"The fact is, telling is a lot harder than showing, a lot harder to do without resorting to predigested, flabby language, which is the real reason so many writers avoid it."
"There’s no way around revision. If you don’t take revision seriously, you will never succeed."
"One of the struggles for a relatively young writer is that he’s a different person when he finishes the book than he was when he started it."
"in many ways stories are harder than novels. There’s so much less room for error."
"Every word that can be gotten rid of should be gotten rid of. You should be left with only what’s essential."
Interview: Joshua Henkin
Joshua Henkin is fond of what he likes to call “pleasing contradictions,” elements of conflict that make fiction, and life, interesting, and it shows in his latest novel, Matrimony, a tautly-written exploration of what Henkin sums up as "the challenges and pleasures" of spending your life with someone. Novelist-to-be Julian Wainwright and Mia Mendelsohn meet in a laundry room at college, and the book chronicles the 20-year relationship that follows. It’s also about leading a life engaged in the process of writing, something with which Henkin—-and VerbSap readers—-are intimately familiar. Henkin is a craftsman and Matrimony is a superbly structured, engaging read, filled with empathy for its characters.
Henkin teaches at Sarah Lawrence, Brooklyn College, and the 92 nd Street Y. His first novel, Swimming Across The Hudson (Putnam, 1997), was named a Los Angeles Times notable book of the year. His short stories have been published in numerous venues, including Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, and The Yale Review, and his fiction has been cited for distinction in Best American Short Stories. He is the recipient of the James Fellowship for the Novel, the Hopwood Award, the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, and a grant from the Michigan Council of the Arts. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, The San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, two daughters, and golden retriever. VerbSap thanks him for his time.
VerbSap: Josh, you’ve said that the edict ‘show don’t tell’ is “one of the great lies of fiction writing,” and in Matrimony, “Thou shalt not utter the phrase ‘show don’t tell’,” is the second commandment Professor Chesterfield issues to his fiction-writing class. That’s authorial heresy, isn’t it? As a writer, how do you tell the difference between significant and spurious details? When do you draw the line and say, “If the reader doesn’t get this s/he’s simply obtuse?”
Henkin: I’m not saying there’s no truth to “Show, don’t tell”—just very limited and not particularly helpful truth. Fiction is a dramatic art, and you need to be able to dramatize things. But how do you dramatize them? Writing isn’t making a movie. In fact, one of the things movies suffer from, though they’re good at a lot of things, is that they can’t tell, they can only show, which is why so many movies have stilted dialogue (they’re trying to convey information that’s best conveyed through narration), and why so many movies are forced to rely on voiceovers, which almost always feel contrived. In one of my own early writing workshops as a student, a classmate of mine wrote, “An incredible feeling of happiness washed over her.” Well, the teacher said, “First, get rid of the ‘washed over’ cliché, and second, if in the course of a whole novel you can evoke an incredible feeling of happiness, then you’ve achieved something considerable. So how does a writer evoke happiness? Not simply by describing ad nauseam. Not by showing someone smiling with “big, straight, white, perfect teeth,” or some other adjectival excess. The fact is, telling is a lot harder than showing, a lot harder to do without resorting to predigested, flabby language, which is the real reason so many writers avoid it. It’s a lot easier just to be a camera. But a writer isn’t a camera, though describing things is certainly an important component of writing. As for the difference between significant and spurious detail, my own feeling is that every word that can be gotten rid of should be gotten rid of. You should be left with only what’s essential.
VerbSap: Writing programs get a mixed review in Matrimony. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop is portrayed as a brutal experience. Does a good MFA program have to tear you down before it builds you up? You’ve said an “insensitive” teacher can damage a writer, but that writing students have to be willing to take criticism. How much criticism is too much? When should a writer say, “I’m right, they’re wrong” and go with his or her gut?
Henkin: You’re right—writing programs do get a mixed review in Matrimony, though it’s worth noting that Julian attends Iowa more out of desperation than anything else (he needs to find a way to be apart from Mia) and so he isn’t all that open to being there. And though Professor Chesterfield at Graymont isn’t exactly a kind writing teacher, he does give Julian encouragement, and this helps Julian in the years to come with his novel. I myself am a big supporter of MFA programs. I’ve been part of one program or another for 15 years now, first as a student and then as a professor, and I have an essay coming out in the November/December issue of Poets and Writers called “In Defense of MFA Programs.”
As for when should a writer go with her gut, I think a writer should always go with her gut; she should just keep her gut and mind open to smart, sensitive criticism. In terms of how much criticism is too much, it’s too much when it sets back the work, when it gets in the way of the writing. Different people have different thresholds, and one of the tasks of a writing teacher is to try to figure out which students do better with a gentler hand and which with a firmer one. A lot of times it comes down to tone. I’m always encouraging my students—they know I’m on their side, that I want them to succeed—and I think that makes them more open to hearing what isn’t yet working in their stories.
VerbSap: I understand that you threw out thousands of pages when you were revising Matrimony and that the book took you 10 years to write. You've remarked that “A writer has to be willing to kill their baby,” but do you have any tips for people who find revising a chore? When do you know that a manuscript is finished? Anne Lamott says all good writers write "shitty first drafts." Is it possible to get it right the first time?
Henkin: I don’t think it’s possible to get it right the first time. Certainly not word for word exactly right. You have to be willing to revise. You have to be a perfectionist, frankly, since there are so many ways to go wrong. I happen to hate first drafts and I love revision. There are others who feel exactly the opposite. But there’s no way around revision. If you don’t take revision seriously, you will never succeed. In terms of when you know a manuscript is finished, I’ve seen writers reading publicly from their published work who stop and make changes in the actual book. That’s how compulsive they are. But I think most good writers are compulsive. You almost have to be. I think a writer should stop when the changes start to make the manuscript worse rather than better. When that moment occurs is hard to tell. In general, I believe in putting a manuscript away for a long time—months, at the very least, sometimes longer—and then coming back to it. I trust myself as a critic, but the problem is I can’t see my own work the way I see the work of others. It’s true of all of us. But if I put my work away long enough that it starts to become unfamiliar to me, then I approach the point when I can know whether it’s succeeding or not. I always let my work brew for a long time before I put it out into the world.
VerbSap: Matrimony follows its characters for 20 years, from youth through early parenthood, and it has a lot to say about how youthful decisions shape one's life. Would you consider returning to these characters in a subsequent work, à la John Updike and his Rabbit series? Did changes in your own life while you were writing inform the course of Matrimony?
Henkin: I doubt I’ll return to these characters again, though you never know—I suppose at some point in the future they could come calling to me. I wouldn’t say that any specific change in my own life informed Matrimony. On the other hand, I am, roughly speaking, Julian’s and Mia’s age, and between the time I started writing Matrimony and the time I finished it, I got married, and now my wife and I have two daughters. In general, one of the struggles for a relatively young writer is that he’s a different person when he finishes the book than he was when he started it. I was 33 when I began Matrimony, and now I’m 43. While you are always changing, I think the depth, significance, and rapidity of change are greater when you are younger, and this has consequences for the work.
VerbSap: You write short stories as well as novels. Do you prefer one genre to another or are they like chocolate and French fries—different but each satisfying in their own way? In an interview, you lamented the lack of reader interest in short stories. The book version of Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain remains a big seller. Are movie tie-ins the answer? Why aren't short story collections bigger sellers?
Henkin: I like both novels and stories. They provide different pleasures. The good thing about stories is you can actually finish one in a reasonable period of time. Though you shouldn’t be fooled—in many ways stories are harder than novels. There’s so much less room for error. What I like about novels is the breadth—you can do more—and the fact that you wake up knowing, broadly speaking, what you’re going to write about. You don’t have to invent new characters and a new situation afresh. When I’m writing stories, I hate those moments between stories when I have no idea what I’m going to write next. I have no idea why stories aren’t more popular with today’s readers, especially in light of everyone’s short attention spans. I’m still trying to figure that one out.
VerbSap: Can you tell us a bit about the novel you're working on now, The World Without You?
Henkin: The book takes place over a single July 4th weekend and is about a family reunion. Three adult sisters return with their parents to their vacation home in the Berkshires to commemorate the anniversary of the brother’s death. He was a journalist killed in Iraq. The sisters come with spouses, boyfriends, etc. There are some surprise guests, too. More than that, I’m not saying.
Photo of Joshua Henkin courtesy of Ali Price.