I had the pleasure of seeing/hearing Joshua Henkin at a book reading last weekend. The reading was on a Sunday afternoon at Newtonville Books, which I hadn’t visited before. It’s a great independent bookstore with a large and comfy children’s section, lots of author events, and a very cool meeting room where the readings are held … but I digress, clearly Newtonville Books will be the subject of a future Spotlight on Bookstores!
Joshua was there as part of Newtonville Books’ Paperback Books & Brews program, sounds like fun already, right? He was sharing the reading time with another author, Ellen Litman who read from The Last Chicken in America: A Novel in Stories (more about Ellen and her book in an upcoming post!). I didn’t realize there would be two readings and a longer Q&A session, which left me a little short on time at the end of the afternoon … but let’s go back to the beginning …
After Ellen read, Joshua stepped up to the lectern with his still hot-from-the-presses paperback copy of Matrimony (my review is here). I could see several copies in the audience as well; groups from book clubs had come to the reading, as well as individuals who had popped in to hear what Joshua called the “tasting menu” as he read three short sections to give the flavor of the novel.
The first section he read (pages 3-4) introduces us to the main character, Julian Wainwright. We see Julian as a previously non-verbal toddler, insistently repeating “Out! Out! Out!” to his parents as they drive back to Manhattan from a visit to Martha’s Vineyard; seventeen years later Julian gets his wish as he enters Graymont College, an alternative liberal arts school in western Massachusetts. This passage sets the tone for the Wainwright family – Julian’s well-to-do parents attended Yale and Wellesley; Julian is determined to make his own mark.
Joshua next read from pages 38-39, when Julian meets his future wife, Mia, for the first time. There were quite a few laughs from the audience as Joshua read this section; we could probably all identify with wanting to make the best first impression. To set the scene, Julian and his new best friend Carter have been admiring Mia from afar, in the Freshman facebook; they’ve decided that she’s sophisticated, and have given her the nickname “Mia from Montreal.” Julian and Mia run into each other in the laundry room:
He hoped she didn’t notice that next to him, clearly in his possession, was a package of fabric softener. He had a book of stories by Ernest Hemingway, and he placed the book on top of the fabric softener, to balance the picture out.
This section has a lot of witty flirtatious banter between them, in which they reveal a little bit of their personalities and backgrounds. If you have the book, go back and read this part out loud, I promise you’ll chuckle (or at least smile!).
Lastly, Joshua read a longer, more somber passage (pages 74-78) in which Mia returns to Montreal during her senior year of college. Her mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer and has undergone a mastectomy, to be followed by chemo and radiation. This section is heavy with emotions: Mia helps her weakened mother in the shower, faces her own inadequacies as a daughter, wants to make amends by quitting school and caring for her mother, and is frustrated that since Julian has been in her life only a few years, he doesn’t share the same memories of Mia’s mother.
Joshua’s “tasting menu” were excellent selections to introduce a group to Matrimony – they introduced Julian and Mia, showed the playful spirit of their relationship when they first met, and encountered a hardship that could have far-reaching consequences.
Here are a few questions from the audience (paraphrased):
Q: Is Graymont College based on a real school?
A: Graymont is loosely based on Hampshire College in Hadley, Massachusetts. However, Joshua intentionally leaves that connection up to the reader. The “feel” of Graymont is similar to Hampshire, but the town itself (streets, stores, restaurants, etc.) is his own creation. Joshua did point out how unusual it was for a student at this type of college (in the late 80s, early 90s) to get married in their early 20s (right after graduating).
Q: There were major life events (graduation, wedding, funeral) that happened, but no details were given, why not? (the person asking the question noted that it was refreshing to not be pulled into a side scene that had no later bearing on the novel.)
A: Joshua actually wrote these more detailed scenes, but they didn’t add to the story, so he cut them; Matrimony took ten years to write, and he threw out 3000 pages in the process. But the novel isn’t about big life events, it’s about the everyday happenings, covering twenty years of the characters’ lives [in my review I called Matrimony a true "slice of life"]. Life is a set of circumstances and our responses to them. Matrimony shows the pleasures Julian and Mia experience and the travails they endure. Often when we’re in our 20s, 30s, and 40s we’re waiting for life to start — it’s already happening. Life is what happens when you’re not paying attention.
Q: Which writers influence/inspire you?
A: Richard Russo’s Empire Falls was very instructive in the way the passage of time is handled. He shows when to skip time and when to stop for a scene, taking the “here and now” seriously.
Q. How do you choose the names of character? Pilar doesn’t “seem” like a Pilar …
A. Joshua peruses a baby name book to get ideas for character names. He said that maybe naming their daughter Pilar was one way her parents indicated they were not typical Greenwich people. The audience member who asked the question chuckled and said “yeah, she seemed more like a Katherine.” Isn’t it interesting how we have pre-conceived notions about people based on their names!
Q: If Matrimony were made into a movie, who do you see playing the leads?
A: Joshua politely side-stepped this question, coyly stating that he didn’t “focus group” his novels. Some names that were suggested: Topher Grace to play Julian and Minnie Driver to play Mia.
Joshua and Ellen wrapped up the Q&A and we headed down into the main part of the bookstore for book signings and “meet and greet.” So, where is the photo I usually post after an author event, the one of me grinning next to an author, with his book out front and center? I was unable to stay and talk to Joshua and didn’t get a picture of the two of us! I was running late for “family obligations,” as the reading with two wonderful authors took longer than I had cleared on my calendar. So, Joshua, if you’re reading this, the woman scribbling notes in the back of the room, surreptitiously taking (non-flash) photos and lurking for a bit at the book signing was not some crazy “number one fan” a la Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) in Misery … it was just me, too fond of books and too short on time! I hope to catch you the next time you’re in town!
Haven’t read the Matrimony yet? You can order it from Amazon here.