Ear­li­er this week, Joshua Henkin talked about his father and grand­fa­ther and explored the ques­tion: Are you a Jew­ish writer?”. He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

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.

Joshua Henk­in’s new nov­el, The World With­out You, is now avail­able. He is the author of the nov­els Mat­ri­mo­ny, a New York Times Notable Book, and Swim­ming Across the Hud­son, a Los Ange­les Times Notable Book. His short sto­ries have been pub­lished wide­ly, cit­ed for dis­tinc­tion in Best Amer­i­can Short Sto­ries, and broad­cast on NPR’s Select­ed Shorts.” He lives in Brook­lyn, NY, and directs the MFA pro­gram in Fic­tion Writ­ing at Brook­lyn College.

Joshua Henkin is the author of Swim­ming Across the Hud­son, Mat­ri­mo­ny, and The World With­out You, win­ner of the Edward Lewis Wal­lant Award for Jew­ish Amer­i­can Fic­tion and final­ist for the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award. He was raised as an Ortho­dox Jew on Man­hat­tan’s Upper West Side and now lives in Brook­lyn with his wife, two daugh­ters, and their gigan­tic New­found­land puppy.