April 16, 2011
Francine Prose is way more prolific than you or I. She has written fourteen novels, three short story collections, one children’s book, and four books of non-fiction. Additionally, she teaches, writes book reviews for the New York Times, is a a contributing editor at Harper’s magazine, a Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bard College, has won a Guggenheim award, has been nominated for a National Book Award, and has been president of the PEN American Center. Her subject matter ranges from her fascination with Anne Frank, to the sordidness of faculty affairs at colleges, to Caravaggio, to 911, to death, life, and love. Her work is often funny, sometimes irreverent, occasionally serious, and always smart and beautifully crafted. I sat down with Francine at Japonica in New York City to chat with her about writing, publishing, her new novel, marriage, and the semester she was my teacher in graduate school.
You have written and published so much over the years. Do you have a list somewhere of stuff you have to write before you die? Will you ever feel that you’ve done enough?
I woke up this morning and said to my husband that I don’t work hard enough. But I’m working on a novel and I’m doing these articles. Yeah, there are tons of things to do. Really, I just want to finish the thing I’m doing. That’s all I want. Sometime in the future I want to do a sort of sequel to READING LIKE A WRITER. But, I’m working on a very long novel now, so even if I worked around the clock forever it still would be a challenge. So that’s all I want to do now.
Does the novel have a title?
Yeah, it’s called, Lovers in the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932.
One of our contributors/editors, Greg Olear, wrote a piece where he interviewed debut novelists and asked them how many novels they wrote until their “first” novel came out. All of them had written at least a couple, some had written five or six. People seemed heartened by the idea that even the writers who look like they’ve succeeded, have a truckload of trying behind them. Was this the case for you? Or did writing and publishing always coexist for you?
Um, I wrote a lot of really terrible, terrible stuff. Stories and stuff. Not a whole novel. Horrible imitations of people. You know, garbage. But the first novel I actually finished was my first published novel. I have still tons of unfinished work. I started two novels before My New American Life. And somehow, famously, the overwrought novel that the student was writing in Blue Angel was a novel that I had started and was terrible and overwrought. The moral being don’t throw anything away. Even if it’s humiliating.
Do you have some internal order of priorities (fiction first, then teaching, then reviews, for example) or is all work equal to you? Do you prefer one type of writing over another?
Fiction is the most fun by far. The most, most fun. You’re just making it up. I mean it’s the scariest for the exact same reason. I certainly don’t have any unfinished nonfiction books. Once you start nonfiction what is going to stop you other than boredom? And you can keep working through that, I mean, I have.
Tell me about the new book, My New American Life. Is the immigrant story based on anything in your own family history?
Well, I’m sure it is but I don’t know much about my own family history. I mean, yes my family were immigrants. They all came over here in 1905, but it was a very different world then. When I started writing the book I was at Baruch College and my students, honors students all of them, came from everywhere. They were functioning in English at an American public university. But a few of them had immigration problems and they worked all night. I mean, they were heroes. Immigration is a huge, huge topic right now and not just in Arizona.
I love the character of Lula. She’s clever, sweet, but cunning and not all good. How did you come up with her?
I love her, too. And the book was basically an excuse to hang out with her for a while. She’s so much fun: plucky, sharp, cynical. It was fun to be with her for the amount of time I was writing the book. And among the things I hope the reader’s going to experience is the fun of hanging out with a horny Albanian nanny.
Was she inside you, or did you create her as someone totally separate from yourself?
Well, it’s funny, I was thinking of something this morning, which is that I don’t know how to drive. I have a license and drove for about eight years. I grew up in New York, City. I got my license in my thirties and by then it was too late and I was very bad at it and there was a family intervention to make me stop. So there is something about not driving that makes me feel like I’m not an American. Driving is a huge issue in the book. So the idea of someone not America who couldn’t drive is something very familiar to me, even though I’m not Albanian.
The way you show Lula’s outsider, alien perspective on the United States is brilliantly done. Why did you choose to make her Albanian?
I know a lot of Eastern Europeans. So there’s that. And, um, I went to Albania . I started going to Eastern Europe in the late 80s. I went to the former Yogoslavia on a Fulbright and so I was very conscious of Eastern Europe. And then, at sometime during the nineties, I was staying in Florida in a Hilton at some conference and there were trays of food left outside the doors for three days. The same trays that were there when we arrived were there when we left. And I thought, God, this is just like it was in Eastern Europe. Corporate culture and state socialism are exactly the same: no one gives a damn if you come back again. There’s no incentive to be nice to people or to be pleasant.
Is there a reason you set this novel in the post 9/11 Bush-Cheney era?
When I started writing it was already 2006. Then, the minute 2008 happened and Obama was elected, everyone started forgetting about the Bush/Cheney years and it had just happened. It really did happen! And immigrants are most aware of the fact of the differences between now and Bush/Cheney years. No one else seems to remember that they were rounding up Muslims and bringing them in for questioning.
You put a gun in the first chapter of this novel. I’m all for gun control, a total liberal, but I love guns in novels. They’re almost as good as sex. Any comments on this?
A friend of mine who read an early draft said, “You’ve kinda forgotten about the gun by the time the gun goes off. New definition of experimental novel: the gun doesn’t go off.” But the gun does goes off in this book.
Among the tens of thousands of readers of THE NERVOUS BREAKDOWN are thousands of writers. Do you have any advice for them on how to write a great story?
Well for one thing, just for starters, language is so important. It’s how a sentence is written. People care about language. I just read Charlie Baxter’s new collection. It’s fantastic, and the language isn’t particularly fancy, but every sentence is just great. So sentences are extremely important. And I think that it’s useful to develop a kind of terror of boring the reader. Because the reader isn’t endlessly patient like your friends or teachers. It’s a necessity to get outside yourself and think, what’s going to get someone reading? What would make anyone but me stay here and read?
Well this reminds me of when you were teaching my graduate fiction workshop at Johns Hopkins and you told the entire class (there were twelve of us), “Your sentences are just sitting on the page like a pile of dead fish!”? I still think of that when I’m writing-I’ve been trying to make my fish swim ever since.
I must have been insane. That was a very difficult year for me. I was living in upstate. My sons were young and I was commuting to teach at Hopkins. It was an hour and half to Penn Station and then I had to wait for another train and it was another two and half hours. My nerves were raw to begin with. So if I went a little nuts in class, it wasn’t all their fault. I also felt very responsible to the program–it was obvious, the sacrifices people made to be there. I don’t teach writing workshops anymore. Only literature classes.
So I don’t have to say things like that. There is no reason to say things like that. I’ll never be that honest again.
Do you remember when I was in your office crying because my marriage was falling apart and I was terrified of a future alone and you said to me, “Jessica, everyone needs a first marriage, that’s how you figure out what you don’t want!” My second husband still quotes you on that.
I’ve been married to my second husband since 1976, what is that? Almost forty years, 35 years. So, it seems impossible that I had a first husband, but I did. It’s miraculous when a first marriage works out. It’s counterintuitive that it would. I don’t remember saying that to you but it is true. It is true.
Another reason I don’t teach writing workshops-and why I’m not a doctor or psychiatrist-is because other people’s suffering has become so painful to me that I can’t bear it. I’m sure I blocked out that day you were crying in my office.
I’m glad I have no pain to impart on you now! Thanks so much for talking with me, Francine.