Writing Across Entire Lifetimes: Joshua Henkin Interviewed by Paula Bomer

A novel that explores how a family grapples with dementia.

Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin

Joshua Henkin’s latest novel, Morningside Heights (Pantheon), beautifully and tragically examines family, dementia, and how people traverse the world they are thrown into. It’s a modern classic of the human condition. Henkin is also the author of the novels Swimming Across the Hudson (a Los Angeles Times Notable Book), Matrimony (a New York Times Notable Book), and The World Without You (winner of the 2012 Edward Lewis Wallant Award for American Jewish Fiction and a finalist for the 2012 National Jewish Book Award). He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and directs the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College. 

—Paula Bomer

 

Paula Bomer Morningside Heights starts out with Pru, a young Midwestern Orthodox Jewish woman, who longs to leave the Midwest and does, and after Yale, tries to make it as an actress in New York City. It’s set in the ’70s—when civil rights and women’s rights are just coming to fruition, but the world is still stuck on certain conventions. One is marriage, and Pru ends up falling in love and marrying Spence Robin, her English Professor. And although Pru keeps her own name, Steiner, their marriage is fairly old-fashioned. He is the big-shot, celebrity-status professor at Columbia, and she basically recedes into being his wife, raising their beautiful daughter, and eventually holding down a job in fundraising, to make money and keep busy. Dating and marrying a student was semi-frowned upon back then, but now it’s basically how someone loses their job. In many ways, the novel captures a life—a marriage—that could barely exist in current times. 

Joshua Henkin I’ve thought about that issue a lot. My father, like Spence, was a well-known professor at Columbia Law School, and like Spence, my father developed Alzheimer’s, though thankfully when he was much older than Spence. My mother was fifteen years younger than my father, and though she wasn’t his student and was a lawyer herself and had an accomplished career of her own, she remained professionally in his shadow, and I think her own sense of self derived in no small part from my father’s accomplishments, from her being the wife of an acclaimed professor.

I would add that, by the standards of the day (my parents married in 1960), their relationship was modern and enlightened, that it hewed less to gender stereotype than the relationships of most parents I knew. But “standards of the day” is the operative term: those were different times. I remember my father mentioning in passing that a couple of his law professor colleagues had married their students. He said these words with neither approval nor disapproval: these were simply the facts, and I—being a child, and this being the ’70s—took them simply as facts. 

If my father were alive today, I believe he would look quite differently at the question of professors dating and marrying their students, just as I believe that if Spence were alive today he would look quite differently at what he did in dating and marrying Pru. And Pru would look at it quite differently, too. In the second chapter of Morningside Heights there’s the following passage that comes shortly after Pru and Spence have started to date: 

Years later Spence would say, “I can’t believe I dated my graduate student.”
“Not only that, you married her.” But Pru didn’t think anything of it at the time. It was the 1970s, she thought, looking back: a decade when no one knew anything. 

Here the book itself is recognizing—and the characters themselves are recognizing—that what flew in the ’70s wouldn’t and shouldn’t fly now. 

PB The narrative deftly skips ahead to Pru and Spence’s daughter Sarah being in medical school, and Spence developing early onset Alzheimer’s. My own mother died from dementia, and it is truly the saddest thing in the world to watch a vibrant, brilliant person lose everything that made them who they are. Pru doesn’t put him in a home, but manages with hired help to take care of him at home. He was always her whole life, and now he is in a way she never could have imagined. I find Pru’s denial endearing, because as much as she accepts his illness, she also doesn’t. The theme that denial is almost necessary to get through certain aspects of tragedy interests me. 

JH I do think at least a little denial may be essential for Pru to get by, for all of us to get by, when we’re faced with something as difficult as what Pru faces. In an earlier draft of Morningside Heights, it took much longer for the Alzheimer’s diagnosis to come, for Pru to recognize what was staring her in the face, but that just wasn’t working. That degree of denial demeaned Pru and made her seem more obtuse than she actually was, and also, it drained the tension from the narrative. The reader knew pretty early on that Spence had dementia, and the reader was just waiting for Pru to catch up, and that waiting period wasn’t very interesting. There’s a lot to be said for dramatic irony, but sometimes there can be too much dramatic irony for a novel’s own good. 

White man with glasses and no hair in black T-shirt standing and smiling.

Photo of Joshua Henkin by Michael Lionstar.

PB The novel is divided into seven distinct parts. It changes points of view frequently, giving it a gorgeous sweeping effect. I’ll be frank: even though I was convinced this really is Pru’s—and an interesting aside is how it’s not really about Spence, but rather how his illness affects everyone around him—he’s almost like the ghost that haunts the narrative. In Part Three, though, you switch to the point of view of Spence’s first son, born out of an unstable and brief marriage. I fell in love. I fell in love with Arlo, with his tragic childhood, with the huge chip on his shoulder, and with how you represented his voice, his thoughts, his way of thinking. We are first in Arlo’s head for sixty pages. It’s dense, it’s tragic, and it’s hilarious. Heartbreaking too. So, in that way, it’s not just Pru’s story. Arlo is huge in this novel. He self-sabotages, but he just wants to be loved.

Later, as Spence’s illness progresses, Pru is desperate to connect with the love of her life, attempts to make love to her husband. It’s again, like a lot of this book, just painfully sad. But you temper these scenes with Arlo, who is not purposefully funny. Did his voice help you deal with writing about the relentless tragedy of the progression of Alzheimer’s? 

JH You’re making a really important point—the book isn’t really about Spence; it’s about how what happens to Spence has an impact on those who love him. I remember watching the movie Rain Man years ago and being really impressed with Dustin Hoffman’s performance, but also being too aware that the movie was about Dustin Hoffman’s performance. It seemed like a masterful act of ventriloquism, but you were never unaware that it was a masterful act of ventriloquism. It may seem like a strange analogy, but I felt the same way about Spence. I wasn’t interested in telling the book largely from his point of view because I wasn’t interested in writing what it was “like” for someone to have dementia. There’s something overly performative about that, and I’m not a performative writer. Or maybe, like Pru, I was protective of Spence, and it felt like a kind of violation. 

More fundamentally, though, the challenge of writing a novel about Alzheimer’s is that, at least as things stand medically, there’s no tension in what’s going to happen to the character with the disease. As I tell my MFA students, you write a story about a ball rolling down a hill, and the ball is inevitably going to roll down the hill. The tension in Morningside Heights has to come from what the characters who don’t have Alzheimer’s do—the characters who know and love Spence and how they accommodate to (and in some cases don’t accommodate to) his disease. 

The way I wrote Morningside Heights—the way I generally write my novels—is that I write three thousand pages and then I find the book somewhere in those pages. Ninety percent of what I write gets thrown out, but those thrown-out pages are essential in my getting to the heart of the book. At some point, maybe in year three of writing this novel, I said to myself, idly, What if Spence was married before, and what if he had a child from that marriage? Instinctively I thought, No way, but then I thought, What’s the harm in trying? So, I wrote a chapter about Spence’s son from a previous marriage, and the scenes just took off.  

Pru is, in fact, the central character in Morningside Heights—it’s really her novel—but in a lot of ways Arlo, though he disappears for years at a time, is at least as important as she is. In some ways, he’s the character I’m most attached to in the book (his combination of vulnerability and resentment really interests me), and it was only when he came into full focus that I knew that I’d finally figured the book out.

PB Sarah, the much loved and coddled daughter, has a very interesting relationship with her half-brother. In some ways, the decline of their father brings them together in ways that were not foreseeable before Spence got sick. It’s funny how illness can do that, or can break people apart. In my family, my mother’s illness brought us together at first, but in the end, it completely drove us apart. 

JH You’re right: Spence’s illness brings Sarah and Arlo closer together, at least for the time being. What will happen in the future is hard to know. Arlo disappears for long periods of time—that’s just his way—and I have a feeling that’s going to continue. It’s hard to imagine him living anything like a conventional, non-peripatetic life. My suspicion is that his relationship with Sarah will continue to be on his terms, just as his relationship with everyone is on his terms. But my bet is Sarah will be just fine with that. She has her own life, and she also feels guilty about what a jerk she was to Arlo when they were growing up. She’s mostly glad that they’re in some sort of touch, and that Arlo himself is doing okay. 

PB I like how you don’t refer to Arlo as being “on the spectrum,” but he does have dyslexia and he’s good at math. I appreciate the idea of neural diversity and totally understand that people do have abilities and disabilities, but sometimes pathologizing the vast differences humans exhibit can in itself be a problem. I tried to look up the trial drug “Zenithican” and realize you changed the name, I’m sure for legal reasons, which makes me irritated with big pharma. But I wondered how you came up with the name Zenithican. I feel it has some meaning in itself, as a choice for the name of the drug trial. 

JH I’m not a clinician, so it’s not for me to say, but I don’t see Arlo as being on the spectrum. Yes, he has dyslexia and he’s good at math, but I see him more as a kid who was raised by his neglectful hippie-ish mother and whose natural abilities, while significant, were different from the natural abilities that his sister had and that his father valued. And then his father goes off and loses his mental functions and no longer has the abilities that he has always valued, and that made him who he was. 

To me, one of the most poignant, heartbreaking moments in this novel comes when Arlo is imagining that the experimental drug that he’s invested in will reverse the course of his father’s disease. Here’s the passage: 

Dawn was ascending; daybreak would be coming soon. Maybe the Zenithican would save [Arlo’s] father. Then his father would appreciate him. But his father had never appreciated him, and if he made his father better, his father would go back to not appreciating him.

That, in a nutshell, is Arlo’s dilemma. It’s his grandiosity and insecurity, his resentment and neediness, all distilled. 

I wanted to make up the name for the experimental drug Arlo gives his father because I didn’t want to be beholden to the trajectory of actual Alzheimer’s drugs and the specifics of their clinical trials. I originally called the drug Zenithia, but then I discovered that Zenithia is the name of a sky castle in a popular video game series, so I switched it to Zenithican. I like the idea of Zenith being the root of the drug name, both because it captures Arlo’s own sense of (and perhaps delusions of) grandeur, and also because so much of Arlo’s relationship with Spence surrounded Spence’s trying to build Arlo’s vocabulary. Years later, Arlo still has that list of words his father taught him. I imagine “zenith” is on that list. 

PB As sad as this book is, I feel, as in your other novels, that ultimately you are celebrating the power of love, the power of family, and the beauty of life, even as every day the world and its people die and disappear. Memory is the ultimate act of love. 

JH Yes, readers and reviewers of my work often say that as tough as things are for my characters, my novels feel hopeful. But as a fiction writer, I don’t aspire to be hopeful or not hopeful, to be celebratory or not celebratory, to say anything about love or family broadly speaking. I tell my MFA students, and I believe this for my own work, that fiction is always about using the particular to get at the general but that the way to do this is not to think about the general. I’m focused only on my own characters, on being as true to them as I can be in all their complexity. I do think I’m a hopeful person, so maybe that comes out in my work, but I think if you take five to ten years to write a novel, as I generally do, and if you’re writing, as I often do, about entire lifetimes, then there’s a lot of beauty and love and humor to explore, even as there’s also a lot of pain. 

PB You teach fiction writing at Brooklyn College’s MFA program. Do you assign essays on the craft of writing fiction, or longer works about craft? 

JH We read a few essays on craft, among them James Wood’s chapter on free indirect style in How Fiction Works and a few of the essays in Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House. Graywolf has a series of short “Art Of” craft books, so we read Joan Silber’s The Art of Time in Fiction. But the vast preponderance of our reading is short stories. We read seven to ten stories a week, and we go topic by topic. One week we talk about point of view. The next week we talk about objects in fiction. The next week we talk about plot. The next week we talk about dialogue. The next week we talk about flashback and flash-forward. The next week we talk about child narration. We do a deep dive into the text. In our week on dialogue, for instance, we spend a lot of time discussing dialogue tags, as well as actual dialogue versus summarized dialogue and the effect of alternating the two.

Morningside Heights is available for purchase here.

Paula Bomer is the author of the novels, Tante Eva and Nine Months, along with the story collections Baby and Inside Madeleine, and the essay collection Mystery and Mortality. Her writing has appeared in Mississippi Review, Open City, Fiction, New York Tyrant, NewYork Magazine, LA Review of Books, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn.

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