Q&A With Josh Henkin, Author of MATRIMONY

Thank you to Josh Henkin for answering EDIWTB reader questions about Matrimony following the third EDIWTB online book club. Here are Josh's answers:

Q:  After Mia's lump ends up being benign, I was surprised to read the part about BRCA1 and BRCA2. I was wondering if you knew someone personally, that had positive markers for those genes and if not, why you chose to include that dialog. After finishing the book, I felt that maybe it was used as away to bring Olivia and Mia closer together, but I wasn't sure and it left me wondering.

JH:  I want to start out with some general thoughts, since several of the questions have to do with my intentions/motivations in doing X or Y.  It took me ten years to write Matrimony and I threw out more than three thousand pages.  When I started to write, I thought Matrimony would be about a love relationship and that it would take place at a college reunion.  Well, it is, in part, about a love relationship (though it’s about other things, too), and there is a college reunion in the book, but that reunion doesn’t take place until around page 270 and it lasts for all of about seven pages.  So it goes to show that I didn’t have a clue.  Which is how it should be.  I believe that if a writer knows in advance what he’s going to do then he’ll end up straitjacketing his characters in a preordained plot; he’ll end up with what a friend of mine calls Lipton-Cup-a-Story.  For me, fiction is first and foremost about character, and the way you write character is to discover things as you go along.  As Flannery O’Connor said in her wonderful book of essays Mystery and Manners, a writer needs a measure of stupidity, and my feeling is that if you don’t come by stupidity naturally, you better cultivate it.  Intelligence of the analytic kind can be very helpful in revision, but it’s the death of a writer in the early stages of writing the book.  This is another way of saying that a writer needs to proceed intuitively and can’t over-think things.  A friend of mine in college wrote her 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.  Which is another way of saying that kids are more natural storytellers than adults are.  One of my tasks as a writer and as a teacher of writing is to get myself and others to think monkey-banana—to think like a child again, albeit like an astute, precocious child. 

So when I’m asked what my motivations were in doing X or Y, I can only speculate.  At the moment of writing, I’m proceeding intuitively, so very little in Matrimony or in any other book I write is planned out.  Some of the biggest moments in Matrimony came to me only a paragraph before I got to them, which is how I think it should be.  My main goal is to live as fully as possible inside my characters and to let them guide me. 

With that in mind, here are my speculations about Mia and Olivia.  Although the book took as long to write as it did, most of the major characters in Matrimony were there early on.  One exception is Olivia; originally, Mia was an only child.  But I felt there were too many only children in the book, and it seemed to me that Mia would have a sister.  And what I think, looking back, is that I was interested in exploring the ways in which siblings can grow up in the same home and not really grow up in the same home.  Anyone who has siblings or who is the parent of more than one child knows that parents are different parents with different children, and certainly birth order is a huge factor in a person’s development.  In Mia and Olivia’s case, Mia, as the better student, has both the privilege and the burden of her father’s attention.  And, at least as important—probably more so—the two sisters experience their mother’s illness differently, in that Mia is off at college when their mother gets sick, while Olivia is living at home.  And they’re also hardwired differently, no doubt. 

Early on, I didn’t know that Mia would get a breast lump, and I certainly didn’t know that I would write about the breast cancer genes.  Breast cancer genes, and new genetic tests in general, were very much in the news when I was writing Matrimony, and so that likely had some influence on me.  Also, at some point during the writing process, I read an op-ed in the New York Times about two sisters faced with the choice of testing and how they made different decisions, and that probably got me thinking.  I certainly can see how it’s such a tough choice and how different people would decide differently.  In the same way, I can see both Julian’s and Mia’s sides when it comes to what happened between Mia and Carter.  A novelist wants to write about things that aren’t clear-cut; moral complexity is what nourishes good fiction. 

I definitely wasn’t trying to bring Mia and Olivia closer together because a writer should never want his characters to be close, any more than he should want them not to be close.  A writer shouldn’t want anything other than to be true to who his characters are.  In an earlier draft, Julian and Mia didn’t end up getting back together.  But in the final draft they did get back together—not because I wanted them to, but because it seemed to me that ultimately they belonged together.

I certainly was interested in writing about siblings who want to be close but don’t quite know how to.  But with all these things, it’s a case of my looking back and saying, Oh, that must have been what I was trying to do.  You can be sure that in the writing itself I wasn’t saying, “I want to write about what it’s like to grow up in the same home as your sibling but it’s really not the same home,” or “I want to write about what it’s like to want to be close to your sibling but not be able to.” Any writer who tries to do that ends up with cardboard characters.  I simply started to write about Mia and began to find out who she was, and then I wrote about Olivia and started to find out who she was.  I don’t mean to imply that it all came out as I wanted it to right from the start.  On the contrary, there were a whole lot of missteps along the way.  But it was all part of the process of discovering my characters and, in so doing, telling the story I wanted to tell.  I had no conscious intentions other than that.

Q: At one point in the story, I was thinking, "This book is titled Matrimony, but at this point, no one is married". How did the title come about? What were you trying to convey about marriage in this story?

JH: I’m ambivalent about the title, but on balance I stand by it, though I’m aware of the risks of titling a book Matrimony.  I tend to think that the best titles are evocative of the novel without telling the reader too much about it.  My first novel, Swimming Across the Hudson, is a good example of that.  Swimming across the Hudson is simply an image from the book; it’s not a novel about aquatics, believe you me.  But you call a novel MATRIMONY and you create certain expectations.  People might think it’s a self-help book, and even if they know it’s a novel, they might expect a certain kind of story that may or not be borne out by what happens in my book.  MATRIMONY is about more than marriage.  It’s about friendship, class, maturing over the years, among other things.  But I certainly couldn’t have called it Marriage, Friendship, Class and Maturing Over The Years, though Alice Munro has a story collection with a title not so far from that.  But she’s Alice Munro, and as far as I’m concerned she can do whatever she wants; she’s that good. 

In the end, the title Matrimony felt true to what the book was about, in that the central relationship is a marriage and the book is really about several other marriages as well—Carter and Pilar’s marriage, Mia’s parents’ marriage, Julian’s parents’ marriage.  But I didn’t want to call the book Marriage.  I liked the more amorphous feel of Matrimony, as well as the implied phrase “holy matrimony,” which of course is belied (or at least rendered more complex) by what happens in my novel. 

That said, I wasn’t trying to convey anything about marriage more generally.  “What were you trying to convey about marriage?” is an apple-banana question, and I’m a monkey-banana guy.  Novelists aren’t in the business of making arguments, statements, or points; they aren’t in the business of teaching lessons.  If you want to make an argument or a statement, if you want to teach a lesson, you should become a philosopher, an economist, a theologian, or a lawyer, all of which are perfectly good professions.  They’re just not my profession.  A novelist is in the business of creating characters and telling stories—nothing more, nothing less. 

This isn’t to say that a good novel doesn’t make you think; of course it does.  But a novelist doesn’t deal in generalities.  He or she deals in particulars.  I was not and am not making any statements about marriage.  I’m simply depicting in as thorough and convincing a way as possible the specific characters and specific relationships in my novel.  I leave the generalities for the critics and the Ph.D.s.

Q. On page 143, "Well, according to him, you should write what you know about what you don't know or what you don't know about what you know. Keep it close enough to home that your heart is in it but far enough away that the imagination can take over. That way, you don't descend into solipsism". So, which did you do for this story?

Q. How much of Julian is about you or am I totally off base? Also, any other parallels to your own life?

JH: I’m going to answer these questions together since I think they’re different versions of the same question.  In very deep ways, Matrimony is not autobiographical.   I met my wife many years after college, her mother didn’t die of breast cancer, and my wife didn’t sleep with my best friend.  Or, if she did, no one has told me yet!  And, regrettably, I’m not nearly as wealthy as Julian is.  The only character in the book who’s based on a real character is the dog, Cooper.  Aside from a sex and breed switch, Cooper is a dead ringer for my wife’s and my beloved golden retriever, Dulcie.  But all the other mammals in Matrimony are products of my imagination.  It’s interesting that many people assume that the book is autobiographical and, if it is, that I must be Julian.  If anything, despite certain superficial similarities (like Julian, I grew up in New York and have moved back there; we’re both writers; our names both begin with “J”), I’m probably more similar to Mia than to Julian.  I’m Jewish; she’s Jewish.  I’m the son of an academic; she’s the daughter of an academic.  Not that there aren’t some key differences between Mia and me that go beyond gender.  Still, the home she grew up in, with certain notable exceptions, was much more similar to the home I grew up in than Julian’s home was.

The only qualification I’d add is that in the broadest sense Julian, Mia, and Carter are the kinds of people who are familiar to me, who I might have hung out with at various points in my life.  If they showed up at a party I was at, I wouldn’t be surprised.  I’ve lived in some of the places they’ve lived (I spent eight years in Ann Arbor, and four years in Berkeley/the SF Bay area; I’ve lived almost half my life in college towns), and I share, in the broadest contours, some of their concerns.  In this sense, I was doing what Professor Chesterfield said, which is writing what I know about what I don’t know or what I don’t know about what I know.  This sounds like a bad LSAT problem, but the idea behind it is that a writer needs to negotiate the divide between being too close to and too far from his or her characters.  My undergrads, in particular, tend to err to one extreme or the other.  They write simply what they know, which is a transcript of Friday night’s keg party, or simply what they don’t know, which is Martians. 

The first writing workshop I was in as a student a friend of mine wrote a transparently autobiographical story about her breakup with her first boyfriend.  But the story was a lot better than that description suggests.  Everyone in the class said what they thought was working in the story, and then we all agreed that a particular scene wasn’t working.  And when it was the writer’s turn to speak, she said, “You know that scene that you thought wasn’t working?  It actually happened.”  Well, the appropriate response to that is a kind, gentle version of, “Who cares?”  Writing fiction is about getting at a deeper kind of truth, and you need to be able and willing to lie in order to do that.  Writers who are too close to their material, who are too concerned with telling it like it actually happened, don’t have the requisite distance to make the right aesthetic decisions.  On the other hand, being too far from your material is at least as bad (probably a whole lot worse) than being too close to it, in that the writer needs to be emotionally invested, needs to be at risk in some deep way, in order to make his or her readers care about the fate of the characters.  So embedded in Professor Chesterfield’s pithy advice is this more complicated idea about proximity to and distance from the emotional experiences of your characters.  In any case, I think it’s very good advice; I took it to heart in Matrimony, and I take it to heart in everything I write.

Q: I was curious about Mia's relationship with Olivia, and wonder if Mr. Henkin can talk about why Olivia wonders if she's capable of feeling close to Mia, and why Mia didn't really seem to react to Olivia's statement – I think that would be a "big deal" – and yet nothing really comes of it. Is Olivia just too jealous of Mia's good luck (real or perceived)? Does she still feel abandoned by Mia?

JH: I’ll keep this one short, since I addressed most of these issues in question 1.  I assume you’re referring to when Olivia says she doesn’t know if she and Mia will ever be close, or even if she wants to be.  It is in fact a big statement, but I also think it reveals what both sisters already know and what Mia herself has felt for some time.  Here Mia is, having moved to New York, in part because Olivia is there, and yet they have spent so little time together, and the fact that they’ve spent so little time together doesn’t really surprise either of them.  They want to be close; they just don’t know how to.  Their relationship may be too stuck in a dynamic of Mia’s judging Olivia, or at least of Olivia’s perceiving that Mia is judging her (this is certainly the case when it comes to Olivia’s affair).  Yes, there may be the fact that Olivia is jealous of what she takes to be Mia’s good luck, and it also may be the case that she still feels abandoned by Mia.  But I’m reluctant to reduce things in this way.  I think by drawing easy and direct causal connections, one ends up simplifying what is far more complex.

I’m not saying that the factors you mention aren’t important, but to my mind, what’s wonderful about fiction is what’s mysterious about it, as is the case with life itself.  There’s a lot of mystery in sibling relationships (Why do many siblings want to be close and find they aren’t able to?  It’s certainly a phenomenon that I’ve witnessed among numerous people I know, even if the particulars are always different), just as there’s a lot of mystery in all relationships, and the novelist’s task is to convey those mysteries as fully and as convincingly as possible, but never to try to explain them.  In Martin Amis’s The Information, the writer character is being interviewed by a talk show host who keeps asking him what his novel is about, and the writer character answers (I’m paraphrasing here), “My novel isn’t ABOUT anything.  It is what it is.  All two hundred thousand words of it.  If I could have written it in fewer words, I would have.”  Well, I think that character (and he’s clearly speaking for Amis) has gotten it right.  If novels were about things beyond themselves, if they were articulating ideas, making generalizations, offering abstract psychological explanations, then there would be no point in reading the novel.  We would just read the explanations and leave it at that.

Q: So, are you an optimist or pessimist when it comes to marriage? Or just a realist?

JH:  I’ll make this one even shorter.  I’m very grateful to be happily married.  But my feelings about marriage, my own or that of others, have nothing to do with my novel.  I could be an optimist about marriage and write a convincing novel about a very bleak marriage, and I could be a pessimist about marriage and write a convincing novel about a wonderful marriage.  My opinions about marriage, or about anything else, cannot be deduced from the fiction I write.

Q: What's next on the horizon for you, in terms of writing?

JH: My next novel, tentatively titled The World Without You, takes place over a single July 4th weekend.  It’s a family reunion.  Three adult sisters and their husbands/partners return along with the sisters’ parents to the family’s country home in the Berkshires, the occasion for which is the 4th or 5th anniversary of the brother’s death; he was a journalist killed in Iraq.  When he died, he left a wife, who was pregnant at the time.  She is now living in Berkeley (she’s an anthropology graduate student), and she is seriously involved with another man.   She, too, comes back to the reunion, along with her son, who is now 3 or 4.  The son, of course, is the object of struggle.  For the parents and the sisters, he’s the embodiment of the dead brother, but for the brother’s widow he’s simply her son, and she may end up marrying the new man she’s with.  Even if she doesn’t, she’ll likely marry someone else, and that person may very well end up adopting the child.  More metaphorically, the book is about what most of my fiction tends to be about—the way the past tugs on the present.

A big thank you to all of you for participating in this discussion, and a special thank you to Gayle for running it.  I enjoyed all your comments, and if you have follow-up questions, I’m happy to answer them.  Also, if you would like to see further thoughts I have about Matrimonyand about the writing process, you should check out the online book group discussion of Matrimony that I participated in at mothertalk.com.  The link to that discussion is: 

As always, I’d be delighted to participate in book group discussions of Matrimony.  If you would like me to join your book group, you can contact me through my website, or directly, at Jhenkin at SLC dot edu.



  • May 29, 2008 - 12:20 am | Permalink

    Thanks for giving us the opportunity to ask these questions and a big “thank you” to Mr. Henkin for his thoughtful responses.

  • May 29, 2008 - 12:43 am | Permalink

    That was awesome!! I feel like I understand the book a lot better now. Thanks!

  • Paula
    May 29, 2008 - 8:54 am | Permalink

    I really enjoyed Mr. Henkin’s thoughts on intuition and the writing process. Thank you for hosting this discussion and to Mr. Henkin for taking so much time to share his comments.

  • Miriam
    May 29, 2008 - 5:49 pm | Permalink

    I am still in the midst of reading Matrimony but enjoying the characters so much. I love that the characters develop as the writer writes- even he does not know where the story will go. I just wish real life would not get in the way of my reading! Gayle- thanks for giving us this book club opportunity.

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