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Joshua Ferris On The 'Lack Of Self-Awareness' Of His Characters


Ten years ago, as this country was headed towards the Great Recession, Joshua Ferris tapped into the fear that gripped white collar workers with his first novel "Then We Came To An End." It was a darkly funny take on what happens when everyone at an office could be fired. And the book became a bestseller. Now, Joshua Ferris has a new book out, a collection of short stories called "The Dinner Party." He spoke with NPR's Lynn Neary about his stories and the men who populate them.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Joshua Ferris has written two more novels since his debut hit. Here and there, he took what he thought would be a break to dash off some short stories.

JOSHUA FERRIS: You're like, I know what I could do. I could stop this long project and start a new one, and it'll be perfect. I'll just knock it out real quick, and it'll be - every word will be perfect. So you set aside the novel and you think OK, well, here it goes. And then, of course, you get two weeks into it, and you think this is just as bad as the novel.

NEARY: A short story, says Ferris, should feel a little like a dream, sometimes a dream that becomes a nightmare. It also has to hit a perfect balance between leaving the reader wanting more and still feeling satisfied.

FERRIS: The story calls to a writer. And it burns like money in the pocket. And you got to address it. You have no choice. You've got to stop everything and pursue this idea or this little wisp.

NEARY: In this collection of stories, Ferris aims his sharp-tongued black humor at an all too familiar type - the jerk. These are men who whine endlessly about dinner guests, cheat on their wives, obsess about parties they may or may not have been invited to, leave long rambling declarations of love on their happily married co-worker's phone. Ferris says these kinds of guys share one thing in common.

FERRIS: The thing that I am amazed by time and again is their lack of self-awareness. They do not know they're actually jerky. And I think the one distinction that I have from them that also allows me to write about them is that I'm fully aware of the ways in which I can personally act like a monster and try my very best as a man living in the world not to. That's lost on these guys.

NEARY: In a night out, a young couple is heading out for dinner with her parents. After a chance encounter with a friend of the husband's, the wife is convinced she has just met the woman he is having an affair with. She flees into the night, leaving him to explain what happened to her waiting mother and father. He tells them they had a fight but won't say what it was about, then waits to see how they react.

FERRIS: (Reading) He perspired more hotly in the immediate aftermath of this. He had never stood up to his in-laws before. And he took up his water glass. As he drank, he scrutinized Sid and Emily for their reaction. They regarded each other silently, searching for a unified front. Sid sat back in his chair. You're right, Tom, he said. It's none of our business.

NEARY: Of course, Tom is not content to accept this small victory gracefully. Ferris says his favorite moment in the story comes next.

FERRIS: He makes up a lie. He fabricates the reason for the fight and passes it off as if the fight came about because he was overly concerned with his wife, rather than having an affair. And I think that's at the moment when he becomes truly irredeemable. And it - that's the moment at which I was no longer worried that the reader would confuse me with these characters.

NEARY: Some of these characters win your sympathy. A young boy tries unsuccessfully to get his mother back together with her latest lover. One story turns violent when a man's childhood comes back to haunt him unexpectedly. Some of these characters are irredeemable, but with a few exceptions, Ferris mines their cluelessness for humor.

FERRIS: Ignorance lends itself to comedy to some extent. And this is the case even with terrible people. You know, some of the things people say and witticisms that are derived out of conversations with deplorable subject matters are often funny. Even against your will, you laugh.

NEARY: Collectively, these stories create a somewhat bleak picture of human nature. Ferris doesn't see it that way. He sees his stories as a kind of mirror to contemporary America.

FERRIS: We have allowed ourselves to some extent to live a fiction, to live a lie, to believe that things are not always as dark as they can be. And that's not the case with my characters. I feel very pressed to be truthful.

NEARY: Confronting the truth can be hard, but when it's tempered with a sense of humor like Joshua Ferris's, it tends to go down easier. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.
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