CommitmentNow.com: Matrimony is a book about relationships and their complexities. There is the relationship between Julian and Mia; between Julian and his college friend Carter; between Carter and Pilar; between Mia and her younger sister Olivia; between Mia and her parents; and between Julia and his parents. As an author, was it difficult to delve into so many complex relationships?
Joshua Henkin: It was certainly a challenge, but a worthwhile one. For me, fiction is most centrally about letting the reader get to know your characters so that you feel like you know them as well as you know the real people in your life. Matrimony is a novel about many things— marriage, friendship, infidelity, sibling relationships, tensions between the generations, how things change over the years—and in order to do that it was important for me to delve into a lot of different relationships.
CommitmentNow.com: Matrimony is organized around place – each section of the book takes place in a different location. Why did you structure Matrimony that way and how does each location impact Julian and Mia’s relationship?
Josh: I think where you live has a big impact on who you are and what you do; your environment is crucial. I also wanted to write about places I know, and like Julian and Mia, I’ve lived in a lot of college towns. For them, being in college towns really helps give us a sense of their lives—Mia is in graduate school studying psychology, and Julian, though not in graduate school, often lives the life of a graduate student. And then, in the end, when they move to New York, it marks a kind of maturation for them; they’re moving on, growing up. Also, on a purely practical level, one of the biggest challenges of writing Matrimony was figuring out how to write about such a long period of time (twenty years) without turning the book into a boring chronology of she did this and then she did that. I had to figure out what to include and what to skip. There are some significant time jumps in the book, and one of the ways to mark those time jumps is by using place to mark change. The characters are eighteen when they live here, they’re twenty-five when they live there, they’re thirty-five when they live there, etc.
CommitmentNow.com: Mia and Julia’s decision to get married is prompted by her mother’s breast cancer, and then other health concerns prompt them to consider starting a family. How do these decisions affect your characters?
Josh: I have a friend who, years ago, wasn’t sure whether he wanted to marry his girlfriend, and then his father got sick and was dying, and my friend decided to get married. I’m not saying whether that’s a good or bad thing, but I think it’s a fairly common phenomenon. Julian, in particular, can be passive at times, and so it’s not surprising that it’s big events that prod him (and maybe a lot of characters in general) into action. And there’s the fact, too, that novels need to have things happen—not always big things, but things that are big enough so that the reader can see the character in moments of crisis and change.
CommitmentNow.com: Money – its abundance or lack - plays a central role in many of the relationships in this book. Do you think money impacts most relationships in some way?
Josh: It’s hard to generalize, but my sense is it often does. One of the things that interested me in writing Matrimony was that the book is about a relationship (about a number of relationships, in fact) that starts in college and continues after college, and it’s that continuing after college that can be most interesting and conflict-ridden. I’ve been out of college for more than twenty years now, and I’m struck by the number of my classmates who are quite different from what they were like in college, but similar to what they were like before college, and what their parents are like. I think another way of putting this is that college is a time for many people to experiment and it’s also the great equalizer. Not that there aren’t clear economic differences among the students, but you’re still taking the same classes and living in the same dorms. But then you graduate and people’s different economic situations and backgrounds start to become more prominent. Where do you live? What kind of job do you have? Whom do you marry? In Matrimony, the issue of money is most central in Julian and Carter’s relationship. It’s easiest for them to be friends when they’re still in college (though even then there are tensions between them). After college, the economic differences start to become more prominent.
CommitmentNow.com: More than anything, Julian wants to be a writer. In what way, if any, do Julian’s experiences mirror your own?
Josh: Like Julian, I’m a fiction writer; like Julian, I grew up in New York City; and like Julian, my name starts with a “J.” But that’s where the similarities end. I’ve been a student in a quite a number of fiction-writing workshops and I’ve now taught such workshops for close to twenty years, so I’m certainly familiar with the world of writing that the book describes. But temperamentally and culturally, I’m quite different from Julian. In a lot of ways, I’m much more similar to Mia. She’s Jewish and I’m Jewish; she’s the child of a professor and I’m the child of a professor. There are some key differences between her and me (gender being just one of them) but overall, I’d say I’m more similar to her than I am to Julian.
CommitmentNow.com: Where can we learn more about your writing?
Josh: One good way is to go to my website, http://www.joshuahenkin.com. My first novel, Swimming Across the Hudson, is out of print but available at many libraries. And my next novel, The World Without You, will be published by Pantheon in 2012. It takes place over a single July 4th weekend, and it focuses on a family reunion. Three adult sisters, in their late thirties, return with their spouses/partners and their parents, the occasion for which is the anniversary of the brother’s death; he was a journalist killed in Iraq, and when he died he left a wife and a two-year-old son. The widow and the son return to the reunion as well, and the widow, meanwhile, has started to move on; she has a new boyfriend. A lot of other things happen over the course of the weekend, but that’s the gist of it.