Monday, June 28, 2021

TBR: Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin



 TBR [to be read] is an invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe. 


Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?


When Ohio-born Pru Steiner arrives in New York in 1976, she follows in a long tradition of young people determined to take the city by storm. But when she falls in love with Spence Robin, her hotshot young Shakespeare professor, her life takes a turn she couldn’t have anticipated. Morningside Heights is about the love between women and men, and children and parents, about the things we give up in the face of adversity, and about what endures when life turns out differently from what we thought we signed up for.


Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?


The character I most enjoyed writing: Arlo, Spence’s estranged son from his first marriage. Arlo is angry and needy and complicated, and he defies expectations, certainly his father’s expectations. It wasn’t until several years into the writing process that Arlo even existed. But once I settled on him, the novel really took off.


The character who gave me the most trouble: Enid, Spence’s developmentally disabled older sister. She’s an important character—she gives us a window onto Spence’s inner life—but she doesn’t take up much real estate in the book, so I needed to evoke her in only a few brushstrokes. I wanted to give the reader a full sense of her without making her an object of pity.


Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

Morningside Heights was originally supposed to be come out in June 2020, but publication got delayed a year because of Covid. A friend of mine said it’s like carrying a baby past term. I wouldn’t know about that personally, but that sounds about right! People ask me if the wait was frustrating, but mostly it was a relief. 2021 is a much better time to have a book come out. Good things come to those who wait.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

It has to be bad before it’s good.


My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?


Everything surprised me. I always start with just a seed, and I have no idea what that seed will grow into. If there’s no surprise for the writer, then there’s no surprise for the reader.

How do you approach revision?


It took me eight years to write Morningside Heights. I wrote three thousand pages and found the book inside all that mess. That’s how I always write. There are hundreds of drafts along the way. Ninety percent of what I write gets thrown out, some of it material I like, but just because you like something doesn’t mean it belongs in your novel. I’m always telling my MFA students that you need to bark up a lot of wrong trees in order to get to the right tree. There are no shortcuts around those early mistakes. They’re an essential part of the book’s discovery.



Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)


There’s a wide range of food interests in Morningside Heights. Pru, who grew up in a kosher home in Columbus, Ohio, catches her mother eating breaded shrimp. Arlo is a meat and potatoes guy, who goes with his father to a Jewish deli on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where they split a pastrami sandwich and a corned beef sandwich. Sarah is a vegetarian, and her grandmother orders for her a banh mi tofu sandwich, though Sarah doesn’t like tofu. (“Her grandmother wasn’t alone in thinking that if you were a vegetarian you had to like tofu, as if it were an obligation you’d incurred.”) Recipe links:












DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.