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.