The Books Interview: Joshua Ferris

Your first novel, Then We Came to the End, was set in an office. Why do you think there are so few novels about work?
It requires a good deal of actual knowledge and very often experience, and writers are often tending to their craft, the craft of writing. They are unlikely bedfellows. But I also think that we live a lot of our lives distracted. And work is a very big distraction for many people - certainly for me. When it is wrenched away, as it is in The Unnamed, and is threatened to be in Then We Came to the End, there's a sudden sobering anxiety about what we are going to do with our time. Without work, so much of one's identity just evaporates.

You used to work in advertising. Do you miss it?
I miss working with people.

Which writers have influenced you most?
What writer, when I was between the ages of 13 and 25, didn't influence me? When I came into contact with Proust, I learned all I could from Proust. When I read Kafka, I lived and breathed Kafka. Same with Joyce, Woolf, Conrad, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Camus, Nabokov . . . The list gets too long and tedious and unhelpful to continue.

Which of your peers do you most admire?
It's too early to say. There are many young novelists writing interesting things. But those of us on books one or two or three are still exploring and experimenting, and it would require a jump of a decade or so to talk about the writers just now making real progress.

You're the product of a creative writing programme. What do you think such courses have done to American prose?
I think this about writing programmes: either they can teach one to write, in which case some of the writing that comes out of them will be good, and therefore writing programmes are good; or the writing that comes out of them will not be good, and will not last or continue to be read, in which case writing programmes are irrelevant. That makes the enterprise either productive or benign.

In your new novel, The Unnamed, the protagonist is plagued by an unnamed disease that compels him to keep walking. What prompted such an unusual conceit?
The practical answer is that I wanted to get the hell out of my house after writing the last book. It was a nice break from work, but it was also research. The disease allowed me to give a real aspect of external danger to the condition and to write what essentially becomes a road novel - to look at America while also exploring the main character's psychological demise.

The disease has great comic potential, but this is not a "funny" book. How difficult was it to marry humour with tragedy?
The book's tone was a delicate balancing act. I couldn't lampoon the disease at all. If I wanted to be comedic, I could only highlight the absurdity of the situation at hand. So much of what is at stake in the book is contingent upon the reader buying the legitimacy of the disease. If I'd undercut that with a cheap shot, I would have undermined the whole purpose of the novel.

In a way, it's also about America, isn't it?
I wanted to make a fully realised and self-contained fictional world. Incorporated in that, I think, are some of the feelings that are in the air about where America is, how it's been used and abused, how it's homogenised, and then also the frightening potential of nature going off course. Those things certainly informed my construction of a fictional world that seems slightly off, by a degree, to the one in which we live now.

You're not afraid to leave plot-lines unresolved in your fiction. Is it hard to do this, yet retain a coherent narrative?
Yes, I think it's hard, and ultimately it's the reader who will decide to what degree I've succeeded. But I certainly didn't want to give any more than I gave. Or withhold more than I withheld. Again, it was walking a tightrope. Those narrative strands stop and start in the same way as [the main character] Tim's disease stops and starts. There is perhaps an unconventional narrative arc to the various strands, but they are in keeping with the disease that's at the heart of the book. That was very important to me as I wrote it.

“The Unnamed" by Joshua Ferris is published by Viking (£12.99)
Reviewed by Robin Yassin-Kassab.