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March 31, 2009

Joshua Henkin's Book Club Adventures: The Latest Chapter, February 2009 Part II

Posted by carol

Yesterday Joshua Henkin, author of the novel Matrimony, answered one of the questions he's frequently asked by reading group members: "Did you always want to be a writer?" Today he offers more on the subject and shares some of his own story...

Did You Always Want to be a Writer: Part 2

Yesterday, I talked about how, though I always wanted to be a writer, it was really a coincidence that led me to become one. I had moved to Berkeley after college and was working at a magazine, and it was there, having read a lot of fiction submissions that I thought weren't good, that I got up the courage to try fiction writing myself. If that hadn't happened (if I hadn't moved to Berkeley, or if I'd moved to Berkeley and had taken a different job), I wouldn't be a fiction writer today. I'd probably have ended up doing what I planned to do before I moved to Berkeley, which was get a Ph.D. in political theory, and I'd likely be teaching political theory god knows where (if I was lucky enough to get a job!).

And since my most recent novel is Matrimony, I should add that I also wouldn't be married to the woman I'm married to. I actually knew Beth, sort of, years ago, when we went to the same summer camp, but the last time we were in summer camp together, I was 20 and Beth was 13. But I knew vaguely who she was (I was a counselor in her older sister's division). Years later, Beth was a graduate student in religion at Columbia, and I was back visiting New York, on book tour for my first novel, Swimming Across the Hudson, and I ran into her and invited her to a reading. She came to the reading, and a week or two later we got together for coffee, and now here we are, twelve years after that, living in Brooklyn with our two daughters. If I hadn't moved to Berkeley and worked at that magazine, I wouldn't be a writer, and if I hadn't been a writer I wouldn't have met Beth.

But it goes further back than that. My father was born in Russia in 1917, and his mother died when he was two. Shortly thereafter, his father remarried, and in 1923, just before immigration to the U.S. became much more restrictive, my father's family came here. But the only reason they were able to do so was that my father's stepmothed had relatives in the States who were willing to be the family's sponsor. So if my grandmother hadn't died when my father was two, my grandfather wouldn't have remarried, the family wouldn't have made it to the U.S., my father wouldn't have met my mother, and I wouldn't have been born. And the world would have gotten along just fine without me! But from my own narrow perspective, that was an important sequence of events.

We all have stories like this one. I've been visiting a lot of book groups to discuss Matrimony (I'm now at well over 100), and I was talking to one book group in suburban Washington, D.C., where two of the members, probably in their mid-fifties, came from East Lansing, Michigan. I asked these two women how they had ended up in D.C., and they said, "Well, we both moved here for a year after college." They'd been planning to move back to Michigan, yet there they were, more than thirty years later, having found work, met husbands, started families. We all make decisions in our twenties and thirties --- where we're going to live, what kind of work we're going to do, whom we're going to love --- that have consequences (some good, some bad, some neither good nor bad) that we couldn't possibly have anticipated.

People ask me whether Matrimony is autobiographical, and the answer is complicated. On the most basic level it is not (and here I encourage those of you who haven't yet read the book to stop reading, or to promptly forget what you read, since there are spoilers coming).

I'm not Julian. I didn't meet my wife in college, her mother didn't die of breast cancer, she didn't sleep with my best friend (or if she did, she hasn't told me yet!), and I am, alas, not nearly as wealthy as Julian is. But Matrimony (though I didn't realize this as I was writing the book; a writer, as I've suggested in one of my earlier posts, needs to proceed intuitively) does illustrate, I think, this interest I have in how coincidence shapes our lives.

For me, the central event in Matrimony is Mia's mother's death. It's what prompts Julian and Mia to get married as early as they do and what leads to some of the problems they face. In fact, my sense is that if Mia's mother hadn't gotten sick and died, Julian and Mia might not have married at all. Not because they don't love each other, but because these are characters who go to college in the late '80s/early '90s at a school based loosely on Hampshire College. People who go to a place like Hampshire in the late '80s/early '90s don't get married at twenty-two. Maybe their parents or grandparents did, but they don't.

And so I suspect what would have happened to Julian and Mia is that they would have stayed together for another year or two and then drifted apart like most college couples do. They would have likely married other people a number of years later. So much in life is about coincidence --- you take a particular path and it leads you in a direction you hadn't divined. That's clearly something I'm interested in. So in that sense, though the facts of Matrimony are made up, the feeling of the book is borrowed from my own life.

---Joshua Henkin

Previous Posts by Joshua Henkin:
Book Club Adventures, February 2009
Book Club Adventures, January 2009
Book Club Adventures, January 2009 Part II
Book Club Adventures, December 2008
Book Club Adventures, December 2008 Part II
Book Club Adventures, November 2008
Book Club Adventures, November 2008 Part II
Shouting Matches and More