“I CANNOT, in good conscience, say that she is a novelist yet.”
That is the penultimate sentence in the (generally positive) New York Times review of Francine Prose’s debut novel, Judah the Pious, which was published in January, 1973—40 years ago this month. Her output since has been extraordinary, in terms of both quality and quantity. Flavor-of-the-month novelists strut and fret their moment upon the literary stage and are heard no more, while Prose relentlessly churns out quiet masterpieces year after year after year. In four decades, she has produced sixteen books of fiction, including Household Saints, which was made into a feature film; Blue Angel, a finalist for the National Book Award; After, her stab at YA..; and most recently, the underrated gem My New American Life. Whatever she may have been at 25, there’s no question that Francine Prose is a novelist now—as well as an essayist, critic, biographer, nonfiction writer (Reading Like a Writer, her valentine to the art of fiction, is an indispensable aid to anyone charged with teaching a creative writing class) and author of children’s books.
A few months ago, I visited Prose at her home in upstate New York, a pale yellow farmhouse on a lazy back road in the shadow of the Catskills. Excited as I was to meet her, I was also terrified. The book on Francine Prose is that she’s a tad intimidating. Photographs tend to bring out a certain severe aspect of her features: eyes dark and intense, mouth unsmiling—the same expressions you see in movie stills of Robert DeNiro. One article I read compared her to an Indian chief (!). So let me begin by assuring you that in real life, Francine Prose does not look at all like DeNiro, or an Indian chief. When she smiles, which she does a lot, or laughs, which she also does with far greater frequency than those images might suggest, her entire face transforms into the picture of warmth. So during my visit, nothing about her appearance struck me as intimidating—although it must be said that a smiling Francine Prose is still Francine Prose.
In her spacious, high-ceiling’d second-floor office, against a purple-majestic mountain backdrop, we talked about life, literature, feminism, and the pursuit of guilty pleasures:
Your parents were both physicians. That’s unusual, for that time, that your mother was a doctor.
It was very unusual. And it was never clear how she managed it. She grew up in a Jewish family where her parents owned a little restaurant on the docks, and she just decided that that’s what she wanted to do. And she couldn’t even go to medical school in the United States, because this was just before the war, and they essentially weren’t letting any Jews in, and they certainly weren’t letting any Jewish women in. So she went to Scotland—she never left home until then; she was 15 when she graduated from NYU. She went to Scotland, and she met my father there, who was also from New York, and they fell in love. But then the war broke out, and the government said you can’t go back to Scotland, you have to go to Switzerland, and she went, not speaking a word of French that I could tell, and she became a doctor. And I would ask her, how did you do it? And she’d answer, well, no one else was doing it.
Did they encourage you in your writing? Did they think you were nuts?
They liked that I was a reader. They were one generation away from immigrant families, so they believed in education, they believed in culture. And my aunt, who lived with us, who was a biology teacher, was all about books and art and theater and opera. So yes, they were, but essentially they wanted me to be a doctor, so it was extremely upsetting to them when I didn’t become a doctor—when it became clear to them that I couldn’t. That was very hard for them.
Like your mother, you have two children. What impact did being a parent have on your writing?
It makes you focus. School bus comes, you start writing; school bus leaves, you stop writing. This was before the Internet, so the available distractions were fewer, so it wasn’t like I was fighting off that much more that I wanted to do. But if you’re paying for time, or if you have a very limited amount of time, and if you’re a certain kind of person, I suppose, it helps you focus.
And on the work itself?
My life became a different life, and that works into your writing. I think if both of us had had gigantic trust funds and no kids to support, I would have done a lot less of certain kinds of writing, which I just did to make money.
I agree with you about the focus. I find that if I have too much free time, paradoxically, it’s harder to get my work done.
Although you get in the habit. Now, I have all the time in the world, and I’m still pretty focused. It’s not as though I have the stop/go of the school bus functioning anymore.
You seem like you’re quite focused. At one point, I realized your name was on the front cover of almost every book that was on my desk.
[laughs] Well, there ya go!
You’ve been teaching for a long time, and you’ve taught at a number of schools all over the country. Some people, when they teach, get bogged down with it, and it interferes with what they’re doing creatively. But a gander at your recent output—Reading Like a Writer; My New American Life, whose Albanian heroine you’ve said was informed by your students at CUNY; and of course Blue Angel—suggests that you find creative inspiration in the classroom, too.
Like everything else, it’s conscious and unconscious….My last class, this course I taught last semester at Bard, was about evil. It was books about evil. We started with Swimming to Cambodia, but then we went back and started from the Book of Genesis, and a little Beowulf, and Chaucer, and an Icelandic saga, and all the way up through Into That Darkness, this book about the commandant of Treblinka, and Nadezhda Mandelstam and In Cold Blood, and all the way up through the history of evil. And the reason I thought I was teaching it was because evil is such an evocative, powerful word, let’s look at all these books—Heart of Darkness—that use the concept or the word and see what it means.
Then it turned out after I’m done with the class, I suddenly realize, I’m writing this novel in which there’s this deeply evil character, and I have been having a huge amount of trouble trying to figure out how to write about her, and on some level, not on an “a=b” level, but on a more peculiar level, let me put it that way, the teaching informed what I was doing. At some point, I realized how I wanted to do it, and it had a lot to do with stuff I was reading and looking at and thinking about.
You are intimidatingly, if not terrifyingly, well-read, and your insights into literature are formidable. I know you have a weakness for “Law & Order” and computer solitaire. Do your guilty pleasures extend to the realm of books? Is there a secret stash of Harlequin romances in this house? A shrine to Twilight? Is there a book you read and enjoyed and thought, “I’m not telling anyone I liked that”?
My real guilty pleasure is skimming through memoirs by writers I know, looking for gossip about people I know; that’s the guiltiest. I do read quite a few books that I think are not serious….I read this book by the widower of a woman named Isabella Blow, who was a muse of Alexander McQueen, a fashion figure and socialite in England. I don’t know why I read it, but it was very entertaining, and it got me through a three-hour flight. So yes, I read stuff that isn’t Dostoyevsky all the time.
That’s a relief.
Well, you know, it’s supposed to be fun.
I have a friend who flies a lot, and she likes having her Kindle so no one can see when she’s reading trash.
Then she’s got the font down low, because one of the things I like about the Kindle is on the subway, you can read over people’s shoulders in a way that was much harder before. But that’s depressing, because often they’re reading books about werewolves.
Are werewolves the new thing now?
They are on the subway. Especially on the L-train, for some reason.
The L is for lycanthropy.
You not only appreciate the genius of literature, but more importantly, you derive great pleasure in reading. Your tastes seem to be expansive. I’m a reader who has been disappointed in the great books—in most books. One of the reasons I began writing, in fact, is because so many novels left me cold. My inability to get through Pride & Prejudice is probably more an indictment of my defective sense and sensibility than Jane Austen’s prose stylings, but I’m wondering if you ever feel that way, too—are there literary classics that you read and thought, “Eh”?
Yes, it happens all the time. For example, I always thought I’d really like Wilkie Collins, because it combined all these things I like—Victorian novels and detective/ mystery things—but I don’t. I don’t know why. I’ve never gotten more than 50 pages into a Wilkie Collins novel. But I guess that’s sort of a borderline masterpiece. When I was a senior in high school, I read almost the entire work of Henry James. And I didn’t know that they weren’t considered on the same level as Gone with the Wind. So I read them all, and I sort of enjoyed them, but I think if I had to read The Ambassadors now, I’d just cut my throat.
When Freedom came out to such “Franzenfare,” with the two glowing reviews in the New York Times and the hagiographical cover story in Time, Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult, among others, basically called bullshit, pointing out the sexism that persists in the way books and writers are covered in the media.
I don’t think Jonathan Franzen gets the attention he does because he’s a male. I honestly don’t. I think those books are fantastic. I am a huge fan of both of his two most recent novels. I don’t think that’s true.
VIDA does surveys about this, and prints up charts that show how a significant percentage of authors being reviewed, authors being published, and authors writing the articles, in the major literary publications are men.
It’s disgusting; it’s still disgusting.
You of course called attention to this years ago, much more eloquently than Weiner and Picoult, in an essay called “Scent of a Woman’s Ink: Are Women Writers Really Inferior,” which ran in Harper’s in 1998.
No one had ever noticed his before, and it was a bombshell. People couldn’t believe I was saying all the stuff I was saying. And that was all these years ago, and for awhile, people said they’d change their ways, and there were these headlines—”three short story collections by women.” There’s never been a headline “three short story collections by men,” because it’s just considered writing. No one thinks of Richard Ford as a manly-male writer, but I don’t think a woman would write what Richard Ford writes. I just don’t think it would happen.
I read your essay. The only thing that’s changed since then is that John Updike is dead.
It’s such a thorny issue because often when women try to express their very real complaints about the situation, it either gets distorted or comes out in such a lame way that it’s worse than not saying anything at all. I think you do need to say things, but not, “Ah, Jonathan Franzen’s getting all the attention.”
I’m a white guy who writes novels, and I’m aware of this gender-bias problem, too, and I don’t know how to react to it. I want to do something positive about the situation, but I don’t know what to do other than click “like” on Facebook, which seems weak.
I don’t know either. After that piece in Harper’s came out, I spent the next three months dealing with it….so I don’t know. I think it’s always not a bad idea for women to say, “I’m not stupider than you because I’m a female. I may be stupider than you, if that matters, but that’s not why. It’s not gender-related.” Stupidity cuts across gender, class, nationality…
[Laughs] The trend in novels now, especially debut novels, is the “thinly-veiled autobiography,” the blending of memoir and fiction. Unless you were the King of Poland in a past life, your first novel, Judah the Pious, is not autobiographical, and in general, you manage to create space between your fiction and your personal life (or so it seems). What do you think about the blur of reality and make-believe?
I think that the forms are always merged. It’s very rare to read fiction, I’m including my own, that doesn’t have strong autobiographical elements, even if it doesn’t seem to. To take an obvious example, but maybe not to anyone but me, A Changed Man, there are two boys in it, and when my sons read it, they said, “Oh, there’s so much about our family life.” Well, not really. On the surface, you would never think that. All the physical circumstances are different, but the character’s deep feelings about sons and motherhood and so forth—where else would I have gotten them? So I think there’s always a merge.
Part of that issue that bothers me is the fear that what will come out of all that merging and blurring is some sort of essential distrust of the imagination, which is always there, in a way. That is, if the person makes it up, it’s not as good as if the person at least pretends it’s true. And that leads to the sort of thing like how can Flaubert write from the point of view of a woman, or how can someone presume to imagine his or her way into a character who is in every surface way different from the writer. Well, that’s what fiction has always done. But if you start to say, “Memoir good, fiction bad,” that’s going to become more problematic, and more despised, really. And I don’t mean to sound harsh, but I think that people who have no imagination have always had to rage at people who do.
Readers of my first book—all seven of them—often remark to me, “Wow, this would make a great movie,” as if that were the highest compliment a novelist could receive. The feature-length movie, for better or worse, has become our culture’s dominant art form. Household Saints was made into a movie; otherwise, your IMDB page is refreshingly empty. What is your relationship to Hollywood? Did you want them to adapt, say, Blue Angel, or did they want to do it and you told them to buzz off?
No, no, someone has an option. It’s been a whole history of people optioning and not making the movie. Sofia Coppola has an option on Goldengrove right now. But I have no way of knowing how many books she’s optioned. It’s just a check that comes or doesn’t come, or a bigger check that comes or doesn’t come.
Because that Rooney Mara would be a wonderful Angela Argo.
Rooney Mara would be good.
Angela Argo is a great name, by the way. How long did it take you to come up with it?
I don’t know. It was one of those ones. Sometimes, you get it and you’ve got it.
I hate picking out names for characters. It’s like picking out wallpaper. Speaking of names: one of my oldest friends is named Michael Strange. He’s a devastatingly funny guy—so he’s well-named. I’ve known Mike Strange since kindergarten, and by first grade I knew not to make jokes about his last name anymore, because he’d heard them all. So I’m curious about your last name…
I’m heard them all.
Do you get tired of people having fun with your name?
When I was in my twenties, one of my friends had this huge Great Dane—I mean, it was huge; it was the size of this room—and they had to leave it with me for a weekend, so I was walking this Great Dane around Cambridge. And after about six hours, I noticed that everyone would say the same thing about the dog. And that’s how I feel about my name.
What’s the best pun you’ve heard?
The best? My brother says that would I should say when people bring it up is, “Well, it could be Verse.”