In early 2020, I was delighted to receive an ARC (Advanced Reading Copy) of MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS, written by Joshua Henkin, one of my favorite authors. The plan was to publish this Q&A in June 2020 when the book was to be released. Not only was the book postponed until June 2021 because of COVID-19 but I got COVID; and that’s when I got to read the book. It became both my medicine and my best friend, transporting me back to a New York I loved, in a story that made me laugh even as it tugged at my heartstrings.
In 2006, Spence Steiner, a wunderkind in Columbia’s English department, is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, his wife forced to return his book advance. The changing dynamics chip away at his career, children and marriage. The transformation of Pru Steiner from wife and lover, to caretaker, taking us on an extraordinary and insightful ride. “A stunning achievement… MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS brilliantly conveys the complexities of a New York City Family in this human, compulsively readable tale.” (Publisher’s Weekly).
Splash Magazines Worldwide had the opportunity to talk with the prolific and talented author, Joshua Henkin:
What do you feel led you to this story? Having read and loved your other books, I’m curious to know what it is about ‘marriage’ that compels you?
Joshua Henkin: This is probably my most autobiographical novel to date. Like Spence, my father was a professor at Columbia, and he, too, developed dementia, though much later in life. As for marriage, I’m interested in drawing characters over the long haul, and marriage—at least ideally—is a long-haul enterprise. And marriage is about desire, and desire is the lifeblood of fiction.
It has been said that Joshua Henkin is expert at “drawing people.” Can you tell us about that?
Fiction writers are gossips at heart. You have to be curious, to be endlessly interested in other human beings. Apparently, when I was a toddler I made my mother pick me up so I could look into every store window and see what was going on inside. So in my case it’s pretty hard-wired.
How does being Jewish, and Judaism, inspire your work?
My paternal grandfather was an Orthodox Rabbi who lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for fifty years and never learned to speak English. My father was an Orthodox Jew, and when he was saying kaddish for his father, he held prayer services in his office at Columbia Law School. My own childhood was sufficiently suffused with Jewish ritual that when I was six or seven and we were moving the clock forward for Daylight Saving Time, I asked my parents, “Do non-Jews move their clocks forward, too?”
You teach fiction in the MFA program at Brooklyn College. Might you be able to share one writing tip or exercise you offer your students?
Revise, revise, revise. It takes me five years to write a novel, sometimes even ten. I write three thousand pages and then find the book amidst all the mess. Things have to be bad before they’re good. That’s what I remind my students.
Congratulations on The World Without You being turned into a film! It was a terrific read. Tell us about the experience of translating from page to screen?
John Le Carre famously said that having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes, but I don’t agree. Film is a different medium, and since I wasn’t involved in the film adaptation of The World Without You, I enjoyed watching things from afar. I thought the acting in the movie was very strong. And my family went out to L.A. for the premiere, which was especially fun for my teenage daughters, who enjoyed meeting the cast and getting to walk down the red carpet!
Is there a message you’d like your readers to take-away after reading Morningside Heights?
I’m not a messages kind of guy. Messages are for rabbis, priests, philosophers, and politicians. I’m a stories kind of guy. I spend my time trying to create complex characters and sending them out into the world to get into trouble.
Joshua Henkin is the author of the novels SWIMMING ACROSS THE HUDSON, a Los Angeles Times Notable Book; MATRIMONY, an Indie Next Selection and a New York Times Notable Book ; and THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU, which was an Indie Next Selection and was named an Editors’ Choice Book by The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune and was the winner of the 2012 Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American Fiction and a finalist for the 2012 National Jewish Book Award. The film version of The World Without You (http://www.Theworldwithoutyou.com) was released in 2020. Joshua’s new novel, MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS, is published by Pantheon – June 2021. He directs and teaches in the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College.
Photo Credit: Michael Lionstar