On April 10, I sat down with Stephen Henighan to chat about writing and his latest novel, THE WORLD OF AFTER from Cormorant Books. You can check out the video of our conversation on our YouTube channel.
The World of After is about three men and a tragedy that binds them together while also tearing them apart. It is a journey to freedom and of self-discovery in a post-Cold War world.
The relationships in The World of After are complicated. Sometimes, it feels like their friendships exist out of obligation rather than mutual love and at one point in the book, it is said that Canadians living in Oxford are just expected to be friends. How do you see the friendships at the heart of the novel? What did you hope a reader might feel?
This novel falls into what I would call the “trans-Atlantic” category. The characters’ behaviour, including their friendships is conditioned by the fact that they are overseas. It’s a situation where the Canadians feel they should be friends with each other even though they often don’t have much in common and are probably people who wouldn’t spend time together at home. At the same time, the emotional stakes in the central friendship triangle, between Kevin, Alex and Leon, are rendered more intense by the three young men’s intellectual competition, their arguments over poetry and Russia’s direction under Boris Yeltsin. And it’s more complicated, of course, because Leon isn’t Canadian. His identity as an East London Jew from a traditionally Communist family prompts strong but complicated responses in both Kevin, the Montrealer, and Alex from Toronto.
I don’t think directly about reader response. I work to make the characters as true as they can be, and hope that their humanity will draw the reader in, whether I’m writing about people with few opportunities in life or about intellectuals who are receiving a privileged graduate education, as is the case in this novel.
I tried to craft a novel about the 1990s as a “long decade,” beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and concluding only in 2001 or 2003—a decade of uncertainty and unleashed energy but also of a kind of freedom to explore the world with fresh eyes.Stephen Henighan
Zed, states toward the end, as a historian, “small decisions do change large destines”. This reflects on Kevin’s and Leon’s misstep in the novel, but also speaks to the great historical themes in the book. Can you talk about that?
One of the conundrums with which the novel presents the reader is that Zed, a conservative, traditional historian, sees the morality of an individual’s acts as a decisive factor in shaping capital-h History, while Leon, the radical analyst of social class, downplays the role of the individual. In light of the novel’s events, the reader has to ask: is Leon taking this position out of intellectual conviction, or out of discomfort with confronting his role in the tragedy that breaks up their triangular friendship and dispatches the three young men on their journeys through the Europe of the 1990s?
At the same time, as your question suggests, Zed’s statement has resonances for the rest of the novel. To what extent is the war in ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s the result of the actions of a particular individual, Slobodan Milosevic, and to what extent is it a product of a historical watershed: the end of the Cold War and the rise of ethno-nationalism? (Likewise today: would any Russian president have invaded a fast-Westernizing Ukraine, or is the war the product of Vladimir Putin’s particular personality and decisions?)
There’s an ongoing debate about these questions throughout the novel. Zed gets the last word, which in some ways is close to my heart, though I’m still not absolutely certain that he’s right.
At one point Leon says: “You know what I say? I say don’t worry, new divisions will come along and you’re not going to like them one bit. The West will be gripped by some new oppressive ideology that’s even more repellent than anti-communism.” Feels like a premonition. What are your thoughts given the current situation in Ukraine?
It’s funny, throughout the novel the characters follow, and argue about, the disastrous government of Boris Yeltsin, which ushered Russia into Western capitalism in a position of almost supine weakness—a negative experience that opened the door to a “strong leader” like Putin who would withdraw Russia from the Western system or use it to his own advantage. Until Russia invaded Ukraine in February, I had actually forgotten how much there was in the novel about the Yeltsin government –the long-distance cause of the present catastrophe.
When Leon says that, I actually think more about the idea of the 1990s as the ambiguous borderland between the Cold War, which wound down between 1989 and 1991, and the West’s anti-Islamic fervour, which began to crank up after the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. When the Berlin Wall fell, there was a hope, in Europe at least, of a rebirth of the cultural diversity of Central and Eastern Europe—that all those ethnic minorities living alongside each other would emerge and remind us of the value of linguistic and cultural multiplicity. Also, for people brought up in the 1970s and 1980s, the old binary, us-or-them ways of perceiving the world, travelling in the world, interacting with people from different places, became new and uncertain.
Here I was playing, in my own mind at least, with the British historian Eric Hobsbawm’s idea that the 19th century was a “long century” in that it began with the French Revolution in 1789 and ended only with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. In a similar vein, I tried to craft a novel about the 1990s as a “long decade,” beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and concluding only in 2001 or 2003—a decade of uncertainty and unleashed energy but also of a kind of freedom to explore the world with fresh eyes. I would read Leon’s warning about future oppressive ideologies as referring to Islamophobia and the War on Terror, though perhaps, in light of the invasion of Ukraine, one could read it in other ways as well.
I love how all the characters are so fixated on each other’s political leanings. Is that an accurate portrayal of life at Oxford at the time? Or perhaps even now?
I’m not sure. My impression from talking to people who are still there is that Oxford became much less politicized after the year 2000 or so. The ferment of the 1990s waned. In the novel, part of the fixation comes from the central characters belonging to a small graduate community where people inevitably peel off into groups that caricature each other’s views, in one of the minority of Oxford colleges known for liberal or leftist politics.
Kevin reflects that he had no desire to return to Montreal and an easier life, and that he longs for a “post-war condition whose Central European heart seemed to offer a kind of hope.” I can’t help but think about all the people immersed in academia at the time. Where do you think Kevin would be right now? Or Leon? Alex?
Kevin isn’t much of an academic, as his struggles at Oxford demonstrate. Part of the attraction of a potentially revived Mitteleuropa –a Central Europe that might bring back the cultural diversity of, say, the Austro-Hungarian Empire– is that it provides him with a destiny that can be defined in vague, rather misty, terms that don’t require the sort of precise, even pedantic, definitions of which academia is so fond.
Where would they be today? Leon would be a highly successful academic, Kevin would continue to grind along as a rather mediocre Cégep teacher in Montreal. And Alex? Well, we see where he ends up at the end of the book….. He might be involved in laundering money for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or, given that he betrays very powerful people near the novel’s conclusion, he might no longer be alive.
Each time I finished a new, shorter draft, I let it sit for a year or two until I was able to return to it and see it clearly enough, I hoped, to notice which bits of each sentence stuck out awkwardly.Stephen Henighan
Let’s talk about the length of this novel. The World of After was originally over 800 pages. Knowing, The Path of the Jaguar and Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives was a quarter that length and your short stories display your mastery of telling great stories with fewer pages. What was different about this story? And how did you manage to cut so much?
To reduce the 800-page manuscript to the current 450 pages, I eliminated some slightly preposterous subplots; but mostly I focused –very consciously so—on the skills I’ve tried to develop in writing short stories and columns for Geist magazine: making every word count, cutting unnecessary words out of each sentence, trying to convey more than explain. It was very much a chopping and compressing process that I undertook paragraph by paragraph. That’s why it took me eight or nine years. Each time I finished a new, shorter draft, I let it sit for a year or two until I was able to return to it and see it clearly enough, I hoped, to notice which bits of each sentence stuck out awkwardly.
This isn’t the first long or longish novel I’ve written: my first novel, Other Americas (1990) and my third one, The Streets of Winter (2004), are both over 300 pages. I think The Path of the Jaguar and Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives were shorter because I was, quite conspicuously, writing about protagonists who were from cultural backgrounds very different from mine. It’s not that I had less to say about their humanity, but rather that I had to vet each word or reaction to make sure it sounded plausible. Writing in the first-person as Kevin I was able to let myself go in a way that I wasn’t quite able to do when I was writing in the first person as Mr. R. U. Singh.
Kevin is quite different from me: he’s a lifelong Montrealer, a fifth- or sixth-generation Canadian while I’m an immigrant who grew up mainly in the Ottawa Valley but moved around a lot, too. Kevin is less middle-class than I am, and he has never been to England prior to his arrival in Oxford as a graduate student. By contrast, I had already lived about four years of my life in the U.K. when I went to study there, and had grown up with a British mother and stepfather. There were things about British society which I understood intuitively that Kevin has to learn. Still, the mere fact that he’s a straight white male with an Irish surname who belongs to the same generation as I do probably emboldened me to assume I could guess his reactions to most situations which, in the end, made for a more expansive story.
It would be impossible to not talk about the women in the novel. Kevin is quite the Lothario: a bit judgmental of all the women, sexually, and yet pursuant, regardless. At times, I felt sorry for him because it was clear and I think he even admits to this, that he could not connect emotionally with many of them. Who do you think, of all the women, he loved most?
Definitely Catherine. She’s the would-be soulmate with whom his ultimate incompatibility is most painful. At the same time, I’m not sure I’d accept the Lothario designation. The novel covers twelve years of Kevin’s life, from the ages, roughly, of 32 to 44. Would we designate a single man who, between 32 and 44, has three serious relationships (I’m counting Camille, Kumiko and Catherine) and three or four other affairs a “Lothario”? I think the compressed space of the novel may make Kevin appear more assiduous in this regard than we might consider him to be if he were one of our friends. Yet, at the same time, you’re not wrong: there IS a kind of post-fall-of-the-Berlin-Wall release of energy at an emotional and sexual level that runs parallel to his intellectual and political discovery of the world of 1990s Europe and which, I hope, enriches and illuminates his wayward quest.
The women in the novel are all pretty independent; most of them resemble Kevin in not being particularly monogamous. Each embodies a different reaction to the cultural shifts of the time: Camille’s support of Québécois nationalism, Kumiko’s quest for a shared expatriate bond—until she realizes she will have to return to Japan and “become Japanese again” in order to work in her field; Leonie’s dedication to being a single female academic while pursuing her passion for working-class men and her refusal to take seriously anyone from North America; and most significantly to the novel’s themes, Catherine’s “Ostalgie”—her nostalgic longing for the communal and traditionalist elements of Cold War Eastern Europe—which frames the whole book.
A question from our audience: I’m so impressed with you being able to work on 5 different projects at once! How do you manage all those stories in your head? Are they all very different stories so that you can keep them straight?
Please don’t be impressed! I really don’t keep them all in my head. In fact, that’s the benefit of having lots of unfinished manuscripts on your desk. By the time I return to the one that’s too long and too thin or just not working in some way I can’t put my finger on, so much time has passed –often two or three years—that rereading it is like reading the work of a stranger. And that makes it easier to edit it and, eventually—after many more drafts, alas—make it better (at least that’s what I keep hoping).
Are you ever surprised to suddenly understand something a character does?
I think this works the other way around: I’m often surprised by what my characters do. I have a plot nicely organized, I know what’s supposed to come next, then they just go off in a different direction and I no longer have a plot but a mess. As part of that mess, I sometimes start to understand why the characters have refused to act as I wished them to. And that may lead to greater comprehension of my characters—if I’m lucky.
What are you working on now?
I’m never not writing short stories so inevitably there are a couple of mangled short story drafts on my desk. I have a book of essays that’s two or three essays away from completion and a second draft of a John le Carré-like novel set in Egypt during the build-up to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. My pandemic project has been to try to finally finish a long academic/ non-fiction book on the relationship between history and literature in Angola. I’ve been writing little snippets of this book since 2005. In March 2020 I started working on it full-tilt. I’ll finish it in the next few months if I’m lucky—and if I’m not distracted by something else!
Stephen Henighan is the author of five novels, four collections of short stories, and four books of essays. His work has been published in Ploughshares, The Globe and Mail, Geist Magazine, and The Walrus — to name a few. He has translated novels into English from Portuguese and Romanian and is the General Editor, Biblioasis International Translation Series. He is currently a professor of Spanish and Hispanic Studies at the University of Guelph. You can follow him on Twitter @stephenhenighan