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.
The L: How do you develop the tone: before you begin or as the story unfolds while you are writing?
JF: I think the tone had to be so much different than the first book because I was dealing with an invention that had to be taken seriously. I had to construct it. I had to treat it with as much respect as I possibly could. And that established a more serious tone; a more reverent tone that I hoped would aid the conflict.
The L: You list many different types of treatments that Tim tries, in the book's prehistory and also during the events of the novel: how did you develop that list?
JF: I just sort of imagined ways in which the disease could be undermined by checking shrewdly the things that someone very desperate to cure himself and suffering would come up with. And then I had helpful readers who said, "Well what about this?" or "What would happen to him if he did this?" and so they also offered some housekeeping with regards to an invented disease.
The L: What kind of research did you do?
JF: I talked to a couple of generous and very intelligent doctors who gave me a lot of insight into not only what kind of diseases this was like but what their methodologies would be for handling a disease like this.
The L: What's the most interesting aspect for you of The Unnamed?
JF: Probably the split when he loses grip on his sanity is probably the place where I feel like the book becomes what the book was always intended to be and becomes most interesting. It's right around page 190 I guess.
The L: He's out in the desert in that area. So what do you mean what the book was intended to be?
JF: Kind of like an apotheosis. It's a culmination. The realization of the entire book's potential happens in that section. It was as if the book were always leading up to that point even though I didn't quite know it while I was writing it.
The L: How do you define love? Because that was a big part of The Unnamed...
JF: Yeah, I agree. That's a tough, open-ended question. In the book, there's romantic love and spousal love and fatherly love and self-love too, so there are many different shades of it and with each shade come different feelings and obligations. In itself, love is such a specified thing that we have to talk about the very individual dynamics that appear in the book.
The L: Why did you choose attorney as a career for Tim?
JF: I think it's a very interesting profession. And in some ways it's similar to the medical profession, in that when you are trying to prove innocence or guilt, it's not a science. It's an art. So similar to Tim's pursuit to a medical cure, he's also pursuing his client's innocence. And there are no such things as clear-cut answers in either of those fields.
The L: What do you think about the institution of marriage and Jane's conflict with her own thoughts of leaving?
JF: It's a difficult institution for many people and it's demanding and it's challenging and of course it can be rewarding and intimate. What Jane has to define all the time is: How much of herself is she giving up in order to keep Tim safe? I think that is actually germane in every moment of a marriage, but not necessarily at the foreground. You're always sort of making a negotiation between the sacrifices that you make and the gifts that you receive from your spouse. And that negotiation is very easy to get out of whack. But I think most people are interested in finding a way to get that negotiation back into a better balance.
The L: What did you want teenaged daughter Becka to add to the story?
JF: She's an integral part of the family. She too is struggling with something she can't quite comprehend, which is her weight problem. In many ways Becka and her father can't communicate with each other. Age and her particular teenage funk put them at opposite ends of the spectrum, but slowly they arrive at an understanding that may even be as deep as the one he has with his wife. I wanted to see how the relationship would play out if I continued to pursue it, and I felt a good deal of deference toward the character of Becka. She has great misfortune to some extent because her parents are consumed by this larger concern, but in some ways she emerges the happiest of the group. And so I was pleased in some way that in spite of all the turmoil that they have in their lives and go through they do release a happy daughter into the world.
The L: What is your favorite characteristic of Tim, Jane and Becka?
JF: I don't think I have any off hand. like asking me what my favorite characteristic of my wife and dad are. I'd name one thing and be forgetting about another thing. Tim I think rises to a level of nobility. Jane has real devotion. Becka reaches a real moment of acceptance of herself and of her parents.
The L: What was most challenging in writing this novel?
JF: All of the constraints that weren't there in my first novel: the chronology, the tight focus on few characters, the realistically rendered exteriors and the settings. And the establishment of the rules of the disease.
The L: Why do you write?
JF: I enjoy it more than anything else. It's the most fun I ever have.