Joshua Ferris, best known for his 2007 comic novel And Then We Came to the End, has an excellent new novel out, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. Ferris talked to EW about some of the books that impacted him as an author and person — as well as some books and authors he considers overrated.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your favorite book as a child?
JOSHUA FERRIS: In the fifth grade, Mr. Holycross read us a chapter a day from Where the Red Fern Grows. That was my first experience with a great weeper, and it still makes a difference.
What is your favorite book that you read for school?
Fate threw me together with great teachers. Alongside Mr. Holycross I have to mention Ms. Jane Rice. When I inquired, she pulled Lolita off the classroom shelf and handed it to me without fear of scandal. I was fourteen. I’m grateful for all the ways I was treated like an adult in high school.
What’s a book that really cemented you as a writer?
I needed to write as far back as I can remember. Here’s something I wrote when I was eight, from the story “Chess”:
“Hey Robert, wanna play chess today after lunch?” Herb asked.
“Sure, were here for to relax. What other better thing to relax than play chess.”
“Good. Finally get away from the army.”
There’s no precedent for that.
Is there a book you’ve read over and over again?
Thomas and Beulah, by Rita Dove. A collection of poems about Dove’s grandparents and their hardscrabble lives. I run through some of those poems at night when I can’t sleep.
What’s a classic that you’re embarrassed to say you’ve never read?
Middlemarch. I’ll probably die before I read Middlemarch. That anguishes more than embarrasses me. In my mind, Middlemarch stands for literary excellence unsoiled by my own experience with it. I project such greatness onto Middlemarch that I constantly go around asking myself why I’m wasting my time doing anything other than reading Middlemarch. Middlemarch makes me feeling lacking and lazy and rebukes me wherever I go, and for that reason I hate Middlemarch and absolutely refuse to read it.
What’s a book you’ve pretended to have read?
What’s a book you consider grossly overrated?
On the Road. I hate that book. What a stupid book. What a limp, flaccid, impotent little manifesto of a book.
What’s a recent book you wish you had written?
It would be nice to be somebody else for a little while, with a whole new set of preoccupations and neuroses. To wake up at long last thinking of something different, and to be done, however briefly, with my insufficiencies and wrong moves. And so the question should really be, what’s a recent book I don’t wish I had written?
What’s a movie adaptation of a book that you loved?
Have you seen Mickey Rourke and Robert DeNiro in Angel Heart? I used to watch that every Sunday morning. That’s a fine film.
What was an illicit book that you had to read in secret as a kid?
I was lucky that I had parents who didn’t force me to read in secret. That’s what Playboy was for. Although this one time, my stepdad took me for a ride in his state-issued police car and threw a copy of Penthouse on my lap, which was super weird.
What’s a book that people might be surprised to learn that you loved?
The DaVinci Code.
What was the last book that made you laugh out loud, and what was the last one that made you cry?
The Good Lord Bird made me LMAO. The last book that made me cry was The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. How sensitive I am.
Do you read your books post-publication?
I dip into them. Never cover to cover.
Is there something you’ve written that makes you cringe now? On the flip side, something you’re still very proud of?
In my classic story “Chess,” all the chess pieces come alive and try to kill Herb and his Army buddy Robert. Here’s how it ends: “At that moment, every white piece melted into the ground. I untied my wife and got in my house and cottage. I was just glad this thing was over.” That’s obviously good stuff.
What are you reading right now?
The Known World by Edward P. Jones. That book’s a marvel, and Jones is like a god. He comes very close to the authority and grace of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He need only write it to make it true.