Author Joshua Henkin is on a virtual book tour in support of his new book, Matrimony, which hits shelves of discerning bookstores everywhere today. He’ll be guest posting here at BGB today and tomorrow. Henkin also wrote the novel Swimming Across the Hudson. Here’s today’s guest post:
So it’s starting again—book tour (see “Events” at my website), interviews, all the things a writer needs to do to promote his book. Some writers mind this, but I don’t. I’m a social person, and writing is a solitary pursuit. That’s why I try to create compelling characters. They’re the ones I have to hang out with for years at a time
Matrimony, which comes out today, is about the twenty-year history of a marriage—what happens when a couple meet in college (he’s a Wasp from New York City, an aspiring novelist; she’s Jewish, from Montreal) and end up marrying earlier than they expected and the ways that their choices (faithlessness, failed ambition, the decision whether to have a child) and things out of their control (health and sickness, the death of a parent) test the endurance of their relationship.
I’ve done a bunch of interviews already, and I’m beginning to notice a recurring question. Is it hard/how do you feel about/does it take balls to write from a female point of view? What the interviewer is referring to is the fact that my novel is told first in alternating points of view from the perspective of my two protagonists, Julian and Mia, and then, as the book goes on, from both their points of view, moving from one to the other, sometimes in the course of a single paragraph.
The answer is: No, it doesn’t take balls, or no more balls than it takes to write fiction in general, which seems to me to involve some weird cocktail of balls, obtuseness, and obscene hope.
Why should a man’s writing from a woman’s point of view be such a hard thing (Flaubert seemed to do it pretty well in Madame Bovary), or any harder than writing from any other point of view, which is to say it’s hard as hell, but then nothing in fiction is easy. I’ve written from a woman’s point of view before, and it wasn’t a matter of going into my “female” mode any more (or less) than it’s a matter of going into my rich person’s mode when writing about the wealthy, my doddering mode when writing about the elderly, or my asshole mode when writing about an asshole. Yet it’s gender (probably along with race) that fascinates people most, and that makes them most anxious. I’ve had people actually say to me, “Do you think it’s allowed for a man to write from a woman’s point of view?” Allowed? Anything’s allowed if you do it right. That’s the pleasure (and the burden) of fiction.
In my writing classes (I teach undergraduates and MFA students at Sarah Lawrence College and MFA students at Brooklyn College), when someone writes from the point of view of the other gender, a good deal of discussion usually ensues about whether the character sounds believably male or believably female. And while this discussion is far from pointless (believability is extremely important in fiction), it’s no more relevant in the case of gender than it is in the case of anything else. It’s hard to get your characters right. It takes years of work. Even if the novel in question is autobiographical, the writer is presumably writing about more than one character, so there are always going to be characters who aren’t the writer. For me, fiction—the writing of it, the reading of it—is about getting outside your own experience. That’s why fiction writers are universalists at heart. They believe it’s possible to communicate what it’s like to be someone else. Otherwise, the enterprise is doomed to failure.