Big Think Interview With Francine Prose

  • Transcript



Question: Why is Anne Frank’s diary of universal interest to readers?

Francine Prose: I wrote the book essentially because I was trying to figure that out. What is it about this book that made it explode that way in popularity and readership and the devotion of its readers? So the first thing I decided to do, or thought I was going to do, was to look at the book as a book and as a work of literature, really, because that was the thing that seemed to me really hadn’t exactly been done before. I mean it had been talked about in all different sorts of ways but not that way. So I thought having written Reading Like a Writer, which is all about close reading, I would do a kind of straight up close reading of the book; a kind of tribute to the book.

And look at the way Anne used dialogue, narration, passages of reflection, dramatized scenes, and so forth and really so many novelistic techniques work throughout the book. Also, it had occurred to me that in ten or 20 years all the survivors of that time will be gone. And here’s a book that will survive. Here are names of actual people that we’ll remember among all those millions who were killed and again it was written by a 13 to 15 year old girl. So I set out to figure out why that happened. So the first surprise, really for me, was how consciously crafted the book was.

I mean, I thought just what many people thought which was she wrote in this little checked diary and that was it. And then when she was arrested along with her family, the diary was left in the attic and it was essentially transcribed and published. Well what I discovered was that, in fact, she had gone back and rewritten the entire book. She had rewritten it from start to finish. So starting in the spring of 1944, so essentially the last few months in the attic, and very consciously set out to write something that would be published; that would be read. So it wasn’t quite the accident that most people think. I mean, she really thought of herself as a writer.

She thought of what she was writing as a work of literature. She thought, you know, her intention was to do a kind of novel; almost like a girl’s detective romance, in a way, based on her diary. So that’s what she thought she was doing.

Question: What kind of writer was Anne Frank?

Francine Prose: She was very conscious of what she was doing. I mean, for example, people think that the device of calling the diary Kitty and of framing the diary entries as letters to the unknown, unseen, imagined, imaginary friend Kitty was again some kind of spontaneous thing that she did. Well the early diary entries, for example, the first diary entry in which she decides to talk to Kitty, to call the diary Kitty, is dated June 20th, 1942 but again it was written in 1944. So that decision to call the diary Kitty, which sounds like the decision of a 13 year old, was actually the work of a 15 year old trying to imagine her way back into the persona and the mind of the 13 year old that she was. And even that, I mean that device of using Kitty, being able to write partly in the second person to a particular audience turns the reader into that audience. So it’s not as if she is writing into the ether really, she writing to a very particular person and when we read it, we become that person, that listener, that intimate friend of hers.

Question: Was Anne Frank a self-conscious writer?

Francine Prose: I mean, she sounds very innocent and open and it sounds completely unselfconscious but one of the things I thought about and discovered and thought about some more is how much craft it takes to sound unselfconscious. I mean, in fact, the unselfconscious way of writing sounds self-conscious. I mean, when most people start to write—sit down and start to write their journals and diaries, what you get is this kind of stilted, you know, and you can see it on peoples’ blogs all the time that kind of, you know, you’re looking in the mirror and writing at the same time in a certain way. So that naturalness and that kind of flowing quality of her narration was actually something worked on; something that she got right finally. I mean, of course, a lot of it came from her actual personality and her nature and she was very, very obviously really smart and aware and observant and nervy and resourceful but she worked on getting that voice on the page.

Question: What were Anne Frank’s influences?

Francine Prose: She was a huge reader and she read all the time they were in hiding. I mean, she had been reading before. And she started out really, I mean, the early diary entries, the real early diary entries on her 13th birthday, she got a lot of books along with the other presents. So she was, at the beginning, she was reading mythology. You know, the things kids read. Mythology, she was very fond of these girls. Novels, these kind of girl’s detective novels. Then when she was in hiding, she was reading Goode and Shiller and the Bible and the Old Testament and the New Testament and so forth. So she had a kind of literary sensibility already formed. So it wasn’t as if she were writing in a vacuum. She knew very well what literature was and what she was aiming at.

Question: How do you teach the diary as a work of literature?

Francine Prose: Well, you know what? I never taught it until I was working on the book. I mean, I never, it hadn’t occurred to me really to teach it. And it was – the last chapter of my book is about teaching the book at Bard College where I teach. And I assigned it to my students and one of the things that I found so amusing was that they were carrying the book around the campus and other kids were saying, I mean, they were acting really as if they were doing, you know, wearing their grade school t-shirts or something. As if it were some ironic gesture. And they were saying, well didn’t you read that in seventh grade, dude. You know, why are you reading it now? But my students got it, you know, how beautifully she wrote. Because by then, you know, I teach a closed reading class so by then I taught it late in the semester. So by then they’d been with me all semester, they knew how I wanted them to read and that’s how they read it. And they were impressed by it, technically. I mean, how much she’d accomplished. And also, one of the things that I found so moving and why I decided to end my book with a chapter about that class, was the power and the emotional connection and the intensity of the connectiveness that 20 year olds, 2007, sophisticated, hip kids still felt with this 15 year old girl in that attic in Amsterdam during the World War II. And whatever Anne had done, what her achievement was, was to make that kind of connection possible, that after all these years and such different circumstances, my students could read it and still feel as if she were talking to them.

Question: What was the most surprising thing you came across in your research?

Francine Prose: I mean, really the biggest thing for me was finding out that she had revised the diary. I mean, I really hadn’t known that. I thought what most people think which is she wrote the diary, it fell on the floor when she was arrested. They picked it up off the floor, transcribed it and published it. Not true. So that was a huge revelation. And then the ability to go back and look at her revision process and her as a writer and see what she changed and how she changed it was a real revelation. I mean, really it was – whenever you see a writer’s first drafts and second drafts and how things are crossed out and changed, it’s always incredibly interesting to see the process. So that was a huge revelation. Then, you know, all of the way through to find out that the book had been turned down by every publisher. No one wanted to publish it. So when her father – after the war, when her father came back, the only survivor of the people in the attic, and typed up the manuscript and was bringing it around to Dutch publishers, everyone was saying too boring, too domestic, too Jewish, who wants to read a girl’s diary and besides, everyone wants to forget the war.

They don’t want to be reminded of what happened. So only after an article about the book, an essay, was published in a newspaper that had formerly been the resistance newspaper by a Dutch intellectual who had been a resistance worker, leader really, there was Dutch interest in publishing the book. Then the book was almost wasn’t published in the United States until Judith Jones, the legendary editor, fished it out of the rejection pile in France where she was working at Doubleday. Then the book was published here by another odd and in this case, kind of sketchy accident, it was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times book review by Meyer Levin who was working as the book’s agent in a certain way. Trying to sell it’s the theatrical rights which is, you know, not a good idea to have a book review in the Times by its agent but in this case; it turned it into a best seller. So one thing after another. Then the play which was this unbelievably stormy, conflicted, nightmarish drama really, propelled the book’s popularity. I mean, you know, it came out in 1952 in this country. It was a best seller. Then it kind of and it never sold particularly well in Europe. Suddenly when the play started going around and then the film, it became – I mean, that’s what really made, turned it into the icon it eventually became.

Question: Was Anne Frank’s diary a diary at all?

Francine Prose: It started off as a diary and then it became a memoir in diary form. Because, you know, when we think of a diary, we think something happened and then that day or two days later, you write about the thing that happened. That is it’s more or less concurrent with what’s happening. But if you’re writing about what happened two years later and putting yourself back in the frame of mind of the person two years earlier, that’s a memoir. But the form of it, of course, is a diary. It’s written as a diary entries so that’s really what she was doing. A writer’s notebook is something quite different. A writer’s notebook, at least mine and most of the one’s I’ve seen, they’re just random jottings and observations and ideas maybe for something you might want to write or whatever but there’s no feeling that you have to have a consistent sustained narrative.

Recorded On: September 16, 2009

Question: Are you concerned about internalizing and reiterating the work of other writers?

Francine Prose: You know, I’ve often heard writers, actually not writers, people who want to be writers say, oh I can’t possibly read when I’m writing because I’m afraid that it will rub up off on me and I’ll start to write. And I always think, oh how terrifying, I might sound like Tolstoy or Chekhov or, oh no. No I don’t think that. Certainly, I think, when you start out writing, when anybody starts out writing, you start out imitatively. There’s writers you admire and you start out consciously or unconsciously imitating those writers but eventually you grow out of that and develop your own sensibility, really. So in terms of research for nonfiction books, fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t have that great of memory. Certainly not anymore so I’m never worried about remembering too much. That doesn’t happen.

Like every writer, I had a great high school English teacher. But I had a really bad junior high school English teacher, I mean, she wasn’t bad. She was probably great. I just didn’t like her. And she assigned us to copy over word for word a Chekhov, a short Chekhov story. It’s the one where the guy is talking to the horse. He tells his horse the whole story. And so we had to copy it over. And we were all just in a rage about it. What a waste of our time. Actually I think it was very useful. And in fact, when I was writing Reading Like a Writer, in which there’s huge blocks of quotes from other writers and because I have no technological ability whatsoever, I couldn’t figure out how to scan anything. So in some cases I had to type whole pages of other writers into the manuscript. So and I would notice my writing would get briefly better after I had copied, literally copied, I mean copying this 181 word sentence from Virginia Woolf, my writing sounded a little bit more like Virginia Woolf’s afterwards which is a good thing. So I think that can be very useful.

Question: How much do you read when you’re writing?

Francine Prose: You know, I wish, I wish I read more. I mean when I was a kid that’s all I did for years. And then when you’re in college, if you’re an English major as I was, you know, you’ll have a week where you have to read four Victorian novels by the end. You know, you’re reading these huge amounts. Now, unfortunately, my life is so overwhelmingly crammed with stuff that it’s very hard to find that time to just read for pleasure. Also, because I still review quite a bit. Often the books I’m reading are books that I’m reading for work really. But every so often I get a chance to read something just to read something. I mean, I was traveling a lot in the spring and I read Little Dorrit; Dickens’ Little Dorrit. And I just loved it. I just couldn’t believe it. A number of us were reading Little Dorrit actually. Friends of mine because I guess there was a PBS series. There was a dramatization and a couple of my friends said, oh I don’t really want to watch the TV show. Let’s read it. And you know, we don’t have a reading group or anything but just people I knew were reading it. And a friend of mine said, who would have thought that Dickens has been underrated all this time. It was so great and the joy of reading it was extraordinary. So you know every so often that happens. [00:21:37.24]

Question: How much should aspiring writers read?

Francine Prose: I’m always shocked and believe me it happens more than you can imagine, to meet young writers, graduate students, who don’t read. Or don’t read anything written before the last 50 years. Or don’t see why they should read the classics and I just can’t understand why they want to be writers. What would be the point really?

Question: Do you worry about the decline in reading?

Francine Prose: Yeah. How could I not? Although, you know, the novelist Richard Price has this great thing that he says or I heard him say which was people were talking about the death of the novel and he says the novel will be around at our funeral. And it’s true. You know, there’s still, you know, I was just this weekend I was at the Brooklyn Book Festival. It was jammed. There were hundreds of people there. You know, people with baby strollers and readers and writers and it was jammed. So clearly somebody is still reading. I mean I can’t figure out, you know, I guess there were a couple of musicians there. There were no movie stars that I noticed so somebody had to be there to see writers.

Question: Why do you write both fiction and non-fiction?

Francine Prose: Well, simply, I like writing both. But also I’m not – there’s some writers, well Philip Roth comes to mind for example, who can at this point finish a novel and, as far as I can tell, start another novel. And with no decline in quality really. He can just keep turning out these fabulous novels but I can’t do that. I need time after a novel, really, to write another novel; to even think about another novel. Nonfiction is great in that way in that you don’t need the same kind of inspiration really. You can just write. And I like to write. I mean, I have to say, I like the act of writing. I like writing. So I’m able to keep writing without depending on all the sorts of things that you can’t control. I mean, the imagination or all the things that go into a novel. You know, writing nonfiction you have a certain amount of information and you put that information together and tell a story as you would in a novel but it’s not – you can control it. I mean, you don’t – you can pretty much always finish a work of nonfiction. I mean, I’ve stopped novels in the middle because they are not going anywhere. This has never happened to me with nonfiction.

Question: Do you write every day?

Francine Prose: Well, unfortunately not. I mean, here I am. I’m not going to write today but when I can. For example, this summer I wrote everyday; pretty much every day. You know, the summers are great. I mean, I can work in the garden and so forth and write. So over the summer I wrote everyday and if I had my, if I could choose my life, I would be writing everyday but no one can really. Or very few people can so I actually have a life in addition to having a writing life. And there are various things that I have to do and want to do because of the life I’m living in addition to the writing life so no I don’t.

Question: Do you keep your own journal or notebook?

Francine Prose: I wish I did. You know, I used to be kind of snooty about them. I used to say things like, well I’m not that interested in myself. Now I wish I did because as I remember fewer and fewer things that happened to me, I wish I had the source that I could go to. Because often it happens that people say, remember we were having dinner at blah blah and someday said duh duh. And it’s as if it never happened. So I would like to have some reference to be able to go to but no I don’t. I keep notebooks.

Question: Do you read the notebooks of other writers?

Francine Prose: Oh sure. And they range from just fascinating to inspirational. I mean, Chekhov’s notebooks are great. Dostoevsky’s notebooks are interesting. You know, his struggle to write Crime and Punishment is all in there. And then the letters, I mean, the letters of Flannery O’Connor are particularly amazing and inspirational because, you know, she was so ill for so much of her life. And her determination. I mean, there’s this fantastic section where her mother persuades her to go to Lourdes to look for a cure really because she was so ill. She goes to Lourdes and I think prays for like her second novel to work out well. You know, so that kind of dedication and her humor, her courage, and her intelligence. Or Elizabeth Bishop’s letters. For one thing, you learn a great deal about the process of writing. And second, you just—it’s such an intimate connection with the writer.  

Question: Who was the first author that made you want to write?

Francine Prose: You know, as I said, I was such a big reader when I was a kid. So it could have been—it could have started anywhere. You know, Louisa May Alcott, maybe. Hans Christian Anderson, possibly. I remember very clearly reading, Garcia Marquez One Hundred Years of Solitude when I was maybe a couple years out of college. And, you know, my work is nothing like Garcia Marquez, obviously. But the sense of the pleasure of storytelling and how fun it would be to have a story in which things come back and reappear on plot turns had a huge effect on me. I thought, oh that sounds like fun.

Question: Do you see yourself in sort of as part of a certain generation of writers?

Francine Prose: Yeah. Although, I mean, I have lots of friends who are writers who are around my age so I think of us as a generation of writers. Just because we are writers and we’re a generation but I’m not sure, you know, maybe in some other time, someone will say, oh yes, there’s this connection among us. But I don’t necessarily – what do I want to say? I mean, you are formed by the period during which you grew up so there is a certain sensibility, politically, even though this may not come out in the work, socially, again may not come out in the work, about how we view the world that I think is a connection but people’s work, it’s so different from, in a way that it’s supposed to be. We’re supposed to be completely unlike anyone else. That’s kind of the point, you know.

Question: When did you first think of yourself as a writer?

Francine Prose: I’ll let you know when it happens. You know, it doesn’t – I mean, you were asking before about is there a generation of writers and so forth? One of the reasons I feel so fortunate to have close friends who are writers is that we can, on some level, you know, the intensity of self doubt and uncertainty and, you know, a friend of mine says well you never known if anything’s good until the last sentence or the last paragraph or the last draft. I mean that, you know, and if you’re writing a novel, let’s say, you could be working for four years without anyone looking at what you’re doing. So, at some point, you know, at some point every so often I’ll look back at something I’ve done and say, oh yeah, I’m a writer. This is really good. But those moments are rare still. They’re rare.

Recorded On: September 16, 2009 

Question: Should we teach a literary canon?

Francine Prose: I think, you know, there’s a reason why certain books have survived. One of the things I tell my students at the beginning is if they don’t like George Eliot or Tolstoy or Chekhov or Virginia Woolf, I don’t want to hear about it. I really don’t want to hear about it. I’m not interested because it’s their job to find out why those writers are still being read. Not to say, oh, you know, blah blah’s boring. So and there is a reason why those books are being read. In many cases because well for all sorts of reasons but one of the discoveries you can make, and it certainly is something that I made when reading Little Dorrit.


[00:35:20.22] I mean, Little Dorrit, Bernie Madoff is all over Little Dorrit. There’s this character right in the center of Little Dorrit who is Mr. Merdle who’s Bernie Madoff. And there is a Ruth Madoff who’s Mrs. Merdle. So, you know, that kind of currency in the way in which even though something was written so long ago, it’s still completely apt and current and topical. It’s always a kind of revelation. And also, you know, who we are and the way we think and the world we live in was at least partly formed by books. So, it’s not a bad idea for students to, if they’re thinking about this world and why we are the way we are, you know, to read Hobbs or Locke or those books that have changed political thought.

Question: Should kids be allowed to read whatever they want?

Francine Prose: You know, I wrote this article years ago, maybe 2000 in Harper’s, that became kind of infamous for awhile called “I Know Why the Caged Bird Can’t Read.” And it was about—you know, I went out and found 800 high school reading lists from across the country to look at what was being taught. And one of the things I discovered was that, you know, in the effort to have a, kind of, broadly inclusive curriculum which I couldn’t support more, there were many books that were actually not that great and that were sort of dull, being taught to kids. I mean my own children, my sons, they were assigned to read some of the same books over and over and over again and there were books I myself couldn’t have read for, really, a million dollars.

I mean, they would just read the same book in third grade, in fifth grade, in seventh grade and you know just these unbelievably dry, boring books. And it’s not the teachers’ fault because in many places they don’t have control over the curriculum. I mean, one of the things that became very clear to me. I mean after this article came out, one of the bad effects was that high school teachers felt as if they’d been attacked by what I was writing which wasn’t my intention. So for a few months I was on all these call in shows and you know so forth. And most of the people, who called in and were quite angry, were teachers. And I began saying to them, okay look, if you could pick a book to teach, what would it be? And I felt at the end of that process, I could have generated a really amazing reading list based on what the teachers suggested. I mean, if you have to teach – and it’s why I feel so glad to be able to teach the way I teach and what I teach, I’m never asked to teach a book I don’t like.

Or if I do teach a book I don’t like, there’s a reason why I don’t like it which I want my students to know and I teach it as a book I don’t like, not as a book I like. So if you have teachers teaching books for which they feel no affection and no enthusiasm, it’s very hard to make students like. I mean, it really has to come from—I mean, I always say when I’m teaching literature, I feel like a cheer leader for literature. Well you want that. And you want that especially in the early grades. And unfortunately, the way the educational system, especially since No Child Left Behind and all the horrific measures we’ve taken to improve our system, teachers are rarely given that latitude to inspire their students with love for reading.

Question: What books should be taken out of the canon?

Francine Prose: Well, you know it can, speaking of that article, you know, only after you’ve written something do you find out what you should have written or what you should have said. I was very critical of Maya Angelou and it got me into a lot of trouble. Now I think, look, if one student read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, if one student read that book and became a lifelong passionate reader as a result of that book then how great. Then by all means teach that book. I mean, I think, you know, the trouble is that a lot of books are taught because they’re easy to draw moral – improving moral lessons from the canon or another sort of other which is not, which doesn’t have that much to do with literature. I mean, the other thing I was looking at was the way classics are taught. So for example, you know, Huckleberry Finn is taught as a kind of morality, that is what should Tom and Huck have done instead of what they did. Well, you know, and very few people are saying, look, Mark Twain managed to get the voice of a teenage boy on the page in a way that it had never been done before. Isn’t that extraordinary? How did he do that?

Question: Should literature be taught in conjunction with history?

Francine Prose: Well, yeah. I mean, I think it would be hard to read Huckleberry Finn without knowing about the history of slavery in the United States. So those two things work together. But I think that if you read the literature, someone at some point should say to you, look, this novel makes you realize what it was like to live inside this in the way that your history book doesn’t. And that’s quite different.

Francine Prose: Also, The Great Gatsby is often taught in sort of bogus ways. I mean, you know, as an example of the unreliable narrator. Like who cares about that? Who cares about that? I mean, what’s amazing about the book, just for starters, is how beautiful it is. You know, so for everybody that’s taught about the unreliable narrator, if only somebody would say to them, listen to this, it’s gorgeous. You know, and I think, you know, your teacher who knew it by heart, that’s what you get from that.  

Question: What’s your favorite book to teach?

Francine Prose: Well, there’s so many. You know, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Sons, I’ve always thought, was made for teachers of undergraduates, you know. I mean, it’s just great to teach. I have whole of quite a long list that every year I take different things from it. So, you know, things Mavis Gallant is great to teach. Deborah Eisenberg is great to teach. Roberto Bolano. Leonard Michaels. John Cheever. There’s a great, there’s a huge long list. And also every semester I like to teach something that is actually kind of impossible to teach. And it always is impossible to teach but then that’s sort of interesting.

Question: What’s the most difficult book to teach?

Francine Prose: I tried to teach The Snow Queen last year or year before last, I think. It’s crazy. I mean, it’s just, you know, because on the surface it’s a story about this boy and girl and you know the boy is kidnapped by the snow queen and at the end, they’re like little children, the flowers are blooming, they’re singing these little songs. Well, in fact, it’s the most dark, twisted, erotic, tormented, crazy story so it’s possible to teach as a great example of the way in which the product can be much better than the intention but other than that, it’s pretty hard to talk about.

Question: What makes something hard to teach?

Francine Prose: Because you wind up just going, what? You just shake your head. I mean, because it’s so – there’s certain works of literature that are just hard to talk about, you know. Jane Bowles is very hard to teach even though she’s one of my favorite writers because it’s so—or Bolano who’s one of my new favorite writers. You know, it’s just outside the realm of normal human experience and literary experience. So you really have to invent a whole new language in which to talk about it.

Recorded On: September 16, 2009

Question: What keeps you up at night?

Francine Prose: You mean, besides mortality, which keeps everybody up at night? Or coffee? Or chocolate? Or? You know, I mean, I’ve become a bit of an insomniac. I mean, I’m up a lot around say between two and four and I fall asleep and I’m up. And there’s a huge range of things. I mean, a lot of it on the most mundane level, it’s, you know, the email I forgot to answer, the phone call I forgot to make, you know, the thing I have to remember tomorrow or something awful is going to happen. You know, those things and I think that that’s true for a lot of people. But then, you know, all the larger things do creep in there. I’m often just in a complete state of rage about politics and the world and our country and our society and sometimes for better or worse, it just decides to wake me up at two o’clock in the morning and there I am just gnashing my teeth in the middle of the night.

Question: So does writing help?

Francine Prose: It’s certainly a great distraction. I mean as long as I’m working, I’m not thinking about that other stuff so that’s, you know, thank you. But certainly when I was working closely with PEN, I felt like I was doing something. I mean, I was —you know, it is a human rights organization so we were keeping track of writers all over the world who were in prison and persecuted and so forth. But again, I mean, on a larger level, another friend says that literature is a weapon against propaganda. And I think that’s true. I think that everyone now is barraged with propaganda every moment of their waking lives. Every moment. Not just government propaganda but certainly that but also corporate propaganda, cultural propaganda, all sorts of propaganda. And anything you write, if it’s anything like the truth, even remotely like the truth, militates against that in a certain way, I mean, or anything you read. I mean, you can be told, for example, that, as we were for eight years, that certain countries were the axis of evil. But if you read work by writers who live in those countries, you find out, surprise, they’re human beings, just the way we are. You know, you can be told that undocumented workers are illegals but if you read work about or by people from the countries from which these people come, you realize, surprise, they’re human beings. So I think in that way, and I’m not saying literature has to do this, literature doesn’t have to do anything at all but literature can do this.

Recorded On: September 16, 2009