May 2013

Joanna Hershon

Echoes from an unlikely Harvard friendship
Interview by
Share this Article:

Novelist Joanna Hershon says she has always wanted to write about her father and baseball. Until a few years ago, her father was the official doctor for the New York Yankees; he is now the team’s senior medical consultant.

The problem, Hershon says, is that her father “is self-effacing. He’s the strong, silent type. He rarely talks about work. I think that’s why he lasted so long with George Steinbrenner,” she adds, laughing. “He is definitely not giving out gossip, which is good for his job but not so great for eavesdroppers and writers.”

But if her father’s reticence has frustrated Hershon’s career as eavesdropper and writer about baseball, his and his classmates’ experiences at Harvard in the late 1950s are a tributary to the cascade of observations, investigations and imaginings that flow seamlessly into Hershon’s fourth novel, A Dual Inheritance.

Hershon—who lives in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens with her husband, the painter Derek Buckner, and their 7-year-old twin sons—remembers spending hours as a seventh grader in her father’s study reading about his classmates in the Harvard Red Book.

“There’s something we’re drawn to in the other. I think we’re all looking for what’s missing.”

“Basically alumni are asked to write about their lives. Some people write a couple of sentences; some people write a kind of personal essay. As a 12-year-old, I was just completely fascinated with these self-expressions. I was from a conservative suburban home, and I was always drawn to kind of fringy characters. How much our culture changed over those years just always fascinated me. At the time I was not thinking, oh I’m going to write a novel, but looking back, I think it planted a seed in my imagination.”

From that seed sprouted the opening of Hershon’s capacious new novel, which begins on the Harvard campus in 1962, at the start of the unexpected friendship of Hugh Shipley, reluctant scion of a storied New England family, and Ed Cantowitz, rejected son of an embittered, widowed, former boxer.

“I’m fascinated by environments in which unlikely friendships are possible, and I’m especially interested in male friendships,” Hershon says. “I think that has something to do with my perception as a woman of male friendships being kind of mysterious, with a depth of feeling that maybe isn’t always expressed.”

Then, after a pause, Hershon adds, “I’m aware that writing a book about a friendship between a Jewish guy and a WASPy guy is walking the line of stereotypes,” Hershon says. “But the reason I think it’s done all the time is that people, including me, are fascinated by it. There’s something we’re drawn to in the other. I think we’re all looking for what’s missing. I’m also really interested in insiders who feel like outsiders. So I didn’t find these characters remotely stereotypical, and I really committed to them.”

Indeed. Hugh and Ed—each with unique personal, cultural and sexual baggage, following divergent career arcs—end up at opposite ends of the world. Hugh, rebelling against the prejudices of his privileged upbringing, goes to East Africa as a dilettantish sort of anthropologist and stays on to dedicate his life to humanitarian efforts. Ed, driven to accumulate the sort of wealth that Hugh’s family has had for generations, goes first to Wall Street, then to China and then to jail. Theirs is a friendship that does not last very long after they leave college.

But in the long arc of the story—which takes the reader up to 2010—Ed and Hugh are brought together again through the more elastic and more enduring friendship of their daughters, Rebecca and Vivi.

“I always knew this was going to be a book where a great deal of time passes,” Hershon explains. “I wanted to explore that sense of nostalgia and the mystery of why certain friendships ignite something and remain, and certain friendships completely fizzle out with no lingering effects.”

One of the reasons A Dual Inheritance feels so lived or lived in—at times almost autobiographical—is Hershon’s unusual method of researching the book. “This book is kind of an experiment in my own crackpot anthropology,” she jokes. Instead of lots of traditional book-based research, Hershon “did a lot of interviewing people, a lot of really intimate discussions.”

Early on in her research, for example, Hershon tried to interview everyone she knew who had been at Harvard and Radcliffe in the late 1950s and early 1960s. When she ran her invented character of Hugh Shipley by one of her interviewees and asked if the character sounded plausible, the friend introduced her to the seminal anthropological filmmaker Robert Gardner, “who gave me just amazing information that I incorporated into the book.”

The vivid detail of Rebecca’s emotionally fraught visit with Hugh along Lake Tanganyika, which occurs late in the novel, derives from long conversations with Dr. Amy Lehman, a schoolmate who now heads a floating clinic on Lake Tanganyika. “That and good old imagination,” says Hershon, who has never set foot in Africa.

Even the novel’s title reflects Hershon’s anthropological point of view. “I was trying to find something that had a kind of anthropological, tribal nuance because in some ways I think this book is about people in their tribes trying to escape what does or does not define them.” Only after she settled on the title did she discover that the term is used for an actual anthropological theory.

Hershon has written three previous novels (Swimming, The Outside of August, The German Bride) and believes her latest is her most ambitious book yet. “It has a larger scope. It has a larger cast of characters than my previous books and a larger conversation about politics and work and class and money. I think that in itself is a departure. But reading a summary of the book, I worry that it doesn’t sound as good as it is. I think, oh gosh, you’re just going to have to read it.”

And she’s right. Summary doesn’t do justice to A Dual Inheritance. Readers will have to discover the book’s appeal for themselves.

Get the Book

A Dual Inheritance

A Dual Inheritance

By Joanna Hershon
ISBN 9780345468475

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Interviews