Interviews / Novelists

Interview with Joshua Furst: “Every work of fiction builds out of a series of decisions.”

Joshua Furst is the author of Revolutionaries (Knopf), a novel, and The Little Red Stroller (Dial Books), a children’s picture book (illustrated by Katy Wu), both published in 2019.

His first novel The Sabotage Café was named to the 2007 year-end best-of lists of The Chicago Tribune, The Rocky Mountain News, and The Philadelphia City Paper, as well as being awarded the 2008 Grub Street Fiction Prize.

Ad Busters described it as “a masterful book.” O, The Oprah Magazine said “The Sabotage Café shows debut novelist Joshua Furst in full control of his psychologically complex material, with a tale of ’emotional bondage’ as chilling as it is heartbreakingly real.”

Furst’s critically acclaimed book of stories, Short People, was described by the Miami Herald as “a near magical collection.” The Los Angeles Times called it “Startling . . . a thoughtful if disturbing portrait of what it means to be a child. Or, more to the point, what it means to be human.” And The Times (London) said “Any one of these stories is enough to break your heart. Joshua Furst’s debut is both enjoyable and important.”

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Hi Joshua, great to have you on Famous Writing Routines. For those who may not know, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself? 

Sure. I’m a novelist and short story writer. My work focuses on outsiders, mostly, people for whom society doesn’t work, or who can’t find a way to make society work for them: the malcontents, the spiritually and psychologically broken.

I’m interested in how people who’ve fallen out of the traditional paths toward what society calls “success” survive and find meaning in their lives, how they try to create new kinds of bonds that may or may not give them the sustenance they need. One consequence of this is that I write a lot about subcultures and the tensions between them and the larger culture in which they mix.

My first book, a tightly linked collection of short stories called Short People, is about the terrors of American childhood in the 1970s and 80s, a time when the old societal norms were disintegrating and nothing had risen up to replace them. The Sabotage Café, my second book, is about a schizophrenic woman—a survivor of the Midwestern version of the 80s hardcore scene—who’s searching for her runaway daughter, whom she believes has fallen into the shadow world of gutter punks who troll the streets of downtown Minneapolis.

In my most recent book, Revolutionaries, the Gen-X child of a notorious prankster and anarcho-agitator from the 60s looks back on his childhood in the rubble of New York’s Lower East Side in hopes of parsing what was lost and what was gained through the chaos of those troubled times.

I teach in the Writing Program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts and I live in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, with my wife and my two young boys.

Can you take us through the creative process behind your first novel, The Sabotage Café, and how it differed from your 2020 book, Revolutionaries

Every work of fiction builds out of a series of decisions—everything from figuring out what will happen in the story, to choosing the point of view through which to tell it, to deciding when to break into scene and when to summarise a given story moment, to finding the precise word that will sustain the tone of the whole while giving the sentence you’re working on the zing it needs to fulfil its contextual function. One of the most crucial early decisions I make relates to finding the right form for the story I want to tell. 

I struggled with this in Sabotage. I knew, if I was going to write about gutter punks, I needed some means by which to situate them in the society they’ve rejected. My first impulse was to do this by putting them at the centre of a large-cast social novel in which they’d come in conflict with various people and institutions.

Over the course of a couple of years, I wrote more than two hundred pages of meticulously described, third-person scenes that each inevitably went nowhere. The story just refused to come to life and I didn’t know why. It contained all the elements of life, but it still read as indelibly artificial, self-conscious and overwritten, all except one twenty page passage, a quiet scene in which two of the punks get stoned in a backyard and fumble around the emotional connection they both refuse to admit is growing between them.

What made this scene spark while the rest of the manuscript consisted of an unending pageant of dead description? Part of it was that I’d gotten out of the way of the characters and their confused emotional needs, but there was something else, too, something in the tone: a maternal desire to protect these two lost kids.

The moment I realised this was the moment I understood that the form of the story had to change. This was not a third person social-realist novel. It was a first person story told by a mother seized by her fear for the fate of her runaway daughter. Once I knew this, the story fell into place.

Revolutionaries took even longer to crack. I’d dreamed up the first sentence—“Call me Fred, I hate Freedom.”—while wandering around the streets of Chestertown, Maryland, one day in in 2008. I immediately knew that this sentence was potent. I knew that there was a whole character baked into it and, equally important, an attitude, a jumpy, assertive, spoken voice.

But that’s all I knew about it. Who this person was, what made him this way, all the things that might develop into actual story—I had no answers to any of this. What I had were the inklings of a potent formal means of getting around the contemporary bias toward genteel placid prose. Fred was hot, defensive, ironic, and angry. He was fully alive in that one sentence.

It took years for me to figure out what to do with him, though, and most of that work happened subconsciously, while I was working on other things. I’d been struggling with an idea that revolved around the fractious relationship between a father and son. For a variety of reasons, that idea refused to work. And throughout those years, Fred’s assertion of self kept coming back to me.

Eventually, I realised, wait a minute, this cruel, charismatic, narcissistic father I keep trying to write about? That’s Fred’s dad. Knowing this, all I had to do was get out of the way and let Fred talk and do my best to keep up with his rants.

What does a typical writing day look like for you? 

Certain of my habits have changed over the years. When I was younger, I wrote mostly at night. I’d start around 8 or 9 PM and work until two or three in the morning. Then, after my first book was published, which coincided with the rise of internet culture, I tried to structure my work as though I was going to a job.

I’d procrastinate and surf the web for hours each day, finally breaking free sometime in the mid-afternoon. Now I write in the morning, after I’ve taken my children to school. Sometimes I go to my office, but usually I find a café in which to work.

I like looking up and seeing life go on around me. I write longhand, in tiny script on yellow legal pads, and I keep meticulous count of my words. I don’t let myself leave the café until I’ve reached 500. Sometimes, when the moment I’m working on has real momentum, I bump that up to 1000.

How did the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns affect your routine? 

My god. It was shattering. Just the practicalities of dealing with lockdown made work impossible. My wife, my children, and I were all trapped in our small apartment together.

My younger son was two at the time and he demanded constant focused attention. My older son was six, in first grade, and stuck in remote classes at the makeshift desk we set up for him in the living room. My wife, who before then, had worked in a high-pressure, deadline oriented office, was expected to be “present” from 9 to 6 each day, which meant she had to barricade herself in our bedroom if she was going to get anything done.

Every day was a cascade of fraught, mundane tasks, a futile attempt to stave off the children’s inevitable meltdowns, and to conjure some illusion for them—and for myself—that time rolled forward in a logical manner and life consisted of something we could pretend to call progress. 

On top of that, the paperback of Revolutionaries came out the very day that the lockdowns went into place. With the book stores all closed, whatever momentum the hardcover had generated just dropped off the COVID cliff and crashed in the darkness. So, as the world stopped, so did my sense of my work as being a part of it. 

My routine was shattered. I mostly didn’t write during that first year. 

I felt myself falling away. To write at all required that I not only find the space and quietude that would allow my mind to wander through and develop ideas, but also that I confront some basic questions about what I was doing and why.

If I were to continue to write, I had to let go of my image of myself as a professional and return to a more primal motivation. To write, to write well, to write anything that mattered to me or, conceivably, to anyone else, I had to approach my work as fundamentally futile. Yelps into the void. I exist. This is what life has been like for me. Just that. Nothing more.

In June, when it became clear to us that the lockdowns in New York would go on indefinitely, my wife and I fled with the children for a month in the North Carolina mountains. I was able to set myself up on the porch of the cabin we’d rented and write for three or four hours every morning. By the time we left, I had a new short story.

Then, in October, I was lucky enough to be invited to spend a month at a writers’ colony—and my wife was miraculously giving enough to let me go. Because of the lockdown protocols, I spent very little time with the other writers there. I’d wake up and write 500 words, eat the boxed lunch the colony provided, take a short nap, and write 500 more. 1000 words a day and nothing else in the world but me and my story. I completed a novella in my time there.

Since then, I don’t know. Like so many others, I’m struggling to understand what my life looks like now.

What does your writing workspace look like?

It’s hard for me to answer this last question accurately because I write in a wide variety of places. I go to coffee shops. I clear space on my cluttered dining room table. I find a bench in Brower Park or along the Eastern Parkway boulevard. Maybe once every six weeks or so I make my way to my office in Gowanus. So, really, to the extent that I have a regular workspace, it’s my messenger bag, where I keep my legal pads, my pens, my notes, the research books that I need on a given day, whatever I think I might need on a given day.

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