Books

Author Joanna Hershon on Writing Like a Man, Her New Book A Dual Inheritance, and Researching Characters


Joanna Hershon's breakout fourth novel, A Dual Inheritance (Ballantine, $26), is the best book about male friendship written this young century. Two men meet as undergraduates at Harvard University in 1963 and forge a bond despite their obvious cultural differences—Hugh's a Boston Brahmin and Ed's a working-class Jew—that endures even after their love of the same woman rips them apart.

Details: What inspired this story?

Joanna Hershon: The initial seed came from my father's best friend from Harvard, a freshman roommate. They remain really close. I grew up with him as kind of an uncle figure—he has amazing charisma and an incredible life story. Their friendship has always fascinated me, but I didn't set out to write a book about them—and that's definitely not what the book is about— I just started thinking about that time in life and that era.

Details: Your male characters are very convincing. Why do you think you write so well from a male perspective?

Joanna Hershon: I feel like I have these connections aesthetically with men. The character of Ed…was like some part of myself. He's so, so not me, yet I'm able to kind of access this guy. He's completely unabashed in his desires and that's really fun as a writer: someone who's completely himself and not trying to be anyone else.

Details: Was it important for you to write a book with a wider reach both thematically and geographically than anything you'd written before?

Joanna Hershon: I don't think I was saying, "Okay I want to write a novel about the larger world," but [after] following these stories, that's just what happened. What's interesting about the other main character, Hugh, is I had this clear idea about who this character was. And then I interviewed my friend, who was at Radcliffe around the time these characters would have been there. I told her about this character and I said, "Is this a believable character and does he remind you of anyone you actually knew?" And she gave me the name of this man, an anthropologist and filmmaker.

Details: Did you meet him?

Joanna Hershon: Yeah, I went up and met him in Massachusetts and we spent hours together. He was just amazing. It was like meeting a part of my imagination. He gave me all this information and I said, "Are you sure I can use this in the book?" And he said, "You can use every single thing I'm saying here." It was so interesting, because I really had conceived of this person, and then I found a living person who was far more interesting than I could ever wholly envision.

Details: So how much of this person's life did you end up using?

Joanna Hershon: I used a lot of it.

Details: Have you ever done that before?

Joanna Hershon: Writing this book was a real crock-pot anthropology project. I interviewed a lot of real live people for this book, [which] I've never done before. I'd sort of have an idea of something I wanted to write about, and then I would find people who actually did it. Like the business trajectory of Ed is almost all based on a real person's business trajectory.

Details: Obviously there are cultural difference between these two men—Ed's a Jew and Hugh's a WASP, for lack of better descriptions—what is it that you find interesting about watching those two intersect?

Joanna Hershon: Hopefully, I'll breathe new life into a timeless theme. It's such a trope at this point, you know, but I do find this kind of culture clash endlessly fascinating, why certain people are drawn to one another. I've also always been fascinated with insiders who feel like outsiders. People who, by all accounts, went to all the right schools and are from the right family and look a certain way, and they just don't feel at home. They don't feel at ease. I feel like they seek out people who are a little on the fringe.

Details: This book moves from Cambridge to New York to China to Dar es Salaam to Haiti and so on. Is place as important as character to you?

Joanna Hershon: Place is always significant to me in all my books, but in this book with these characters, they just took me all over. It's not like authors who say, "I don't know what's going to happen. The characters just take me there." It's not like I had nothing to do with it, but these character's trajectories really do go in vastly different directions. It was fascinating to try to put it together.

Details: The locations felt very convincing. You must have had to do some serious research. I don't think you've been to Dar es Salaam.

Joanna Hershon: I've not been to Dar es Salaam. I'd like to go, but I haven't. One of the things that always stuck with me was something the novelist Charles Baxter said at a seminar. One of his characters was a neurobiologist or a neuroscientist and somebody asked, "Do you know anything about neurobiology or neuroscience?" He said, "No." So they asked, "How did you create such a realistic character?" And he said, "Well, I called up the department head of neuroscience and I said, 'Can I take you out to lunch? Let me just ask you about your day.' " And you can do that as a writer. You can call someone, anyone, and say, "Let's go out to lunch. I'll take you for a coffee. A beer. And I'll just ask you whatever questions I can come up with."

Details: That sounds like the best part of your job.

Joanna Hershon: It's so much fun. I'm just endlessly curious about people. That's my driving force. I'm not a conceptual writer. I write to escape and learn about the human spirit. To me, going out and just talking to people and asking questions can be really fascinating. Some people don't really answer much of anything, but some people will tell you all kinds of fascinating stories.

A Dual Inheritance comes out May 7, 2013.

—Details' articles editor Greg Emmanuel. Follow him at @gemmanuel

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Photo coutesy of Random House
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