2007 National Book Award Fiction Finalist Interview With Joshua Ferris

Joshua Ferris

Joshua Ferris
Then We Came to the End
Little, Brown & Company

Photo © Kelly Campbell.

Interview conducted by Bret Anthony Johnston.

BAJ: First and foremost, congratulations on being a finalist for the National Book Award! One of the staples of the finalist-interview genre seems to be the question of where you were when you found out. How did you find out about being a finalist? Has it sunk in yet?

JF: I don’t vary much day-to-day when it comes to what and when I eat, and it was cottage cheese time. Cottage cheese is a very polarizing food and I don’t do much to help its cause because I eat it topped with granola and flax seed. It’s pretty grim until you acquire the taste. Why acquire the taste? you ask. Because it’s high in protein and low in fat and that makes good brain food, so I started eating it for that, and then I acquired the taste, and now I don’t go a day without eating it. So I was on my way down the stairs for some cottage cheese when I got a call from my agent, Julie Barer, who asked me in a very casual voice if I wanted to hear some good news. I had just handed her pages of a new novel and thought she was calling to say she liked them. I never made it to the cottage cheese. Julie and I had champagne instead, which is also good brain food, but for a different part of the brain. The news hasn’t sunk in yet, no, mainly because of the magnitude and stature of the other finalists. I think it’s sunk in, and then I remember who else is on the list.

BAJ: In a country such as ours, where reading is in such a state of crisis, what is the role of the fiction writer? Does being a finalist for such a prestigious award affect how you view yourself in that role?

JF: I take a cue from Vladimir Nabokov on this question: the role of the fiction writer anywhere is to bring delight to the reader and nothing more. I can do as little—which is to say very, very little—about the country’s woeful state of reading as I can about the country’s woeful state of geopolitics. All I can do is try my best to provide the greatest amount of artistic delight for that reader or two who decides to follow me where my instinct and curiosity take me. I do right by that reader if I do right by myself, and I do that by being attentive to what’s interesting, peculiar, funny, eternal, and by being attentive to words.

BAJ: How long did you work on Then We Came to the End?

JF: The first draft was started in the spring of 2002 and then wrestled to the ground and euthanized in the fall of 2003. I just didn’t know what the hell I was doing. There was a big story containing a whole bunch of little stories and it was all held together by a first-person plural narrative and I just thought, oh, this is a fool’s errand, this is much, much better than I’ll ever be. And that book still is. The book that ended up being Then We Came to the End has been modified to fit the author’s shortcomings.

I was lying in bed one night in the spring of 2005 talking with my wife when the voice that had eluded me, the voice of the book, came into my head and I got up and started writing. That draft—which contained a little scrap metal from the old draft—was finished in a fury, in about fourteen weeks.

BAJ: What drew you to the story?

JF: Probably the challenge of it. Tell a story with countless characters from the point of view of a monolithic failing advertising agency—go! Also, the challenge of trying to turn an experience—I worked in advertising—into genuine fiction. Not veiled autobiography, but an honest sublimation of mundane experience into something deserving of a reader’s limited time on earth. And finally I was fascinated by the behemoth structure of a corporation—the hierarchies, the coded messages, the power struggles. I thought such a pervasive and inscrutable place merited the sustained attention a novelist has to give to his or her subject. The characters in Then We Came to the End are under the constant threat of layoffs, and that creates a specific group dynamic: the group’s unquenchable scrutiny of itself. I thought it would be fun to watch that group dynamic implode.

BAJ: How does the book compare to other prose you’ve written?

JF: It’s longer. It succeeded to a greater extent. It got published.

BAJ: Were there moments in your writing process where you worried the book wouldn’t work? If so, how did you press on?

JF: Like I say, I didn’t press on. I quit! I quit everything and eventually I figure it out. I’m working on a book now, same thing. Started it. I thought, great! Six months later I wanted to destroy it into bits. Hole-punch it into oblivion. But then I realized I’d just started the story in the wrong place. With Then We Came to the End I started with the wrong voice. It took me time to realize that, and to find the right one.

BAJ: If there is a common thread among this year’s fiction finalists, it might be that all of the books employ interesting narrative structures and scopes. In your novel, you use the first-person plural narration—We—which is maybe the rarest of all narrative perspectives. Did you conceive of such narration before writing the book, or did the symbiotic relationship between the subject and structure emerge more intuitively?

JF: My father took a great risk around the time he turned fifty by starting his own company. It was small at first; he was his only employee. Yet his voicemail told callers that “we” weren’t in right now, but if you left a message, “we” would call you back. Who was this “we?” It was just him! But of course, he had to be a “we”—few people trust a one-man show. Over time I came to realize that every company refers to itself in the first-person plural—in annual reports, corporate brochures, within meetings and internal memos, and in particular, in their advertising. What used to be the royal we might now be thought of as the corporate we. It’s a company’s way of showing unity and strength; it’s also a matter of making everyone feel as if they’re a member of the club. This is especially true in the advertising industry where everyone is dedicated to getting more and more people to join the clubs of their clients, clients who have dreams of greater market share, bigger profit margins and, ultimately, global dominance.

In Then We Came to the End, you see just who this “we” really is—a collection of messy human beings—stripped of their glossy finish and eternal corporate optimism. It returns the “we” to the individuals who embody it, people with anger-management issues and bills to pay, instead of letting the mystic “we” live on unperturbed in the magic land promoted by billboards and boardrooms.

So, to answer your question, the novel’s point of view was a no-brainer from the beginning. Making it work just took me up and down a long learning curve.

BAJ: Finally, when you were writing Then We Came to the End, did you have an audience or ideal reader in mind? If so, who?

JF: Not really. I wanted my wife to like it. I wanted my friends to like it. I suppose in the back of my mind I have the vague hope that one or two of the writers I admire most might pick it up and enjoy it. But designing an ideal reader just gets me into trouble. I start showing up at the desk in ties, smelling of cologne, looking overeager and assaulting the page with prettiness. I’m better off assuming only one or two readers, those bound to me by blood or vow, and then allowing myself to hope for more only after the fact.

Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of internationally acclaimed Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming the World, both from Random House. In 2006, he received the “5 Under 35” fiction honor from the National Book Foundation. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is currently the Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University. For more information, please visit: www.bretanthonyjohnston.com.