Monday, May 23, 2005

Francine Prose on neurotic motherhood and the perils of reading your own reviews

In Francine Prose’s latest novel, “A Changed Man,” Bonnie Kalen, a foundation fundraiser, surprises her teenage boys with a thirty-two year old Neo-Nazi whom she invites into the home in the same way some people might welcome a stray puppy. And like a stray puppy, Vincent Nolan, the skinhead in question, is looking for a reprieve from his wild early ways. But stray humans need not camp outside Prose’s door. “It’s not tendency of mine,” Prose says of Bonnie’s compulsion to open her home to a stranger. “My husband (the artist Howie Michels) says that his father was always bringing home strays of one sort or another, but that was not something I did.”

That fictional leap wasn’t enough keep Prose from identifying with her characters. “Everything I know about neurotic motherhood went into Bonnie,” Prose cheerfully confesses, “and there’s plenty, believe me.” The mother of two sons—both now grown—Prose spent the early part of her writing career augmenting her novelist wages by writing pieces on “How to Get Your Kids to Eat Vegetables.” That is, until her sons told her to stop. “Having kids was so transformative in that way, going from a reasonably calm person into this worried wreck, as if overnight.”

Prose published her first novel in 1973, after “failing out of graduate school. It was life-saving. It was the only thing I could do.” Yet, even after more than a dozen books and numerous awards and acclaim, the publication process has always rattled her. “In general,” she admits,”I’ve been saying that publication is the punishment for writing, but so far—and I’m knocking on wood—the experience (with “A Changed Man”) has been so whatever-the-opposite-of-punitive is. But its nerve-wracking because you do feel a little bit like the dream in which you are walking around having forgotten to put your clothes on. Its that kind of vulnerability.” And it’s not just the bad reviews that sting. “In the past I’ve surprised at how a good review can make you just as unhappy as a bad one. But people have been getting the book, they’ve been understanding what I’ve been trying to do. It makes me feel very encouraged about having gotten across what my intention was.”

4 comments:

Elizabeth Crane said...

It is thoroughly bizarro to be in a position to be reviewed. A better man than I would ignore them altogether. I had a formative experience in your workshop, Ken - the reaction to my work was rather unexpectedly extreme, save for a couple of people who, as Prose says, "got it." It was just a little glimpse into my future, and I was surprised and pleased with how well I handled it. And it helped that you pointed out that I was doing something rather different, and that some people wouldn't get it.

Case said...

Everytime I see Francine and Howie's names I think, "There's a couple who love Bar-B-Que, almost as much as the CFW."

kfoz said...

Elizabeth, it was those damn footnotes that got people suspicious of your work! Actually, one of the things that is important in being in a workshop and in being a critic, is the ability to seperate your personal taste from the author's intentions. People frequently want to "blame" the author for something that just isn't the kind of thing they want to read. A good reader is able to see what the author is trying to do AND have a personal opinion on how it works. But frequently people view something that is different or challenging as being flawed and wrong--which is why books are often criticized for the failings of the characters...

Elizabeth Crane said...

Oh my God, you couldn't have said it better, because that has been one of the hardest things for me as a teacher, to really put aside my personal taste. It's so true that "different" and "challenging" are often considered negatives - Does that mean "same" and "easy" should be a draw? Ohh... right... nevermind. I answered my own question.