Joshua Henkin doesn’t like to think about themes—at least, not while writing. At Brooklyn College, where he directs the MFA program in fiction (and where the magazine is based), Henkin tells students that themes, as abstractions, can draw writers away from the specifics of a narrative, resulting in distortions of character and plot.
Still, there are plenty of themes in Henkin’s new novel, Morningside Heights: family, class, losing a loved one, losing a self. It’s a testament to what he teaches, that his own preoccupations come across whether consciously engaged or not.
Morningside Heights centers on Professor Spence Robin’s battle with early onset Alzheimer’s disease and follows his family members—notably Pru, his wife, and Arlo, his son from a prior marriage—whose relationships to the man and his legacy shift profoundly upon his diagnosis. With its impeccable plotting, well-drawn characters, and balanced deployment of wit and feeling, the novel offers all the pleasures promised by Henkin’s rigorous narrative attention—in aggregate: a pleasure of precision. Its story, meanwhile, gestures at the opposite; as Spence’s memory declines, what persists in his mind is neither the plot of his life nor the characters who’ve shaped it. What holds on, what shines through, are those non-narrative particulars that point toward the general—the son’s ukulele, conjured by the record player; stray bits of language (“bunny ears”), affixed to old routines (shoelace-tying).
This tension—between the novel’s precise narrative style and the anti-narrative trajectory of its subject matter (memory loss)—is a poignant one, evoking on a formal level the futile insistence that arises through Pru and Arlo’s grief.
That was my reading, anyway. Henkin, of course, resists such abstraction—”The death of a [fiction] writer,” he calls it below. The rest of our discussion leans concrete, with Henkin offering insight into his extensive revision process, the considerations that guide his craft and the influence of his upbringing on his most personal novel yet.
This interview was conducted over the phone in 2020 and via email in 2021. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jivin Misra: What inspired Morningside Heights?
Joshua Henkin: This is my most autobiographical book to date. Like Spence, my father was a professor at Columbia who got Alzheimer’s, although much later than Spence did, in his late 80s. And Pru is, to a lesser extent, inspired by my mother.
The initial spark was that, when my father was sick, my mother started going to a class for caregivers at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, which I found kind of odd and poignant. My mother is very much not the consorting-with-strangers kind of person. It felt illustrative of how bad things had gotten for her, that she’d go to a class like that for help.
JM: What was the writing process like?
JH: The novel started as a long short story, set almost entirely at the JCC. It was mostly about Pru’s friendship with a character named Eden, who’s no longer in the novel. There were various other characters in the class, including Walter, who ends up being a fairly big character in the book—but it was really a story about people who meet under such circumstances.
JM: Which is not at all what it’s about today.
JH: After finishing about 100 pages of the story draft, I realized I needed to write about Pru and Spence, and about their family. And I realized the very long short story was really a novel. The JCC class stayed in until around the fifth or sixth year of writing—but all that remains now is Walter, whom I got into the book without the JCC.
JM: How long did it take to write? And what were your major hurdles in revision?
JH: It took me seven years to write the book, and I probably wrote about 3,000 pages. And I think the reason for that was I was trying to figure out the structure. I wrote a lot of scenes that were doing the same thing—scene after scene after scene illustrating Spence’s forgetfulness. And it made Pru seem kind of obtuse. Like, doesn’t she realize what’s going on? And that kind of dramatic irony does not interest me—waiting until page 200 for the characters to figure out what the reader knew on page 10. So the novel telescopes forward early, compressing the moment leading up to the diagnosis.
JM: It’s interesting that the novel begins from Pru’s perspective.
JH: I wasn’t interested in writing a novel that’s primarily in Spence’s point of view while he declines. You can do a good job of showing a mind in decline, and it’s been done, but that’s what Frank Conroy calls abject naturalism. It’s reality for reality’s sake, and that’s not very interesting to me. Writing this book from the point of view of a declining Spence doesn’t offer a lot in terms of agency. I was more interested in what the disease might do to the people who have a relationship with Spence, who love Spence.
JM: Can you elaborate on why?
JH: I think the real struggle for a book like this—unless we’re talking about a speculative book in which Alzheimer’s is miraculously cured—is that it’s a bit like rolling a ball down a hill. You know what’s going to happen. It’s going to fall. You can show how sad it is, but of course it’s sad. So I needed the other characters to be important.
JM: Like Arlo.
JH: While Pru is the fulcrum of the book, Arlo also has the traits of a main character. He’s the fish out of water, the live wire, the one producing the tension.
Arlo occurred to me in an early draft. I wasn’t interested in him until I started writing, and then everything with him just took off. But he also raised some big structural problems because he’s absent for much of the book, and much of the lives of these other characters. He needed to be able to appear and disappear while still feeling important. I had a lot of trouble nailing down his comings and goings. Once I figured out how to do it, it all seemed kind of obvious. But then that’s always the case. Things seem simple in retrospect. In the moment of trying to figure them out, they’re very hard!
It was also key for me to see Walter as a love interest for Pru, and my resistance to that had to do with my own family. My mother, to this day, is extremely loyal to my father, who’s been dead for ten years now. I think, in the end, Pru remains incredibly loyal to Spence. But I was afraid to embrace the possibility of Walter.
JM: So you felt Walter’s presence created necessary tension amid the caretaking.
JH: Absolutely. In some ways, I think he’s the most important character in terms of Pru’s agency. She’s someone who’s very capable in her own life but who gave up a lot by marrying young. A lot of her identity is wrapped up in her husband’s fame, and to have the source of that fame be totally taken away… I needed Pru to make a choice, to hide things, to be transgressive. Walter was key for that.
JM: Time often moves quickly in this novel, in a way that’s almost reminiscent of a short story.
JH: That’s true. The novel starts with Pru as a kid, then, in about 25 pages, gets her to the point of dropping out of graduate school, marrying Spence, and having a baby.
I tend toward compression in general. That’s just how I write. But it felt especially important here. With multiple narratives, it’s hard to maintain a sense of tension and momentum unless you compress, so I really wanted to sketch in the highlights of the past except for the initial Arlo section. That’s where there’s more lingering in terms of time.
JM: Time also lingers less here on the more monumental occasions of life—births, weddings, deaths.
JH: I tend to think that the smaller moments are more revealing. I agree with James Salter, who said, “Life is weather. Life is meals.” Because the larger moments come loaded with symbolism and therefore could potentially be prefabricated. That means it’s harder to do something interesting with them than with, say, a guy who’s in the early stages of his dementia trying to catch a mouse with his own two hands.
JM: The narrative moves nonlinearly, like memory. Though no character guides us from scene to scene, I wonder if you see the form in conversation with the subject matter.
JH: The book is very deeply about time and memory, and the structure reinforces that. I wasn’t thinking about that consciously as I was writing, but I’m a writer who thinks about time a lot in general. I think that has to do with my Jewish upbringing. So much of my childhood was about ritual, repetition, time.
JM: Can you say more about your family background and its influence on this book?
JH: My mother grew up in a relatively secular Jewish home. My father grew up an Orthodox Jew and was basically some version of that until the day he died, but he was very private about it. He lived in a bifurcated world at work. The afternoon service in Judaism is called mincha. He’d have ten men come for a mincha minyan in his office every day, but most of the school probably didn’t even know he was observant.
So the book reverses what was true in my family. Pru’s background is more Orthodox, Spence’s more secular.
JM: I appreciated the humor throughout. Not just because jokes are great but also because they reveal personality. And that felt poignant in relation to Spence’s loss of self.
JH: In both fiction and life, humor is really important to me. You want variation. You want that on the sentence level, for sure—different cadences—but you want it on the macro level, too. If every scene in a book is sad, it stops being sad. So it’s not just humor that’s important; tonal modulations are just as important. But, for me, it’s not an aesthetic strategy. It’s just an instinctive way of being in the world, where it seems to me that humor and sadness are always enmeshed.
JM: Your writing process, as I understand, involves a kind of narrative tunnel vision; in Morningside Heights, I felt this resulted in a poignant friction between style and subject. The anti-narrative process of memory loss is resisted by the narration, reflecting, on a formal level, the futile insistence at the heart of Pru and Arlo’s grief. To what extent was this intentional?
JH: Flannery O’Connor once said that a fiction writer can’t do without a certain measure of stupidity. Some of us come by it naturally; others cultivate it. What you’re saying is certainly very interesting, but it wasn’t on my mind when I was writing the novel.
JM: Is there ever a point—a fifth or sixth draft, perhaps—when you consciously consider these more abstract aesthetic questions? Do you address them in revision?
JH: Nope, never. I mean, aesthetic questions, absolutely! Everything is an aesthetic question in fiction. But these more abstract notions about theme—no. They’re the death of a fiction writer, at least a fiction writer like me. Of course, there are themes in any good novel, but they come in subconsciously through the back door. Themes are for the critic to perseverate over. From the perspective of the novelist, they’re for sixth-grade book reports.
I don’t mean to suggest that everything I do is subconscious. I make thousands of conscious decisions, especially in revision. But it’s a very specific kind of conscious decision-making. Is the pacing of the chapter right? Is this scene informing character? Is this line more effective as actual dialogue or as summarized dialogue? Do I want to end the sentence on a hard consonant or a soft consonant? Does the light slash through the room or does it ribbon through the room? As I tell my MFA students, I’ve wasted years of my life switching dialogue tags back and forth. But if you care about getting the book right, it’s not a waste. My tunnel vision is on my characters, which means it’s also on the narrative, because narrative is how you explore character, and it’s also on language, because language is all a writer has.
JM: What are you working on now?
JH: I’ve been working on a short story collection where each story takes place in a different neighborhood in New York City, and also on a new novel that has a speculative premise, which is a departure for me! I mean, it will be recognizable as something that I wrote, but it’s a case of my venturing into new terrain, which I’m excited about.
Morningside Heights will be released June 15.