The Joshua Ferris Interview: Somewhat Less Than Twenty Questions
For my birthday this year, my mom gave me a book that I had seen advertised in the pages of the New Yorker (which I must mention that I read in order to make up for things like this.) I haven't been reading very much fiction lately, but what the hey, I started reading it on the bus. Maybe it's because I used to work in advertising, or maybe it's because it's set in Chicago, or maybe because the book was endorsed by Nick Hornby but I just can't put it down, which is why I wanted to chat with its author. Then We Came to the End takes place in a drowning Chicago ad agency on the bubble of the '90's boom, and if you've ever felt like you utterly loathe your co-workers, yet couldn't imagine life without them, check it out. And amazingly it's (nearly) all written in the first person plural, and even more amazingly, it works.
How, when and why did you begin writing the book?
The How: with Pilot pens and a Rhodia pad, 5x5, No. 38. The when: March 2002 - September 2003 & March 2005 - June 2005. The why: because we work and we work and we work, and yet write very little about it.
The headings to the chapters almost read like notes from your own outline of the book. How did those come to be there?
I feared that the ensemble cast and the multiple storylines might, in the beginning, lead a reader to believe that the novel was a slapdash affair. I wanted something that would reassure the reader that there was a larger design at play and that I was in control of that larger design. I thought the chapter headings did a good job of that.
What's the biggest misconception people tend to have about copywriting?
That you or your firm determines who you're writing for. I had many people say to me when I was a copywriter, Hey, I have a great idea for a Nike ad. Or Microsoft, or MTV. And they thought all I needed to do was present the ad to the company to win the account. But it's much more complicated than that. Copywriters are under the control of the account people and their demographic dictates, and the account people only work for companies whose business the higher-ups have already won.
What have been some of your favorite ad campaigns?
Wendy's "Where's the Beef?" VW's "Think Small." Avis's "We're #2." And anything Nike. Especially "Is It the Shoes?" with Michael Jordan and Spike Lee. Nike might be a globally egregious company but they know how to advertise.
When you were in advertising, which were some of your favorite clients to work for?
Do you think that examining the monotony office life is part of a new trend or one that's been around for a while and just now is catching up to the modern reality of it?
Office life monotony and its literary treatment has been around a long time, going back at least as far as Melville's Scribner and Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt">Babbitt. What's modern about the monotony is simply that it's becoming more and more universal, so that practically everyone has an office experience and knows both its merits and its mirth. This results in the more popular depictions we see today.
Was the layout of the office on the website what you actually had envisioned as you were writing the book?
No, it was determined only by the exigencies of the website. It has no visual correlative to the office depicted in the novel.
Did you have a system, when you were working on the book, for keeping track of all the characters?
On the final, cardboard page of that Rhodia notepad, I wrote out all the names of all the characters. When I needed to reference them I turned to that page and saw who was in my virtual office. I learned about the characters much as I suspect the reader learns about them -- very slowly at first. Then, after a tipping point, they clicked into place for me and I no longer needed to reference the back page. Hopefully they click into place for the reader in much the same way.
Was it difficult coming up with the names?
Not that I can recall, though I also can't recall where they came from. The few I do recall came directly from people I used to work with, like Shassburger and Brizzolera. Those were hard names to pass up.
I assume at least some of the people in the book are based on real life former coworkers. Have you heard from anyone asking, "Hey, am I Chris Yop?" or anything like that?
Yes, because of the appearance of the names mentioned above, or because people find it hard to believe the book is a work of imagination and not autobiography. I think suspicions of the latter have led to a few more units being moved in the hopes of a salacious read, and in fact I've heard from some that so-and-so is a dead ringer for so-and-so. The truth is there's only one person in the book who resembles a real-life counterpart, a rather minor character, and you will never torture it out of me! Never!
The city of Chicago plays a big role in the book: did you purposefully decide to set it there or was it simply easiest just because you know the town
Yeah -- I knew the town, I love the town, it was kind of a no-brainer. At the same time, the city was very willing to yield itself to what imaginative requirements I needed from it as the novel progressed, so what was instinct eventually turned into purpose.
Have you practiced your answer yet for when reading groups ask you about your choice to write in the first person plural?
I am extremely well practiced. We will all be very happy with the answer.
Who made the fashionable glasses you wear in your author photo?
My wife. She's very handy. She even managed to etch "Bevel Mustang" on the arm.
Where was that photo taken, incidentally?
The cubical barn of the former and much beloved offices of Little, Brown.
What next will we be seeing from you? And has the book been optioned yet for a film?
I'm writing another book. Going well some days, other days not so much.
Then We Came to the End was optioned by HBO Films.
Why do Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss deserve the shit that Gawker gives them? (Not necessarily indicating disagreement here, incidentally).
Whatever shit they may or may not have deserved is far less than the shit I deserve for having said publicly that they deserved any shit whatsoever. I spoke unnecessarily of a very minor matter about which I knew very little, and so despite the likelihood that my comments didn't even reach them, I'm glad you asked, so that I can set the record straight: I'm the shitheel.
How does it feel to be the 182nd person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
I'm both honored and humbled! May there be another 182!
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