An Interview with Francine Prose, by Elizabeth Blachman
September 16, 2013
Francine Prose’s 1981 novel Household Saints begins with a card game and ends with a beatification. Our heroine departs the novel as the dubious saint of ironed shirts and scrubbed floors, whispered about on hot nights in Little Italy and sanctified by a miracle of roses running up the trellis of the nuthouse. And many of Prose’s tales—though they’re filled with caustic, witty perspectives on modern life and peopled with Albanian thugs, campus adulterers, skinheads, and lonely teenagers—seem to close with a benediction. A lonely single mother experiences a shared moment of acid-trip transcendence with a former neo-Nazi, an Albanian immigrant drives an abandoned SUV across the George Washington Bridge into the winter sunlight, a young girl comes down with meningitis in an art museum and has an epiphany that allows her to see truth through the twisting lines of an El Greco painting. It’s like the Hebrew prayer at the end of the Sabbath that thanks God for separating the sacred and the profane, except that Prose knits the two together, creating a world that is a little sad, a little holy, and very funny.
Prose has been writing fiction, nonfiction, and criticism since she left a graduate program at Harvard to write her novel Judah the Pious, published in 1973. The former president of the PEN American Center lives in New York City and has written almost twenty works of fiction; her novel Blue Angel was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Prose’s nonfiction covers topics from the life of the artist Caravaggio to an examination of Anne Frank as a literary creator. She distilled her more than two decades of teaching literature and writing into her 2006 bestseller Reading Like a Writer. There she lays out her theories on learning to write through a close reading of the great works of literature rather than in the workshop setting—what, she asks, if Kafka had been told that his classmates “don’t believe the part about the guy waking up one morning to find he’s a giant bug?” Prose examines the words, sentences, narration, and dialogue of Chekhov, Woolf, Austin, and Hemingway, among many others. She ends the literary bible with a chapter called “Reading for Courage,” in which she confronts the question of how we can write in a harsh world by offering the Zbigniew Herbert poem “Five Men,” which begins with a courtyard where the men will be shot, and concludes, “offer to the betrayed world/a rose.” I spoke with Prose about thirteen-year-olds, muses, her upcoming novel, and the mysteries of writing.
Our theme for this issue is The Unknown, and it occurs to me that you have compiled so much knowledge about writing in Reading Like a Writer and in decades of writing and teaching. So I wanted to ask you what aspects of writing are still most mysterious to you?
It’s all mysterious. That is, every time I start to write anything I’m confronted by how little I know, and how much I have to find out. And how little anything that I’ve already done has prepared me for what I have to do. In a way that’s one of the reasons to do it. You don’t want to do the things that you know how to do, and you don’t want to solve the mysteries the same way. It would be like reading a detective story twice. Sooner or later you figure out: oh, I know who did it. So just simple things—how do I tell this story? how do I create a character?—are endlessly mysterious. I hope that’s a comfort for people who are starting out and trying to figure out how to do this, because we’re all just starting out and trying to figure out how to do this.
Your discussion about great sentences in Reading Like a Writer made me want to ask you whether you have a favorite sentence from your own work?
You know I do, but I wish I could remember it. Somebody was doing a T-shirt for some charity thing, and they asked me if there was a line that could be put on a T-shirt. It was sort of an answer to Freud’s question about what do women want, and it went something like, “What women wanted was the simple attention a man might pay another man who was talking about his car” [from Primitive People]. It may not be my favorite, but it was one that stood out.
Could you pin down a favorite sentence from literature, or are there too many?
Oh, there are too many. And they change all the time. I know when I say to my husband, “Listen to this,” I’ve found another one.
I love your concept of teaching about writing by studying literature, rather than the traditional workshop method. When you’re teaching a novel, has a class ever surprised you, or gone in a direction that you didn’t expect?
Constantly. I feel very, very fortunate. You know I teach at Bard College, and my students—I don’t know how this has happened—but they all seem like geniuses to me. Every semester, someone will say something, or more than one person will say something, and I’ll say, “Who are you? How do you know this?” And because they’re often very diligent, they’ll look up things that I won’t have bothered to look up or have just skimmed over—over and over. For example, I was teaching John Cheever’s “Goodbye My Brother,” which is a story I could practically recite to you by heart. The family has a house in Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard, and the area is called Laud’s Head. And one of my students had looked up the fact that Laud was someone who had been beheaded by Oliver Cromwell for advocating pleasure, which was so perfectly in theme with the story. And I went, “Whoa, who taught you to look that up?”
Do moments like that ever change you as a writer? Do you ever go back to the computer with new ideas from teaching?
Well, teaching literature does that all the time. I think that’s one of the reasons I like to do it. And sometimes, again, it’s quite mysterious. I’ll have reached the usual brick wall in my work, and I’ll teach something, and the question I need answered will be answered by the thing I’m teaching that week.
I did want to ask you about that brick wall because I was looking at your long list of titles, and I was thinking about how your character Swenson struggles to write his second book in Blue Angel, and I was wondering if you ever have moments like that when you’re stuck.
[Laughs] I have moments like that every day. I was talking to some friends of mine, last week or the week before, about question-and-answer periods after readings, and how often we get asked the same question over and over. But then sometimes you get a really great question. I was in Oregon talking to a group of high school students, and one of the students raised her hand and said, “Do you ever have days when you just hate every word you’ve ever written?” And I thought, “Yeah, how come no one has asked me this before?” So yes, I think there are always those days, and really, the only thing to do for it is to stop working and take a walk—a walk that might last a couple of days or weeks—waiting for it to resolve itself somehow.
When I was reading Goldengrove I wondered if there was any overlap between that and your research for Anne Frank—if there was any connection between the two wise thirteen-year-olds.
Yeah, I reread Anne Frank because I was writing Goldengrove. That’s exactly how it happened. I was thinking, okay, what’s the best book about a thirteenyear- old ever written. And I said, “Well, one written by a thirteen-year-old.”
Author photo by Stephanie Berger.
*This interview is an excerpt from a feature that appears in issue 13 of Slice. To purchase a copy and read the full interview, click here.
Francine Prose is the author of many bestselling books of fiction, including A Changed Man and Blue Angel, a National Book Award finalist, as well as the nonfiction New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer. Among her latest books are Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife and the novel My New American Life. Prose is a former president of PEN American Center, and she lives in New York City.
Elizabeth Blachman studied literature at NYU before pursuing a career in modern dance. She is currently editor-in-chief at Slice magazine, a company member at Todd Rosenlieb Dance, and a freelance writer and editor. Her socks never match.