Joshua Furst is the author of the novel The Sabotage Cafe and the story collection Short People. His fiction and non-fiction have been published in The Chicago Tribune, Esquire, Salon, Nerve and Conjunctions, among many other places. He’s a frequent contributor to the Jewish Daily Forward and he teaches fiction writing at The New School.
What effect does teaching have on your writing?
You’d think it would get in the way, but actually, it feeds my writing. When writers get together they bitch about their careers, fling gossip, and obsess over aspects of the publishing industry over which they have no control. When I’m in a room with my students, though, I get to push forward the aesthetic and thematic ideas I’m immersed in and see what becomes of them when they’re prodded and questioned by minds still too pink with idealism to worry about whether the ideas are marketable. They bring me back to the reasons I write and I love them for that.
What advice do you find that your students most often need to hear?
The first thing they nearly always need to get over is their belief that there’s such a thing as ‘good enough.’ Too often, they believe that simply putting the story on the page, in whatever nascent, typo-ridden form, is what writing is. They wave toward the thing they’re trying to say instead of actually saying it and when they’re questioned about it they respond by saying, “Oh, but you know what I mean.” Well, maybe I do and maybe I don’t, but either way, their one job as writers is to say it as clearly and powerfully as it can be said. Good enough is never, ever good enough.
Another thing they often need to hear—especially if they’ve got talent—is that going to grad school will not make them a writer. I always tell them to spend a few years, or a lot of years, away from school before even considering getting an MFA. They need to know that they will write for reasons other than to get a grade. They need learn how to define an aesthetic of their own, one they’ve examined and tested against their own ideals, unrelated in any way to what a teacher might say is or isn’t good writing. They need to read much much more than they have in undergrad. They need to know who they are as writers before setting foot a graduate workshop. Otherwise one of two things will happen: they’ll be eaten alive by their grad school classmates or they’ll turn into that sad species of writer who’s threatened by excellence and aspires only and always to mediocrity.
An MFA at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop is a dream for most aspiring writers–what was your experience there?
I went into Iowa with a fully developed plan for how I wanted to exploit my time there. I’d written a few of the stories in my collection already and I had a vision for what the whole book would look like. This protected me a little. I wasn’t casting around for a sense of direction like a lot of my classmates. Which isn’t to say that Iowa wasn’t often torture. It was. The stakes (real or perceived) were so high that people were often ruthless with each other. Still, some of the best readers I’ve ever had were classmates of mine at Iowa, and even now, eleven years out, their opinions mean more to me than those of most anyone else.
It was your second round of post-graduate study in writing, so presumably you found one or both worthwhile?
Actually, I only have the one MFA. I got a BFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU, which required me to take part in a lot of workshops, but usually of things like after-school-specials or ten-minute-plays about two people trapped in an elevator. Needless to say, it was a drastically different experience from Iowa.
How does your experience of writing short stories differ from your experience writing a novel? Is the process different for you? Is there one you prefer? Did you find one harder than the other?
My stories usually come either from my having caught an interesting voice that I find I can sustain through a narrative or from my having worked out a formal conceit that has enough room for play and enough connection to the ideas and emotions I’m struggling with to amount to more than just a po-mo exercise. I’m comfortable with stories. I work well within clearly delineated parameters. And my obsession with questions of how form and structure can be manipulated to affect meaning is easier to pursue in stories than it is in novels.When working on a novel, I find I need to be more flexible and instinctual in the writing. No matter how beautiful and full of potential the structure I’ve concocted is, there’s no guarantee that it will sustain for an entire novel. So I have to swim in a soup of confusion. I don’t like confusion. I don’t like being confused.
Did you come to play writing before you came to fiction? Does one inform your approach to the other?
I was a child actor and my first theatrical experience was a production of Waiting for Godot. Everything I’ve done in my life since then has been defined by this event. I’ve always thought there was a relationship between the page and the stage, though their aesthetic languages, and what can be done in each form, are entirely different from each other. I started writing fiction when I was still acting, and then I started writing plays (and puppet shows!) after I quit acting. For a while, the fiction and the theater went hand in hand. And then I realized that no matter how much I loved exploring what could be done on stage, no matter how much I believed in the ritual, almost religious power of the theater, I couldn’t bear the negotiations and compromises necessary to productively collaborate. So I abandoned the theater and focused all my energy on fiction.
You wrote a piece recently for Salon about Gadhafi’s finally days called “In Sirte.” Does it change your writing experience at all to be given a prompt?
Oh, totally. Writing from a prompt lessens the anxiety about needing to get to an essential truth. It pops you away from your usual obsessions and opens up subjects you wouldn’t necessarily chose to write about if left to your own devices. So it’s liberating in a way.
What is the origin of most of your stories, if you can pinpoint such a thing?
I’ve got serious daddy issues, and cataclysmic mommy issues and I’m often overwhelmed with rage at the world.
In The Sabotage Cafe, the mother (Julia) and the daughter (Cheryl) have a bizarre relationship in which their identities somewhat intertwine. To me, Julia is a much younger name and Cheryl is a much older one. I wondered if you did this intentionally, to blur the distinction a little between the two characters.
Though she wouldn’t admit it, Julia has manipulated Cheryl throughout her life so that she—her needs, her feelings—will always be subservient. Even her consciousness is subsumed in Julia’s. My hope was that their names would in some way reflect this. When I think of the name Julia, I get crisp images of a lively, possibly glamorous woman. The name Cheryl to me implies a life of hardship. I see a meek, self-lacerating woman, the kind who disappears behind the more charismatic people around her. This, it turns out, is not exactly Cheryl’s personality. She’s fiercer than her name would imply. And so, yeah, the tensions between mother and child are embedded even in their names.
I also wondered, in reading it, if you had any experience with punk rock.
A bit, but I wasn’t really a part of the scene. I loved the energy and politics of the early 80s DIY movement, and I’m fascinated by the mixture of idealism, impracticality and self-loathing that seems to seal these communities of kids off from the society that they, rightly, believe is mostly full of shit.
Last, but not least–why do you write?
I’ll say it again: I’ve got serious daddy issues, and cataclysmic mommy issues and I’m often overwhelmed with rage at the world.