Joshua Ferris: Why Comedy Is “Utterly Essential”


Need a paperback to take on your spring travels? We highly recommend the witty writing of novelist Joshua Ferris. As Ann says, “He’s very much in the David Foster Wallace school of fiction, but more accessible than a lot of Wallace’s work.” Ferris has mastered the art of blending elements often considered contradictory — combining humor, for example, with heavier subjects like philosophy and spirituality.

I was excited to meet Ferris at last week’s Salon@615 event. The bad news: life intervened and threw a conflict my way, so I couldn’t make it. The good news: our events manager, Ashton Hickey, was more than willing to jump in and take over the interview. I loved reading the transcript of their conversation, and I think you will, too. (More good news: We’ve got a second great Ashton-led interview coming up soon. More on that later.)

Anyway, if you like funny, smart, fresh voices and you haven’t yet discovered Ferris, take a look and toss a book into your cart. Better yet, come see us in the store and let us hand you an autographed copy.

Happy spring!

Mary Laura Philpott
Musing editor

Sometimes it seems like funny writing gets dismissed by critics as less important or meaningful. There seems to be this idea that serious literature has to be serious in tone. Can you tell me a little about the importance of comedy in your writing?

JF: The funny writers always get the last laugh on the stuffy critics and it’s a funny thing. Humor is accessible, and critics by definition are arbiters. They’re engines of discrimination, and it’s easier to dismiss the funny as being too popular, as being too accessible, so it’s easy to understand why it happens. But comedy also seems utterly essential in the experience of life. So, you know, the critics be damned.

Like your characters in Then We Came to the End, you once worked in an ad agency. So you’ve got experience in different types of writing. There’s functional writing, where you have a job to do: to sell something in as few words as possible. And then there’s literary writing, where you sort of have a job to do — you obviously want to sell books — but the goal is different. Do you think knowing how to do both has made you a better writer?

Joshua Ferris and one very happy Ann Patchett
Joshua Ferris and one very happy Ann Patchett

JF: Oh sure. Yeah, writing basically is a kind of rhetoric. I mean, you’re trying to transcend mere rhetoric but it’s a rhetorical deployment of one thing or another — that’s what writing is on the page, and it’s important to be able to hit different rhetorical registers. Sometimes it’s necessary to write as if you’re writing for a nine year old. It’s most obvious when you think about all the writing that goes on in the world and you recognize that some of it is purely functional. It’s not literature; it’s just communicating a message. But the lessons and the instruction you get at an advertising agency about clarity, efficiency, economy, and appeal are not the enemy of literature.

Privacy is a prominent theme in To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. The main character is a dentist — a guy who works in that quasi-private space of people’s mouths, the physical gateway in our bodies between the private and the public — who finds himself struggling to understand the very public world of social media when someone creates false Facebook and Twitter accounts as him. Basically, an “online life” is going on under his name that doesn’t jibe with his real life, and he rails against social media. Do you feel as strongly as he does about it?

JF: Well, I’m not on Twitter and I don’t have a Facebook page, but my attitude is less about scorn and more about the need to write books. If I were tweeting all the time I’d probably get obsessed with Twitter, so it’s really just a matter of professional necessity. And I guess to extend that a little bit, I don’t need instant feedback. I mean, you said part of the goal of writing fiction is to sell books, and I’m not even sure — I’m not saying this rhetorically, I’m saying this as a true question — I’m not sure why I write. But I don’t think it’s to sell books. I’m not even sure it’s to get other people to read them. I think it’s just to have them written. So I don’t engage in social media because I’m not necessarily interested in what kind of audience I’m cultivating. I think to be active on social media, you have to have that inherent interest in your audience. I don’t mean to be mean to my audience [laughs], but I don’t, you know, make an active effort to engage with them except for in the books. That’s where it seems to be most important.

What are you working on these days?

JF: You know, another novel.

Best thing you’ve read recently? And what are you most looking forward to reading?

JF: I really liked Elisa Albert’s After Birth. And I liked Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?, which I read a couple of days ago. And I’m reading To The Lighthouse now, which is a masterpiece. The one that I look forward to? Maybe Rachel Cusk’s Outline.

Favorite thing about the real-live bookstore experience?

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Joshua Ferris and Ashton, after a fun interview

JF: The presence of poetry. There’s a poet in every good bookstore, it seems. When the store can curate a decent poetry selection, I can walk in and read about a book that maybe was a finalist for a prize or somebody is talking about it or whatever, and there it is. It’s just a slim volume, and it’s available, and I think that’s just the best thing. It’s a thing that’s utterly useless in almost every respect and, yet, to my mind, completely essential. It’s generating almost no one profit, but it’s there for sale, given its due. That’s the best thing a bookstore can do.

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Read along with Joshua Ferris:

By Joshua Ferris – Signed copies available while they last at no additional charge. Write “SIGNED” in the notes section at checkout!
ISBN-13: 9780316033992
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Back Bay Books, 3/2015

ISBN-13: 9780316016391
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Back Bay Books, 2/2008

After Birth (Hardcover)

ISBN-13: 9780544273733
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Houghton Mifflin, 2/2015

ISBN-13: 9780544002234
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Mariner Books, 4/2013

ISBN-13: 9780156907392
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Mariner Books, 1/1981

Outline (Hardcover)

ISBN-13: 9780374228347
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1/2015