Monday, January 18, 2010

Author interview: Joshua Ferris

Joshua Ferris is the lauded and bestselling author of Then We Came to the End, which won among other things the PEN/Hemingway Award (for best first American novel) and was one of the ten best books of 2007 according to The New York Times. Today, his second book The Unnamed is published. It's a fascinating read, one that's completely different from his debut novel, being much more bleak and minimalistic. And it's certainly a maturation of his skills and talents as a literary artist. (I reviewed it late last month here.) Mr Ferris was kind enough to answer some questions.

There is a compulsive need to walk and meander in The Unnamed. Did you ever have such yearnings, the desire to travel as far as your character Farnsworth does by foot? Did you attempt to walk like him for research?
I hated walking most of my life, but now I like a long walk, whether in the city where the streets are alive or in the country where the view is long & quiet. I don’t do much walking this time of year, though—too many hunters.

In American novels, characters head west deliberately in order to make something of themselves, to traverse new ground and start a new life. Farnsworth heads west almost by accident, by chance, and in a way unwillingly. Is there something about the current American sensibility that allows for this passive, unconscious malaise?

There are several literary precedents for heading west. Many of them start with hope & end in despair. As you point out, Tim’s trip west is unwilled, so I see his return—to New York, & his family—as the important movement. It inverts the paradigm, & with any luck the psychological correlatives correspond as well: he leaves for the east in despair & arrives with some measure of hope.

As for the malaise, I’m not sure it’s particular to an American sensibility, but it does seem palpable, & maybe permanent—to me at least.

Beckett appears to be a prominent influence in this work, even when it comes down to the internal dialogues that Farnsworth is having with himself. How did you find working in such avant-garde features into a novel that starts out quite traditionally, with a man dissatisfied and confused?

Where to go after Beckett? If Cervantes writes the first novel, Beckett seems to close the literary ellipse. The majority of writers play somewhere inside that vast, plump oval.

I had the good fortune of being in conversation with the novelist Karen Shepard around the time of writing The Unnamed. Karen asked if there would be any formal break in the narrative that would correspond with the main character’s break with reality. It seemed a good question to consider and informed what you describe as the book’s avant-garde features.

People have compared the narrator of Then We Came to the End as a Greek chorus, whereas The Unnamed has perhaps a much more limited scope. With such restrictions, did you find this writing process more liberating than the last? What did this book allow you to do that the last did not?

There was nothing liberating about writing The Unnamed. Its limited scope required considerable restriction: the confinement of a third-person narrative, one main character, and a firm chronology. Whereas Then We Came to the End was all play—multiple points of view, ensemble cast, ever-shifting timeline. The two are utter opposites from a technical point of view, and one was much easier to write than the other.

What's your writing style? Are you a desk-writer or a coffee shop writer? Is your environment an integral part of the writing process?

I like to be at home, at my desk, with the computer off.

Are there any underrated novels you've come across that the average literary reader probably has missed?

If you haven’t read Stephen Wright, you must. M31: A Family Romance & Going Native are my favorites. He does madness marvelously, with as fine & artful a prose style as anyone going. Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square is another good one for madness.

Again, Joshua Ferris's new novel The Unnamed is available today from Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown. He'll be making the following appearances in New York:
19 January: Barnes & Noble, 2889 Broadway, 7.00pm
29 January: Greenlight Bookstore, 686 Fulton Street (Brooklyn), 7.30pm
10 February: Happy Endings @ Joe's Pub, 425 Lafayette Street, 7.00pm

Thanks to Miriam at Hachette for making this interview happen!

1 comment:

Greg Zimmerman said...

Thanks for the great interview! Can't wait to read The Unnamed - and hear Ferris talk about it in person when he comes to Chicago!