I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The Peaceable Kingdom, Francine Prose’s second collection of short stories, has just been published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The movie, Household Saints, directed by Nancy Savoca and based on one of Prose’s ten books of fiction was released in September to tumultuous reviews. Prose lives in upstate New York with her husband, artist Howie Michels and their children, Bruno and Leon.
Some writers are plausible as the authors of their work and some are not. When I met Francine Prose, she was perfectly familiar to me from her penetrating, complex and hilarious fiction which I admired greatly. We quickly became friends and now, whenever I’m especially puzzled or fascinated by something I’m reading or by events in the world or in my private life, I rush to the phone and call Francine for clarification. The following interview is really just a segment of our ongoing conversation.
Did you notice all the places in the collection that I stole from you?
No. Great, anything you didn’t steal from me, I’ll work on stealing from you. You know, I like the title so much — The Peaceable Kingdom. It’s twisty, just like the stories. Because you assume that it’s an embittered or slightly grief-stricken comment about humans. But actually it’s much more complicated. I mean, there’s lots of human unpeaceableness in the book, and lions lying down with lambs kind-of-thing, but there really are lots of actual animals.
FP Cats and dogs, which is a real surprise to me because I don’t particularly like animals and have that cat whom I have no relationship with whatsoever. But, you know, I didn’t come up with the title. My editor said, “Your title should reflect what so many of the stories are about.” So, I said, “Fine. What a good idea.” And then I got off the phone and realized that I had no idea what they were about. But I couldn’t call her back and say, could you tell me what the stories are about? There are all these pets causing more trouble than they’re worth, and when I read one of the stories, Talking Dog, at Bread Loaf, my friend Ellen Voigt came up to me after the reading and said, obviously, The Peaceable Kingdom.
DE I notice that all the animals have a similar function, which is that they’re like angels—they’re messengers. Not in quite the way the characters think they are, but an animal often expresses something that one character or another can’t express directly or isn’t aware of wanting to express. Which is why I often think people have pets. You get an adorable little puppy simply so you don’t have to pee on your boyfriend’s rug yourself. And that strategy of indirect or oblique communication shows up in all the stories in one way or another. In Rubber Life, it’s a doll. And in Ghirlandaio, it’s a portrait that allows the narrator some very surprising discoveries about her relationships to the other characters. So the stories operate by examining the composition of various moments: the clashing motivations, misunderstandings, the screwy interpretations—everything that compresses into these diamond-like substances that are recognizable moments.
FP The way people project themselves onto objects and use objects—there’s a way in which the animals might as well be objects. Animals appear; they disappear; they’re there; they’re not there; and always as weird projections of the psychic states of the characters. And you’re right, it’s like something is happening and the characters can’t exactly say or do anything about it, and here’s the cat or dog.
DE Like Amateur Voodoo—that ending I loved so much, which is basically cat ventriloquism.
FP That’s the story, I have to say, that’s most borrowed from life. Except the husband’s affair, I hope. Our cat had gone to the neighbor’s, and our neighbor thought it was a stray and took it down the road and did us the favor of dumping it.
DE Well, that’s thoughtful. I notice that as I’m talking about this it sounds ponderous, or intellectualized. But, actually your stories are very suspenseful, and reading them is a very sensual experience. I spend a lot of time these days wondering what telling a story is. Because what we think of as a good narrative is a very rare thing. I mean specifically the sort of story that’s just as recognizable and truthful and illuminating as gossip is. And also assumes that life, or the interesting thing about life, is some set of causal relationships between episodes. Your writing is very disguised, because it feels like that kind of narrative, but actually the reader has to supply the relationships. So when I read one of your stories, I get this wonderful feeling that I’m swinging through the trees.
FP Well, I don’t understand any of the stories. They all start out as mysteries. I mean, don’t yours?
DE Sure. But do you start with two things that you know are related and figure out what goes on between them, or what?
FP Yeah, or three things. And those are the stories that are the easiest to write, because they’re connect-the-dot stories, but it’s the connection—why do these things belong in the same story? I never understand what they are, or what they mean, or why anyone is doing the things that they’re doing. But I don’t in real life, either. Or so-called real life.
DE But how do you know you’ve got it right? How do you know you’ve got it right? That that’s the thing they’re doing? Of course, when I read one of your stories the question never enters my mind as to whether that is what they really did. But how do you know? Do you go by your ear?
FP It’s instinct, I guess. And it always seems amazing that someone can read the story and even figure out what the plot is.
DE In your story, Cauliflower Heads, a young woman marries an ecologist. They go to an ecology conference where she goes out with a Hungarian ecologist and his wife, and she gets drunk and realizes she shouldn’t be married to her husband. That’s the plot, but that’s not what you’d say the story is about.
FP You know that bored feeling when people are telling you what you shouldn’t be eating, or that the planet’s dying? You know, you’re just so sick of it, you can’t stand it. Well, that’s where that story started, with that sort of festering. Howie and I were at a poetry conference in the former Yugoslavia. All these people rushing around about some little wrinkle of Slovenian politics. So those two things came together in that story: the doomsday theories, and watching people having a congress about something and not knowing what it was about. I feel that anyway. Like everyday I’m at this congress about something and I don’t know what it is.
DE Yeah, that’s pretty much life. And I guess letting a story come together is sort of like having a big load of laundry. There are a bunch of socks, and you think, yes, this sock goes with that sock. But, it’s interesting that’s one’s own brain that is supplying the connections.
FP Or something.
DE Yes. Oh, I see—is it one’s brain or is it the socks?
FP They used to talk about the muse, which is so disgusting and horrible, but you do get the sense of something else operating, although you couldn’t give it a name. Something else. You know that feeling, suddenly the characters are off on some whole conversation that you had no idea would occur? And that’s the most fun, those moments when it takes over and you hadn’t meant it to go that way, or sound that way, or you hadn’t meant for them to be in that room, or having that conversation, but there they are. That’s the moment you pray for. When the character reveals that human life you didn’t know about. You suddenly think, oh, this goes deeper and is wider than what I imagined. And it’s always such a thrill when that happens.
DE Do you have actual opinions about the way life is put together or the way people lead their lives, or do you learn what you think by reading what you write?
FP I don’t find out about my opinions, but I certainly find out about my obsessions. Who would have thought I’d have this obsession with household pets, and why? But, no, I have no opinion at all about the way life is put together or the way people lead their lives. On the one hand, I think of myself as just the most judgmental person in the universe, on the other hand, I think of myself as someone who is striving to have no judgment at all. And I always feel like those two tensions are working in the stories. Especially in Primitive People, my last novel. There, every day I was dealing with people I thought were scum, in some way, and in another way the most sympathetic people in the universe.
DE It would be perfectly fair to describe the story, Hansel and Gretel, in part, as a satirical portrait of the husband and how badly he treats his young wife. But all the same, the reader’s sympathy keeps being drawn to the husband as well as the wife. You’re simultaneously thinking, Oh that shit, and, Oh, that poor little child lost in the woods.
FP Well, that’s what I mean. Those moments when you do start to think, oh that poor little child, do come from the moments when the characters take over. That’s what gives you faith in something outside. For me, it started to happen when I was rushing through the first draft, and I got to the part where they’re about to go to bed, and he’s been dumping on her all the way through, and he says, I love you. After not having touched the woman since getting married. And my heart just flopped. I thought, Oh God, this poor guy. After going back and writing this over and over and over, I suddenly had a sense about this guy that I didn’t have the first time.
DE It really is like having imaginary friends. Of course, I never had any myself.
FP No, I never did either. My brother did, and I just tormented him about it.
DE I’m wild with jealousy, I’ve never had any imagination at all.
FP Didn’t you have imagination for disaster?
DE You mean the guy coming to shred you? Oh, sure.
FP That was the kind I had. And that still is the one I have most. There’s a way in which all these stories are asking, What’s the worst thing that could happen?
DE Yes, but, strangely, they are the worst thing that could happen. And there’s something a little scrumptious about that very thing.
FP Yeah, let it happen. But even when you’re a kid, a part of you is thinking, oh please, come shred me up.
DE For sure. So—there are connect-the-dot stories. But what other kind of stories are there for you? How else do your stories compose themselves?
FP Well, Hansel and Gretel went backwards. Howie and I were having dinner at our friend Charlie’s house in New Hampshire, and Charlie happened to mention a woman who lived next door. A woman I had been to see 25 years ago, and spent a weekend at her house, the worst weekend of my entire life. So that story started with trying to reconstruct the past, or reconstruct the weekend. But I couldn’t remember anything that had happened. Except the feeling. The feeling of being 20 years old and that my entire life was over. So some start with a feeling.
The others … I don’t know. Talking Dog? I think I ripped part of that off a famous Croatian story about a mystical white dog somebody talks to. And Ghirlandaio started with an actual fact of biography, which was that my father used to take me to museums and show me paintings in which people had something medically wrong with them.
DE What about The Shining Path?
FP Oh. Well, why not just say it? The Pepto Bismol incident actually happened.
DE Lucky you! It’s such a wonderful thing about being a writer that all the really unbearably horrible and embarrassing things that ever happened to you turn out to have been gifts.
FP But it took 20 years before I could even look at that incident again. What interested me—and it’s maybe why it took 20 years—is the passivity. A lot of people have said to me, your stories are so politically incorrect, because the women in them are such passive dishrags …
DE I hear that a lot, too.
FP Right. They can’t speak up for themselves, and they don’t take action, and they let themselves be led around, and people do horrible things to them. And they were me.
DE The idea that writing is supposed to reflect some world that doesn’t exist is very upsetting to me.
FP Or a better world. Or a world in which people do what they’re supposed to do. Or act the way we think people should act.
DE Now, you’ve written a lot of novels. A billion, as I remember.
FP A billion.
DE And this is your second collection of stories, so you’ve written a lot of stories too, and I want to know, do you know whether you’re working on a story or a novel?
FP Of course you have to be really interested in the characters in order to write a story, but you have to be really, really, really interested in them to write a novel because you’re going to have to spend two years with them.
DE Oh God, I wrote a story about some people that I just hated, and it was agony, because I had to spend all my time with them.
FP Margot Livesey says, perhaps that’s why so many people write autobiographical novels.
FP But structurally no. Well, yes. I mean, if I know that what I’m talking about is going to begin with the beginning of dinner and end with the end of dinner it’s not going to be a novel. Right?
DE Well, er, but what about Ulysses?
FP Well, that’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
DE And, now, these are questions that really make me feel ill. Or mentally ill. But other people ask other people this all the time, and I’m going to ask you: Do you have any interest in the theoretical capacities of the forms?
FP What does that mean?
DE I haven’t the faintest idea. But I wondered if you might know.
FP Like what it does? Like what is it supposed to do? Like, can we send all my stories over to the Bosnian Serbs right now, and they’ll just stop shooting, is that what … ?
DE I don’t know, I don’t know! But maybe: Are there things you can accomplish with one that you can’t accomplish with the other?
FP Tell that to Chekhov. Like, you wrote those stories, but you didn’t do anything compared to Tolstoy. I mean, of course not.
DE But that does bring me to the only one of these questions I find even slightly interesting, depending on your answer, of course. Which is, do you consider them forms at all?
FP The story and the novel? No. Often one is longer. But sometimes one seems longer, even though it’s a story. We’ve all read long, terrible, boring novels where nothings happens, and then we’ve read stories by you in which zillions of things happen. More things happen than in ten ordinary novels, so I don’t get it.
DE My friend Wall said this wonderful thing the other day. I made him read, I allowed him to read, I suggested he read, I insisted he read, Isaac Babel’s Crossing Into Poland, which is sort of the largest thing that’s ever been written, although it’s only three pages long. And Wall said—so movingly, I thought—something about the respect for the reader that it showed. That all the thought and selection had been done by the writer. Obviously, of course, one wouldn’t wish that War and Peace had been a short story, I mean, I’m thrilled to bits that it’s a novel—but it was an interesting way to think about that kind of compression.
FP It’s such an incredible act of bravery to think you could write … it is a three page story, but also it’s a two and a half page landscape description. Then a half page of something happened, but the thing that happened already happened before you hear about it. And what you wind up with is the reader feeling like she’s just been kicked in the stomach. I mean, it’s just so amazing to have the faith, or the knowledge, or the instinct, or whatever it is, to know that you could do that.
DE Yeah, that’s something I’ve wanted to ask you about, actually, since I met you. But I’d never dare ask you if I didn’t have this tape recorder. I write very slowly, it’s true, but you’ve written exactly six times as many books as I have, so you do work very fast. You read fast; you write fast. And, I’ve come to think there’s a kind of courage involved, particularly in the writing fast, there’s a courage involved in inventing things, and I can’t locate it. I needed a child to stay home from school in a story I wrote, so I gave him appendicitis. Not an important character, not an important appendicitis—and I sat around thinking about it for weeks and weeks. And none of it seemed real to me, until I had it absolutely nailed down on the page. And that seems like a failure of nerve to me. I mean, how do you just make things up?
FP Well, don’t you think it’s like walking a tightrope between the World Trade Towers? Is that courage or stupidity? And you better not look down, cause the minute you look down you’re going to go down. You just keep going and assume it’s going to be okay, and you find out pretty quickly that it won’t. Or, that it might. A friend of mine talks about this little Jiminy Cricket editor who sits on your shoulder and says it’s not going to be okay, it’s not going to be okay. And a lot of it is just getting that Jiminy Cricket to shut up long enough for you to do anything. But those things stop me cold. That’s what’s stopped me in the book I’m doing now. Credibility.
DE But your stories and your novels are saturated with the real world. They’re very specific, very accurate, and the insane, delicious things the characters do and say are the insane, delicious things that people do and say right now and in specific milieus. The characters live in specific places, they’re affected by specific, and often real, works of art, events, issues, and they have complicated and highly specialized jobs. So, what I mean is, how do you write so convincingly about all these things? Because I, for example, have never met anyone who has a job.
FP Don’t you have a desperation to know about people’s jobs? As soon as I meet anyone who does anything, I’m just grilling them, just plying them with questions. Well, thank God many of them know I’m a writer, so they just think, oh well, she’s doing research. I often find myself asking them questions until I see they’re getting uncomfortable, and then I stop. So I guess that is research, but it’s just prying or curiosity, or, again, desperation.
DE Yeah, and of course it allows you to do the thing that really is, I think maybe the basis of good writing, which is to start from first principles—as though you really don’t understand anything.
FP What do you mean, “as though?”
DE Well, there’s that, of course. I notice you’ve weaseled out of the question of making things up. And I really want you to tell me: Do you actually make things up? For instance, Household Saints is a whole long, great big novel about a devout Italian Catholic butcher and his schizophrenic child. Now, you’re just not any of those things.
FP Well, everyone’s been to the butcher shop.
FP Oh, all right. Well, everybody’s been to the butcher shop and everybody, I think, has had fantasies of one sort or another about the people who work in the butcher shop. So that’s where it started. Okay, research. I read a bunch about St. Therese. Not even a bunch. I read this one book by Vita Sackville-West about St. Therese. Then I did a lot of quizzing of my Catholic friends. But the thing that was most amazing was that often I would write a chapter, and then I would quiz my friends, and then they would say the thing I had written the day before. So then I would think, I’m on the right track, I don’t have to worry about it.
DE You and I have both taught writing. One thing that writing teachers say is, write from your own life. And another thing that writing teachers say is, invent. Of course they’re different writing teachers. But in a way, I can’t endorse either position. I don’t really think you should doggedly strive to write from your own life because I don’t think you know what your own life is. And I don’t think you should doggedly strive to invent because what does that mean? I mean, how do you invent? So I never say anything, really.
FP I never say either. I think both those things are irrelevant.
DE So do I! But what do you mean? Wow!
FP The thing you’re most interested in is beyond invention or autobiography. Or that the ways they come together are beyond invention. For example, Household Saints, I thought, was about the whole question of service and devotion, and whether or not you’d give up your life for something else, and whether or not you thought there was something bigger than your life. When I started the book I was pregnant with Bruno, and I was really nervous that I was never going to have a mind or a life again. That I was giving it all up. And also, needless to say, the book is about the terrors of pregnancy. So I went around looking for a situation where those questions of devotion and service and things being out of control and things being in something else’s hands would be more central than they were in mine.
DE My God. I suspected this of you, that you had ideas.
FP But I didn’t know it, exactly. Because where it actually started from was wanting to write about a guy who had won his wife in a card game. That sense of randomness. And then as it evolved, all these things that had been obsessing me began to work their way into the book. But Catholicism was a way of talking about something else. I mean, it all feels like a way of talking about something else.
DE But what other way except some other way could there be?
FP Otherwise you get some stupid essay that doesn’t go anywhere.
DE I mean how could you just talk directly about something? I mean, if you could, speech wouldn’t be required.
FP It’s all weirder and more mysterious than it’s possible to even … it’s like waking up from a dream, and as you start to talk or think about it, it starts to disappear.
I was going to ask you, you said the other day that you were reading Jane Bowles and you mentioned you’re not interested in the way people behave.
DE Well, it isn’t Jane Bowles’s fault, really, that I’m not interested. I just suddenly find myself at this horrible place in my life where I’m not interested in the way people behave. It just seems very, very trivial to me right now.
FP And what else is there?
DE I don’t know! I don’t know! So I’m sort of going completely mad these days. Well, Jane Bowles, of course, does in a sense cut right to the chase, whatever the chase is. I mean, her work is only profound. And very funny, of course, and gorgeous. But of course you have no idea what it’s about.
But do you think there’s an other thing? I mean, do you think fiction is about behavior? Is that what fiction is? Is it an attempt to describe human behavior?
FP Oh, God, Debbie! Jesus! Well, I don’t know. I guess since I don’t understand why people do anything, the only thing I can know for sure is what they do. So if I just write down what they do, then somehow the mystery of why they do it will come through what it is they’re doing.
DE Let me say I don’t think you can just write down what people do. I don’t think it’s possible. Because the instant you put one word next to another, aren’t you automatically selecting like crazy? Interpreting, imputing, hypothesizing, inferring, distorting …
FP Uh huh. But it’s also that mysterious thing of what makes a story. You know? ’Cause it isn’t just what the characters do. I mean if we just wrote down what they did, or what we did in a day … that isn’t a story. It needs other things to make it a story, things that weren’t true. Things that were invented, that were grafted on to it. There’s something about the form of a story that’s way beyond what people do.
DE So what you’re saying is that the selection and arrangement of bits of behavior is what illuminates the meaning of each bit of behavior. And that if you had written for instance, The Shining Path, the story where someone rubs Pepto Bismol onto a young woman, in the real context and sequence of things that actually happened to you that day, the force and the meaning of the episode wouldn’t have been revealed. And to show what it really was, you had to make up a series of actions—people’s actions—that would, in fact, illuminate the meaning of the moment. If that was in fact the moment that interested you.
FP The moment in that story that interested me was when he’s rubbing Pepto Bismol on her and she tries to tell him that her brother just died. When something really terrible is happening there’s a compulsion to tell it to a stranger. When my father was dying, I would get in a cab to go to the hospital, and I would immediately start telling the cab driver what was happening. It’s wanting to feel that there’s some human connectedness. In that story, I was trying to think of one of the most alienated moments I’ve ever had … and to take the desire to confess something very immediate and very real and put it into that most alienated imaginable moment
DE It’s an interesting reflection on that issue of passivity that we’re both raked over the coals for all the time. Young women in the ’60s and ’70s had been trained to be very passive, and suddenly it was demanded that they be very expressive. So they were constantly finding that they were being exploited. Yet there was some element of tremendous sincerity on the part of the parties involved—or even somewhere in the culture—a longing for the kind of equality that’s the real precondition of free action. So there were those moments of strange, ambivalent, ambiguous contact, or intimacy when you found yourself in bed with the guy who could be …
FP … the axe murderer. There was this feeling that this person could kill me. I don’t know this person. What am I doing here? It was also, somehow, I don’t know, extreme loneliness, but a kind of thrill. Almost like what you would imagine Goethe meant … the sublime thrill people are always claiming to feel standing on top of mountain tops and looking at the world just yawning out before them and feeling that they’re the only one in it.
DE So the character has that experience in “The Shining Path,” and in a way there is no comparable experience she can have with her boyfriend.
FP Well, he’s a schmuck anyway.
DE What are you going to do now? You’re on this Edith Wharton binge, which has resulted from some strange confluence, yes? What is that word people used to use, a Jungian term …
FP Oh, synchronicity. There’s an idea whose time has come and gone. But, yeah. I wrote a story about a woman who’s working in a library and falls in love with a guy who comes into the library. And before she meets the guy she’s compulsively reading Edith Wharton novels. At that point I’d only actually read one or two Edith Wharton novels, but I pretended that I’d read quite a number so I could write the story. But then long, long after I finished the story I started reading all these Edith Wharton novels, and one of them is about a young woman working in a library who falls in love with a guy who comes into the library. And of course, had I actually read the novel, the character would have noticed that one of them was about her life. But I hadn’t.
DE You said reading Edith Wharton makes you feel like you haven’t done something. What does it make you feel that you want to do?
FP To get to a whole new level of depth. There’s a way of getting so deep into that character’s mind, making the reader know the character’s responses so well—Anna Karenina is another example—you know what everyone in that book is going to do before they do it. The same with the Age of Innocence. You know exactly what Newland Archer is thinking and feeling, what he is going to do; what he is capable of, what his hopes and fears are without the writer ever telling you.
DE Oh, these ravaging ambitions! To make something that’s as complex and chaotic and mystifying as reality but more apprehensible. I’m not sure what I think of the whole thing. Why did you decide to write? Or when did you notice that you were doing it?
FP It was the only thing I could do. I mean, not that I could do it. I mean, there’s nothing else I can do. I don’t mean that necessarily in the noble way. I mean, really, I have not a single other skill. I can barely type.
DE Yeah, well, this is all true of me, too.
FP I had gone to graduate school, and I was having a nervous breakdown, although no one even knew, including myself, that’s what it was. I was watching television for 12 hours a day. Clearly, I was not functioning. I knew I couldn’t do anything else. It was the only thing that made me—I wouldn’t say happy—but that I liked doing.
DE But you did do it. You knew that it was a thing to do.
FP It was just self-entertainment, because I didn’t think anything was going to happen. No one was ever going to see it. It was just to amuse me. And that was the best. A pure state which I always wish I could get back to. There wasn’t any superego to say this isn’t any good.
DE There’s an analogous feeling I used to have at that happy stage when writing was a completely private activity for me too—the feeling that something was written just for me. In whatever country, in whatever century, for me.
FP Oh, I know. Like when I read The Leopard. Here’s this Sicilian nobleman who knew at the end of his life what sentence would make me happy, and what description would make me incredibly happy. And beyond that, how the rhythm of the sentences would make me happy even in translation. Who knows if it’s good or bad. Everything dissolves. Time dissolves, and the surface differences dissolve, and you think that beyond anything there’s something that keeps running through.
DE Oh, wouldn’t that be great?
FP Well, maybe some beleaguered passive girl of the future will read our stuff and say, “God, there used to be someone who felt like me! Before all these women got completely together and confrontational and well-adjusted, there used to be someone as fucked up as me!”
Deborah Eisenberg’s latest collection of short stories, Under the 82nd Airborne is available from Farrar Straus and Giroux. She is the recipient of an Academy Award in Literature from The American Academy of Arts and Letters.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee