In The Unnamed, the second novel by Then We Came to the End author Joshua Ferris, the well-situated family man Tim Farnsworth is afflicted with a mysterious illness: the compulsion to drop whatever he's doing and walk, endlessly and nowhere in particular. We spoke to Ferris earlier this year.
The L: How much pressure did you feel writing this book when Then We Came to the End was such a critical and popular success? Similar to the music industry when a band has a huge first album and then, there's that stress to have a huge second album?
Joshua Ferris: I've often thought about that. It's so different. You're probably more time-constrained as a musician and to keep in the public's eye you'd want a hit within a year of your first hit. It doesn't have as much longevity as a novel. With a novel, you've got people who say, "Well, you've got four or five years." I don't know. It would be really hard to sustain performance anxiety for five years. So I didn't feel any anxiety about trying to follow up in some way that was as big as the first book, to copy the first book's formula for success. I just wrote a book that I wanted to write and I think I've arrived at a very different book from a commercial point of view because it's so different in tone and content and all that. So I guess the answer is no pressure at all really. I felt an enormous amount of pressure to get it right.
How much time was in between the first and second book?
JF: I think I finished the first book in May of 2005 and I started The Unnamed in 2005 right away. But then I put it down because it wasn't working and didn't pick it up in earnest until March of 2007 and finished at the end of 2009. So really when I figured it out and started to work on it, it probably took me about a year and half to finish.
The L:You went with a more linear storyline this time than with Then We Came to the End. Did the story dictate the style?
JF: I think that the story just called for it. At a certain point in time, and very early on, I realized that this subject had to be taken seriously. One of the ways you know you are dealing with a serious book, one that is willing to attach itself to some realist roots, is that it's told in a linear fashion. If I could've played with chronology more I definitely would have, because it's so much easier for me-in many respects, this was a much much harder book to write because of those constraints. The linearity, the third person perspective, the small cast of characters. All those are different from the first book. The characters were much more my focus. I really couldn't make a lot of fun because the reader had to be persuaded that the disease was real, and if I started to lampoon it, it would lose its effectiveness.
The L:When you think of Tim's condition, do you think it's more of a psychiatric or physical problem?
JF: Well I hope that it's one of the things about the book that are debated. I personally think that all diseases have a physical cause; even a mental disease has some physical foundation. We don't really have to define it to understand it. So in some ways even if it's a mental thing, it's actually physical. I think that's one of the talking points of the novel-to what extent is he being driven out by some kind of unknown psychological urge, and to what extent is he being driven out by a general physical compulsion.