Writers as Readers
Francine Prose is the author of fifteen books of fiction, including A Changed Man and Blue Angel, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and the nonfiction New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer. Her latest novel, Goldengrove, was published in September 2008. She is the president of PEN American Center. She lives in New York City.
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. [00:20:08.08]
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.
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. [00:28:04.25]
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’Conner 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. [00:31:31.06]
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
Francine Prose discusses reading as a writer and the importance of influence.