Joshua Ferris and Reagan Arthur

The Slate Book Review author-editor conversation.

Editor Reagan Arthur and author Joshua Ferris.
Editor Reagan Arthur and author Joshua Ferris.

Photos courtesy of Reagan Arthur and Beowulf Sheehan

Reagan Arthur, publisher of Little, Brown, has edited Joshua Ferris since his first novel, Then We Came to the End. As Arthur prepares to publish Ferris’s third book, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, this month, she and Ferris emailed about how nervous he gets to let her into the room, about the 200 pages lost from the novel, and about learning the work practices of his dentist hero from YouTube videos.

Reagan Arthur: In preparing for this exchange, I dug into my first Ferris folder, and was reminded that I read Then We Came to the End on Sept. 28, 2005, the day your agent Julie Barer submitted it to me—which means we first met two days later, on Sept. 30, at a lunch to celebrate Little, Brown’s acquisition of your first novel. Happy 8-year, 7-month anniversary!

Joshua Ferris: The day you bought my book was such a great day for me that I try every year to send you a note to commemorate it. Looking back, I see I’ve succeeded to do so, wait for it … one time. One email in eight years. That’s a pretty good indication of how good I am at things like birthday cards and graveside visits. But! No indication at all of my love for you.

Arthur: You’ve now written three novels. Has the experience of writing them—and, since we’re discussing the editorial relationship, being edited—changed over the course of these books? I know (or I think I know!) you have a group of readers and editors along the way—do you find yourself anticipating certain reactions or queries, or are you able to shut out the chorus of future readers?

Ferris: The editorial process for me is like this: When you’re attending a writing program, which I did in the early aughts, it’s natural to feel people in the room with you as you write—professors, fellow students, friends. But that’s death. I can’t have anyone else in the room. It’s a small room as it is, brimming with neuroses and bad puns and lingering high-school insecurities. I need the room to be as empty as possible for months, and sometimes years. My first reader is my wife. She will tell me when things are crap in a way that others might not. After her, I go a little wider, to three or four longtime readers, to my agent, and then to you. Once I show work to you, I’m inviting you into the room, you have an active purpose in being there, and the work had better be far enough along to withstand the force of your presence.

Arthur: How long did it take you to write To Rise Again at a Decent Hour?

Ferris: I started the first iteration of the book in 2004. I wrote on it for about a year, to little avail, and then started up again after writing The Unnamed, I guess in 2010. So probably four years stitched together, but 10 by the calendar.

I wonder now if it needed to take that long. Because I have cared in the past as much about how something is said as what’s being said, I have made it a point to hone lines and perfect scenes before I know if a character or a plotline will ultimately work. That means I can take forever getting something right, only to have someone like yourself point out that it might be entirely wrong. There’s a bit of a battle/war problem here. By the time I perfect something, the war be damned—look at all the battles I’ve made pretty! It’s an inefficient and self-destructive and often heartbreaking way to work, with the only comfort that of knowing you’ve been faithful even to the scraps.

Arthur: The shape of this novel changed a lot as it came into being. Do you want to talk about your initial ideas for Paul and his role in the story, and how those evolved (or disappeared, might be the more accurate way to put it)?

Ferris: Disappeared, evaporated, succumbed. There were at least a dozen characters who got the full treatment in earlier drafts—a Times reporter, two Mossad agents, a medical examiner from Scranton, Pennsylvania. As you know, these were archetypal characters to some extent, bit characters playing by the rules of what was then a detective novel called The Third Bishop. Despite their broad conformity to genre types, I loved those characters and spent a long time making them as engaging as I knew how. Then, when I abandoned all elements of a detective novel, to bring the tone of the book more in line with its subject and its central character, I had to toss them, along with about 200 pages. Now that was a fun day.

Arthur: I loved those characters, too—don’t think I enjoyed their demise. When this happens, do you ever salvage a character or plotline for a future project, or do you feel like they can only exist in their original, doomed state?

Ferris: Then We Came to the End began when I tried to rescue Benny Shassburger from the charnel house of an abandoned novel, and somehow I ended up rewriting the whole thing. But I think most orphaned characters can’t be saved. They live and breathe in their fictional contexts, they have radically circumscribed purposes, they’re constructs in ever-larger constructs, etc., etc.

With this book, I became more keenly aware of how important good plotting is. And also just how hard it can be. You’re someone who knows from plotting, because you edit some master plotters (Kate Atkinson, George Pelecanos, Ian Rankin). What makes for good plot?

Arthur: Good plots look so different, book to book. But to grossly generalize, I’d say they all share a clarity of event, purpose, and consequence. Something happened, we want to understand why, and to know what it will mean. And then ideally we care about any of this because it involves characters we believe in, and we believe in them because we’re experiencing them through a narrative voice that is strong and engaging.

I should point out that in the cases of Rankin and Atkinson, their primary editors are in the U.K. These international editorial relationships vary—I read Ian’s manuscripts after they’ve been edited in England. And with Kate, I often see pages along the way and may make a suggestion or two, but it’s not the same editorial experience that you and I have had, or that I have with other writers, including Pelecanos.

Ferris: Your list is very broad. Is there one single through-line that connects all of your authors? And when you take on someone new, is it because the voice meets certain pre-existing criteria, or because you can see ways to edit them that are exciting to you?

Arthur: I do think there are a few common characteristics among the authors I publish, across a range of styles. One is the very basic fact that you’re all very good writers. I’ve never taken on someone on the strength of an idea or plot alone if I didn’t also love the writing—an editor can certainly make suggestions about everything related to content, but without an affinity for the way the writer writes, to put it plainly, the relationship won’t work. I can appreciate the appeal of a banana split, but I never order one, because I don’t like bananas.

Let’s talk about the research you did for this book! Did you enjoy your course load in basic dentistry? Are you now secretly a licensed dentist?

Ferris: If you ever want to know why you should floss, just Google “periodontal disease” and look at the videos that come up. Here … I’ll do it for you. Enjoy! Watching procedures and surgeries on YouTube—that’s how I got my dental decoder ring and pocket license.

I also did some research where religion was concerned. I felt obliged to be careful with respect to religion. Getting things right in a novel is not quite the same as getting things right in the world, but in this instance there was some overlap.

Arthur: I’m not sure I’ve ever mentioned this to you, but when I first read To Rise Again, I was struck by this passage:

I knew nothing about Judaism before Connie. Before Connie I didn’t even know if I could say “Jew.” The word sounded very hard to me, to my gentile ears, maybe particularly inside my indisputably gentile mouth. I was afraid that if someone Jewish heard me say it, they would hear in it a reinforcement of stereotypes, a renewal of all the old antagonisms and hate. It was a minor but significant legacy of the Holocaust that non-Jewish Americans born long after World War Two with little knowledge of Judaism or the Jewish people had a fear of offending by saying the word “Jew.”

Because it reminded me of an exchange we had back in 2008 while working on Then We Came to the End. I’m reprinting it here even though it makes me look like kind of an idiot. I wrote:

I’m just paging through and there’s one more thing to discuss—“Jew.” I don’t know if you’re Jewish (I’m not), but something about this usage makes me uncomfortable, which is why I’d suggested changing to “Jewish guy,” or something like that. It’s just that I don’t think you ever hear anyone described as “a Jew,” as on page 9, except in a pejorative way or a deeply religious way, which would not fit this narrative. Let me know what you think!

You responded:

Let’s change it. As way of explanation: My best friend is Jewish, and always refers to himself as a Jew, and claims that when someone calls him a “Jewish person” instead of a “Jew,” he knows it’s an outsider’s perspective of how a Jew might want to be characterized, rather than how a Jew would describe himself. He’d never say, Is he a Jewish person? He’d say, Is he a Jew? But as I think about it, all that really makes no difference, especially with respect to my narrator, who, as a group, is only like 1/200th Jewish, maybe, and would more likely refer to Jews as an outsider would. So, agreed!

I felt (in a completely self-serving way) as if our old conversation was being put to good use in this new narrative. And of course now I know that this best friend you mentioned is the same best friend to whom you’ve dedicated To Rise Again—and I know that questions of faith and identity have been on your mind for a long time. Were those the primary ideas that started you down the path of this new novel?

Ferris: When you’re a plain old white guy like me, a WASP by most appearances, and if you’ve been liberally educated and conditioned to be historically aware and socially sensitive, you don’t know what to call anyone. And you can bend yourself over backward trying not to offend. At a certain point you just have to have faith in good intentions.

When I was a kid, my grandfather died and left behind a pool table. I became a good shot and could place the ball where I liked. One of my friends at that time had a way of expressing his dismay at being snookered by saying “You Jewed me.” Now, I knew this was bad. But I didn’t know it was bad on the level of, say, calling someone a “nigger.” Slavery and racism I knew. I didn’t know who or what a Jew was, or the first thing about Judaism. Up to that point I had never, as far as I knew, even met a Jew.

Then I go to college and become fast friends with a guy who takes me to the Hillel and invites me to my first Seder and introduces me to some of the rituals and traditions … and at 19, 20 years old, I’m thinking back on “You Jewed me” and how it squares with this new friend of mine, how such a narrow derogation squares with the fullness of the life of this one Jew, to mention nothing of the history from which he springs. What does a little casual anti-Semitism around a basement pool table in a Chicago suburb say about the world? Answering those questions, or at least asking them in interesting ways, was the motivation behind the book.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris. Little, Brown.

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Previous author-editor conversations:

George Saunders and Andy Ward
Claire Messud and Robin Desser
Meg Wolitzer and Sarah McGrath
Sarah Dessen and Regina Hayes
Jincy Willett and Thomas Dunne
Choire Sicha and Barry Harbaugh
J.J. Abrams, Doug Dorst, and Joshua Kendall
Donna Tartt and Michael Pietsch
Adam Sternbergh and Zach Wagman
Emma Donoghue, Judy Clain, and Iris Tupholme
Elizabeth Kolbert and Gillian Blake