Henkin, Joshua

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Henkin, Joshua

PERSONAL:

Born in New York, NY; son of Louis Henkin (a human rights scholar); children: two. Education: Harvard University, B.A., 1987; University of Michigan, M.F.A., 1993.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Brooklyn, NY. Agent—Lisa Bankoff, International Creative Management, 825 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10019. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER:

Fiction reader for a magazine in San Francisco, CA, during the late 1980s; Tikkun magazine, assistant editor, 1987-89; teacher of independent creative writing classes; freelance writer, c. 1993—; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, instructor in creative writing, beginning 1997; Unterberg Poetry Center, instructor in fiction writing, 1999—; Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, instructor in creative writing.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Thomas Hoopes Prize, 1987; PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, 1992; Playboy Fiction Prize, 1992; Roy W. Cowden Award in Creative Writing, 1992; Avery and Jules Hopwood Award for essay, and for short story, both 1992, and for novel, 1993; James Fellowship for the Novel-in-Progress, Heekin Group Foundation, 1996; Los Angeles Times Notable Book of the Year, 1997; National Book Sense Pick, 2007; New York Times Notable Book, 2007 for Matrimony; grants from Michigan Council of Arts and Sarah Lawrence College.

WRITINGS:

Swimming across the Hudson (novel), Putnam (New York, NY), 1997.

Matrimony, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2007.

Contributor of fiction and articles to periodicals, including Mother Jones, New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, Yale Review, Boulevard, Seattle Review, Crescent Review, Doubletake, Northern American Review, Witness, and Southern Review.

SIDELIGHTS:

Joshua Henkin was born in New York City and had graduated from Harvard University—where he studied political theory—before he decided to try his hand at fiction. He dreamed of being a writer as a child, but, according to Curt Schleier in the Detroit News, it was "like some kids want to be in the NBA [National Basketball Association] or walk on the moon. It was a far-off fantasy rather than something to which he seriously aspired." After graduation, however, he moved to San Francisco, California, where he read fiction submissions for a magazine. This experience convinced him that whatever he created would be at least as good if not better than many of the stories that came across his desk. As he told Schleier: "I thought if so many people were willing to fail, I ought to be willing to fail." With an eye toward a career in writing, Henkin obtained his master's degree in fine arts with an emphasis in creative writing from the University of Michigan in 1993.

Henkin contributed short stories and essays to magazines before his first novel, the 1997 release Swimming across the Hudson, was published. Swimming across the Hudson takes its title, as Laura Berman observed in another Detroit News article, from the fact that its protagonist, Ben, "grows up in Manhattan, wistfully imagining himself escaping to a rawer, more sexually charged existence across the river in New Jersey, the homeland of [rock musician] Bruce Springsteen." Ben was adopted, as was his brother Jonathan, at birth by a traditional yet liberal Jewish couple. They have always told Ben that his birth mother was Jewish as well, but when Ben is a thirty-year-old teacher living in San Francisco, his birth mother contacts him, wanting to meet him. His adoptive parents reveal that they've lied about her Jewishness, and meeting her throws Ben into questioning his identity, particularly that part of his identity that is Jewish. His brother, who is gay, expresses no curiosity about his own birth mother, so Ben pretends to be Jonathan in order to find out who she is.

Swimming across the Hudson was met with mixed, though mostly positive reviews. Thomas Fields-Meyer, writing in People, hailed it as "a first novel of unusual grace and resonance," while Dwight Garner in the New York Times Book Review similarly noted that "it is to Mr. Henkin's credit that he juggles … multiple quandaries with grace." Garner did, however, maintain that the novel "does have some fairly serious problems," but concluded that a reader finishes Swimming across the Hudson "feeling grateful for Mr. Henkin's poise and seriousness of purpose."

Henkin has received attention not only for Swimming across the Hudson but for his essay in the New York Times discussing the problems he has faced as a debut novelist. Like many authors in his shoes, and particularly writers of literary fiction, he received no help publicizing his novel from its publisher. He decided to make his own efforts to boost the sales of Swimming across the Hudson. Henkin recalled in the New York Times: "I called the bookstores and set up the readings. I made the travel arrangements. I paid all my expenses. I went to the copy shop and had a postcard made, then asked my friends to send me their address books so I could contact people in the cities where I would be touring." His approach worked, and Swimming across the Hudson sold well enough to demand two reprintings. Henkin concluded his essay, however, by lamenting the need for self-promotion: "In today's market, writers can't just be writers. They have to be performers and publicists as well. The image of the lonely writer honing his or her art is fast becoming outdated. What's demanded instead is something else: a hook, a smile and a shoeshine."

Henkin's next novel, Matrimony, takes a look at the long-term relationship between a man and a woman, from inception through wedding vows and all of the various stages of the marriage that come after saying "I do." The story begins with the pair meeting during college. Julian Wainwright is an intelligent aspiring writer, and Mia Mendelsohn a beautiful young woman whom he first bumps into in the laundry room at their mutual school, the liberal arts-minded Graymont College, which is located in Massachusetts. The two are very different from each other at first glance. A WASP from New York City, Julian is the son of an investment banker. When he was thirteen years old, he saw John Cheever on the steps of the 92nd Street Y and asked him for his autograph, an incident that he cites as the ultimate motivator in his own desire to become a writer. Mia, in contrast, was raised Jewish, growing up in a somewhat liberal family in Montreal, Canada. Her mother was something of an academic before devoting herself to her family, and her father teaches physics at McGill University. Mia has gone through a number of phases, including a strong interest in her religion that had her coaxing her family toward keeping a kosher house. In addition, Julian and Mia share a friend, Carter Heinz, who also wants to become a novelist, and who spends his free time cleaning dorm bathrooms in order to pay his way through school.

Matrimony is peppered with a collection of unique characters, the people with whom Julian and Mia share their lives at different phases. Professor Stephen Chesterfield stands out in particular, as one of Julian's writing professors. Chesterfield teaches by way of maxims, drilling his students in numerous sayings that are designed to serve as guidelines for their work. He also is a stickler for word usage, and discourages the careless misuse of terms that have become the norm in casual society, such as using the word "workshop" as a verb instead of merely a noun. In addition, he praises the proper use of punctuation, rewarding the accurate use of semi-colons with "as." In this way, the book not only serves as a close look and analysis of a marriage as it progresses through a number of stages, but it also teaches writing and self-editing, and how to apply various skills to the craft as a whole. Jennifer Egan, writing in the New York Times Book Review, commented that "for all Henkin's ingenuity at bringing commitment, love and other potentially numbing topics freshly to life, he fails to animate Julian's writing struggles above the familiar." Robin Nesbitt, writing for Library Journal, commented that "this novel takes a good look at love, friendship, and marriage from the Reagan years to the new century."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Detroit News, June 10, 1997, Laura Berman, review of Swimming across the Hudson; September 5, 1997, Curt Schleier, author interview.

Library Journal, July 1, 2007, Robin Nesbitt, review of Matrimony, p. 78.

New York Times, July 5, 1997, Joshua Henkin, essay on writing.

New York Times Book Review, April 27, 1997, Dwight Garner, review of Swimming across the Hudson, p. 17; October 28, 2007, Jennifer Egan, "Domesticities," p. 8.

People, May 19, 1997, Thomas Fields-Meyer, review of Swimming across the Hudson, p. 42.

Washington Post, April 13, 1997, review of Swimming across the Hudson.

ONLINE

Joshua Henkin Home Page,http://www.joshuahenkin.com (November 6, 2008).