Joshua Ferris on the Stories We Tell Ourselves

“How did the individual survive the corporation?”  That, says Joshua Ferris, was the question that animated the composition of his celebrated debut novel Then We Came to End, a tragicomic story that traced the communal lives of the employees of a Chicago advertising agency as the tech bubble gave way to an anxious new century.

Ten years later, Then We Came to an End still speaks with urgency, charm, and a dose of mordant humor.  Since then, Ferris has published two novels — The Unnamed and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour — which investigated trauma and obsessionthrough stories that found the magically extraordinary within the confines of a world as recognizable as a dentists’s office or a printer room in a corporate office.  Now, just as Then We Came to An End marks its first decade, Ferris has published The Dinner Party, a collection of short stories that dart in and out of kitchens and bedrooms, sitting up late pondering questions of love and fidelity, bitterness and hope.  The author spoke with me on the phone about his new book, the process of writing, and his sense that the fictions we encounter on the page don’t hold a candle to the ones that we live every day.  The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.   — Bill Tipper

The Barnes & Noble Review: To be honest with you, I was shocked when I realized that Then We Came to The End was ten years old, because it seems like it was just around the corner. How has that felt for you?

Joshua Ferris: It’s sort of an appalling fact of economic nature that that book is going to be somewhat in vogue or au courant or whatever. There’ are always some awful circumstances that seems to make jobs continually in danger, and corporations cutting the bottom line, on and on. It sort of never goes out of fashion, and yet at the same time it feels like it’s hundreds of years old to me.

BNR: The novel opens with a kind of elegiac look back at a moment when things looked very sunny for the culture of many American workers — the Bartleby-esque nature of work seemed to be set aside in the dot-com era for an extremely different feeling, one that suggested we could all be fulfilled through the workplace. And then, it changed.

JF: The book divides the time between a kind of Before-and-After. There are boom times and bust times, and the boom-bust cycle never seems to fade. It’s with us. Depending on what it is, on what cycle we’re in, we jump on the bandwagon and sort of take it to 11. Whatever it is. If it’s boom, it means that all of the amenities, the bonuses, the security — you have it all. It’s a windfall. And when it’s bust, you’re worried about keeping your job, you’re worried about keeping your income, you’re worried about making your mortgage, you’re worried about insurance, you’re worried about staying healthy . . . It’s a slippery slope, right down to hell.

I think that’s what the book tries to capture — our Before-After mind-set that is sort of larger than one individual. It attempts to give the vibe of the actual cycles themselves. It continues historically. For this particular book, it was in an up bubble. And then what, six years later, seven years later, it was the Great Recession.

BNR: So were you trying to capture this sense of the manic-depressive cycle of our economic selves, of our working lives?

JF: I think it was more than anything just trying to capture the fear that goes into losing your job. That’s something that I witnessed a lot, and it was always devastating to the individuals involved, and those who were left behind were immediately induced into a paranoid state. It was really shocking. For a long time, I wanted the book to be grander, but at a certain point I figured that was really enough, that the individual’s fear of losing his or her job, and along with it, a sense of self-worth, money to pay bills and take care of kids, and all of the sort of existential awfulness that comes from finding yourself unemployed, was all that I was really interested in — because of not only the firsthand experience I’ve had as a worker bee in a large advertising agency, but just as a novelist who is interested in individual lives and the ways in which we interact at work.

BNR: At the literal center of that novel is a confrontation, not just with losing one’s job but with losing everything — a particularly existential sort of confrontation with death.

JF: That was a pretty natural extension. That was always sort of the design of the book. Whether I was going to be able to pull it off remained to be seen as I was writing through it, which I did fairly linearly. So I always knew that right in the middle, I would do two things. I would extend the metaphor of a loss of a job, a career, and all the meaning that surrounds that, to an actual life, and the ways in which those things kind of overlap for this particular character whose investment in her career was almost indistinguishable from her investment in life. But that also sort of surrounded other things that had nothing to do with work, like a boyfriend, her sense of fulfillment and regrets, and that sort of thing.

So that was always sort of the main design. The second thing that it was supposed to do was to reveal the extent with which the group understood that one individual, this particular individual, correctly in their assessment and in their gossip, and the extent to which they got that person very, very wrong. So it was a corrective to the central voice, and also an understanding, putting their fears into perspective, because she stood to lose a lot more than they ever could dream.

BNR: Then We Came to the End is constantly maintaining a careful tonal balance between tragedy and comedy. Did that come naturally to you, or was that something that you had to be very painstaking about

JF: It’s probably something that’s down there at the level that’s just inaccessible to me — the answer to that question. I think it’s a good question, but I don’t know how well I can answer it, only because to answer it would make me far more calculating than I think I actually am when I’m writing it. I’m going more by intuition and less by, well, OK, how do I want this to land or what kind of effect.

If it were a sort of workplace tragedy, it would have been consumed — a big conflagration would have erupted on the pages and disrupted the tone heretofore. You know? Then, if it hadn’t included some very serious situations, it would have sort of blown away in the air as a little bit of fluff. I didn’t want either of those things. I was taking people’s lives and circumstances extremely seriously, but it was also a group story. So any tragedy that was going to happen, was going to have to happen to the group as a whole. That kind of tragedy . . . you can’t really come back from that. That kind of stuff was out of the purview of the book.

BNR: Obviously your own experiences working in advertising and working in offices were informative. I went back and looked at the dates of when, say, the film Office Space was, which turned out to have been 1999, a little farther back than I’d remember it personally, and then the Ricky Gervais and later Steve Carrell sitcoms, The Office, were a little closer in time to when you wrote this book. Did you have any of the popular cultural representations, comic or otherwise, of the world in offices in your head as you sat down to this, or was this really separate from that kind of thing?

JF: How did the individual survive the corporation? That’s what I wanted to know. I think those are very similar concerns to what Mike Judge and Ricky Gervais had. But they were my only concerns. And to convey that, I also had to wrestle with how an individual survives a corporation. The groupthink, the gossip, the urge to conform. All of these things were very much on my mind as a man working in advertising, and then, as a novelist, trying to figure out what it meant to be a person in the world, and I wanted to reflect that in a book of fiction.

So I had these concerns that, yeah, they outstripped the similarities [to television or movies] pretty quickly. I also had to worry about how a corporation speaks as an individual, from the first-person-plural point of view, and what that meant for narrative technique. Ultimately I didn’t even really care what setting it was in at a certain point, because I was so fixated on trying to figure out a certain set of concerns that went far beyond the office setting.

BNR: In an essay about the literary history of the workplace, you’ve said about Melville and Kafka and George Saunders that what you admire in their work is that “they don’t yield to the familiar or the real,” as you wrote, and they give us something to marvel at. It seems that that’s something that knits together some of the fictional efforts that you’re about. But there is a real determination to kind of un-familiarize our view of familiar things.

JF: One of the delights that I have both as a reader of fiction and a writer of it is when it seems there’s something dreamlike about fiction, so that it’s not simply a dispatch from the real world but an understanding that people are inherently fictionalizing their lives constantly. The ways in which we separate ourselves from what is so commonly called “reality” — or what, rather, someone else would like to call “reality” — is infinite and perplexing and very compelling. So I try to create a situation in which, whether it be a story or a novel, the strict facts are being filtered through the prism of some particular consciousness that works it, and brings on trouble itself sometimes.

BNR: It’s true that we’re all making narratives out of our experience, and that seems both inevitable but also something that’s constantly leading us into misapprehensions.

JF: I think fiction is really the only honest nonfiction, because it’s honest about the lies we tell ourselves. I’ve been reading a lot of Sarah Palin lately. America By Heart is the book that I’ve been sitting down to. For a lot of people who take Sarah Palin at her word, it’s a very Manichean point of view that she puts forth. There’s a sense that it’s coming from a deeper level of truth because she’s sort of out there on the front lines. She has traveled with John McCain, and she’s been the vice presidential nominee, and she’s met Americans up and down these wonderful fifty states. But the presentation of this entirely nonfiction account of her life and her travels has a kind of Manichean feeling . . .

BNR: You mean in the sense of there being a struggle between darkness and light?

JF: Yeah, in a way. There is a black and a white. The ambiguities, the neuroses, the subtleties of individual and national life are gray-washed. But I think if you are a Sarah Palin fan and you pick this book up, this is how it is — this is the world, this is the truth. And in fact, as I say, it may be a truer version of truth because she is at the forefront. Who better to know what America really looks like than Sarah Palin, who has traveled up and down on behalf of either her constituents or her party? To me, it seems like I could not make this up. My imagination would be hard-pressed to write so fictionally. So I tend to think that there is as much fictionalizing of what we typically think of as nonfiction books — political books, whatever the case may be, even history sometimes — when it is filtered through a particular point of view, a particular consciousness, from which none of us can escape. And I think that’s what’s important to understand when you pick up a novel. This is telling you actually from the front lines of a warping mentality how the world is viewed, and I think that gives you a much more accurate depiction of how we conduct our lives than a so-called objective book.

BNR: On that note, when I read the stories in The Dinner Party, I was struck by how consistent it is in these stories that there is an initial point of view which — slowly or quickly, depending on the story — gets profoundly called into question as new information emerges for the reader. One of the stories that I loved most is “The Stepchild,” because the facts that are withheld, and how the main character is withholding them even from his own consciousness, keep changing the nature of how we see the events that happen. These aren’t narrative bombshells — just small details about who he is and what he has done in the past, and these make you completely revise how you felt about what was happening a couple of pages before.

JF: I think that’s right. I think that happens again and again in the stories, both to the characters themselves, and then to the reader. So that you get the experience very often that the character in the story gets, which is like: Well, I have to sort of radically reevaluate everything here. Everything from what’s actually happened at a plot level to who these characters are and what their mentalities are.

It goes back to what I was saying about the desire to infuse the fiction with a dreamlike quality. Whenever you’re in the presence of newfound knowledge or wisdom, and you’re stripping away the old assumptions, it’s disorienting. You get dizzy for a moment. “That’s how it is, and I’ve been thinking it’s this other way this whole time.” At least as I experience it, that’s life for me. I’m constantly sort of recognizing that the layers of my ignorance are infinite, and surprised by the smallest revelation that someone might have thought this, or this is how I was creating an effect on that person, or my understanding of that couple over there was quite mistaken. I’m in permanent revision from a personal point of view to understand the world better. It’s a constant quest, and it’s constantly worthwhile and very meaningful. But nevertheless, it comes with that burden of finding yourself, after a while at least, being kind of in a permanent state of ignorance of how the world really works. So it’s very frustrating and can be very demoralizing at a certain point. I tend to go, “You know, I don’t think that I can know anything.”

BNR: Given that, it’s interesting that this is a book of short fiction, because one thinks of short stories as being ones in which the author is more precise and determined about what they want to do. Had you just wanted to collect short fiction that had accumulated while you were writing longer projects? Did you want to turn to it for a particular reason?

JF: I think that at a certain point, a story says, “Hey! Stop and write me. I’m your pressing business.” And it makes itself known, and you kind of can’t turn away. Yeah, it might come in the middle of a longer project that you’re devoted to, and it might even be kind of killing you because you want to get done with it. But it just demands your attention. And because it’s shorter as well, you think, Well, obviously, this won’t take me all that much time, and it takes you five times longer. But you’ve got to do it. It’s the thing you’ve got to do. So, eleven times that happened to me.

BNR: I wanted to ask you about the story “Life in the Heart of the Dead,” which takes place in Prague. I thought that was interesting, particularly considering you’ve touched on Kafka before in writing about writing. I wouldn’t be the first person to remark on a Kafkaesque feeling tone in some of your prior work. So I was wondering if you felt like, “OK, this is going to be even more of a confrontation with that literary presence” in that story.

JF: It actually didn’t to be. I mean, deliberately. Obviously, it should have. When you walk around Prague, as I did, you’re constantly bombarded with the Bard of Doom’s face sticking out on coffee cups, and there’s this giant, fairly gaudy but nevertheless very winning sculpture of Kafka’s face, which doesn’t actually look a thing like Kafka’s face, hidden behind some office complex in some little square . . . I can’t even explain it. Nevertheless, I should have known.

But I was really concentrating on this question that I asked my own walking-tour guide: “Is there anything better under Communism than there is now?” She was very adamant: “No, absolutely not.” But then she spent the rest of the tour telling me, “Yes, there were many things.” I suppose that, to some extent, there is dread in that story, a dread that might resemble Kafka’s dread. But there is mostly just a sense of a bumbling American trying to come to terms with his own sins.

BNR: There are so many stories here of marriages that are in a state of fairly high — one feels, almost to the breaking point — stress, although some might feel like the breaking point, and then one has the sense perhaps that that’s not quite so imminent. Is this just simply fertile territory for the writer of fiction? Or did you think, I love writing about couples, and couples who are really in a tough place?

JF: I think one of the hardest things that I’ve had to do is to be married. And yet, my marriage is really my salvation. My own parents divorced constantly, and it never really occurred to me that I wouldn’t be divorced. So I had a lot of interesting revelations when I got married — that it didn’t actually have to be doomed. But I think going into it, of course I would think it was doomed, because my parents were multiply divorced.

BNR: Like the parents of the main character in “The Stepchild.”

JF: Yes, very much like that. At least background-wise, that’s purely autobiographical, and two or three paragraphs there are fairly straight-up autobiography in terms of my parents just not making it work with a bunch of different type of people, and those people being strangers to me. I mean, [the narrator] is a lunatic, so he doesn’t resemble me at all — insofar as his lunacy is different from my lunacy.

My wife has parents who are still married today. We came at the marriage from such different points of view that it took us a long time even to know what language we were speaking, what terms of the argument we were on. And slowly we did that, and we were sort of moving through layers and layers of murk and darkness, and trying to reach the other, which we never gave up doing. Now that I’ve been married for about fifteen years — the mysteries change. They shift over time. There are ways in which you can or can’t know somebody change over time.

But the dynamic whole in terms of just a pure trajectory, from the moment that we met, and then, a few years later, the moment that we married, to now, it’s an extraordinary richness that would be hard to put into a story. I was far more interested in trying to figure out where my parents had gone wrong, and why they had gone wrong, and what decisions they were making that determined the failures that they experienced time and again, and the ways in which, with my insights into them, with my witnessing of these mistakes, I could comment on them and turn them into, you know, compelling stories that had these twists and had these revelations and degrees of ignorance and wisdom and all the rest of it . . . I had to put this terrible, tragic record to use one way or another.

BNR: Do you find writing fiction to be a learning experience? Does writing the story or the novel teach you something about whatever it is that you’re writing about?

JF: I think when you think about fiction a lot, as I do, and when you practice it, you start to recognize the extent not to which people get put into fiction, but fictions get put into people, and how they conduct their lives based entirely upon fictional ideas, fictional concepts, fictional beliefs, wish fulfillment. We had a collective one, those of us on the left, that came crashing down on November 8th of last year.

We conduct our lives, I think, in meaningful ways according to these wholesale fictions. So the ways in which I see people distorted in stories and novels now occurs to me, happens far more frequently, as real people conduct their lives day to day, and they don’t realize the strong influence of the fiction they’ve created or that other people have created around them, until something jars them out of their illusion, and they wake up into a kind of greater state of wisdom. I see that much more frequently than I actually see people like myself putting people they know into their stories — or making real-life people into fictional characters.


The Barnes & Noble Review

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