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Is It Okay For Writers To Write About Writing?

To: Joshua Henkin Re: Matrimony

Jewcy presents a conversation between a Nellie Hermann, a young writer who's anticipating the publication of her first novel, and Joshua Henkin, whose novel Matrimony was called "beautiful" by Michael Cunningham and "lifelike" by Janet Maslin.

From: Nellie Hermann Hi Josh, Just for a bit of context–I am a writer myself, and my first novel is set to come out with Scribner in August. Because of this, probably, I read your book as someone who is feeling pretty scared of publication and is always on the lookout for models, tools, and advice as to how to handle certain aspects of the process. That said, let me tell you how much I enjoyed your book. I read it in two days, couldn't put it down, which is not an experience I often have. It reminded me very much of Richard Yates's The Easter Parade (have you read it?), namely for the way that it swept along, following its characters as they grow and change, moving in a straightforward way, the narrative blissfully free from tricks. I wonder, do you always write like this? I mean, covering this much ground? Or was the sweep of the book a conscious choice for this particular story? This is, I suppose, a larger question about novel construction (a subject I'm particularly interested in now, after finishing my first book, because it feels to me as if I've never written one even as I can see it in front of me…and I'm bewildered as to how it happened). How did the construction of the book grow or change? Did you start at the beginning and just follow the story? Straightforward narrative construction is always a bit of a revelation –Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake comes to mind as another example — and it makes me wonder what it exactly it is about novel construction that makes this style unique these days. Another aspect of the book that I found really interesting was the element specifically about writers and writing. You brazenly (and admirably) go right into the realm of the writing workshop, which I was under the impression was off-limits for a work of fiction. I had a writing teacher who admonished us never to write about writing, never to have our characters writing, never to discuss the act of writing, for the ways that it took the reader out of the dream-state of reading and made them remember that they were, in fact, reading a piece of writing, which for him was strict no-no. But I admired the way you did it…and it made me wonder about how much of the self-referential aspect of writers writing about writing is “okay”. Have you had responses on this score from writers and non-writers who have read your book? I wondered, as I was reading these parts, how they would strike me if I wasn't a writer, and how then I would relate differently to the narrative. Along these lines, a lot of what I admired about how you did it was how much of your own tricks of the trade you put into the book; how much of your own feeling about good writing and how writing is made. Do you feel any trepidation about having put this aspect of yourself into the book? One more line of inquiry, and then I'll stop. This is already enough to keep us going for a while. I really loved how you handled the cancer stuff throughout the book. I was particularly interested in the way you balanced Mia’s extreme fear, contemplating and even planning on having a preemptive mastectomy, with the great hope that is manifested in the act of having a baby. The balance of these two things was so human, and so honest, and I was struck by how few books are that honest about the fear that people experience (particularly people who, like Mia, have lost loved ones to disease), and the way that the fear is balanced by life. Tell me about the conception, if you would, of this. Were there other iterations of this phenomenon that you worked out? Did you wonder at how best to balance this aspect of the book? I have many more questions — we could discuss all day how the concept of "Matrimony" fits the book — how the book is also about friendship, and how the idea of friendship also dovetails with matrimony — not to mention all my questions about how it feels to finish a book and to move on from it, which happens to be my own preoccupation at the moment. But I'll leave it here for now.

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