Of characters and characteristics

Joshua Henkin has written a book filled with Jewish characters, but is reluctant to let his religion define him.

Joshua Henkin’s 'The World Without You' 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Joshua Henkin’s 'The World Without You' 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Joshua Henkin’s third novel, The World Without You, opens with a family readying for a memorial service one year after their journalist son, Leo Frankel, was killed in the Middle East. There seems to be no way out of the anguish over his untimely death; yet as the novel progresses, the author opens a window onto the family’s immutable grief, and somehow, all the characters begin in their own ways to move forward with their lives, without their son, brother, husband and father.
Henkin, a professor of creative writing in the MFA program at Brooklyn College, says his intention with this book was to write a “domestic drama,” despite the presence of political and social themes. The family is Jewish – the youngest sister, the last one to have seen her brother alive, is newly religious and lives in Jerusalem with her husband and four young sons, while the rest of the family members are secular, liberal, Upper West Side New Yorkers – but Henkin does not want to be pegged as a specifically Jewish writer.
“This is not a book about Israel or Jews,” he says. “I write about characters, not about Jews..”
He thinks, he says, in terms of character and story. “I do not believe in ideas in fiction. Characters can have ideas, not authors. All things present in the book, the big parts of the book, come in directly through characters.”
Despite his reluctance to have his writing characterized as Jewish, he acknowledges that his Jewishness is a large part of himself.
“Would I be a different person if I weren’t Jewish? I am proud to be Jewish, proud to come from a traditional Jewish background; it has made me who I am,” he says, but he is quick to add that “lots of things make me who I am – that my father was an academic, that I have two brothers, that I am the oldest child. No one ever asks, ‘Are you an oldest-child writer?’ but birth order is hugely important in terms of development.”
He is also tired of the identity politics that such questions usually entail, noting, “No one asked John Updike if he was a male WASP writer, yet minority writers are always asked. In general, these qualifiers tend to limit. Toni Morrison is a writer. Yes, she is African American, but she is a writer.”
Returning to the book itself, he says he originally had the widow of the slain journalist as the main character, but “then it evolved to be more of a group book.” The idea of exploring how the death of a child can affect the whole family came from a personal experience, he relates.
“I had a cousin who died, in his late 20s, of Hodgkin’s disease. Every Purim we would get together with my father’s family. My aunt, the mother of my cousin who was in his 30s, was the mother of two sons. Her oldest son had died 30 years earlier, but she had to let people know that it was the singular event in her life. Her daughter-in-law moved on, but there is a gap between what it’s like to lose a spouse [and what it’s like to lose] a child. A spouse can move on; a parent does not.”
The tension in the way Leo’s parents, Marilyn and David Frankel, each mourn their son, as well as the conflicts between them and his widow, fuel much of the plot. One of the key disagreements between Marilyn and David comes when they are meeting new people at a party some time after their son’s death. In response to a casual question, David says he has three children, as only three are alive; Marilyn sees his avoidance of mentioning Leo as an erasure of his memory and a betrayal.
Henkin excels at portraying characters from a variety of backgrounds and at various stages of life. Still, he says, “each novel I write is less autobiographical in the narrow sense. This thing in my family was the inspiration for the book, a guy I know loosely is a model for Amram [Leo’s newly religious brother-in-law]. In some way, a woman I know helped to inspire Lily [Leo’s sister], but in the end, those people are nothing like Amram or Lily. Characters develop over time as different from how I thought they were. To me, that is the pleasure of writing. The writer figures out the characters as he writes, and the reader figures them out as he or she reads.”