Want to be a Writer? Stay Home and Write

October 3, 2012 | Salute to Scholars, The University

Joshua Henkin

It’s both an opportunity and a danger to be an aspiring writer in New York City, says author Joshua Henkin. “You can go to a book party or reading every night. I think it’s very easy to think that if you are hanging out with writers — you’re writing,” says Henkin who is the director of the MFA Fiction Writing Program at Brooklyn College. He reminds his students to stay focused and write.

“I also tell them not to think of writing as a career, but as passion and art. If they are very good and very lucky they might be able to make a career out of it,” adds Henkin, who recently published his third novel, A World Without You. The novel follows the lives of an affluent Jewish family from Manhattan who gather at their summerhouse Fourth of July weekend to memorialize their son, a journalist who was killed in Iraq while reporting on the war.

“When people hear the plot of the novel they say, ‘Daniel Pearl,’” Henkin says, acknowledging the similarities between the death of his character Leo and that of Pearl — a journalist working for The Wall Street Journal who was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan.

But Henkin’s book was inspired by a family story and not by war.  His cousin died of Hodgkin’s disease, leaving a widow behind. “Years later at a family reunion, my aunt, [the cousin’s] his mother, said, ‘I have two sons,’ and everyone was very startled because her first son had died 30 years earlier.”

Henkin was struck by the gap between what it is like to lose a child and what it is like to lose a partner — his cousin’s wife has since remarried. “It was the tension between the mother and daughter-in-law” that inspired the book, he says.

The events in the book take place a year after the death of Leo, the youngest of four siblings. It is revealed that parents, Marilyn and David, will soon end their 40-year marriage. Clarissa, the eldest sibling is struggling at age 39 to become pregnant. Noelle, whose teenage years were shadowed by promiscuity and school expulsions, has moved to Jerusalem and become a born-again Orthodox Jew. And Thisbe  — Leo’s widow and mother of their 3-year-old son — has come from California with the intention of announcing that she is involved in a new relationship.

Henkin’s characters are often similar — middle class, well educated, often Jewish. “I’m writing about the kinds of people I know about,” says Henkin who was born and raised on the Upper West Side and now lives in Brooklyn. “The world views, the lives, the concerns of these characters are familiar enough to me that I think I’m able to inhabit and imagine them.”

In college, Henkin didn’t think he could be a writer and considered pursuing a more traditional academic route. ”I was probably going to study political theory and get a Ph.D.  I’ve always wanted to be a writer. But I’ve always wanted to be a basketball player — at some point I realized that I’m neither tall enough nor good enough. And that’s how I felt about my writing,” he says.

Henkin’s first magazine job out of college, however, inspired him. “I was the first reader of fiction manuscripts. I saw how terrible most of them were …. I thought, if other people were willing to try and risk failure, I should be willing to try and risk failure, too.” Since then, Henkin has authored two critically acclaimed books, Matrimony and Swimming Across the Hudson, and is the recipient of the James Fellowship for the Novel, the Hopwood Award and the PEN Syndicated Award.