Joshua Henkin joins Zibby to discuss his latest novel, Morningside Heights, which took him eight years and three thousand pages to write. Joshua shares how the story was inspired by his own family’s experience with Alzheimer’s and his childhood growing up on the Upper West Side. The two also talk about Joshua’s MFA program, how growing up in an academic family shaped his career trajectory, and why he wanted to tell this story over the span of so many years.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Joshua. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Morningside Heights.

Joshua Henkin: Thank you, Zibby. I’m really happy to be here.

Zibby: I should’ve just headed over to the West Side to film this over there. I’m on the Upper East Side now, but close enough. This book was so beautiful. I know you know you’re a great writer because you’re super accomplished. Reading this book was like, oh, wow, this is great writing. It’s very refreshing. Not refreshing. I read great writing all the time. It’s very exciting and awesome when you open up a book and all of a sudden you realize it’s fantastically written and you don’t want to stop reading it. I was really delighted. Let me just say that.

Joshua: Thank you. I appreciate that.

Zibby: Would you mind telling listeners a bit about what your book is about?

Joshua: Sure. Morningside Heights is about a long marriage between an eminent Shakespeare scholar at Columbia and his girlfriend, then his wife. She meets him in the 1970s when she’s his student and is pursuing a doctorate herself. Then she ends up giving up her career and becoming the wife of an academic. They have a child. He has a child from a previous marriage, so it’s a mixed family. Then about thirty years later when he’s in his late fifties, he starts to become forgetful. He is diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s. The book is really about how the people who love him, his family, his friends, his colleagues, cope with the decline of a great man.

Zibby: I noticed in the acknowledgements you had said goodbye to your dad. I was wondering if your dad had Alzheimer’s or if this was a personal story. Where did it come from?

Joshua: I like to say that all good fiction has to be emotionally autobiographical in the sense that the writer has to be emotionally on the line. If there’s no emotion for the writer, there’s going to be no emotion for the reader. My books, some of them are more narrowly autobiographical, some are less narrowly autobiographical, but they’re all emotionally autobiographical. This one was inspired by my father. My father was a well-known professor at Columbia. He taught at the law school for fifty years. Like Spence, he eventually developed Alzheimer’s. Fortunately, if you can ever use the word fortunately about Alzheimer’s, he developed it much later than Spence did in his mid to late eighties. He was still teaching at Columbia at the time, which is a story in its own right. In some ways, I was most interested in telling the story from his wife Pru’s perspective. This was also inspired by my own family. When my father started to decline, my mother went to a caregiver’s class at the Jewish community center on the Upper West Side. This sort of surprised me because my mother is not a consorting with strangers kind of person. She doesn’t go in for self-help groups. I was interested in what happened to her that she felt she’d find comfort in the company of people whom she might not have had anything else in common with aside from the fact that they are caregivers. The book started out really as a long short story that took place at the JCC between Pru and a bunch of friends she meets at the JCC. Then over the course of it — I spent eight years on this novel. I wrote three thousand pages.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Joshua: Yeah, I’m very inefficient. Ninety percent of what I wrote is gone. After draft seven or eight, I realized that the book was not really about Pru and her friends at the JCC. It was about this family and this marriage over many years. I think it’s fine for a writer to think they know where they’re going, but you better be wrong because if there’s no surprise for the writer, there’s no surprise for the reader. Eventually, the book took its own course.

Zibby: Wow. What was it about this particular story that, over eight years, you felt compelled to keep digging in and shifting and changing and sculpting? What was it? What wouldn’t leave you alone?

Joshua: Ultimately, it’s the characters. I think about fiction in terms of character. My goal is to make the characters as rich and complicated as possible and to get them into trouble. To me, that’s what fiction is, is getting your characters into trouble. Specifically, I was interested in what it’s like for Pru, who is a very intelligent and accomplished woman of a certain age, who was on her way to a career in academia, and then she gave it all up. That was quite common in those days. It still happens now. I was interested in that phenomenon of what it’s like to hitch your wagon to a star and what happens when the star fades. I was much more interested in telling it from her perspective rather than Spence’s. It’s obvious what happens to Spence when his star fades when he starts to become less lucid. What’s it like for Pru, his wife, who’s really identified with his success, who might even, you could argue, is overidentified with his success? What happens when his success leaves him? What does that do to the wife? How does she refashion herself in a world and in a life that she hadn’t anticipated?

Zibby: I thought one of the more telling scenes was when his book was due and due and due and she finally was like, all right, why don’t I help you write it? Let me do it. He’s like, oh, you can do it? She’s like, I was a graduate student. He’s kind of like, oh.

Joshua: He’s forgotten that. Of course, the world is littered with famous professors whose graduate students are doing their work for them. Pru, in a moment of desperation, hopes to be able to write his book. At this point, it’s been thirty years since she’s been in graduate school, and so she can’t do it either. They’re kind of helpless together. They’re attached at the hip.

Zibby: One of the things that was particularly moving was how, from such a detailed perspective, you showed us the decline. I haven’t experienced Alzheimer’s myself, but now with this book, you see it. It’s one thing to see it in a movie like Ask Alice or whatever. Is that what it was called? It was so good. You see the signs. Here, it was much more — it’s like you’re actually living with it, the night where he wanders off barefoot or the little things that happen at home or when he falls or just all these little, tiny moments that add up to the end result being in a totally different state. It’s the heartbreak of the smaller moments, I feel like, that you captured.

Joshua: Thank you, Zibby. I do feel like in life and in fiction, it’s the small moments that are most interesting. Sometimes the big moments are so big that they come predigested in a certain way. It’s not that you don’t want to focus on the big moments too. There’s a scene when Spence is forced to take a mini mental exam up at Columbia Presbyterian. It becomes apparent how much he has declined. There’s also a scene when Pru meets with the head of the English department who tells her that he can’t continue teaching. In some ways, I’m interested in the more surprising, small moments. For instance, there’s a scene early in his decline when there’s a mouse in the apartment. Spence wants to catch that mouse with his own two hands, which is very uncharacteristic of him. It’s not the sort of thing he’s prone to do. He’s not a person of physical prowess. Obviously, it’s too painful for him to acknowledge his mental decline, and so he kind of shifts things onto matters physical and runs around the apartment trying to catch the mouse with his own two hands. It’s those small, unexpected moments that I think are revealing about character both in life and in fiction.

Zibby: Then he does notice when the mouse goes away. He quickly figures out why that happened, how Pru had done it, what happened with the trap. He wasn’t one to be fooled, necessarily.

Joshua: For sure. I think that captures something about dementia, something about Alzheimer’s. One second, the person is totally incoherent. The next second, they’re lucid. The next second, they’re incoherent again. Obviously, it’s a steep decline over time. Moment to moment, there can be real moments of insights amongst the confusion.

Zibby: When the clinical trial happened and there was hope for a moment and then it was short-lived, that was also heartbreaking, access to that person, and then it’s out of your fingers.

Joshua: It is a heartbreaking disease. I think that’s one of the challenges of writing a novel about Alzheimer’s. I tell my graduate students that they shouldn’t write a story about a ball rolling down a hill because the ball’s going to roll down the hill. I think that’s what Alzheimer’s is like in terms of the actual medical prognosis. Hopefully, that will change. At this point, there’s no cure. One of the challenges of writing a book about this is to not really make it be specifically about the disease course, but about how different people around the patient react to the disease course. What choices do they make? Do they enroll the person in clinical trials? Does Pru end up in a new love affair? These are the kinds of questions that I think phase people who are dealing with someone who’s in decline. I was very interested in the non-ball rolling down the hill parts of the book.

Zibby: I did not see coming what happened also with — I don’t want to give things away, but even things that you might take up to make yourself feel better don’t necessarily work out the way you want.

Joshua: Right, they don’t.

Zibby: That sounded so obvious. Yes, but in the short term, there are minor heartbreaks along the way as well.

Joshua: For sure. Yeah, I agree, Zibby. That’s why I wrote this book over so many decades. I mean, the book takes place over so many decades. I’m interested in the modulation of emotion, in the happiness amidst the sadness, in the humor amidst the heartbreak. I feel like this book, even though it’s about a tough topic, it’s not a depressing book. I feel like you leave the book with some sense of hope for Pru. People can’t be depressed forever and ever, hopefully. That was very important to me, injecting moments of levity even in situations that are tough. I feel like Pru herself is kind of a tough character. She’s resilient. Her resilience gets tested. She proves herself up to the task, I’d say.

Zibby: The whole trajectory of the Chock full o’Nuts to the Chinese food restaurant, it just gives me chills. I really felt like I went on this whole ride with her. I didn’t really want it to end. What happens next? Also, all the supporting characters too, the son and that whole side drama. His dyslexia, I found super interesting. The daughter wanting to become a doctor, Sarah, and Ginny, everybody sort of works together, all the ripples. Does she become a doctor out of this need to control?

Joshua: Those are all good questions. As I said before, I’m really interested in character and in trying to write about many different characters all tethered to this one man. I was also interested in writing about New York. I grew up in Morningside Heights. I feel like New York City is a character in the novel. You mentioned you’re on the Upper East Side. I grew up on the Upper West Side. I’m older than you. I went to school on the Upper East Side, but I grew up on the Upper West Side.

Zibby: I went to school on the Upper West Side, but I grew up on the — I saw you on the transverse or something.

Joshua: We passed each other on a cross-town bus. All this wasn’t conscious. Flannery O’Connor once said that a writer can’t do without a certain measure of stupidity. I think that’s true. Some of us come by it naturally. Others have to cultivate it. I felt like I was chronicling a change in a neighborhood in a way that was parallel to my chronicling a change in a man, in a character. I grew up in a time when there were really meaningful distinctions between the Upper West Side and the Upper East Side. I was the poor child of academics among my rich classmates who were the children of professionals. Now there are still differences between the Upper West Side and the Upper East Side, but they’re much more nuanced. The city has changed a lot over the past fifty years. I was really writing about a city even as I was also writing about people.

Zibby: I should amend what I said. I went to high school on the Upper West Side, but I went to grade school on the Upper East Side. Most of my friends at my all-girls private school on the East Side lived on the East Side. I did have a friend on the Upper West Side. Whenever I went to visit her, we would have to go to the garage. My mom would take out the car. I thought that the West Side was like a hundred — it was like going to Connecticut. We’re like, we’re going to the West Side.

Joshua: That’s kind of how my classmates felt. Their parents didn’t want them coming to the West Side. I was always the visiting team when it came to playdates. I was always going to the East Side. Did you go to Chapin? Is that that school that you went to?

Zibby: I went to Brearley. Did you go to Collegiate?

Joshua: I went to Ramaz. I went to college with a lot of Collegiate boys and Brearley girls. I have two brothers. My mother had three boys, but she always had a dream of having a girl because she wanted that girl to go to Brearley. We would’ve had to dress up as girls going to at Brearley, so it never happened. My mom was kind of obsessed with Brearley.

Zibby: It’s like Yentl in reverse.

Joshua: Yentl in reverse, exactly.

Zibby: I have two boys and two girls. None of them went to Brearley. I’ll just leave it at that.

Joshua: It’s important for kids to do different things from what their parents do.

Zibby: Yes, exactly. Then how did you end up becoming a writer? How did you get to where you are?

Joshua: It was kind of a coincidental and circuitous route. I was heading down a more traditional academic path. My father was a professor. I’m probably the only person on the planet who thought that getting a PhD in the humanities was a safe path. I kind of always wanted to be a writer, but I also wanted to play in the NBA. At a certain point, you realize you’re neither good enough nor tall enough.

Zibby: I was going to say, you’re siting down, I can’t tell, but you don’t strike me as 6’5″. Who knows?

Joshua: I’m 5’11”. I was actually captain of the Ramaz basketball team. That says much more about the Ramaz basketball team than my own basketball-playing abilities. Anyhow, I was planning to get a PhD in the humanities. Before I did that, I took what I thought would be a couple years off. I moved out to Berkeley after I graduated from college. I think the reason for that is this. I was born in 1964. I grew up in the shadows of Columbia. My first conscious memory was being taken to the Greenhouse Nursery School by my mother in 1986 and being turned back at the gates by the student protest. That was my version of a snow day. I was the kind of kid who always felt like I’d missed the sixties. You think Columbia’s good. If you’re obsessed with the sixties, then you think Berkeley is even better. When I graduated from college, I moved out to Berkeley really not knowing anyone. I slept on the floor of a friend of a friend. I found an apartment in Berkeley. I got a job at a magazine. One of my tasks at the magazine was to be the first reader of fiction manuscripts. I saw how terrible a lot of them were. I thought, if other people are willing to try to risk failure, then I should be willing to try and risk failure too. It wasn’t like I thought I could necessarily do any better, but I thought, you want to give it a shot. I started to take some workshops. I got some encouragement. I moved to Ann Arbor, to Michigan, where I got my MFA. The rest is history.

I say all that as a way of illustrating that there are writers who are more instinctive writers than I am, more naturally intuitive, whereas I teach myself how to be an intuitive writer. That seems like an oxymoron. What does it meant to teach yourself to be intuitive? I think it’s true. The late David Foster Wallace, in addition to being a great writer, was also a serious amateur tennis player. I once did an interview with Roger Federer for the Times Magazine. Federer talked about learned intuition, how you hit the tennis ball over and over and over again until what you’re first doing mechanically becomes much more instinctive. I think that’s what I was doing with writing. I read really carefully. I saw the craft decisions that writers made that I thought worked and that I thought didn’t work. I basically taught myself to become more intuitive. Teaching has really been an instrumental part of my writing life. I have friends who are writers who wouldn’t begin to know how to teach. For me, it’s really essential. I think it’s, in part, because I’m a relatively social person, but also because thirty years later after I started doing this, I’m still teaching and still writing, and I learn as much from my students as they learn from me. A psychoanalyst friend of mine talks about the analyst and the patient being in the pool together. The analyst is not sitting at the side of the pool watching the patient flail. I think that’s true of the writing teacher as well. My students and I are all in the pool together. We’re all flailing together. We’re all struggling with the same things. Although, it’s true that I’ve been doing this longer than they have. I’m more experienced at this. The page is just as blank for me as it is for them. We’re all struggling with the same issues. I feel that teaching writing is an instrumental part of my own experience as a writer. It helps my writing a lot.

Zibby: My husband was in the professional tennis world, so I’ve given him like five separate copies of String Theory by David Foster Wallace. We have it everywhere. I’m like, this is a blending. This is a blend of our interests here.

Joshua: There’s a great novel by the British writer Benjamin Markovitz which is about the tennis tour. It takes place over a single weekend. I’m forgetting the name of it. I don’t know if your husband reads fiction. If he does, he’d be interested. Maybe you’d be interested vicariously. I’ll find the book. I’ll email you.

Zibby: My husband doesn’t really read that much.

Joshua: Does he still play tennis? Oh, you’ve got a dog.

Zibby: Oh, yeah, sorry.

Joshua: I have a dog. I have a big black dog too.

Zibby: You do?

Joshua: I have a Newfoundland, all 125 pounds of him. It looks like you have a lab.

Zibby: I have a black lab.

Joshua: I love labs.

Zibby: First of all, I want to go take your class. Do you ever offer classes to not people who are enrolled?

Joshua: I used to teach at the 92nd Street Y. I had some amazing classes there. One of the things about New York is that — if you’re living in Arkansas or Idaho and you’re teaching in an MFA program, you’re really the only game in town. Whereas in New York, there are all sorts of opportunities to take really high-level writing workshops that are not affiliated with MFA programs. I was once teaching at the Y at the same time as I was teaching at Sarah Lawrence. I would say my class at the Y was as strong as, maybe even stronger than, my MFA class at Sarah Lawrence. I had some amazing writers there. You get a real diversity of experiences. You get people who can’t spend full time in a program but who are happy to come once a week and who have interesting lives. I had people in their seventies and people in their twenties. I did used to do that. Unfortunately, I don’t do that any longer. Between my own writing and running my own MFA program, there’s no time for me to teach aside from my MFA students. I occasionally do writing conferences. In general, the only people I teach these days are graduate students at Brooklyn College.

Zibby: Okay. Well, I missed my moment. One piece of parting advice that everybody can use? What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Joshua: I didn’t know if you meant advice to humans.

Zibby: If you have human advice, I’ll take it, but I meant for aspiring authors.

Joshua: I’d say get a dog. Advice to aspiring authors, I would say treat it like a job. Don’t wait for inspiration. There’s work that’s inspired and there’s work that’s uninspired, but I don’t think it correlates to how you’re feeling when you’re writing. Sometimes when I’m feeling most inspired, the work I produce is the worst because I’ve fallen in love with the sound of my own voice. Whereas when I’m feeling uninspired, I sometimes produce better work. We tell our grad students at Brooklyn College that we want them to be writing eighteen hours a week, three hours a day, six days a week. I make my students keep a log of how many hours and minutes they write each day. Then at the end of the week, in workshop, they tell us their minutes. They do it anonymously. Not everyone gets to eighteen hours, but we all try. There are people who count words. There are people who count time.

I’m a believer in counting time because I feel like time is neutral. Sometimes you write three hours, and you produce five words. Sometimes you write three hours, and you produce ten pages. I feel like those five-word days are investments in those ten-page days. As I said before, time is neutral. All you can ask of yourself is to put in that time day in and day out. If you treat it like a job, there are no guarantees, but hopefully, what you produce will eventually, after eight years and three thousand pages, work. As much that people can demystify writing and treat it like employment, you put on your hard hat, you tie yourself to your seat, and you type away at your computer or you do it by hand, however you write to keep track of those hours and minutes. I tell my students to keep track of the amount of time they spend on the internet. It’s amazing how much time you can spend not writing. We all fool ourselves. I encourage myself and others to not fool yourselves and to put in the time. Ask nothing more of yourself.

Zibby: Love it. Maybe in another eight years when you write your next book you can come back on the show. Maybe you’ll shave off a year in time. Who knows? Maybe you’ll do it in seven.

Joshua: I hope so. I’m hoping to become more efficient. Some of my earlier books took fewer than eight years. I’m not going to be Joyce Carol Oates writing a book a year. My hope is I can write a book in three to five years. Whenever that time is, I would be thrilled to come back, Zibby. I really enjoyed talking to you.

Zibby: You too. I really, really loved your book. It was so good. I wish I’d read it earlier. Anyway, I read it now.

Joshua: Thank you, Zibby. Thank you. Good luck with your new publishing endeavor. I’m very excited about that.

Zibby: Thank you so much. I appreciate it. Have a great day. Buh-bye.


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