Head­shot by Michael Lionstar

Joshua Henkin’s lat­est nov­el, Morn­ing­side Heights, is a mov­ing look at how fam­i­lies cope with unfore­seen events and how rela­tion­ships evolve through it. Sonia Taitz spoke with Henkin on the inspi­ra­tion behind the char­ac­ters, the role of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, and the author’s rela­tion­ship with Morn­ing­side Heights.

Sonia Taitz: You often include Jew­ish ele­ments in your books — some­times with dif­fer­ing obser­vance lev­els with­in fam­i­lies, or in jux­ta­po­si­tion to the non-Jew­ish world. What is your own Jew­ish back­ground? What role does being Jew­ish play in your imagination?

Joshua Henkin: My pater­nal grand­fa­ther was an Ortho­dox rab­bi who lived on the Low­er East Side for fifty years and nev­er learned to speak Eng­lish. My father’s first lan­guage was Yid­dish. Many years lat­er, when he was clerk­ing for Supreme Court Jus­tice Felix Frank­furter, my father used to spend Fri­day night on the Justice’s couch so he wouldn’t have to trav­el on Shab­bat. My own child­hood was suf­fi­cient­ly suf­fused with Jew­ish rit­u­al so that when I was six or sev­en and we were mov­ing the clock for­ward for Day­light Sav­ing Time, I asked my par­ents, Do non-Jews move their clocks for­ward, too?”

ST: Enid, Pro­fes­sor Robin’s insti­tu­tion­al­ized sis­ter in Morn­ing­side Heights, is por­trayed with great com­pas­sion. She seems to hold on to aspects of the fam­i­ly lega­cy that oth­ers have for­got­ten. Can you elab­o­rate on this?

JH: I see Enid as a win­dow onto Spence’s past. In a weird way, Spence is both a genius and a latchkey kid; it’s as if he raised him­self. Even before Enid’s acci­dent, Spence was the gold­en child, and peo­ple used to say about him Enough nach­es for two.” But beneath Spence’s bril­liance, there’s a core vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to him, and you can see that through Enid, through how pro­tec­tive he is of her.

ST: Your knowl­edge of Morn­ing­side Heights as a neigh­bor­hood — from the deeply mourned Chock Full O’Nuts on 116th to the Hun­gar­i­an Pas­try Shop — seems real and per­son­al­ly lived. Can you tell us how you know this area, and what it rep­re­sents to you either per­son­al­ly or thematically?

JH: I don’t believe in themes — themes are for sixth-grade book reports — but I do believe in sto­ries, and in mak­ing peo­ple and places come to life. I grew up in Morn­ing­side Heights. My moth­er still lives in the neigh­bor­hood, as does my broth­er, and my wife teach­es there. I know those streets and estab­lish­ments as well as I know any­thing in the world.

It’s dev­as­tat­ing for Spence’s fam­i­ly, just as it was dev­as­tat­ing for me when my own father devel­oped dementia.

ST: Aca­d­e­m­ic set­tings often appear in your nov­els. What do you find com­pelling about that world?Is Spencer Robin based on Edward Tayler, the leg­endary Colum­bia Shakespearean?

JH: No, Spencer Robin is based not on Edward Tayler but on Louis Henkin, my father. As for aca­d­e­m­ic set­tings, that’s the world I know. I spent the first eigh­teen years of my life in Morn­ing­side Heights, then four years in Cam­bridge, then four years in Berke­ley, then eight years in Ann Arbor. My life has basi­cal­ly been a mag­i­cal mys­tery tour of col­lege towns.

ST: The professor’s daugh­ter, Sarah, mourns her igno­rance of Jew­ish tra­di­tions. In what sense do you think Jews often fall short of an informed rela­tion­ship with their own intel­lec­tu­al (or spir­i­tu­al) legacy?

JH: It’s not for me to say who does or doesn’t fall short. For every per­son like Sarah, who resents her par­ents for not teach­ing her more, there’s some­one like my class­mates from Jew­ish day school who resent their par­ents for shov­ing Judaism down their throats. We all look back on our child­hoods and wish for some­thing different.

ST: In the course of the nov­el, Pro­fes­sor Robin, a bril­liant schol­ar and excep­tion­al man,” devel­ops ear­ly onset demen­tia. This pre­cip­i­tous drop, almost Shake­speare­an in itself, has both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive effects on him and his fam­i­ly. Can you speak on the effects of the fall of a patriarch?

JH: It’s dev­as­tat­ing for Spence’s fam­i­ly, just as it was dev­as­tat­ing for me when my own father devel­oped demen­tia. The scene when Pru takes Spence to the hos­pi­tal to be diag­nosed is bor­rowed almost entire­ly from my own life. I was forced to watch my bril­liant father, who was a law pro­fes­sor for fifty years and who majored in math in col­lege, strug­gle to count back­ward from one-hun­dred by sev­ens and name the month of the year and the Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States. There was a lot that was awful about going through his dis­ease with him, but that was one of the worst moments.

ST: Pru, Spence’s wife, was once his promis­ing stu­dent, and ever since has tak­en some­thing of a sub­or­di­nate role to her men­tor and hus­band. Can you dis­cuss Pru’s evo­lu­tion through­out the story?

JH: My moth­er, who is eighty-eight, likes to tell a sto­ry about how when she was at Yale Law School in the 1950s, one of six women in her grad­u­at­ing class, the pro­fes­sor walked into the lec­ture hall one day and, see­ing my moth­er and her friend seat­ed in front, said, Okay, girls, now get up and give the boys your seats.” To her own aston­ish­ment look­ing back, my moth­er relin­quished her seat. She didn’t even think twice about it. My moth­er grad­u­at­ed from Yale Law School, got mar­ried, raised three sons, and even­tu­al­ly had a suc­cess­ful career as a human-rights lawyer, but her career always took a back seat to my father’s.

In Morn­ing­side Heights, I was inter­est­ed in writ­ing about a woman who essen­tial­ly gives up her career for her hus­band. This hap­pened fair­ly often, cer­tain­ly in the 1960s and 1970s when Pru and Spence were com­ing of age, but what made Pru’s sit­u­a­tion par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing to me was that she was quite suc­cess­ful in her own right — she grad­u­at­ed from Yale her­self and start­ed a Ph.D. in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture — then took a route she hadn’t anticipated.

ST: Has your per­spec­tive as a writer changed over the years? Do you find your­self dis­cov­er­ing new top­ics or per­spec­tives as you live through dif­fer­ent decades of your life?

JH: A writer is always dis­cov­er­ing new char­ac­ters, new per­spec­tives, new sit­u­a­tions. It’s a big deci­sion who the char­ac­ters for your next nov­el are going to be. You’re going to be liv­ing with them for five or ten years, so you bet­ter not get bored!

ST: You head an MFA writ­ing pro­gram. Does your writ­ing process inform how you teach?

JH: In a lot of ways, I was a teacher and crit­ic before I was a nov­el­ist. I mean, I always want­ed to be a nov­el­ist, but it seemed as like­ly as my being a bal­le­ri­na. But when I grad­u­at­ed from col­lege, I worked for a mag­a­zine where I was the first read­er of fic­tion man­u­scripts, and I saw how bad most of them were, and I thought if oth­er peo­ple were will­ing to try and risk fail­ure, I should be will­ing to try and risk fail­ure, too. There are writ­ers who are more nat­u­ral­ly intu­itive than I am. I had to teach myself to become a more intu­itive writer. So teach­ing has helped me become a bet­ter writer, and it con­tin­ues to help me every day.

ST: What is your next project?

JH: I was on leave from teach­ing this past fall, and I almost fin­ished a very rough draft of a new nov­el. It has a spec­u­la­tive premise, which is unusu­al for me. More than that, I’m not saying.

Sonia Taitz, a Ramaz, Yale Law, and Oxford grad­u­ate, is the author of five books, includ­ing the acclaimed sec­ond gen­er­a­tion” mem­oir, The Watch­mak­er’s Daugh­ter, and the nov­el, Great with Child. Praised for her warmth and wit by Van­i­ty Fair, The New York Times Book Review, Peo­ple and The Chica­go Tri­bune, she is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a nov­el about the Zohar, the mys­ti­cal source of Jew­ish transcendence.