Joanna Hershon, author of A Dual Inheritance, sits down with Joshua Henkin to discuss her novel, the characters, her influences, and more!
A Conversation Between Joanna Hershon and Joshua Henkin
Joshua Henkin: A Dual Inheritance has been praised as a novel of ideas and as a book that explores big themes of class, privilege, and ethnicity. Yet one of the things that strike me most about the book is how deeply it is about character. Could you say something about the relationship between character and theme in this novel? Because it seems to me that a writer as good as you can’t think too much about theme without making her characters a whole lot more schematic than these characters are.
Joanna Hershon: While I certainly set out to address certain issues in this book, the themes evolved from the characters’ individual journeys, and how those journeys intersected or very often chafed against each other. I think I’m inherently a writer who pays close attention to characters’ interior worlds, and I’m fascinated by small gestures and a generally intimate scope. With that starting place, this book was particularly exciting because it did spiral out of the more familiar, domestic realm into the larger, global one. As I understood the characters on a deeper level with each successive draft, the themes you mention became more pronounced and articulated.
Henkin: Details magazine called A Dual Inheritance “the best book about male friendship written this young century.” Certainly many of the female characters (Rebecca and Vivi come to mind) are as vivid as the males, but the men do feel front and center in this book. On the other hand, you are a woman. This, of course, is the novelist’s task: to imagine characters who are different from herself. Is writing across gender any more of a challenge (or less of a challenge) than writing across race, class, temperament, or anything else?
Hershon: I like the way you put this—the novelist’s task is to imagine characters that are different—because it seems that readers (including me, sometimes) often expect a novel’s protagonist to be a version of the writer. And of course this expectation makes sense—all our characters come from us, they are some version (however subconscious) of ourselves—but it seems to me that we all contain multitudes of selves. For instance, the character of Ed Cantowitz: Who would have known that a short, aggressive, blue-collar-raised, financial wizard of a man (I am, as far as I know, none of these things) would be one of the most natural characters for me to inhabit? I loved writing his character, and it never felt like a stretch for me to create his point of view. I’ve always written from a male perspective as well as a female one, and this doesn’t seem particularly notable. I’ve always had close relationships with men—my father, several friends, former boyfriends, my husband, my young sons—with all of them offering up their thoughts and feelings over the years. I think writing across race and class can be trickier. I fear being presumptuous; I wish I didn’t fear this, but I do.
Henkin: A number of people have compared A Dual Inheritance to the big social novels of the nineteenth century. Were there particular novels that influenced your writing of this book, whether nineteenth-century social novels or others?
Hershon: I really was not aware of any novels influencing this one, but of course I’ve been influenced by a lifetime of reading and I do love the big sprawl of a nineteenth-century story. Favorites include Anna Karenina, The Portrait of a Lady, The Age of Innocence, and The House of Mirth.
Henkin: Significant portions of A Dual Inheritance take place before you were born and in places that, I’m guessing, you may not have spent a lot of time. Cambridge, Ethiopia, New York City, Tanzania, Haiti, Fishers Island: Did you have to do research to write about these places or are you simply very well traveled? Can you talk about the role research played in your writing of this book?
Hershon: I did a tremendous amount of research, which mostly took the form of conversation. I sought out people, asked nosy questions, and listened to their (often remarkable) stories. I ended up conducting my own crackpot anthropology project, and it was both challenging and extremely enjoyable.
Henkin: Could you talk a little about the role of coincidence in fiction generally, and in this book particularly? I’m thinking, in this instance, of the fact that Ed and Hugh, who were close friends in college, have daughters who end up in the same prep school and become close friends themselves despite not knowing of their fathers’ friendship. In lesser hands, this coincidence would seem convenient and contrived, yet I was convinced. When people say “truth is stranger than fiction,” what they’re also pointing to, whether they realize it or not, is that fiction is held to a stricter standard of truth than reality. The only standard for reality is whether it actually happened, whereas fiction has to be both plausible and convincing. Did you struggle with the coincidences in this novel?
Hershon: I understand that it might seem contrived to some readers that the daughters meet in prep school, but I feel strongly that it isn’t contrived, because it’s rooted in very real motivations that are thematically tied to the larger story. Also, in an intuitive way—at the risk of being too simplistic—it just felt right. From Hugh’s point of view, he never imagined sending any child of his to the boarding school he attended with great misery, but he chose to raise his daughter in locations with limited educational resources and, at the end of the day, where would his daughter beg him to send her? Where would it be easiest for her to gain acceptance? I’ve seen that story play out more than enough times in one way or another and I’m fascinated by how—try as Hugh might—he can never quite outrun his background; there ’s a magnetic pull. And, across the globe, where would Ed think to send his own daughter to boarding school? What school would he deem the best? Even if it irked him to think it? Coincidence is a fact of life. Sometimes, at its best, a coincidence can feel magical, even if there are perfectly good reasons for it. My personal life has always been full of ridiculous coincidences, so maybe I’m more susceptible to a bit of magical thinking than most, but if that’s the case, so be it.
Henkin: I was particularly impressed by the dialogue in A Dual Inheritance, by how well and how deeply it characterizes. Can you talk about the writing of dialogue and its place in this novel and in your work in general?
Hershon: I imagine that my background in theater probably helps with writing dialogue. I loved doing improvisation in drama camp and acting school, and it’s probably my favorite part of writing, though, having tried my hand at playwriting and screenwriting, I realize it’s the shifting back and forth between a character’s words and his interior life, the ability to reveal and conceal by writing sensually alongside the dialogue— that’s what I love most, and it’s where I seem to thrive.
Henkin: A Dual Inheritance is a long and rich book, with many different strands. Did you map the novel out in advance and, if you didn’t, how much did you know before you started and how much did you discover as you went along? To the extent that the book was a discovery for you, what was the biggest surprise?
Hershon: I took all kinds of notes for months before writing, which did amount to an outline, but it took writing the first couple of chapters and getting a handle on the characters in order to really map out the book. It’s honestly difficult to remember when I knew what and when because now it all feels so inevitable, but I’d say the biggest surprise was the nuanced relationship between Rebecca and Hugh. When I mapped it out, their relationship seemed to invite a will they or won’t they kind of question, but as I wrote their scenes, and as the characters and their chemistry felt utterly real to me, I realized, happily, that it was a far more nuanced situation than a simple question of exploring a taboo. And not only was it nuanced, but the subtlety of their relationship felt more complicated and heated than I’d expected.
Henkin: Another process question. Which character or section of the book came most easily to you and which character or section posed the greatest difficulty, and why?
Hershon: As I mentioned previously, the character of Ed came naturally. The end of Part One—Ed goes to East Hampton and comes home to find Helen waiting for him—was thrilling to write. Another section that came without much difficulty and with some exhilaration was the chapter in which the Shipleys take Rebecca to Anguilla. I identify with that giddy sense of being young and entering another world—realizing that there are all kinds of plausible ways to live and that there are also dark sides to most glittery situations. Conversely, the chapter set in China was a beast in terms of research. Writing about Shenzen, China, in the late 1980s felt almost like writing my last book, which was set in the American Wild West during the mid-1800s. There were few reliable sources and much was based on hearsay and scraps of articles and a heavy dose of imagination.
Henkin: Could you speak about your revision process? Kurt Vonnegut once said that writers are either swoopers or bashers. “Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one.” Are you more of a basher or a swooper?
Hershon: I’m more of a basher, though sometimes—out of sheer drive and necessity—I become a swooper. For instance, I was heavily invested in figuring out what Hugh did career-wise. I was stuck on learning the minutiae of various professions in the developing world, convinced I couldn’t move on with the story until I really understood the details of several career paths so I could make informed choices for his character. Finally I realized I knew the emotional beats of what needed to happen in each relevant chapter, and so I forced myself to write “swooper style ” and then return to the chapters after I’d learned more. Working this way was difficult but it was also a revelation. The chapters were rough but they worked, and they helped me understand where I truly needed to focus my attention in terms of research.
Henkin: I often think of novels as being like relationships: One is a re-bound from the next. Is this true for you too? If so, how was A Dual Inheritance a response to the experience of having written your previous novel, The German Bride, and how is it leading to future projects? Which may just be another way of saying, What’s next for you?
Hershon: After my first two novels, for which I did little to no research, I wanted to write a book that would require me to learn a tremendous amount of concrete information. The urge to research, in other words, came first. What happened through that process was that I found the research somehow freeing up my writing, or at least that was the way it felt. Entering into truly unknown worlds enabled me to be more daring, and my prose gained more confidence. A Dual Inheritance was born out of wanting to write a contemporary, multi-generational, sprawling story with a larger cast of characters to play with. I followed my interests and my anxieties and they all made their way into the story. Right now, I’m not sure what’s next but I have the initial spark and it’s decidedly contemporary. I’m not sure I’ll ever shake the research bug, but I’d like to pare down next time. We’ll see.
Joshua Henkin is the author of the novels Swimming Across the Hudson, a Los Angeles Times Notable Book; Matrimony, a New York Times Notable Book; and, most recently, The World Without You, which was named an Editors’ Choice Book by The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune and is the winner of the 2012 Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American Fiction and a finalist for the 2012 National Jewish Book Award. His short stories have been published widely, cited for dis- tinction in Best American Short Stories, and broadcast on NPR’s “Selected Shorts.” He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and directs the MFA program in fiction writing at Brooklyn College.