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April 27, 2009

Joshua Henkin's Book Club Adventures: The Latest Chapter, March 2009 Part I

Posted by carol

"How did you come up with the names of your characters?" Author and creative writing professor Joshua Henkin answers this question, one he has been asked by reading groups members he talked with about his novel Matrimony. Check back tomorrow for more of Josh's behind-the-scenes stories of the groups he met with in March.

March's Condensed Statistics
Number of Book Groups Visited: 9
Number in Person: 4
Number by Phone: 4
Number Online: 1
Number of States Represented: 6 (New York, Illinois, Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin)
Total Number of Participants, not including author: 84
Total Number of Male Participants, not including author: 1

A Popular Book Group Question in March: How Did You Come up with the Names of Your Characters?

The "how did you" questions, just like the "what did you intend" questions, are very good at making a writer feel stupid. Why did you do what you did? How did you do what you did? When it comes to these things, writers are about as clueless as can be. We proceed intuitively, without a plan. It's a dream-like state, writing; you're in a kind of trance. At a reading once, someone asked me why I named the female protagonist of Matrimony Mia. The most basic --- and most obtuse --- answer is that I needed to name her something, and if I'd named her Susan, someone else would have wanted to know why I'd named her Susan. But why Mia, specifically? And why did I name my male protagonist Julian?

In Julian's case, the answer is simple. In the summer of 1997, I was visiting New York, where I grew up, to give some readings from my first novel, Swimming Across the Hudson, which had recently been published, and I was invited to the Hamptons for the weekend by some friends. Staying at the same house was a couple with a five-year-old named Julian, and for some reason, that just struck me as the right name for my protagonist. What that "some reason" is is hard to say. Why do we like some names and not like others? We just do. And different names have different cultural associations. "Tiffany" suggests a different kind of character from "Priscilla" from "Jane."

And cultural associations can change. I was once writing a short story with a character named Monica, and then Monica Lewinsky came along and ruined everything --- not just for Bill Clinton but for my story. I couldn't call my character Monica any longer without evoking Monica Lewinsky, and so I changed her name. The wonderful novelist Robert Cohen (read his novel Inspired Sleep) wrote an essay recently about being stuck on his new novel because he can't find the right name for his character. I sympathize. Until I get a character's name right, he or she just doesn't come into focus, and sometimes it takes months and months for me to get that name right. I've actually resorted to a baby-naming book. My wife and I used it to name real babies, but now I use it to name fictional babies, and adults. It's proved incredibly valuable. In some ways, it's the writer's best tool.

---Joshua Henkin

Previous Posts by Joshua Henkin:
Book Club Adventures, February 2009
Book Club Adventures, February 2009 Part II
Book Club Adventures, January 2009
Book Club Adventures, January 2009 Part II