A conversation with Francine Prose
March 11, 1998
When Francine Prose finished her education in 1969 she took one look around, decided writing was the only thing she was good at, and never turned back. Thirty years later she has written nearly twenty books (among them novels, children's books, novellas, and short-story collections) and has contributed stories, articles, and reviews to almost every major American magazine and newspaper. She's also taught at prestigious writing programs (such as Sarah Lawrence and Warren Wilson), had two sons, and is currently an editor at DoubleTake.
Francine Prose is a keen observer, and her fiction is full of wryly delivered truths and sardonic witticisms that come from paying close attention to the world. "Withering," one critic has written. "Mocking," another has said. But Prose's fiction does not ease into a fashionable cynicism; instead, it tends toward irony with heart. Trapped within their own heads, victims to the nervous din of their own inner voices, her characters are nevertheless endearingly rendered. Prose's journalism, the body of which covers a remarkably wide range of contemporary topics, lacks the ironic edge of her fiction but is never shy. Very little -- not foreign travel, marital sleep patterns, affairs of the heart, motherhood, nor the countless books that she reviews for Newsday-- escapes her sharply honed perceptions.
Francine Prose spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bolick.
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Previously in Facts & Fiction:
Lee K. Abbott ("Everything, All at Once," February, 1998)
E. Annie Proulx ("The Half-Skinned Steer," November, 1997)
Garrison Keillor ("Talk Radio," October, 1997)
Tess Gallagher ("The Poetry Baron," July, 1997)
Larry Heinemann ("The Fragging," June, 1997)
Cynthia Ozick ("Puttermesser in Paradise," May, 1997)
More Facts & Fiction interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
I had no choice. I was unqualified to do anything else. I went through college in the 1960s without having any idea that I was going to have to make a living. When I graduated in 1968 it was quite a shock to find out that there was a world out there and that it wasn't going to support me. And so I went to graduate school right away, which didn't work out, and finally, in complete desperation, I started to write my first novel. It turned out to be the only option.
Of course, I've always read. I started when I was four years old and just didn't stop. I read all the time. The only reason I wanted to be a writer was because I was such an avid reader. I have students now who never read anything, and I can't figure out why they want to write. What do they want? The fast-track lifestyle? I don't think so.
So you started with fiction, then, not journalism. How did you get into journalism?
I wrote about four novels before I wrote a word of journalism. I started writing journalism when a friend at The New York Times hired me to write the "Hers" column, which in those days you wrote weekly, for ten weeks. The "Hers" column was great while it lasted -- you could write about anything you wanted. On the strength of those pieces I got offers from other magazines, mostly parent magazines at that point; my sons were quite young then, so I could write about how to get children to eat vegetables and so forth, which people apparently have a tireless interest in. I was living in the country, and the first serious piece of reporting I did was about a local environmental scandal: asbestos in the water supply near Woodstock, New York. All these people who had left the dirt and crime and pollution of the city were suddenly faced with gunky fibers spewing out of the faucets. So I did a piece on that for The New York Times Magazine,and I discovered that I liked reporting. It takes me out into the world and makes me see things and meet people whom I wouldn't ordinarily have met. And it's a good source of material for a fiction writer. Just before I started writing Primitive PeopleI was asked to write an article for an interior-decorating magazine. They sent me to interview an interior decorator who was a truly unpleasant person. Of course, I knew nothing about interior decorating, I didn't know Queen Anne from Chippendale, which she figured out right away -- and was quite nasty about. I'd never met an interior decorator before, but when I sat down to write Primitive Peopleand I needed a profession for the villain character ... well, guess what?
Upon returning to the city after living in the country, you wrote, "living in the country required an active inner life and the energy to make things happen; here in the city [the] world thrums around us with an energizing momentum independent of our inner resources." Do you find that you need the stimulation of the city to write?
No, it's harder to write in the city. In the country there was really nothing to do. Everyone assumes that when you live in the country, you love being in nature, but I don't. I didn't. So I didn't leave the house often. This lasted for seventeen years. I got a lot of work done.
But in the city, just taking a walk is fun. You can make grocery shopping last the entire day. It's wonderfully distracting. Fortunately, or unfortunately, we live in a strange apartment with one twenty-foot-high window facing a brick wall, about a foot and a half away. Not much of a view. So when I'm at my desk I feel like I can work undistracted. I might as well be in the country. Writing while facing a wall, incidentally, seems to me the perfect metaphor for being a writer. Samuel Beckett's apartment in Paris -- the apartment in which he lived for the last years of his life -- looked out on a prison exercise yard.
You are an associate editor at DoubleTake. How does your experience as an editor affect your writing, and vice versa?
My experience as a writer affects my work as an editor more than the other way around. I'm a maniac about sentences and sentence structure and how things are written -- I'll rewrite something a zillion times until it shows some improvement. I expect that same meticulousness from what I'm reading and what I want to publish. I know how important and difficult careful writing is, so I think, Look, if I'm going to work that hard, everybody else ought to as well.
Do you mold your voice to the needs of the various magazines for which you write? What prompts the ideas for these articles?
You have to -- unless you want your piece killed. You are not going to write the same way for The New York Times as you are for Redbook. When I write articles for magazines I feel like a ventriloquist's dummy; when I write my own novels I feel like I've got Tourette's Syndrome. As for ideas, I hardly have any. Or very rarely. Right now I'm working on a piece for Harper's about why women writers aren't read in the same way male writers are. That was my idea. Generally, an editor will call me up and ask me to write about a particular topic, ask if I've been thinking about anything like it. It was hardly a stretch for me to write about maternal anxiety and paranoia, for instance. I consider myself something of an expert.
"The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet," (March, Atlantic) makes humorous jabs at the tribe-like and competitive spirit of the contemporary poetry scene. Is there something that makes the poetry world more susceptible to ridicule than the world of fiction?
Well, yes. I think poets are much more dramatic, more theatrical than fiction writers. Poets and fiction writers cannot have the same habits. If you're working on a novel you work every day. As Flaubert said, it's a life that requires bourgeois habits. I can't imagine -- although the minute I say I can't imagine something, I usually find out that it happened -- a memorial service for a fiction writer in which people are throwing themselves on the coffin.
Some of your earlier work employs a traditional storytelling technique -- one character sits down and tells a story to another. Why did you choose this approach?
Because it's easy. In fact, I often tell students that storytelling is a very easy way to begin writing. One of the difficulties of being a beginning writer is that you're never sure whom you're addressing. The page? Yourself? The world? Some anonymous listener? But when a listener is built into the story, you know who the audience is. The listener can break in and comment on the story, and it requires you to tell a story that's actually a story, because if it weren't a story, why would the person be telling it? I think almost everybody has a natural sense of what a story is. If people are sitting around in a room swapping stories about their dogs or their cats, they tell a story in which something unusual happens. They don't just say, "I have a dog." They say, "My dog bit the mailman." But somehow when they sit down to write, they're writing versions of "I have a dog."
Why did you move away from traditional storytelling?
I got more interested in describing what I saw around me. For a long time I thought I had to go back to some time in the past to write a complicated narrative, but I began to realize that the world around me had plenty of interesting stories in it. Also, I felt that there was something about the ways in which I saw people behaving -- this was the 1980s, so the behavior was pretty unattractive -- that I wanted to capture on the page.
Repeatedly your fiction features overly cerebral characters in spiritual crisis, whether they be Jewish, Catholic, or Goddess worshipers. Do the grapplings of your characters reflect your own?
No. I have daily moral crises during which I think,"Oh, why did I just say that terrible thing? I wasn't thinking! I must be a completely rotten person!" But I no longer think of these as spiritual crises. I have a lot of sympathy for people in the midst of spiritual turmoil, which is why I write about it, but at this point in my life I don't think of myself as a particularly spiritual person. I don't meditate, or anything. In comparison to the past so few people have a religion that they were born with, that they stay with, that they believe in, and that they practice all their lives. I have immense sympathy for the search for answers and explanations.
After working on your first novel while living in Bombay in the 1970s -- the first time you really committed yourself to your writing -- you "developed a curiosity about other writers who had begun to write (or to take their writing seriously) only after traveling to places that were in every way far from home." Now that you are a well-traveled and established writer, does travel still hold the same transformative potency?
Absolutely. So many things are crystallized when you are in a strange country. Questions about your life, or the world, suddenly become very clear. The answers don't necessarily become clear but the questions become clear. The two novellas in The Guided Tours of Hellare about Americans traveling abroad. It's as if travel is a huge magnifying glass which they're holding up to themselves -- not the standard idea of the so-called "broadening" effect of travel. Anyway, it's not so much the travel that I'm writing about (neither of the novels get very far -- one takes place in Paris, the other in a former concentration camp) as what travel does to the traveler.
As we've already discussed, your writing career has been a full one thus far. What comes next?
I'm working on a new novel. And I'm too superstitious to talk about it.
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved. Photograph of Francine Prose by Judy Linn.