Joshua Ferris was born in Chicago in 1975. His first novel, Then We Came to the End, won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. It was a National Book Award Finalist and longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. His second novel, is The Unnamed.
His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, and Tin House, among other publications. He lives in New York.
Joshua Ferris was also kind enough to contribute to an in-house newsletters ‘In praise of..’ section. He chose fans’. And here it is:
In praise of ... Fans
I don't like a fan blowing on me, I catch cold. Plus, constant blowing is distracting. Although rotating fans are the worst. I want to scream at them, "Make up your mind!" Half the time they're just cooling the wall. But apparently fans do cut down on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. That's in a book I read. I don't know who determined that. Or how. What kind of study would you have to conduct to put that in a book? I don't know how any study is done, period. Really the only reason I like fans and choose to praise them is because for the longest time I was scared of flying. I was afraid of permanent engine failure. In part because I was on a plane once in which the engine failed. It wasn't the engine engine, it was the in-cabin air-circulating engine, so it just seemed from the plastic burning smell that the plane was on fire and that we were all going to die. There were even people holding hands across the aisle, crying and saying their goodbyes. Afterwards it was the idea of the fan that restored some of my confidence. If a fan can operate overnight, I concluded, with such fine efficiency, and never have to be serviced, then an engine that's serviced all the time can go on a 3-hour trip no problem. That made flying much easier until the fan I was using broke. I keep it on my nightstand so my wife's snoring doesn't wake me up (I wouldn't have the fan blowing on me). Although sometimes she snores so violently that it vibrates the bed. That only happens when she drinks. It wakes me up without fail. I bought another fan to drown out the snoring and to restore my confidence once again, but now that one is acting up. It sounds, eerily, like the dying engines of a DC-10. Now that I'm no longer scared of flying, it is the airplane that has restored my confidence in fans. This is really only in praise of working fans.
Joshua Ferris’s debut novel Then We Came to the End describes the collapse of a Chicago-based advertising agency shortly after the Internet boom fizzles out at the start of the new century. At turns riotously funny and unforgettably moving, Then We Came to the End is narrated by the employees of the agency itself, a group of people brought together by fate and drawn close by boredom, laughter, rivalry, the threat of layoffs, and work itself. Here, penguin.co.uk talks to Joshua Ferris about his upcoming book, death as a theme in a comic novel, and whether or not he’s a hard-working employee.
Your novel is set in an advertising agency. Did you infiltrate an agency in order to conduct research, or did you work at one?
I worked at two different agencies after college. I was, however, hardly a model employee. I had a wonderful boss at the second agency who never seemed to be able to find me at my desk or summon me with a page. So she started calling me Captain Tuttle, from the TV show M*A*S*H*. Apparently Captain Tuttle was an imaginary figure on the show. Somebody made up and nobody could ever find when they went looking for him. So I was my agency’s made-up character. In fairness to myself, however, I did work hard when it was necessary, and on those days, the woman I later married would pick me up and ask me how my day went. I had a hard time summoning any other response but: “Just one more day closer to death.” It wasn’t all bleak, however. There was a woman in the office who dispensed free M&Ms, and I was well-insured.
So, the book is autobiographical?
There’s almost nothing autobiographical about it. I did experience the apocalypse of the post-Internet-boom and the rapid firing of a lot of the people I worked with. So in one sense, the spirit of the book accurately reflects the time in which it takes place. But as for the characters, they’re pure inventions. People might think they recognize themselves, but in all likelihood, all of the characters are probably just versions of my mother.
What kind of work did you do in the agency?
I wrote mostly newsletters for well-heeled hotel guests, and user manuals for electrical tools.
Very sexy. The crowning achievement of my career probably came when I posed for an ad for a product that claimed to prevent cat spraying. The first agency I worked for was in the habit of finding their models within its own cubicles - cheaper that way - and I spent half a day with a relatively friendly white Persian who I had to lift into the air for long stretches of time, and peer at as if we were locked in a loving battle. It was a long half day. The expression on my face was suppose to convey my determination to defeat this cat’s insistence to spray my walls with its urine. The photographer took picture after picture until she got the right one, and three months later I was in Cat Fancy Magazine.
Let’s talk about the book. Your novel is written in the first person plural, the “we” of the advertising agency. Why is that?
I believe people think as a group more often than we might realize or care to admit. We like to believe that we act as individuals and nothing more, but time and again - in corporations and business, in politics and religion, in fashion and culture, and in friendships and social circles - we think and do as one. It’s Orwell’s groupthink, and it can lead to some bad decisions. And I found it to be a very common practice in the office.
At the same time, groupthink doesn't necessarily make the individuals who fall into it stupid or evil. Everyone desires relationships and community. Most people want to belong to a cohesive, like-minded group. It staves off loneliness. It promotes identity. These are natural and very human instincts. I wanted to explore how groupthink ran the show within an advertising agency and how it affected the employees of my fictional company. (I chose advertising in part because advertising is, for obvious reasons, a big advocate for groupthink). I also wanted to write about those characters who withstand groupthink and emerge as stronger individuals than those who can't quite do so. Writing the book from the first-person plural was an inevitable choice, but a challenge, too, because while I wanted that group to make terrible decisions and say awful things in keeping with groupthink, I didn’t want the book to be one long screed. Groupthink is a human tendency, even if a regrettable one.
What was the process of writing the book?
Geoffrey Wolff, a former teacher of mine and a wonderful writer, tells the story of giving his first novel to a mentor. The mentor found it lacking, apparently, because he recommended that Geoffrey put the book away in a drawer. Which happens to a lot of first novels, including mine. Now, this mentor went a little further, as Geoffrey tells it, and recommended that Geoffrey lock the drawer and then burn the drawer. For a couple of years, Then We Came to the End was my burned-drawer book. I knew what I wanted to write about, but I couldn’t find the voice. And then one night the first two sentences came to mind. I got up and started writing. It was a wonderful feeling, having the voice in my head, but it was also terrifying, because I was convinced I was going to get hit by a car before I could get it all out on the page. So during that time, I stopped jogging or going to the grocery store, and started ordering in from neighborhood joints - food more likely to kill me than any car.
Why write about work? As your group narrator says, work is boring.
That’s just one of the ways the group narrator contradicts itself. They bitch about how boring their jobs are, but then you see them pulling pranks, gossiping, telling elaborate stories - really just having a lot of fun. So much fun that they’ve probably contributed in their way to the financial woes of the company. Personally I don’t think work is boring. There are spells of boredom, sure, but most of us find a way to have fun at work. We joke around, we make many of our friends at work. And the work we do becomes a big part of who we are. That’s certainly true for me. I love work. I go a day without writing and I get a bad case of the fantods. I think that’s true for a lot of writers, but also for anyone with dedication or an overriding obsession, and that was one of the reasons I was drawn to the topic. In any society like ours, run on the capitalist model, we tend to work a lot, but for whatever reason, we don’t have many books that take a long hard look at that fact.
As funny as your book is - and it is really quite funny - death pervades it. From the early pages, when the group narrator proclaims its immortality, to the saga of Old Brizz, to Lynn’s ambiguous illness, to Janine Gorjanc’s dead child, death is all over the place. Why is that?
You know, I didn’t intend to write a comic novel. The funny bits luckily fell into place, but what I was particularly interested in was how a group, speaking not for any one member, but for the collective, observes life around it, and the things that happen to individuals, good and bad.
The group narrator says, early on in the book: “Our boredom was ongoing, a collective boredom, and it would never die because we would never die.” There, the narrator is expressing an essential truth about the nature of groups - individual members may die or disappear, but the collective existence of the group will carry on. The group narrator in Then We Came to the End exhibits the arrogance that comes from this feeling of power and immortality. But that group is in danger - after all, as a collection of employees, it survives only as long as the company does. And the company is sinking. Perhaps that’s what causes them to obsess about death. They treat it jokingly, with the Celebrity Death Watch, which turns death into a sport. And then they scratch their heads at it, too, when Janine loses her daughter. It’s something they can’t understand, and so they try to deflect their uncertainty with laughter, but ultimately they can’t escape it. With every new layoff, death for them draws closer and closer. There’s a reason, after all, the book is called Then We Came to the End.
Are you at work on a new novel? And if so, is it also told from the first-person plural?
Yes, a new novel is in the works, but no, there’s no “we.” I’m trying this new thing, which I’m calling “the first-person singular.” We’ll see how it goes.