by Joshua Henkin, June 22, 2012 10:48 AM
Everyone tells you not to judge a book by its cover, but the fact is the cover is the first thing a potential reader sees, so it's tremendously important, and now, because books are so often bought online, the cover has to work online too. I can't say enough good things about the art department at Pantheon. They came up with many, many covers, most of which I didn't even see (my editor only passed on the ones that seemed possible), and although some of them were clearly wrong for the book, they were all incredibly well done and looked professional. Here are five that I was shown but that in the end didn't make the cut.
Toward the end of the process we were focused on a very type-driven cover, with both my name and the name of the book in bold. Both my editor and I loved the type in this cover, and there was something beautiful about the image too — it was a watercolor painting on a matte background, but the image was of a bare tree, which felt too forlorn even for a book about someone who has died, and the book takes place over the summer and the image screamed fall or winter.
My agent and I liked the idea of fireworks — both because the book takes place over July 4 and because fireworks evoke, among other things, violence and explosions, which was how Leo was killed. So the artist went back and did a fireworks image with the type that we loved, and while this image, too, was beautiful, it didn't seem sufficiently clear that it was fireworks. I mean, it could have been fireworks, but it just as easily could have been flowers or a Jack-in-the-Box popping out or a really interesting acid trip.
So the art department went back and tried to get the artist to make the image be more clearly fireworks, but it didn't work out in the end, and so they scrapped the oil painting idea and went with a photograph of fireworks against a black background. It took a long time to get there, but it was the right cover for the book, and I'm thrilled with it.
by Joshua Henkin, June 21, 2012 1:31 PM
Okay, today I want to talk about teaching because, though I'm a writer first and foremost, teaching for me isn't just a way to make a living. I'm passionate about it, and I think you have to be in order to do a good job. I direct Brooklyn College's Fiction MFA Program, and, at the risk of sounding like a Pollyanna, I can't imagine a better job. In a typical year at Brooklyn College we get 500 MFA fiction applicants for 15 spots in our incoming class. So you're dealing with some of the very best young writers out there. In the last few months alone, five of our recent graduates have gotten book contracts. There are writers who wouldn't know how to teach; for them, writing is an intuitive process and they aren't fully conscious of what they're doing. For me, it was the opposite. I could read someone else's short story and figure out what wasn't working long before I could make things work in my own stories. I needed to learn how to become a more intuitive writer, and critiquing other people's stories helped me do that; it still helps me. I've been at this process longer than my students have, but we're all struggling with the same thing — how to write convincing stories; how to make our characters come so deeply to life they feel as real as, even realer than, the actual people in our own lives; how to use language in a way that's precise and beautiful and utterly true. That never changes. So in a way, even though I'm the instructor, we're all students in the room. Also, I'm a fairly social person, and writing is incredibly solitary, so teaching gives me the chance to be with other people and to talk about what I love.
People often ask how we make our admissions decisions. It comes down almost exclusively to the fiction manuscript. We turn down people from the very best schools in the country, and we accept people from schools you've never heard of. And it doesn't matter whether you've been published. In fact, every year we turn down people with book contracts, some people who already have books out. It's not that we never make a mistake, but it's a very democratic process; it comes down to the quality of the work as we see it. With about half of the manuscripts, you can read seven or eight random sentences and you know there's no way the person is good enough. There's imprecision, a tin ear, a lack of nuance. The candidate just isn't a writer, at least not at this point. Then there are another hundred applications where if you read a few pages you know that, in light of the competition, they're not going to make it. There are also about five to seven manuscripts where you read the first three pages and you know you're absolutely going to admit the person. The talent is just that clear right from the start. It's numbers eight through 150 where things get tough. In general, we're not looking for perfect work, or even necessarily for the most polished work, and every year we turn down applicants who have published fiction, including people with books out at major publishing houses. What we're looking for is a kind of music, a gift, something that sings. It's worth noting, too, that our committee is composed of writers with a wide range of aesthetics, and yet year after year we agree about nearly everyone. At this level, the differences are pretty clear. It's like what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said about pornography: "I don't know what it is, but I know it when I see it."
And now, before I part for the day, take a look at a few members of this year's graduating Brooklyn College MFA fiction class standing on the steps of campus in their caps and gowns.
Don't they look dashing? They're going to be famous someday. You can say you knew them when they were
by Joshua Henkin, June 20, 2012 12:47 PM
Writers on book tour are often asked questions along these lines: "What were you trying to do by making X happen in your book?" Or "Were you planning that this would happen?" Or "Did you map your book out?" In response to these questions writers often look befuddled, in large part because they are. One issue is the simple problem of lag time. A novel can take five, 10 years to write, and then it goes into production and finally comes out, at which point the writer is often on to the next book and the book that he's being asked about can seem like a distant memory. What were you doing on page 274? And the writer thinks, Huh? I wrote that?
But I think the issue goes beyond that. Flannery O'Connor famously wrote in her wonderful book of essays Mystery and Manners: "There's a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without," and I agree. A novelist can be too smart for her own good.
Another way to look at it is this. A friend of mine wrote her undergraduate psychology thesis on how adults group objects versus how kids group objects. The adults group the apple with the banana, whereas the kids group the monkey with the banana. This is another way of saying that children are more natural storytellers than adults are. In fact, I'd go further and say that the process of becoming an adult, of functioning in the adult world, involves having our innate storytelling ability leached out of us. Adults think in terms of category, in terms of concept. In order to buy dessert for my family in the most efficient way possible, I need to understand that apples and bananas are generally housed together. But what makes for a good dessert purchaser doesn't make for a good fiction writer. Adults think in abstractions, and abstractions are the death of a fiction writer. Kids, on the other hand, don't think in abstractions. Consider a toddler learning to talk. She speaks almost exclusively in concrete nouns and verbs. Although she doesn't realize it, she's following Isaac Babel's dictum to eschew adjectives and adverbs and rely on nouns and verbs. I'm always telling my graduate students to think monkey-banana, not apple-banana ? so much so that the last night of class one semester they showed up to workshop wearing T-shirts they had made with a monkey and a banana emblazoned across the front.
I often don't know why I did what I did, because the process of doing it, at least in the first draft, is deeply intuitive and subconscious. I don't map my novels out in advance, because if I do I will get what a friend of mine calls Lipton-Cup-a-Story. I'll be injecting my characters into a preordained plot, and that's not how good fiction gets written. In fiction, there needs to be a complicated and symbiotic relation between plot and character. We both create our own stories and are created by them.
How, then, does the writing come about? How does a writer get his "ideas," if "ideas" can even be a word used to describe fiction? I'll give you an example from my last novel, Matrimony. In Matrimony, Julian meets his eventual-wife Mia after having spotted her in their college Facebook. He dubs her "Mia from Montreal." I wrote that phrase instinctively, probably because my own girlfriend freshman year of college was named Laura, and my roommate called her Laura from Larchmont. I liked the alliterative sound of those words. Before I wrote "Mia from Montreal," I had no idea where Mia came from. But she had to come from somewhere, and Montreal seemed as good a place as any. But then I had to own up to what I'd written. How did Mia's family get to Montreal? Had they lived there for centuries? Were they expatriates, and, if so, from where? And how did Mia end up back in the States, in western Massachusetts, for college? I could have chosen Mia from Madagascar or Mia from Maryland, and if I'd chosen Mia from Maryland, there might have been, for all I know, a long section in Matrimony about her family's tangled relationship with the clamming industry. But she wasn't Mia from Maryland, she was Mia from Montreal, and so I discovered that her father had gone to teach physics at McGill, forcing her mother to abandon her career in the process, and that Mia, out of loyalty to her mother, who had since died, decided to retrace her mother's steps back to Massachusetts. I knew none of this until I wrote the words "Mia from Montreal," and then, because I'd written those words, I had to own up to
by Joshua Henkin, June 19, 2012 12:55 PM
The title of today's blog post best describes the question I get asked most about The World without You
, though it's rarely stated so directly. It's usually stated more like this: Your book is written from the points of view of many female characters. Is that hard for a male writer to do?
My answer is that it's a challenge for a male writer to write from a female perspective but no more so, it seems to me, than for a young person to write from an old person's perspective, a poor person to write from a rich person's perspective, or a gregarious person to write from a shy person's perspective. I don't see why gender should be a more insurmountable barrier than others. I believe good fiction can transcend difference, that it can take us out of our own experiences and allow us to inhabit the experiences of others. It's what happens, ideally, to the reader, and in order for it to happen to the reader it has to happen to the writer too.
A couple of years ago, I gave a reading from an early draft of The World without You, and I was reading with a woman novelist who read a section of her novel told from the perspective of a man. When the reading was over, she, too, was asked the gender question, and she said, "Are you kidding me? I spent half my life flirting with boys. I know them far better than I know girls." She was kidding, sort of, but I think there's a real truth there. In a lot of ways it's easier to write from the perspective of someone different from you. We're so close to our own experiences that we don't see ourselves as clearly as we see others.
As a side note, and at the risk of seeming like I'm contradicting myself, you might check out Lorrie Moore's "You're Ugly, Too," which is one of her very best stories (and she has many great ones). It's in her collection Like Life. It's a story about a single woman in her 30s who's living in the Midwest and who visits New York where her sister is holding a Halloween party and where she meets a man. But the story (or at least the story's protagonist) seems committed to the idea that men and women can never understand each other ? so much so that Deborah Tannen, in her bestselling self-help book You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, dedicated a couple of pages to the analysis of "You're Ugly,
by Joshua Henkin, June 18, 2012 1:08 PM
I want to start off on this first day of my blogging to say how thrilled I am to be here at Powell's, the world's greatest bookstore. I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but if it weren't for Powell's and other independent bookstores like it, writers would be up a creek. I do whatever I can to buy my books from independent booksellers, and I'm proud to say that my book tour, which consists of something like 25 stops, is filled almost exclusively with independent bookstores, starting with my hometown indie, Bookcourt
, where my launch party will take place tomorrow night.
Before I decided to write fiction, I was on the path to becoming an academic. I studied political theory in college, and the only thing that saved me from academia was that I applied for all these fellowships when I was graduating from college and didn't get any of them, and so I needed to rethink things. And it's good that I did because I wouldn't have made a good academic — I hate to do research. That's one of the reasons I became a fiction writer. Life itself is research.
Here, then, was the inspiration for The World without You, which is being published tomorrow and which takes place over a single July 4 holiday in the Berkshires, where the Frankel family gathers for a memorial for Leo, the youngest of the four Frankel siblings, who was a journalist killed in Iraq. I had a first cousin who died of Hodgkin's disease when he was in his late 20s. I was only a toddler at the time, but his death hung over my extended family for years. At a family reunion nearly 30 years later, my aunt, updating everyone on what was happening in her life, began by saying, "I have two sons..." Well, she'd once had two sons, but her older son had been dead for 30 years at that point. It was clear to everyone in that room that the pain was still raw for her and that it would continue to be raw for her for the rest of her life. By contrast, my cousin's widow eventually remarried and had a family. This got me thinking how when someone loses a spouse, as awful as that is, the surviving spouse eventually moves on; but when a parent loses a child, they almost never move on. That idea was the seed from which The World without You grew. Although there are many tensions in the novel (between siblings, between couples, between parents and children), the original tension was between mother-in-law and daughter-in law, caused by the gulf between their two losses, by the different ways they grieve.
But back to research. I may not like to do research, but I still need to get the details right. As one example, in an earlier draft of The World without You I had the family meal when the Frankels arrive in Lenox consist of turkey and cranberry sauce and the like as if I thought it was Thanksgiving, not July 4, and my editor correctly pointed out to me that this simply wouldn't do. So I spent some time on The Food Network, and this was what I came up with. It sounded so good I made it for my own family.
by Joshua Henkin, August 29, 2008 1:53 PM
(Editor's Note: We're giving away signed copies of Joshua Henkin's novel Matrimony to two lucky readers! Simply leave a comment below by 12pm PST Friday, September 5th for your chance to win!
My secret passion, known only to my wife and kids and now you, the readers of Powells.com, is ? get ready for this ? Hebrew musicals. Not English musicals, certainly. My principal reaction to musicals in English is why is that person singing? Perhaps it's my inclination toward realism. Or maybe it's musicals' affinity for puns, when there's nothing I like less than a pun (puns are cleverness that's too obvious, cleverness that's preening and proud of itself), the only exception coming in an occasional Elvis Costello song. I was once dragged by a family member to watch a showing on Broadway of Urinetown. Was everyone around me, in fact, whooping it up? Was I so hopelessly out of touch? Had someone actually paid 85 dollars for my ticket?
Hebrew musicals, however, are something else entirely. I'm not talking about musicals written by Israelis and performed in Israel, about which I suspect I'd feel pretty much the same way I feel about English musicals. I'm talking about English musicals translated into Hebrew. I'm talking My Fair Lady in Hebrew, Guys and Dolls in Hebrew, and even (more on this later) The Rocky Horror Picture Show in Hebrew. The Hebrew musical provides that extra shot of camp, which to my ear makes it... well... delightful.
My relationship to the Hebrew musical came about thanks to the summer camp I attended, which was a Jewish summer camp and, purportedly, a Hebrew-speaking summer camp. Purportedly, because it's hard to be a Hebrew-speaking summer camp when no one at the camp speaks Hebrew. Camp Ramah in the Berkshires wasn't really in the Berkshires, either. It was probably located closer to the Catskills, but that's another story. It was a wonderful camp, but it was filled with children who were sent to Hebrew school by their parents (in fact, you couldn't attend Camp Ramah in the Berkshires unless you'd been sent to Hebrew school by your parents), and anyone who's been to Hebrew school knows you don't learn Hebrew at Hebrew school. You throw spitballs, you place whoopee cushions on the seats of unsuspecting classmates, you read about Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg, and other famous Jewish athletes, but you don't learn Hebrew.
And so, the rub. Campers and staffers who couldn't conjugate a Hebrew verb were deposited at a summer camp where all the nouns were in Hebrew. You didn't sleep in a bunk but in a tsrif. You didn't sit on porch but on a mirpeset. You didn't get candy at the canteen but at the chanutiya. And you didn't eat in the dining hall but in the chadar ochel. The lake was the agam and the bathrooms were the shayrooteem, and when you didn't know the Hebrew, as in "pagoda," you simply said it with a Hebrew accent.
Alas, nouns go only so far, especially when those nouns all revolve around summer camp. Nonetheless, the camp administration insisted that all plays be done in Hebrew ? performed by campers who couldn't speak the language, for campers and staffers who didn't understand it. For this reason, it was not surprising that, when I was 16 and my division performed Carousel, the male lead, who had a good voice but whose Hebrew, even by camp standards, was atrocious, spent the entire play reading a newspaper, on the inside of which were his transliterated lines.
Because I went to Jewish day school instead of Hebrew school, my Hebrew was passable ? proficient, even, by camp standards. And so I came to memorize all the lyrics of the musicals that got performed every summer. Ha' barad yarad bi'tsfon sepharad ha'erev. Translation: The hail came down in northern Spain this evening. AKA: The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.
And when I was a counselor, and, miraculously, we got the camp administration to approve a performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show by our 16-year-olds, it fell upon me and another counselor to translate the lyrics. We didn't do a particularly good job, but nobody knew: they couldn't speak Hebrew. And now, when I find myself doing the "Time Warp" (more often than I care to admit), it's in Hebrew that I do it, and when my wife and kids hear me singing in the shower, it's as likely to be "Luck Be a Lady" as anything else. But always, always in