On writing "What Happened to Henry"

Tell us about the process of writing this novel.

What Happened to Henry actually began as a novel about dancers.  I managed a modern repertory company for a brief period and I loved the people I met doing that work.  Performers in very rigorous disciplines are so precise, so rigorous, also necessarily a bit myopic.  I have one of my characters at one point say that dancers don't know who the president of the United States is and if they know they don't care.  That's just about true. The only place that matters to them is the stage. Every other place is just getting ready.

But the initial readers only wanted to hear about the Cooper children, and it became clear to me that the reason the children were the more vital part of the novel was that they mattered more to me, too.

So I gave in and yielded the story to them.  Even then things changed entirely between when I shifted the story's center and when I considered myself done.  Initially, I thought Asagao was there to help Lauren.  But eventually I came to believe that he was there because he needed Henry's help to move on to his next life, and so he'd had to drift in the Great Void until Henry became available.

Is the Cooper family based on your own? 

There are actually five siblings in my immediate family, with about sixteen years between the oldest and youngest, so my family is not similar to the Coopers in size or shape.  And unlike the Coopers, we are all boringly stable and thus unlikely candidates for interesting fiction.  For recreation we get graduate degrees and raise children. Occasionally one of us might put in a sprinkler system.  And as far as I know, I am the one among us who spends time with imaginary friends. 

That said, there is some autobiographical feeling in the relationships. I've always felt a keen gratitude for the nurturing and support siblings can provide.  That gratitude is coupled with real appreciation for the kind of intimate clashes that rear up only between brothers and sisters. And there were medical emergencies in my own family that I think contributed to my sense that infant and toddler life is vulnerable, and that an entire family's well being can be shattered by one member's crisis.

You were raised in the Catholic faith. Did you ever have a nun like sister Leonarda?

No, worse luck. I would have loved to have had a nun like her.  Some novelists invent fantasy lovers.  I invent fantasy nuns. 

Why drop a Japanese ghost into a 1950's-60's American household?

The obvious reason is the shadow of Hiroshima over that decade and the threat of another nuclear confrontation implicit in cold war tensions.  My generation practiced unclear air raids strikes and watched cheery instructional films on how behave in a nuclear attack. We handed over our quarters on Saturday afternoons to see films about radioactive giant crabs or 50-foot women threatening world peace.

Asagao himself surfaced form a specific and inaccurate memory.  As a child I came upon the picture that I have described in this novel as the photograph in Disaster, Disaster, Disaster--the book that Henry Cooper checks out of the library so often. But the memory, in the end, proved false. I found the actual book that my own brother used to check out of the library (indeed titled Disaster, Disaster, Disaster) but there were no photographs in it and no mention of man-made disasters. Only hurricanes and floods.

Are the scenes in Asagao's mind based on research or are they wholly invented?

The specifics---the smell of things frying in diesel oil, the upsurge of gangs, the popularity of Charlie Chaplin films and Eisenhower jackets, the shunning of survivors, the way it looked and felt to be walking down the remains of those cities' streets, all are taken directly from witness and survivor accounts.  The speakers whose voices summoned the situation up most directly for me were doctors (American and Japanese) and the hibakusha themselves. 

The insect trade details I owe to Lafcadio Hearn, a westerner who essentially adopted Japan as his home before the world wars.  He married there and had children, which I'm sure encouraged his already strong interest in festivals and ghost stories. He wrote in great detail, for example, about the insect trade, which was busiest at festival ties. He recorded the costs of popular insects (caged and uncaged; in-season and not), transliterations of their songs, and the sound of sales pitches from booths.

What about the religious sensibility that Asagao and his family, Buddhist and Shinto, bring to the story's perspective?

Asagao and his wife aren't depicted as very religious people, but their Eastern sensibility addressedsomething that I think about a lot.  Hearn wrote that before he came to Japan he had had no answer to a central riddle in his own life:  Why do we sometimes feel terrible grief at small partings with those we love?  The western world didn't even ask that question, but in Japan, he said, he found an answer, and that was that in the beloved person's form were the echoes of thousands of other beloved and lost people who had borne that spirit, all of whom had been lost and reincarnated and lost again, and the depth of the feeling correlated to the depth of experience over all these lifetimes.  That clarifies Asagao's feelings for his beloved wife; it also explains Sally's pull on this family.

Annie and Warren Cooper seem to be unconnected to their children in very basic ways. What's the purpose of this distancing?

The Cooper kids couldn't have formed that tribal kind of unit if their parents were more connected to them, could they?  And I believe there's a kind of "us" feel among a family's children that bands together against the "them" that are the parents.

Certainly children have secret lives, lives that their parents might not even want to know about if they could. Children are also still open to ideas (and fears) that adults have found ways to protect themselves from, so the more I could keep my main characters able to identify as children, the more I could explore what an adult would dismiss as irrational. Of course children are also immature and inexperienced, so telling a story from their perspective can be problematic. You have to pick your children carefully--and using the omniscient voice helps.   

You were teaching high school when you wrote this novel. Did you find the balance difficult?

Teaching is hard, but where else could I be the first person to introduce someone to Sophocles?  What other job would send me to talk about what Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea might look like to Jane Eyre, with people who didn't know either of these worlds before they met me? 

I also find it a relief to be doing something that demands so much.  When I'm teaching I forget my body, I forget my family, I forget the client or novel on my desk at home. . And that's necessary, because the fact is, writing is hard on you and need to walk away from it--really walk away--regularly. 

Did you intend your readers to regard Asagao as real, or to regard Henry as crazy?

Wherever my readers find Asagao is fine with me. If they believe he's a symptom of some misfiring synapses in Henry's mind, I'm content. I feel the same if they're sure that he is a palpable, actual presence.

What do you think Lauren's daughter is going to be like?

She's going to be a dead ringer for one of her uncles--Henry or Winston, I don't know which.  Having children is always a gamble, isn't it?