How long does it take to get a book done right? The first draft is never the one that should see print, of course. But take the evolution of a fairly minor character in Joshua Henkin’s new novel, “The World Without You.”
“Some of the characters, Lily in particular, were pretty vague to me until I got deeper into the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh drafts of the book,” Henkin told JTNews.
And that’s even with one of Henkin’s foibles.
“I am compulsive and I have a tendency to revise as I go along,” he said. “I think that’s really bad for a novelist.”
Henkin’s got some credibility in this department. He’s now got three novels under his belt, but he’s also a professor who runs the fiction program in Brooklyn College’s Master of Fine Arts program.
“I love teaching,” he said. “I’m often working late at night after my kids go to bed, but I’m really not in an office.”
He does work — though he considers himself a social person, he’ll spend as much as six or seven hours a day just writing. And he marks his writing time, to the minute, on a calendar, so he’ll know if he’s not being disciplined.
“When I don’t write in a day, I write a big zero,” he said. “I believe in the work ethic when it comes to fiction writing.”
Henkin came to Seattle this month to promote his newest book. “The World Without You” (Pantheon) brings together a grown family in the midst of myriad transitions. It’s the anniversary of Leo’s death, the only son and the youngest of David and Marilyn’s four children, who died one year ago while on assignment as a journalist in Iraq. The family and Leo’s widow, Thisbe, have come to their vacation home in the Berkshires for a memorial service, which puts them all under one roof for a long weekend.
Marilyn and David are grappling with how to break the news of their decision to separate. Clarissa and Nathaniel are having trouble conceiving. Lily’s longtime boyfriend Malcolm is taking the weekend off, so she’s on her own to keep her temper in check. Naomi and her husband Amram have come in from Jerusalem, with their four kids. Amram, can’t hold down a job and the family is suffering from both marital problems and a financial meltdown. Thisbe, whose marriage wasn’t quite the storybook everyone assumed, must tell her in-laws about her new, quite-serious relationship. No doubt about it: Something has to give.
The story’s original tension, Henkin said, was between Marilyn and Thisbe, with Thisbe as the book’s main character. That was then.
“But then I started writing the sisters and it became apparent to me that it was much more of a group book,” he said. “There’s really five or six main characters.”
Naomi is the biggest wild card in this powder keg. Her life through high school and beyond consisted of jumping from one boy’s bed (or back seat) to another. Her embrace of Orthodoxy keeps her grounded — in Jerusalem, anyway.
“It’s very threatening to her to come back,” Henkin said. “She needs to get back to Israel in a big way in order to maintain her sense of self.”
A moment in Henkin’s own life started him on the path to what you’ll find on your bookstore’s shelves.
“The inspiration for the book is a story from my family — I had a cousin who died of Hodgkins disease when he was in his late 20s,” he said. “But his death hung over the family for years.”
Thirty years later, at the annual Purim family gathering, the cousin’s mother startled everyone when she stood up and said, “I have two sons.”
“This was her way of saying that was the seminal event in her life, and that she was never going to get over that, whereas my cousin’s wife got remarried, had a family, and she moved on,” Henkin said. “It got me thinking about the gap between what it’s like to lose a partner and what it’s like to lose a child.”
But inspiration only gets you to the keyboard.
“I think that a fiction writers get in trouble when they think it’s about inspiration,” he said. “I find that some of my least-inspired work comes when I’m feeling most inspired and some of my best work comes when I’m feeling least inspired.”
While he had some ideas of where he wanted the book to go, “if you outline the story before you actually have gotten to know your characters you get what a friend of mine calls Lipton Cup-o-Story, you’re basically injecting your characters into a pre-ordained plot.”
Nothing ended up pre-ordained here. Henkin threw away 2,000 pages of his writing for “The World Without You” — with no regrets.
“Most of the stuff I threw out was bad. Some is good but it doesn’t belong,” he said. “Once I’ve written it, it’s kind of like what economists call sunk costs. There’s no taking back that time. I like cutting. It’s kind of like a detox process for me.”
In the end, everyone returns home. The freshly reopened wounds begin to scab over again and the family moves on. Just like life. Which is how, eventually, Henkin wanted it.