Bloom: Your first novel, Travel Writing, has been called “the perfect first novel” by the LA Times. What was it like to follow Travel Writing with a second novel? Was the writing process easier or more challenging the second time around?
Peter Ferry: Travel Writing gave me validation. It allowed and even encouraged me to write again. It took me seven years to write, and I was never sure that it wasn’t just a fantasy or a pipe dream. When we sent it out to publishers, I was terrified that they’d all say ‘no’ and that my dream would come crashing down around me and I’d be unmasked as a fraud and a pretender. I’d come to depend on that dream, and I did not want it to end. So Old Heart was easier because I’d been around the track once. The process itself was pretty much the same: write, revise, revise, revise, revise, and revise again until you get it right.
Bloom: I loved your essay in World Hum about finding your own Zihuatanejo – finding that unique, unspoiled spot when you are traveling. How about when you are writing? What is that unspoiled, revelatory spot in fiction? How do you find it?
PF: For me it’s voice. Not my character’s but my own, the writer’s voice. It took me forever to find and develop it, but now it’s where I go and often why I write. How do you find it? You just keep looking and listening.
Bloom: You were a high school English teacher for 27 years – I still think of my high school English teacher to this day, Mr. McCann, and how his love of literature and writing affected and influenced me. How have you balanced teaching writing to others with pursuing the craft yourself? And, have you had students come back to you years later with unique insights about writing?
PF: I read somewhere that most people’s favorite teacher is a high school English teacher. That doesn’t mean that English teachers are better than other teachers. It means that rather than talk about amoebas or equations, we talk about feelings – Holden Caulfield’s, Hamlet’s, Hedda Gabler’s – and teenagers are full of feelings, so we’re right up their alley. Teaching literature is like shooting fish in a barrel and damned near solipsistic; every great book is, after all, about me.
Teaching writing is a little different. It’s about modeling. We had a great hands on, all-in portfolio based writing program at Lake Forest High School designed by our Chair Brenda Perkins that created wonderful writers and they came back constantly to say how much better prepared for college writing they were than their classmates. And actually I began my first novel Travel Writing because I was asked to teach Creative Writing and I couldn’t ask the kids to write if I wasn’t – that’s where the modeling comes in – so over the summer I wrote a long story and it eventually became a novel.
As for the kids coming back, it’s the greatest thrill of all. Of course it helps when the kids coming back are Dave Eggers and Elizabeth (E.C.) Diskin, a very talented writer of mysteries, and Courtney Queenie, a wonderful poet, and their work is full of insights into writing and living and the human condition. As teachers we deserve very little credit for any of that stuff, but Dave Eggers did once say that he had six teachers at Lake Forest High School who were better than any he had at the University of Illinois. We’ve always been very proud of that. And they weren’t all English teachers, by the way. Jim Benton who was a science teacher started our computer program and taught Dave desktop publishing in the basement of the school, and with the skills he learned from Jim, Dave started Might Magazine.
Bloom: Old Heart takes a new look at the complicated family dynamics between aging parents and their adult children. Dave Eggers describes the novel, in part, as an exploration of “the perils and freedoms of old age.” What are those “perils and freedoms?” How does your protagonist Tom Johnson exemplify both?
PF: I think any age has perils and freedoms, but maybe those things are more pronounced in the last age. Tom exemplifies both when he ponders the question, ‘What shall I do with the rest of my life?’ The answer becomes clear when he asks the next question: ‘Shall I do nothing or shall I do something?’ We should always do something even it brings with it perils as all somethings do.
Bloom: You seem to embrace adventure in travel as a way to learn about place, as well as about yourself and others; describe a similar risk-taking approach in writing – how do you push yourself to explore new territory when you are writing?
PF: After I finished Old Heart I wrote five stories that are very different from my other work. I intentionally went away from it to ‘push’ myself, as you say. They are all first person with unreliable narrators exploring dark corners and speaking to the things we don’t often speak to like who you think of when you masturbate or who you’d kill if you really had to kill someone. No one has published them and I don’t know if that means they are very bad or maybe very good or just different. I think I’m really glad I wrote them. I’m letting them sit and rest, but I’m going to go back to them soon.
Bloom: How did you decide to study writing and literature? Were there authors early in your life who inspired you? Who inspires you now?
PF: I had an English professor at Ohio University named Bill Bottorff who gave me a ‘B’ and told me I was full of shit. I’d been waiting for someone to do that. I went right out and changed my major to English. He also said ‘no one has written the way they used to before Hemingway since Hemingway,’ so Hemingway became an early model and hero as he did for many guys my age. Then J. D. Salinger and J.P. Donleavy. Then James Joyce and Virginia Woolf and George Eliot and E.M. Forster. Now Ian McEwen and Dave Eggers and Joan Didion and Bobbie Ann Mason and someone I don’t yet know tomorrow.
Bloom: You’ve been open about the permeable boundaries that exist between fiction and memoir, saying: “All fiction is based in fact or in real life experience, and […] all the stories we tell about our real life experiences are partly fiction.” How did you use that perspective when writing Old Heart?
PF: Old Heart began with two very real people: Athene McGruder and my mother. Athene was eighty-five when I knew her. She used to meet two pals named Rosemary and Janet Bowler at a bar I was hanging out in in Chicago at three every afternoon for a Manhatten – just one – and one day I came around the corner to find her trapped on a patch of ice on her walker and I helped her into the bar. I think she bought me a cup of coffee or a beer in appreciation and talked about how she hated being old and then she said, “You probably think I was always old.” And of course I did think that. Then she said, “Well I wasn’t.” And for an hour she told me her life story. How she married a man who was older than she, went down to the Texas old fields, had two boys, went line dancing every Friday night, came back when her husband died suddenly, reared the boys and put them through college by being the office manager of a law firm which she did until she was seventy-five years old. As she told me all of this, she became three dimensional before my eyes. I saw that she was smart and wise and articulate and funny and also quite beautiful with high cheek bones and a lovely smile and sparkling blue eyes. It was like living John Prine’s old song “Hello in There.”
And my mother taught me how to die. When she was ninety-two the doctor told her she had a heart condition they couldn’t operate on because of her fragile health and it would kill her in a couple years. Well, rather than feel sorry for herself or seek refuge in religion, she seemed to say, ‘If I only have so long, I’d better enjoy every single day.’ We took her up to our family’s summer place in Michigan after great debate because she couldn’t walk and had to be helped with everything including going to the bathroom. We said we’d try a weekend. She stayed six weeks. It was the best time we ever had together; she and I had struggled over the years, but that summer she started every day by saying, “Just look! Isn’t it a glorious day!” And some of them even were. We’d make her a little grilled cheese sandwich every day for lunch and she’d say, “Oh Peter, you really must taste this. This is the best grilled cheese sandwich I’ve ever had.” She made me wonder if I’d have the guts to live and die like that. Still don’t know, so I invented a character named Tom Johnson who does, and he’s the protagonist of Old Heart.
Bloom: And, in a follow up to the previous question, how do you balance fact and real life experience with the imagination when writing non-fiction?
PF: Well, they melt into each other, so I change the names to protect the innocent, and hope that I don’t get caught making things up or not making things up.
Bloom: Talk a little bit about how you use time and point of view as narrative tools in Old Heart. What was it about this story that benefited from its being temporally unhinged? Why did you use different narrators (and different levels of omniscience) to tell the story?
PF: I did all that stuff because that’s what makes writing fun and interesting. I like creating characters through voice, and inventing minds and exploring how they think and perceive the world and how those things differ from the way other characters think and perceive the world. And talk. An old man speaks differently than a young woman. There can be in his measured pace both weariness and wisdom. There can be in hers impatience and anger and longing. They also listen differently. Tom and Nora listen to each other and each of them changes as a result of what they hear. Tom develops a self-awareness he didn’t always have. Nora started off as a small and minor character, more of a device than a character, but she began to assert herself and she got bigger and bigger and finally my agent, Wendy Strothman, said, “heck, why don’t you just make her the narrator,” so I did. It was one of the final changes I made in the book oddly enough, and one that for me completes the thing, and you might think that that would involve a total rewrite, but it didn’t because she was lurking there all along just waiting to be asked.
Bloom: What’s next? What are you working on now?
PF: A mystery called Snow Was General which is a line from Joyce’s story “The Dead” which may be the best single thing ever written. Once again I’ve been validated and given permission to keep on writing, and that’s all I really want.
Click here to read an excerpt from Peter Ferry’s “Old Heart.”
Featured image courtesy of Peter Ferry’s web site.