The World Without You is a family drama set during the course of the Fourth of July weekend in 2005. The Frankel family congregates at their home in the Berkshires, but the holiday's mood is somber: it has been one year since son Leo, a journalist, was killed while on assignment in Iraq. PW talked with author Joshua Henkin about novels with big casts, compressing time, and Tolstoy.
Why do we find family dramas so compelling?
Because family is what we start with and what we end with. They’re the first people we know and, if we’re lucky, they’re the people who surround us when we die. Also, fiction needs conflict, and what better way to produce conflict than to put a family around a dinner table and see what they say to each other. What Tolstoy said about happy and unhappy families? He was right.
You have nine principal characters. How did you manage to give space to so many voices and keep them from interrupting the narrative and each other?
I think it has to do with finding the book’s spine. If you have a solid spine, then there’s room for a lot of nerves shooting out from it, but if you don’t have a solid spine then all you have are a lot of nerves floating around out there. In this book, the two central events—Leo’s death in Iraq and Marilyn and David’s impending separation—form the book’s spine and allow for this multiplicity of voices.
Why did you pick the Berkshires on the Fourth of July, 2005 as your setting?
This will sound counterintuitive, but I thought it was the perfect setting for a novel about a journalist killed in the Iraq War. I was interested in the contrast between war in the Middle East and the rarefied, cosseted life of the Berkshires. The Frankels are privileged. The kids went to Yale and Princeton and Wesleyan; the family is made up of doctors and lawyers and future Nobel laureates and celebrity chefs. These are people with strong political opinions, but the war in Iraq remained an abstraction to them until it touched them in the most horrific way imaginable. What is it like to experience that horror in the Berkshires, whose very purpose, it can seem, is to eradicate all trace of horror? What is it like to mourn when the rest of the town—the rest of the country—is celebrating?
What was the greatest challenge in writing the book?
There were two principal challenges. The first was how to write in compressed time. You’re trying to capture whole lives over the course of seventy-two hours, and you need to rely on flashback without impeding the forward movement of the book. The second has to do with what I said before about the book’s spine. The Frankels are quite varied geographically (the members hail from Berkeley to Jerusalem and everywhere in between), politically (there are a couple of Bush supporters, as well as two characters who went down to Florida to protest the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore), religiously (from gentile to secular Jew to Orthodox Jew), and—perhaps most important—temperamentally. Leo’s death helps provide the book’s spine, but his siblings and parents and widow have lives that are separate from him, too. There’s focus, and then there’s focus. You don’t want to put your characters in a vise grip.
What are you reading now?
I’m always reading several books at once. I’m reading Tom McNeal’s first novel Goodnight, Nebraska because I so loved his second novel To Be Sung Underwater. I’m reading Nell Freudenberger’s The Newlyweds and Richard Ford’s Canada. I’ve been reading the essays in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead, and I’ve been rereading Maile Meloy’s story collection Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It. I love that collection—that first story, “Travis, B.,” is pretty much a perfect story as far as I’m concerned. And I’m reading a draft of a novel by one of my MFA students. I’m never lacking for something to read—my graduate students make sure of it!