is set nearby, in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Perhaps it was therefore inevitable.
The truth, however, is less scandalous. My fiction is just that – fiction – as are my characters. I have lived in north-west London for almost my whole life, during which I have had more than three decades to make a fond, if sometimes exasperated study of its nuances, its climate, its residents. North London and I are old, old friends. And so Adam and Rachel are truly based on no one in particular, because each is based on a hundred people – just as they are formed, like any character in fiction, from who-knows-what preoccupations dredged from the murky bottom of my psyche. Rather than simply to create portraits of people one knows in real life, the fantastic joy and liberation of writing is to spend time in the company of the new people one has invented, and to discover what will happen to them.
Joshua Henkin’s new novel, The World Without You, is now available.
For a long time I wanted to be a fiction writer, but then for a long time I also wanted to be a basketball player, and at a certain point you realize you’re neither good enough nor tall enough. That’s how I felt about fiction writing. It seemed to me a delusion, a dream. So despite dipping my toes in fiction writing, I studied mostly political theory in college and planned after I graduated to get a Ph.D. in political theory. But first I decided to take a year off, and I moved out to Berkeley and got a job at a magazine, where one of my tasks was to be the first reader of fiction manuscripts. And I was struck by how terrible most of them were. I didn’t necessarily think I could do any better, but I was impressed by the number of people who were willing to try and risk failure. I found it oddly inspiring. I thought I should be willing to try and risk failure, too. So I started to take some workshops, ended up moving to Ann Arbor get my MFA, and the rest, as they say, is history.
But the fact of trying and risking failure hasn’t changed. Richard Ford came to Ann Arbor when I was there. This was around the time that he won the Pulitzer Prize for Independence Day, and so he’d had a lot of success, but what he told the graduate students, and I really think this is true, is that when he sits down to write the page is just as blank as it is for anyone. Just because you’ve done it once doesn’t mean you can do it again. And it’s that fact—and the terror that accompanies it—that makes fiction writing both a challenge and a pleasure. Writing fiction is about creating something out of nothing, which is another of its pleasures. And I’m a gossip, which I believe most fiction writers are. We’re interested in people, and what better way to feed your interest in people than to make them up? My mother tells a story that when I was a toddler and she would walk with me down Broadway, she couldn’t get anywhere because I insisted on being picked up so that I could look into every store window. I wanted to see everything and everyone. To me, that’s what a fiction writer is—someone who wants to look into every store window, who’s always hoping to discover something.
My new novel, The World Without You, takes place over a single July 4th holiday. Leo Frankel was a journalist killed in Iraq, and a year later his parents, his three sisters, his widow, and his young son descend on the family’s country house in the Berkshires for his memorial. People often ask me where the idea for the book came from, and while I don’t believe in “ideas” when it comes to fiction (I start with a character, or a situation; ideas are for politicians, or sociologist, or rabbis), the book grew out of the following memory. 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. Every year on Purim my father’s side of the family gets together to read the Megillah, and one Purim, nearly thirty years later, my aunt, updating everyone on what was happening in her life, began by saying, “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. By contrast, 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. Although there are many tensions in the novel (between siblings, between couples, between parents and children), the original tension was between mother-in-law and daughter-in law, caused by the gulf between their two losses, by the different ways they grieve.
As a writer, I’ve paid scant attention to the images that accompany my work. I’m usually too preoccupied with the phrasing and timing of jokes to fret over the all-important. That’s why one of my websites looks like this. (I hope you didn’t just die of purple.)
I’m not at all trying to downplay the importance of art in storytelling. I’m simply admitting to my own deficit in this department. And I would’ve probably gone on not caring about the visual component to my work had it not been for Margarita Korol, the urban pop artist that who created the vibrant cover to my new book, Heresy on the High Beam.
Allow me to backtrack for a moment. I met Margarita while I was an intern at Tablet, where she creates illustrations that accompany many of the articles. Almost right away, I decided I liked her when I realized she wore earrings as big as mine. Yes, a big pair of hoops is all it takes to secure my friendship.
After my internship was over we met up for coffee at my behest. I had an ideaI wanted to discuss with her and needed her visual expertise. I had just been called “The Anti-Girlfriend” by a guy, a former flame, to which I responded, “Because just like the antichrist, I’m Jewish and I have curly hair?” Next, I did exactly what anyone in my shoes would’ve done—bought the domain and resolved to create a website by the same name.
Well, you might be wondering, what’s art got to do with it? I was wondering thesame thing myself. For some reason, the notion that this site should have a strong visual storytelling component got stuck in my head. It might’ve had something to do with all the graphic novels I was reading at the time.
Thankfully, Margarita was game and we started working on dating comics for the site. I would send her dialogue sets and she would return with comics that far exceeded anything I had imagined when I jotted my thoughts down. She didn’t merely illustrate—she improved the stories with her visuals and sometimes edited my words for the better.
Plus, the collaboration was fun. As a freelance writer, you spend so much time working alone with little input from others that it was wonderful to pool my ideas with another creative person who possesses similar sensibilities.
Obviously, Margarita was the natural choice to create the cover for my essay collection. When asked what went into creating the vibrant image that introduced the text, she responded, “Heresy on the High Beam channeled some of my favorite things: a strong female lead, ethnic struggle, and a Lisa Frank palette.”
She forgot to mention big earrings. I guess that’ll have to wait until our next collaboration.
Maybe there are four or five people on earth for whom writing is effortless and never heartbreaking. I don’t know those people, and I’m not sure I’d like them if we met. Writers are professional feelers—our hearts should be tender and sore at the end of the day, right?
Still, sometimes it feels as if any other vocation would be easier. I could have studied fresh-water algae, been a long-distance runner, a baby-seal feeder. But that’s exactly the thing that bring me back: writing allows me to live a hundred other lives besides my own. When I was in high school I thought I wanted to be an actress, but there was one small issue—I was shy and not interested in performing. It turned out I wanted the other job where you get to imagine your way into the heads and hearts of other people, feel the world in a new way every time you sit down to work.
Most of the day, we all tend to the usual things. We pay the gas bill, find a parking place, buy cereal, apples, chicken breasts, remember to call our mothers, take the children to the doctor, sort the stack of mail. We do what needs doing. Meanwhile, we lose friends, fall in love with people, teach our babies to talk, help our parents leave the world. Being alive is so gorgeous, so hard, so everything. Writing—and reading—is the place where I get to try to understand some of the ten zillion strange, beautiful, terrible truths. For me, it is the second half of being alive.