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January 23, 2009

Joshua Henkin's Book Club Adventures: The Latest Chapter, December 2008

Posted by carol
Each month novelist and creative writing professor Joshua Henkin shares behind-the-scenes stories about his visits with book clubs --- in person, over the phone and online --- to discuss his novel Matrimony. Check back on Monday for more of Josh's December book club adventures. And groups who were registered with by January 16th were eligible to win copies of Matrimony. To be eligible for future offers, you can register your group here.

A little belatedly (too much book group eggnog, apparently), here is the December roundup of my book group visits to discuss my novel Matrimony. As was true last year, December was a slower month than usual (I think the holidays prompt some book groups to take a break), but there still was a lot of great discussion and general book group intrigue. (And January is proving to be a packed month --- this past week, I spoke to three groups in one day, and I did my first book group video chat, on Skype --- so check back for next month's report as well.) In any case, without further ado:

December's Statistics
1) Brooklyn Book Group: 10 Participants; Estimated Average Age: 30; Number of Women: 10; Number of Men: 0. Number of author's former graduate students in attendance: 1; Distance traveled: 5 blocks.
2) New York City Book Group: 15 Participants; 1 Facilitator. Estimated Average Age: 40. Number of Women: 16; Number of Men: 0; Distance traveled: 19.43 miles (26 subway stops).
3) Online Book Group: 3 Participants; Number of Women: 3; Number of Men: 0. Estimated Average Age: Couldn't tell. Number of States Represented in Book Group: 3; Number of Time Zones Represented: 2. Number of author's fingers that needed serious massaging after he was done typing: 10. Distance Traveled: 8 inches (author needed to pull chair up to desk).
4) Margate, NJ, Book Group: 6 Participants; Number of Women: 6; Number of Men: 0. Estimated Average Age: Couldn't tell. Number of hours before actual meeting that author and book group first made contact: 4; Number of reporters from the Philadelphia Inquirer who were members of book group: 1; Number of articles about author's book group adventures that appeared the following week in the Philadelphia Inquirer: 1; Distance Traveled: 12 feet roundtrip, from desk to phone and back again.

December's Most Unusual Question: How did you know that I fold my underwear like that?
OK, OK, let me explain. There's a scene in Matrimony, about three-quarters of the way through the book, when for reasons I won't specify (no spoilers), Mia makes a visit to the gynecologist. It's an anxiety-producing visit, and as she's waiting for the doctor to come into the office where she's sitting naked except for her patient's gown, she folds up her underwear and hides it beneath her clothes because she doesn't want the doctor to see it. She feels vaguely silly doing this, since the doctor is going to see her naked and will be conducting an internal exam. But she does it nonetheless.

I didn't think much of it at the time --- it's a single line, and it's certainly not important to the plot of the book --- so I've been surprised by the number of people who have talked about this moment at book group meetings. And though December was the first time someone actually asked me how I knew she folded her underwear (Believe me, I didn't: I'd just met her half an hour earlier!), it's a moment that's sparked a lot of discussion. The gist of the question is this: How do you know that women do that (By the way, I don't assume that all women do that. Some women, for all I know, may toss their underwear in the doctor's lap. Fiction, in any case, is committed to the belief that no two characters are exactly alike.) and, more broadly, how is it possible for a man to write from a woman's point of view and, with any luck, get it right? This is asked of me because for large sections of Matrimony I write in Mia's point of view and because --- for some people, at least --- Mia is one of the characters they're most drawn to. People want to know did I do research (visit the gynecologist?) and, if I didn't, did I grow up around women?

Well, sure, I grew up around women. They make up half the population, after all. But people assume that I must have had sisters, when, in fact, I come from a family of three sons. But I have a mother, I have female friends, I had girlfriends, I now have a wife, I'm the father of two daughters, and my dog's a girl, too. But I'd like to think even without daughters (they weren't born until Matrimony was almost finished), and certainly without a female dog, I'd have been able to write this book. I'm certainly flattered to learn that readers find Mia compelling, but I'm never sure what to say when I'm asked how I put myself in the mind of a woman. In terms of the gynecologist scene itself, the only times I've ever been to the gynecologist were when my wife was pregnant, and I wrote that scene before my wife got pregnant. Fiction writing is incredibly hard, and perhaps the hardest thing about it is getting your characters right --- making them sound, look, and feel authentic --- but I don't think it's any different if you're writing about a woman than if you're writing about a man.

Even if Matrimony were autobiographical (it's not: see November book group roundup), there would be at most one character who was me; the rest of the characters I would have to invent. And I see fiction writing as being principally about invention --- about getting outside your own experience. A gregarious person has to write from a shy person's point of view; a young person has to write from an old person's point of view; a poor person has to write from a rich person's point of view. It's hard to do that, certainly, but no harder (or easier) than a man writing from a woman's point of view or a woman writing from a man's point of view. To me, fiction writing (and fiction reading, too) is about the imagination. It's also about curiosity. In fact, I would argue that perhaps the most important trait a novelist should possess (as important as --- perhaps more important than --- a flair for language) is limitless curiosity.

Check back on Monday for more of my December book club adventures...

---Joshua Henkin

Previous Posts by Joshua Henkin:
Book Club Adventures, November 2008
Book Club Adventures, November 2008 Part II
Shouting Matches and More