As Josh Henkin’s novel Matrimony kicks off, there is no sign of marriage, just college dorm hilarity when the PCC-ers—Peer Contraceptive Counselors—come for a visit to educate the new freshman dorm dwellers. Given the pacing, I forgot that this was a book that purported to be about marriage and I started to expect a story that took place in a small college over a couple of days, or at most, a semester. I could feel some of my own Love on the Big Screen story coming on when there was some early bathroom talk between the protagonist Julian and his roommate Carter:
It’s bad enough to pee in your own shower,” his roommate said. “But in a communal shower?” He looked up at Julian. “You don’t pee in the shower, do you?”
“No,” Juian said. From time to time, he had. Didn’t everyone?
I love Henkin’s timing with his “From time to time, he had,” line. The sentences are full of those sorts of attention-grabbing surprises, and you’ll hear a lot more from Julian and his roommate, interesting stuff, about how men navigate relationships, especially when those relationships overlap. Henkin deftly takes big jumps in time when it comes to the narrative, and this is mostly achieved by dividing the story into geographically organized sections: Northington, Ann Arbor, Berkley, Iowa City, and New York. It’s with these jumps in time that Henkin is able to go down into specific detail while still telling the story of what it is to be married, at least for Julian and his wife Mia.
Julian and Mia make decisions that have consequences and things happen to their marriage that sometimes happen in relationships. In reading the book, I’m reminded that I heard Henkin say several times at the Wesleyan Writers Conference something to this effect: When writing, you want smart characters who are capable of intelligent mistakes. While none of the events or mistakes that concern Mia and Julian are shocking, all of them are a surprise, probably because the range of things that can happen to any couple—get hit by a car, find out the apartment is full of rats, or make a million in the stock market—is nearly infinite. Things happen to the couple and it’s interesting to read about how each character responds and interacts with and toward their spouse.
Matrimony can sometimes feel like a book on the art of writing. Julian and his friend Carter are both writers who attend a workshop class taught by a Professor Chesterfield who spouts guidance such as this: “THOU SHALT NOT CONFUSE A SHORT STORY WITH A RUBIK’S CUBE.” I sometimes hear folks criticize writers who write books about characters who want to write books (I see their point) but I think the writing process of everyone who writes is so highly personal and individualized that it’s usually interesting to hear how writers do what they do. This is a book more about marriage than writing, but there’s also a funny bit where a character writes a story with a character who thinks about breaking up with their boyfriend for over 20 pages. Thankfully we don’t have to read the pages; we just comically hear about the story from other characters as the novel proceeds. In this way Henkin is a skilled comedian who uses repetition to make the joke even funnier than it was the first time.
Henkin keeps the language fresh, and for awhile I was thinking that maybe there was at least one vocabulary word for me on every page. Here’s a few I jotted down that I had to look up: petard, jejune, peremptoriness, bathetic, somnolent, and bivouacking. Of course there is much more to fresh language than my vocab list, but I found myself marking interesting word choices as I read. Most of the characters are book lovers and part of the reward for reading this novel was their lively wordplay banter.
For a guy like me who has spent a lot of time thinking about how relationships work and don’t work, Matrimony presents a view of marriage that makes sense to me: hard stuff happens and the couple tries to hang in together and on some levels they succeed and on others they fail. Part of what was interesting here was to see what the couple decides to do about splitting up or staying together. From the complexities of in-laws to a crazy dog in a small NYC apartment, Matrimony shows readers a marriage worth paying attention to.
With the first readers finishing up Love on the Big Screen, questions like this one have begun to roll in via Facebook, email, and text: Did the Sunday meetings in underwear/helmets really happen? Am I right that Moon is actually_________? Isn’t The Dini based on______? In other words, these readers want to know from me How much of your actual life is in Love on the Big Screen?
Let me start to answer this with something I wrote at the request of the publisher, Cherokee McGhee: While many people I know would be able to claim they see parts of themselves in the characters I have written, they would also have to admit that I’ve told a lot of lies about them. In this case, for me, if my book is some sort of fruit smoothie, then my life and all the shades of personalities I came across in college are all a bunch of different berries. I’ve taken them all up as a part of a creative recipe, added a bunch of additional ingredients I either made up or collected in the years since my undergraduate graduation, and I threw all of that possibility into a giant writing blender and created my book.
My main problem with my own Smoothie Metaphor is that it is too violent; otherwise, I think it does the job. Take for example my protagonist Zuke, whose last name is Zaucha. The last name of one of my good college friends is Zaucha and we used to call him Zuke. In choosing that sort of nickname, I am going for something I’ve experienced in my own life: people who know me tend to call me Torg. This happens even when I move, and I move often: it’s like secret DNA social code that people call me “Torg.” Unless my dad is around and then I’m Little Torg or Billy.
The personality of my friend Zaucha does not additionally seep into my protagonist. As I recall, my friend did have a new car and he wouldn’t let us eat in it and he wouldn’t let us roll down the windows. I also remember him keeping to the sidewalks to keep his sneakers clean. Sure, I’d make fun of him for that, but his car and sneakers stayed immaculate long after mine had been “trashed.” I gave that aspect of the real Zaucha’s personality to my character Moon. Another friend of mine has emailed me and noted that he thinks Moon is a combination of himself and the guy with the last name Zaucha. Writing this, I recall that I’ve often heard the writer Sedaris talking about this aspect of his writing. That he is always thinking about what he will use and that his friends and family seem to try and watch themselves because they know they are likely to show up in the next book. Recently, some people have started to point out to me when they say something clever and they suggest that maybe that should go in a future story.
Here are some similarities I have to my protagonist Zuke: we were both English majors for non English-y reasons (me because my parents were English teachers and Zuke because he wants to be around “Glory,” we were both bench-warming college basketball players, and we both went to plays in Chicago where we were surprised by nude witches. Certainly we share exactly the same taste in movies.
What is very different about us is that Zuke learns his lessons much more quickly than me. I think I’m still learning but it probably took me until around the age of 32 to pretty much get what Zuke gets at the close of Love on the Big Screen. I certainly did not experience any “love storms” of the sort Zuke experiences in the book. There were no balcony collapses in my ONU life but I’ve come to learn (I think) that there was one of those in ONU’s history. Not sure if I repressed that or if it’s just coincidence. I read once that Stephen King made up a pornographic cartoon magazine for The Green Mile and that later in his life someone sent him a copy of the publication that he made up. I think if you can dream it up, it’s probably out there. (and much more!)
A bit about the names and the nicknames. Some names I’ve made up but most are from my life. It was a common criticism of my work in just about every writing workshop I’ve been in that the nicknames were confusing. Readers, what did you think? However, I find that in my life, nicknames are everywhere and I list a lot of those in the book. i.e. Charles Barkley was the Round Mound of Rebound or most of us have heard of the NY Yankee, A-Rod. When people pick at your work, instead of editing it out, that might be something that can become MY STYLE. Part of my style could be an affinity for nicknames. I notice that Chekhov uses a lot of them.
While revising Love on the Big Screen, I knew I had a novel-in-stories called Horseshoe (Zuke’s fictional hometown) and I had in mind that someday I wanted to write a modern-day tragedy that I was thinking about calling Knucklehead. I knew this guy with the last name Nuckles, and obviously if a character is going to have a tragic fault, Knucklehead has some nice play in it to work with. So I made up this guy Knucklehead in the revision thinking down the line of books I might write, and now I’ve got people identifying who they think Knucklehead is. For example, I have him being the son of a school superintendent, and so now for every place I’ve ever attended or worked (this list is kind of long: at least nine schools) there are suggestions from each geographical area that they think they know who I’m writing about. I guess writers of fiction always answer these sorts of questions? In Love on the Big Screen, I have Zuke hitting a last-second shot and the homecoming queen is waiting for him after the game. Later, there’s another surprise in the form of a young lady. None of this happened to me. It represents what I’ve experienced about being a basketball player but as with the lessons of the novel for Zuke, my experience took much more time to unravel.
I’m glad to have the questions about the book, and it’s been fun to try and think where the ideas come from. To understand, I think you have to work with language daily and experience the surprise of what occurs to you to write. I lived a life and everything I’ve experienced is certainly fair game for any situation or character that I’m trying to create. I’m sure some things creep from my mind to the page without me realizing their origins. Maybe most of what I write is like that? But to answer the question about the helmets and the underwear: yes we did have matching boxer shorts with our nicknames embroidered on them. Yes they shrank and were obscenely tight. Yep, you had to play naked if you missed but unlike the novel, I don’t remember there being any legitimate excuses. If you missed, you were naked the next time. We had Toys R Us-bought medieval helmets too small for our fat twenty-something heads, and something not in the book, we even borrowed hymnals from the dorm’s prayer chapel and sang ourselves an opening song. That, I don’t think, was my idea.