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Research Is beside the Point: Or, Are Novelists Just Lazy?

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 themthe 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.

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Joshua Henkin is the author of the novels Swimming across the Hudson (a Los Angeles Times Notable Book) and Matrimony (a New York Times Notable Book). His stories have been published widely, cited for distinction in Best American Short Stories, and broadcast on NPR's Selected Shorts. His latest novel is The World without You.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Matrimony (Vintage Contemporaries)
    Used Trade Paper $1.95
  2. The World without You
    Used Hardcover $7.95

Joshua Henkin is the author of The World without You

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