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Berkshires as Backdrop: Why Joshua Henkin Set The World Without You in Lenox

Rural Intelligence ArtsWhether or not you think of the Berkshires as New York City’s sixth borough as some wags do, you have no doubt sat next to a family like the fictional Frankels on the lawn at Tanglewood or stood on line with them at Guido’s. In Joshua Henkin’s new novel, The World Without You (Pantheon; $25.95), the Frankels are brainy, secular Jews who eschew designer labels and status symbols except when it comes to education—there are pointed references in the novel to Bowdoin, Columbia, Princeton, Wesleyan, and Yale. This well-wrought, carefully detailed saga chronicles a crisis in the lives of Marilyn and David, who have been summering in Lenox for 40 years, and their four adult children as they gather for the 4th of July weekend in 2005. One of the climatic Rural Intelligence Artsscenes takes place during a James Taylor concert at Tanglewood and, presumably, the cover image is meant to make you think of the fireworks over the Stockbridge Bowl as well as the shock-and-awe bombings in Iraq, where the Frankels’ son, Leo, was killed in 2004. RI‘s Dan Shaw talked to Joshua Henkin (above), who directs the MFA fiction writing program at Brooklyn College, about why he set his novel in Lenox.

The Wall Street Journal recently described your novel as really being about New York, but almost all of it takes place in the Berkshires

Well, that Wall Street Journal column is about New York so they had to find an angle. But obviously it is very deeply a Berkshire book even though Marilyn and David live on the Upper West Side. There is a line in the book when Marilyn remembers David convincing her to buy the house because it is the Massachusetts outpost of the Upper West Side. If you grew up on the Upper West Side the way I did, then there is a way you feel that the Berkshires is your long lost geographic cousin.

It’s interesting that the memorial service for Leo is held at the Lenox Community Center and not in New York City.

One of the things I was interested in was context. It seemed to me that it would be interesting to set a book in the Berkshires with the war in Iraq as a backdrop because whatever you think of the politics of the Iraq War, what happened in Iraq was horrible. It seems to me the Berkshires is the kind of place that was created to erase all traces of horror. What is it like to be grieving at a geographic and cultural remove? What’s it like to be grieving on July 4th when everyone else is celebrating? The Frankels are a family that doesn’t know anyone else who has lost a child in the war so they have no one to commiserate with.  The book is very much not a war novel or a political novel. It’s a family drama.

Did you intentionally choose a WASPy New England milieu for this secular Jewish family with one daughter who has become ultra Orthodox?

When I walk through the streets of Great Barrington in the summer, it doesn’t feel very WASPy.

The story of Leo is eerily similar to the story of Daniel Pearl, the American journalist who was executed in Pakistan in 2002. Did you know that Pearl had worked at the Berkshire Eagle?

I did not know until this very second that Daniel Pearl worked for the Berkshire Eagle! My agent said to me about eight months ago, “What are you going to say when people ask you about Daniel Pearl?” and I said, No one is going to ask me. I did not set out consciously to write a roman a clef about Daniel Pearl. I just wrote an essay for The Daily Beast called The Inadvertent Roman A Clef.

So what does it mean to find out that he had lived and worked in the Berkshires?

It feels weird and creepy but so consistent with so many other things. For example, Michael Kelly—who was at The Washington Post, The New Republic and The Atlantic—was the first journalist who was killed in Iraq and someone told me a few months ago that he had three older sisters, just like Leo. I believe in literary prescience: you write something and then it happens.

Why is a country house a good backdrop for a family drama?

I think the setting was important because the house had a history for the family—they had been going there for 40 years, and they had moved around New York and even lived briefly in Westchester before moving back to the city. I was very aware of the idea of confined time and space, and my last novel, Matrimony, took place over 20 years and many locales, and I think of novels like relationships—that one is the rebound for the previous one.  If you put people in a country house, there is less escape than if they’re in Manhattan.  It needed a kind of claustrophobia to explore the things that I wanted to explore.

I like how you used the geography so precisely, having one sister go Rollerblading down Route 183 and skinny-dipping in the Stockbridge Bowl as well as describing the local landmarks on a drive from Lenox to Great Barrington.

A writer has to get things right. You want details that feel like they are important to the texture of the novel because the book is told from different points of view and you want to feel that it’s filtered through different characters, not just the writer. You want to write in such a way that the place comes to life. I wanted to make sure you knew it was taking place in the Berkshires and not, say, California. But it is tricky, too, because you don’t want your book to feel like it was written by someone who works for Mapquest.

The World Without You by Joshua Henkin.
(Pantheon Books; $25.95)
Click here to order from a local Independent Bookseller.

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Posted by Dan Shaw on 07/18/12 at 04:39 AM • Permalink