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Then We Started Hearing about Joshua Ferris

Rarely does a debut novel generate so much buzz before publication. Exceptions typically burst forth aloft an author's prior coronation in high profile venues like the New Yorker, or else attract attention from a head-turning, six-figure advance. Plenty of good books have followed such a path.

Joshua Ferris Advance copies of Then We Came to the End have been circulating for almost a year, earning one rave after another from prominent blogs and booksellers. Notably, the attention has been dedicated exclusively to the strength of what's on the page.

Some descriptions: "Hilarious." "Wickedly incisive satire." "Delightfully freakish and entirely credible."

Then We Came to the End tells the story of an ad agency in decline, circa 2001. "We had a toy client, a car client, a long-distance carrier and a pet store," readers are told. We. Ferris uses the first person plural to present the agency's collective voice in the midst of ongoing layoffs. It's an audacious narrative gimmick that could easily collapse, and yet it never does.

We did TV, print, direct-mail and Internet. We had a business-to-business division. We drank too much on the weekends. We had the great good fortune and shortcomings of character that marked every generation that had never seen war. If we had been recovering from the aftereffects of a significant campaign, we might have been grateful. Eager, even. As it was, it was just us and our struggles to move up a notch chair-wise. It was counting tiles in everyone's office to determine who had the higher tile-count.

Nick Hornby describes the novel as "The Office meets Kafka. It's Seinfeld rewritten by Donald Barthelme." Me, I was reminded by particular scenes and motifs of Donald Antrim and Don DeLillo, but so many comparisons will only obscure the fact that Ferris has concocted something truly original. Splice it any way you like, we're looking at one of the year's most inventive, and entertaining, new arrivals.

Dave: Okay, the first question, and maybe the most important: How did you keep track of who took whose desk chair? Did you create an outline or some kind of flow chart?

Joshua Ferris: I didn't, but I spent a devil's amount of time trying to figure out what the hell I was saying. It wasn't until the point of copy edits that I felt confident I'd done it accurately. I was reading it over and over again, confusing the hell out of myself. I didn't make a flow chart, but that probably would have been a wise thing to do.

Dave: In the midst of the chair-stealing madness I was reminded of The Hundred Brothers by Donald Antrim. I don't know if you've read that.

Ferris: I have.

Dave: A massive cast, characters flitting in and out of the frame. It's still early in your book when the chair swapping gets out of hand; readers aren't yet so familiar with all of the characters. Marcia hasn't entirely become Marcia, if you know what I mean.

Ferris: One breakthrough for me, in terms of the writing, was that I ditched backstory prior to starting the action.

I had a key of sorts for the characters. When something would happen or description would apply to someone, I started off by looking at the key and filling it in, determining who these characters were by the accretion of details.

In the beginning, the characters were as new to me as they were to the reader. I became more familiar with them as I went along.

Dave: How much did you backfill? Once you'd reached the end, did you go back and edit significantly, or did the material come out close to finished the first time?

Ferris: Ninety-nine percent of it was done by the time that I reached the end.

I had spent a long time trying to figure out how to work the first person plural — and screwing up repeatedly. I spent probably two years in a state of constant anxiety about it. I set it aside and sort of thought, This is the book I tried to cut my teeth on. It'll never see the light of day.

Then about a year and a half later I got the voice. I got the first two or three sentences in my head, and I just knew that I could write it. I knew how to balance the we so it wasn't always just griping about work; it was balanced with what is enjoyable and meaningful about work. I knew then that I could do it.

Because I had spent those two years failing at it, I knew the story very well. I knew that someone had a daughter that had been abducted. I knew somebody was always bullied for being the middle manager. I knew a central boss character might or might not have cancer.

Once I had the voice in my head, it became a very easy back and forth — I would write on the book for as long as the voice was entertaining, and when the voice got long in the tooth I would switch to the plot and specific events. I just carried that through. Because I had done all that preparatory work, I wrote the book in about fourteen weeks. It was very fast.

Dave: I have my own theories about why the first person plural suits the material, but what were your own? Why did you use the we?

Ferris: When I was a kid, my dad started a business. He went off on his own and started an investment planning service. At the time, he didn't have anyone working with him, but he had an office and an answering machine.

I would call him to leave a message, and it would say, "We're not here right now, but leave us a message and we'll call you back."

And I would think, Who the hell is this we? It's just you. But I realized of course that he couldn't say that. He needed to establish the necessary corporate veneer of being a group. From the very beginning, as a young kid, I thought this was interesting, how we use this — as I'm using it right now — use this pronoun to either project a sense of power and unity or use it to subtly manipulate opinion.

It's used in advertised pervasively. There's always an implied we somewhere in the message. We will give you something better. You can be part of this wonderful group that we've created. We have the best products.

It wasn't ever a question, what point of view the story had to be told in. I knew it had to be in the we. I just didn't know how to do it.

Dave: About midway through the book, a chapter breaks out of that voice. Only later do we learn why.

What did you hope to accomplish by breaking up the story that way?

Ferris: I didn't want to write a book simply about what is funny at work. There are effective TV shows that do that, there's a funny movie that does it. But what is funny at work is really funny. The foibles of coworkers and office politics create great comedic material. I definitely wanted that in there.

So I needed the comedic element, but I wanted the book to be more. I wanted characters that fought against the we point of view, who defied the collective judgment of the individuals that comprised that collective. The best way I knew how to do that, to reveal the limitations of that point of view, was to present, unadulterated, unmediated, one character's night. A very dramatic night.

I needed to make it work technically. Hopefully, it does. It might seem to be jarring at first because it breaks that point of view, but it was important for readers to get the sense that the point of view is not a complete authority.

Dave: Now that the book is reaching readers, have you been brushing up on episodes of The Office to prepare for the inevitable line of questioning?

Ferris: I haven't seen the American version, to be honest, but I'm a big fan of the UK version.

I started the book in 1999-2000 when I was working in advertising. I don't know when The Office came out in the UK [Editor's note: The first episode aired on July 9, 2001], but I was very impressed by the way they handled what I had initially feared could be a terribly dry subject. They brought such wonderful comedic moments, and also very touching moments, to that setting.

My goal was a little more literary though. It was really to investigate the meaning of a collective voice, the meaning of a collective opinion, and the individual struggles particular characters have when confronted by that collective.

Dave: Something the story makes clear: We know such intimate details about our coworkers, and yet we hardly know them at all. For example: When Lynn talks about hula dancing in college — is she joking or not? All of a sudden, Jim is ready to reevaluate his entire image of her.

The guest blogger on our site this week is Dan Heath, who wrote a book called Made to Stick with his brother Chip. In Tuesday's post, Dan referred to George Lowenstein, a behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon who coined something called "information gap theory." Dan wrote,

[Lowenstein] said that curiosity is simple: It comes when we feel a gap between what we know and what we want to know. And he goes further: He said that the gap actually causes us a kind of pain — like an itch that we need to scratch. And that's where the "fire" of curiosity comes from — we are driven to fill the gap, to scratch the itch.

The office is a perfect environment for that. If you didn't know a few juicy facts about these people, if you didn't see them every day, you wouldn't be interested in the least.

Ferris: I agree completely. Also, along the same lines, is the idea of "groupthink." A very Orwellian name. It's slightly different. It's not just the gap between what we know and what we want to know; it's also the degree to which one refuses that curiosity either because it's easier to go along with the pre-established consensus or because you're lazy.

Around the time of the Challenger explosion, there was a study about the degree to which some amazingly smart NASA engineers goofed in a tragic way because they basically had a collective urgency and consensus, which worked against the kind of curiosity that would have uncovered the O-ring problem. That's a very heady example of where the collective can go awry.

Specifically within the office, it has to do with reputation and personality and persona, and then the feeling that down deep you're not actually getting any real information about the individuals you think you know.

The book is not autobiographical, almost at all. Most of the characters are completely created. But one thing that is autobiographical is the feeling I had when I worked in advertising that everyone had an opinion about everyone else. It was elusive sometimes, almost subterranean, but if you got into the right dog frequency or something you could hear what everybody else was thinking about a specific person. I wanted to explore that dynamic.

Dave: Recently we were interviewing for a position in the department, and we asked applicants to describe the best work environment they'd ever been a part of. What would be your answer?

Ferris: When I was a very young kid, I lived in Key West, Florida. Starting when I was eleven, twelve, and thirteen, I worked in a restaurant called The Eatery, which is now gone. This was during the eighties. The Eatery introduced me to a wild panoply of characters: waiters dying of AIDS, itinerant drifters, drug addicts... I have no idea why my parents let me work there, but it was a very lively, eye-opening experience.

The characters I met there were incredibly rich. I had just moved from small town Illinois to Key West. You should need a special passport to go from one to the other.

My experience of the people that worked there, the environment, that's definitely my fondest work memory. I not only made a lot of money and bought a waterbed when I was twelve, but I met a lot of cool people.

Dave: The routines of office life are very much a part of Then We Came to the End, from the time you take your smoke break every morning to what you eat for lunch and all the rest. When you're writing, do you abide by similar routines?

Ferris: One thing I found by not working in an office is that I really miss the office. That taught me in part how to write the book because I didn't want it to be a long screed about why work sucked.

Missing aspects of office life... The community it provides, the day to day breaks that you're talking about, smoke breaks or getting some lunch or coffee — I don't have that anymore. I have my cat, who jumps on my printer and copy machine.

There's a lot going on with the book right now, but I try to be dedicated. I wake up and work from eight or nine to about noon or one, and then come back and work from about two to five or three to six. I try to put in about seven or eight hours of writing a day because I feel as if what I've been able to accomplish on the page so far has been due to diligence mostly.

Dave: Any favorite modes of procrastination?

Ferris: Beer.

Dave: Effective.

Endings can be tough, but you pull it off. There's a sweetness to the way Then We Came to the End closes, without it becoming maudlin or even what you could call happy. Characters drift out of the scene one by one. That felt realistic.

In your own reading experience, what endings come to mind as the most successful?

Ferris: The best ending to any book, in my opinion, is Lolita. After having killed Quilty, Humbert is driving on the other side of the road, having completely eschewed all law, moral, traffic, whatever it may be. And I think he's standing on a hill when he overhears the choir of children's voices.

He says that the real tragedy of the story was not his loss of Lolita but the loss of Lolita's voice from that choir. It's a completely stunning, flattening moment in which the morality of the book, a book that for a long time was accused of great immorality, shines through in absolute terms.

I'm also a big fan of the recent book by John Haskell, American Purgatorio. I think it ends wonderfully, in a mystical and touching way. I was particularly impressed by that too.

Dave: If you were to induct writers into your own Hall of Fame, the Joshua Ferris wing, who'd get in on the first ballot?

Ferris: Nabokov. Garcia Marquez. Don DeLillo. Thomas Pynchon. DeLillo was my college father, in a way, and Nabokov has been my eternal companion.

I had a wonderful teacher in high school who handed me Lolita when I was thirteen. She had it on the shelf. It surprises me to this day that she would hand it to a thirteen-year-old, around Lolita's age, but I'm eternally grateful to her. I continue to come back to it. And I constantly come back to the stories of Chekhov and the stories of Kafka.

Dave: There were moments reading your book when I couldn't help thinking of White Noise, all the ways in which these characters are trying not to think seriously about death. The ad agency is a different environment than DeLillo's in White Noise, but the same neurosis among characters is everywhere, almost from the first page.

Ferris: If it's not on the first page, it's on the second. It's terrific that you mention it. I put it in there at every opportunity that I could.

Nobody wants to die in the office; it's the last place you want to be when you die. And a certain feeling of stagnation can overcome you in the office when you are not happy with your job. It might not shout out at you, "DEATH! DEATH! DEATH!," all in caps, but it says, "Boy, if I don't do something to shake my life up, I might as well die."

That's not always the case, of course. I discovered a wonderful thing while working in an office, which is that most people are very happy working in an office. There is much to recommend the office as a way of life. But I also think that, ultimately, during the time I was working, if we were told, "Something awful happened, you all have to sixty days to live," I don't think too many people would have shown up the next day.

Dave: There's no lack of tragedy in the book. First Janine, then Lynn, also Amber and Larry — everyone's going through something. Benny, Tom, Carl.

It's as if a lot of the gossip, the rumor and intrigue of the office, is how they create noise so they don't have to hear themselves think.

Ferris: That's perfect. Yes. In some sense, when you retreat back to your office and you're left only with yourself, it can be awfully daunting.

Gossip provides a terrific escape, not unlike television. It lets you be mindless. Sometimes gossip can be really egregious and harmful, but there's also innocent banter, which allows for the opportunity to crack jokes, companionship, conversation... Without it I'm not sure how many of us would be able to carry on with our day. Which is why I miss the office. Like I said, I have a cat. There's no talking.

Dave: The book explicitly references Whitman and Emerson, but what comes to mind epigrammatically is Thoreau: lives of quiet desperation. People are thrilled by their health plan, for example, but before they've even completed the thought they're wondering whether a good health plan is overrated. Always there's a sense that a better life might await outside the cubicle.

Ferris: It was important to me that the equivocation of contentedness be explored. It's very easy to say office life sucks, but we need these things, health plans and so forth. Quiet desperation isn't exclusive to the office, but it can be particularly intensified.

Maybe this is a facet of my personality. I tend to ask, "What's the alternative?" Sometimes that can make for a terrific stagnation, a stalemate in decision-making.

Dave: Are there any words you've been using more often lately in conversation or in writing? Sudden standouts in your vocabulary?

Ferris: Someone read Then We Came to the End and said that I love the word furtive. I'm going to have to be on guard against furtive.

I stole this — wholesale theft — but the word savours, with the u, the British spelling. Is that how we spell it in America?

Dave: I'll look it up.

Ferris: It was very evocative, something like, This savours in self congratulation. Something like that. So now everything I write savours in something. I really like that construction.

Dave: According to the Free Dictionary, savours with a u is the British variation.

Ferris: I think I read it that way, and so now I'm copping the British. Now everything sounds as if I'm writing it from London.

Dave: Most things are funnier in a British accent, so if you can emulate that in writing...

Ferris: What's particularly funny is my version of a British accent. It's awful.

Dave: Okay, last question: What kind of chair do you, yourself, sit in when you write?

Ferris: I have an Aeron!

Dave: Nice.

Ferris: My wife bought an Aeron when I sold the book. So I sit in style.

Dave: Lock it up.

Ferris: I will. I won't let anyone else in the office.

Joshua Ferris spoke by telephone from New York on February 22, 2007. After the conversation I pulled Lolita off my shelf to revisit the passage Ferris had cited.

...What I heard was but the melody of children at play, nothing but that, and so limpid was the air that within this vapor of blended voices, majestic and minute, remote and magically near, frank and divinely enigmatic — one could hear now and then, as if released, an almost articulate spurt of vivid laughter, or the crack of a bat, or the clatter of a toy wagon, but it was all really too far for the eye to distinguish any movement in the lightly etched streets. I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.

This then is my story....

I typed that passage into my laptop to reproduce it here, and then I promptly returned Nabokov to the bookcase. (To my All-Time-Favorite Fiction section, next to the fireplace, where it lives alongside other well-read paperbacks, Cat's Cradle, Flaubert's Parrot, In the Skin of a Lion among others.)

No way was I turning back to Lolita's first page. Next thing I'd have been spending the next few days with it.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.


Books mentioned in this post



Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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