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“Novels Are Such Beasts”

From: Josh Henkin To: Nellie Hermann

Re: Never Apologize Nellie– Thanks for the awfully kind words about Matrimony; I really appreciate them. I have indeed read Yates's Easter Parade, and any comparison to Yates makes me one happy guy. I think Revolutionary Road is one of the truly great novels out there–one of the best I've ever read–and I like Easter Parade a lot too. In some ways, the book that was most directly (if subconsciously) influential on me in writing Matrimony is another book that covers a long period of time and is also about love and friendship and writing and academia, and is also about two couples, and that's Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety. Have you read that one? A terrific book. Anyway, as to whether I always write like this, it's hard for me to know because after two novels and a bunch of stories, I'm still trying to figure out what “always” is for me. I do tend to write pretty simply and directly. When I sit down to write I'm hoping I'm going to write some big, complex David Foster Wallace-type thing, but that's just not how I write, and I think in any case that being simple and straightforward can be the hardest thing of all — no tricks to hide behind. I'm thinking, for instance, of Tobias Wolff's memoir This Boy's Life, a book I just adore. What I love about Wolff is how not written his work seems, how effortless. But as you yourself no doubt know — as any writer knows — it takes a huge amount of effort to make something seem effortless, so much sweat and endless revision, etc. What is in fact new for me with Matrimony is the temporal scope. My first novel, Swimming Across the Hudson, covers about a year, and most of my stories are in fairly compressed time, and the new novel I'm working on now takes place over a single July 4th weekend, but Matrimony covers twenty years. On one hand, it's a really sprawling book, but on the other hand, it focuses on a relatively small cast of characters, is told in only two points of view (Julian’s and Mia's) and, sentence by sentence, it's pretty tight. But you’ve really homed in on some of the key struggles I experienced in writing the book. Matrimony took me ten years to write and I threw out over three thousand pages. I was on a pretty long book tour in the fall, and when I told audiences that there were a whole lot of gasps and shakings of head at my tenacity/pigheadedness/stupidity, and then came the inevitable question of how it could possibly have taken ten years to write a 300-page book. It was a big and long learning process, and I won’t pretend it's over. Novels are such beasts. They're real leaps of faith in that it takes a couple of years before you know not whether it's going to be a good novel or a bad novel but whether it's going to be a novel at all. And then you have to start anew with the next one, and the page is just as blank. So I know exactly what you mean when you say that you feel you've never written a novel even as your own novel sits right in front of you. I wonder if that feeling every goes away. How do you write a novel that covers twenty years without turning the book into a boring chronology? How do you know what to include and what to exclude? I always start at what I think is the beginning and then move forward, but I'm often egregiously wrong about where the book is going. In fact, if I'm right about where I think the book is going I worry something is seriously amiss. Writing for me is a discovery and if I'm too sure of what's going to happen before it happens then I end up straitjacketing my characters in a preordained plot (and I get what a friend of mine likes to call Lipton-cup-a-story), which is the last thing I want to do. In this particular case, I knew the story was about a love relationship and I knew it took place at a college reunion. Well, Matrimony is (in part) about a love relationship, and there is in fact a college reunion in the book, but that reunion doesn't happen till about page 260 and it lasts for all of 7 pages. I teach writing, and I'm always telling my students that they need to take the here and now of their stories seriously. It's like the Passover question: why is this night different from all other nights? Well, it's the fiction question too. And I think for complex psychological reasons a lot of writers, and perhaps especially a lot of student writers, find it much easier to write in flashback than to write in the here and now, and so they use the here and now as a mere gazing-back point — an occasion for memory — and when they do this the narrative almost always feels inert and the obvious question is if you're really most interested in what's taking place in flashback, why not make the flashback the here and now? I had this epiphany when I was reading Richard Russo's Empire Falls — he does such a good job of revealing information in flashback — and shortly after that I began to think in a new way about the structure of my own novel. That's when I came upon the idea of the leaps in time — between each section of the book I skip about four years. It's like presidential elections. The reader is dropped into a new time and place and slowly s/he figures this out. And though a lot of important material gets imparted in the here and now, a lot gets imparted in flashback too. It was figuring that out — when to pause for longer scenes and when to fold in material in back story — that took me so long. The second big struggle was writing about writing. I'm not surprised your writing teacher said you shouldn't write about writing. Just about everyone says that, though it's worth noting that there's a lot of really good fiction about writing and writers, including Ian Mcewan's Atonement, Martin Amis's The Information, Francine Prose's Blue Angel, a bunch of Alice Munro stories (have you read "Family Furnishings"?), and many, many others. But it's become such a mantra — don't write about writing. Earlier drafts of Matrimony suffered from a deep self-consciousness on my part about writing about writing, and it really infected the whole book, even the parts that weren't about writing. The tone of the book was entirely different. It was much more ironic, playful, coy, at times farcical, and it wasn't working. I was so panic-stricken about violating this taboo against writing about writing that even when I wasn't writing about writing (and certainly when I was), I was too busy being playful and winking at the reader. At some point I realized this is ridiculous. Why shouldn't a writer write about a writer? There's good writing about writers and bad writing about writers, just as there's good writing and bad writing about butchers, engineers, football players, and taxidermists. I realized that if Julian had been a doctor or lawyer or a mobster or a secretary, I would take those occupations (and the aspirations that go hand in hand with them) seriously. When I have a student who's writing a story that has nothing to do with writing and then all of a sudden there's mention made of a short story the character has written, that strikes me as a failure of imagination. The student has writing on the brain and so s/he turns to the first thing s/he can think of. But when a writer is writing about a writer, it's criminal not to take that seriously, and criminal to apologize for it. To me, tentativeness is the death of a writer. Zadie Smith said something similar when she was interviewed by Charlie Rose about White Teeth: a writer must always go for it. As soon as I stopped feeling the need to apologize for writing about a writer, everything in the book changed. I began to take Julian more seriously, and he became a real character to me. Which is my long-winded way of saying that I think your writing teacher is wrong. As for the cancer material, I thought of Mia's mother's death as the central event in the novel, in that it prompts Julian and Mia to get married much earlier than they otherwise would have. But Mia's own health scare came much later on in the writing process and the whole question of testing for the Ashkenazi Jewish breast cancer gene came even later. In earlier drafts Mia didn't have a sister– Olivia was fairly late in coming. As for writing honestly about fear and other such powerful emotions, I always try to do that. A writer wants to be writing about big things–there should be something at stake. My grad students are so fearful of being cheesy and over the top, they're so afraid of sentimentality, that they rob their work of sentiment. Sure, you don't want to be sentimental, but you do want sentiment, and I think too many writers are so fearful of sentimentality that there's no feeling in their work. I think a writer always needs to risk going over the top. Charles Baxter says something to that effect in his essay In Defense of Melodrama. A lot of my students are so afraid of direct emotion that they're subtle to the point of obfuscation. And ironically, I think the more direct you are the subtler you end up being, and the more you try to be subtle the more you end up confusing the reader and actually not being subtle at all.

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