Matrimony: The History of a Marriage and a Novelist

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By setting his novel, Matrimony (Pantheon), an October Book Sense Pick, on college campuses, as well as within a marriage, married writer Joshua Henkin chose familiar territory. He grew up in university housing for Columbia Law School, where his father taught, and lived in the college towns of Cambridge, Ann Arbor, and Berkeley. "I spent half my life on college campuses," he said. "College life has always been very present."

Joshua Henkin

Talking with BTW while on the road (he's currently dividing his time between Philadelphia and Brooklyn), Henkin described Matrimony as "the history of a marriage. Julian and Mia meet in college and spend their 20s and 30s waiting to grow up, thinking they'll become adults someday. That's why college towns are very central in the book. They feel like places where you never grow up.... There are certain signposts -- Thanksgiving, homecoming, spring break -- that make you feel like there's this eternal renewal."

The couple meets at the fictional Graymont College, a composite of a New England liberal arts college, where naked parties proliferate and "you could receive comments from your professors instead of grades." As an aspiring writer, Julian's sole reason to be there is to study with the cranky Professor Chesterfield who lists 117 writing commandments on the blackboard (e.g. "Thou Shalt Not Utter the Phrase 'Show Don't Tell'") and forbids students to use "workshop" as a verb.

In Chesterfield's class Julian finds his best friend, Carter. They're the only writers Chesterfield approves of, which he signifies by calling their stories "pusillanimous" and "sophomoric." (They're just happy he'll deign to criticize them at all.) They soon meet their girlfriends, Mia and Pilar, and have tandem antic-filled romances, facilitated by a hot tub where the foursome spends most of their time, sometimes while wearing wigs and playing backgammon. Both couples marry and are years away from realizing that life, at least for them, gets a whole lot less fun after college.

Although it takes place at various campuses across the country, Matrimony is an interior novel, following Julian's reactions to the evolution of his marriage as he and Mia move to Ann Arbor to be near the University of Michigan, and then as Julian goes on to the Iowa Writer's Workshop where students have "nothing to do... except be mean to each other." Each move seems to compound their resentment and disconnection. At Iowa, Julian's writing is as stalled as his marriage, and the story becomes centered on the young writer's efforts to get both going again.

Henkin, married with two daughters, said the book is not especially autobiographical. However, like his character, he did take many years to write a novel. His first, Swimming Across the Hudson (Putnam), was written in fewer than three years, but Matrimony, his second, took 10. "I suppose in some broad ways the book parallels my life," he said. "But Julian had writer's block, and I never had that. It just took a long time. I wrote many drafts, and I threw out thousand of words. I'm glad I didn't know it was going to take 10 years or that might have given me pause."

Matrimony includes various pitch perfect send-ups of writing workshops, but Henkin is still all for their existence. In fact, he teaches at the creative writing programs at Sarah Lawrence College and Brooklyn College, and he'll be publishing an article called "In Defense of the MFA," in an upcoming issue of Poets & Writers magazine. In it he wonders why people question if writing can be taught. "No one asks a piano teacher if music can be taught, or a photography teacher, or any of the other arts," he said. "What is it about the teaching of writing?"

Henkin grew up in an observant Jewish home and the subject informs Mia's character. Judaism also played a significant role in Swimming Across the Hudson, but the author said he never sets out to cover particular issues, whether religion, class, money, etc. "I just want to tell the story," he said. "Fiction is principally about character, and you use narrative and language to further that. Since I grew up with a Jewish background, it's not surprising that there's some Jewish stuff in my novels. But I take characters as they come, and I try to create a situation that will help explore those characters. It's not planned."

He discusses these and other issues on his blog, which he launched prior to the publication of Matrimony. "I like keeping a blog in that it's free-form, and you can, within reason, write about whatever you want to write about, but I'm still getting the hang of it," he said. "My sense is I should be churning the copy out much more quickly, but I'm a compulsive reviser...."

His next novel takes place in 2007 during a family reunion in a house in the Berkshires, he said. "The occasion of which is the fourth anniversary of the death of one of the kids. He was a journalist killed in Iraq in the summer of '03. It's a family saga from multiple perspectives told over a single July 4th weekend."

Henkin said he wasn't the type who got started writing as a kid. Instead, he was motivated by all the awful writing he saw while working at the magazine Tikkun. "I was reading fiction manuscripts sent to the magazine and thought about how much bad stuff was out there. I thought if other people were willing to try and fail, I should be willing to try and fail, too."

Now that he's written numerous short stories, two novels, won critical acclaim, and was cited for distinction in Best American Short Stories, he's still not completely over his page fright. "Every writer on some level is insecure," he said. "There's no formula you can repeat. It's anxiety producing. But as you go along you gain more confidence. My feeling is you don't just sit down and write a novel. You write a few pages each day, and when you look back over time, you have something."

In addition to his experience at Tikkun, another source of his confidence as a writer came from a college professor, writer Leonard Michaels. While Henkin stressed that the crusty Chesterfield is not based on Michaels, he played a similar role. "He was a difficult guy," said Henkin. "He was not the most attentive teacher, but he told me that he thought I had ability. That made the difference." --Karen Schechner