Q&A with Joshua Furst about his novel, The Sabotage Café
Q: Your first book, Short People, was a collection of short stories. What's it like to make the jump from short stories to a novel?
Joshua Furst: The process of writing a novel is utterly different from that of writing a short story. I'd heard other authors describe the process, mostly in terms of form and structure - how the rigor of the story form demands an authorial control that novel writing does not; how in a novel the author can meander freely through his or her imagination. But none of this prepared me for writing my own novel.
I did not feel liberated.
What I felt instead was a pressure to both expand my thematic concerns and control a narrative that seemed always on the verge of spiraling away from itself. As the months, then years, of writing slid by, I grew less and less sure of the story I was trying to tell. Unlike the short stories I'd written whose formal aspects revealed themselves as the writing progressed, my novel seemed to grow baggier with each successive day of work. After two years I reread what I had and threw out all but twenty-five of the two hundred fifty pages I'd amassed.
I began to write fragments of scene - whatever I could conceive of my characters doing, regardless of how these moments might relate to each other. And somehow, by letting go of my concern with the form the book would take, the writing became both easier and better. Eventually, the story began to emerge and the novel took on the shape it needed.
I've written short stories, plays and screenplays, but writing a novel was by far the hardest thing I've done as a writer. The other forms I've worked in require craft and execution, along with a certain amount of inspiration. A novel requires something more than this. Corny as it sounds, a novel requires faith and humility.
Q: The Los Angeles Times wrote of Short People, "Furst makes it all explicit-the cruelty, the astonishment, the treachery, the rapture-and in doing so creates a thoughtful if disturbing portrait of what it means to be a child." While that book focused on the lives of children, this focuses on the lives of an adolescent girl and her mother. It's worth pointing out you're not a child, nor a woman. How are you so comfortable writing from these points of view so different from your own?
JF: Writing fiction is an act of transformation. You begin with a fragment of idea, an emotion, some nebulous concern you don't really understand but can't stop obsessing over. You have a need to tell, but what to tell, exactly, isn't quite clear. And as you toss this slippery notion around in your head, details begin to adhere to it. Some of them rise from your own experience, some of them are pinched from the lives of people you know or things you've observed. Some you make up completely. As the idea grows and becomes clearer, as you get closer to articulating this thing that for a thousand reasons is essential to your understanding of the world, you begin to find that the vehicle through which you're expressing yourself looks nothing like your own experience. There's something deeply autobiographical in everything I write, but the relationship between the narratives I create and the facts of my life is not one to one.
So, when I write from the point of view of a woman, or that of a child - or any other point of view, for that matter -I do so because the story demands it. I try not to focus on questions of legitimacy and authority. The reality of a suburban mother in Minneapolis is no less alien to me than, say, the reality of a hedge-fund manager or an itinerant worker or the law-school student living in the apartment below mine. The process by which I go about creating my characters remains consistent, regardless of the differences between them and me. I try to draw them as individuals, and as such their personalities, thoughts and feelings are defined not by assumptions on my part about this or that type of person - generalizations that may or may not be true - but by who they are as singular beings.
Q: The central relationship in The Sabotage Café is between a mother and her daughter. What did you find compelling about the mother/daughter dynamic?
JF: Since I'll never be either, I'm leery of making proclamations about mother/daughter relationships, but I can speak to the specific mother/daughter relationship within the book. One of the guiding principles in The Sabotage Café is the notion of empathy, its limits and its uses.
Having raised Cheryl, Julia has been both a witness to and an active agent in her daughter's developing consciousness. After sixteen years, her wishes for her daughter are inseparable from her wishes for herself; she no longer knows where her own experience ends and her daughter's begins. She depends on her daughter's belief in her virtue - in her ability to provide more forgiving options than her own parents did - for her emotional and psychological well-being.
Cheryl, of course, sees things completely differently. She's acutely aware of the bond between her mother and herself, but instead of cherishing and cultivating it, she feels imprisoned by the responsibility it places on her shoulders. To become an individual in her own right, she must sever this bond without regard for the pain her abandonment might cause.
Q. How did you choose to focus on this relationship?
JF: Why this particular conflict of wills needed to be played out between a mother and a daughter rather than one of the other parent/child configurations is hard for me to explain. Of the relationships I could have focused on, this seemed the most complex.
Q. Did you use a real relationship as your guide?
JF: I wasn't attempting to fictionally recreate the lives of any of my relatives or friends, if that's what you mean. I do know many women, though, and within my limited abilities I try to understand them and how they see the world.
Q: There is a fictitious band in the novel called Nobody's Fool. You write: "Of all the bands to rise out of the '80s bubble, they were the one that best melded the chaos of second-wave American punk with the catchy melodic sense of the Stones, the Beatles and the Clash." Did you have a real band in mind while describing Nobody's Fool?
JF: Nobody's Fool was loosely inspired by The Replacements, my favorite band of that era, which is to say that they, too, are a scruffy bunch who hailed from the Twin Cities. The two bands actually have little in common. I can only imagine that The Replacements were much nicer guys than the ones in my band.
Q: How does music play an important role in The Sabotage Café ?
JF: For the teenagers in my book, music serves as a coded form of communication. It not only provides the soundtrack against which they mold their self-images, but also informs them - or they imagine it does - of a hidden, long-lived struggle for what they, in their grander moments, might call liberation. In certain strains of punk music - what might loosely and not altogether accurately be grouped under the rubric hardcore - they detect the promise of an anarchic alternative to the consumer culture that surrounds them.
Of course, there's an ironic element to all this. The attitudes of the bands and the attitudes of the kids who construct their identities in emulation of these bands don't necessarily mirror each other, and this is one of the themes I explore in the book.
Q: The scene in the book that I'm still thinking about is where a dog is beaten and killed. What was it like to write that?
JF: Hard. For a long time I tried to avoid writing that scene. It's a central turning point in the book and I knew I had to pitch it exactly right if it was going to have the intended effect. The brutality of the action wasn't what concerned me, though. Much of my work is dark and at this point I don't flinch easily. My major concern in writing this scene was how to convey Julia's fragile state of mind. She's less worried at this point about the dog's safety than she is about her daughter's safety, but contemplating the possibility that something terrible has happened to Cheryl is beyond her capability. What she is capable of is projecting her fears onto a proxy. Added to this is the fact that throughout the book Julia is to a large degree attributing her own past to her daughter - telling the story of her own wild youth as though it is Cheryl's experience - and this scene is one of the major instances of slippage in her narrative. Accomplishing all these goals without stating them outright proved to be rather difficult.
Q: You write about the underground scene in Minneapolis with a great deal of authority and knowledge. Do you have first-hand experience with this or how did you go about researching a counter-culture?
JF: I've never lived in Minneapolis, but I did spend many of my formative years across the river in Wisconsin. I've visited the city many times and for some reason a disproportionate number of my friends were raised there. My teenage years coincide with the heyday of the 80s DIY music scene, and though I wasn't involved in the movement, I was an avid fan. I absorbed the lore and, from my isolated small town in the middle of the heartland, imagined myself to be part of this society to which I had no access. My friends and I would drive to Madison whenever we could in hopes of finding a way into this world.
Later, in the early 90's, while I was living in Alphabet City, I found myself in much closer proximity to the counter-cultural fringe. While I wasn't a gutter punk myself, the streets I walked down were swarming with them. They in turn fascinated, infuriated, inspired and frightened me.
Since then, I've noticed that almost every large city in America contains at least a handful of these kids. The scenes on the coasts - New York, DC, Berkeley, Portland, Seattle - are well documented, but the landlocked cities, where the despair is greater because the options seem so much farther away, aren't talked about. The Midwest is more diverse than people often assume it to be; alongside the proverbial polite, friendly people live radical, independent thinkers. I felt it was important to give credence to these less visible elements in the center of the country.
Rather than researching the actual scene in Minneapolis, I attempted in The Sabotage Café to create a plausible counter-culture in which my characters could live.
Q: Who are your literary influences, both contemporary and classic?
JF: When I'm working on a project, I find myself searching out other work containing similar themes and ideas. I like to imagine that to some degree I'm not only engaged in telling a story but also taking part in a conversation with my fellow writers, both my contemporaries and those who've come before me. The Sabotage Café with its themes of social and political transgression, is to some degree a response to Dostoyevsky's The Possessed and the drug-fueled books of Kerouac and the Beats. Certain questions informed my work: How do I write a rock and roll book that's not about a band trying to hit the big time? How do I write a book about transgression that doesn't fall into the formulaic drugs-and-recovery mode. Among the contemporary writers who loomed large in my writing of this book are Mary Gaitskill, Denis Johnson and Nick Flynn.
That said, I suspect that whatever I write next will draw on an entirely different set of influences.
Q: What can we expect to see next from you?
JF: I've been messing around with a number ideas, trying to figure out which project is most necessary for me to focus on now. My writing process is such that I bounce around a lot until, eventually, I find myself deep in the middle of an urgent idea. What I can say with certainty is that my characters are growing older. I think I'm pretty much done with kids for a while.