What's in a Page: Joshua Ferris on writing humor into the darkest of times
The American family novel has been through countless iterations, and Joshua Ferris' latest book is bringing the genre fully into modern times. In A Calling for Charlie Barnes (out now), the National Book Award finalist (for 2007's Then We Came to the End) follows his protagonist through divorces, a recession, and a cancer scare as he attempts to grapple with what his life is — and what it could be. Here, Ferris answers EW's burning book questions about his formative reading years and his current writing process.
What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?
Letters to my father. My folks split in '83. He moved to Chicago, the rest of us to Florida. So these love letters, nagging requests, private complaints, and birthday wish lists were, pre-internet, the one sure way the son could test the continued reality of the father. I know for a fact some fathers never write back. Mine did.
What is the last book that made you cry?
Jeff Tweedy's How to Write One Song. I've been reading it with my 12-year-old son, a young rapper. Tweedy is writing about how much he dreaded listening to his classic album Yankee Foxtrot Hotel after hearing from Warner Bros. executives that they hated it. "When I woke up the next day," he writes, "and the day after that and kept finding myself in love with this thing we had made, I came to the conclusion that no one's judgement — theirs or mine — would ever hurt for very long, provided I could bring myself back to listening and loving." Maybe I'm feeling vulnerable, with a new novel about to come out, but the spirit Tweedy conveys of the irrepressible artist really moved me.
Which book is at the top of your current to-read list?
Remembrance of Things Past. But that's been at the top since 2004, and by now the dust is so thick you can hardly read the title page.
Where do you write?
In the shower, on a run, inside the train car, on a walk up to the farm, driving to the grocery store, at dinner, while sleeping…
Which book made you a forever reader?
I probably hated to read as much as the next kid. But for every new age I entered, something seized me, snatching me once more from the fate of the nonreader: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Where the Red Fern Grows, Lolita…
What is a snack you couldn't write without?
It comes in a bottle with a cork on top.
If you could change one thing about any of your books, what would it be?
Their sales record.
What is your favorite part of A Calling for Charlie Barnes?
Finding humor in really deplorable circumstances. Cancer kills. Even worse, it disillusions. Laughter recasts the spell. It restores sanity. It is a uniquely human way of refuting the inevitable.
What was the hardest plot point or character to write?
A man is easily rendered a joke; just ask his ex-wives. But he's also a deadly serious proposition to himself. Crediting these two entirely warring perspectives in my portrait of Charlie Barnes was a real pain in the butt, but also a source of great pleasure.
Write a movie poster tag line for the book:
Live for Illusion, Die for Love.