Joshua Furst attended New York University and the Iowa Writer's Workshop. He has written a number of plays and had them produced. He was the awarded the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award in 1997. He is fluent in Mandarin Chinese, for what it's worth. His first book, a collection of short stories, Short People, has recently been published. For the time being, Joshua Furst lives in New York City and is working on at least two novels.
Joshua Furst's friend Megan Daum [The Quality of Living Report] observes that "he writes about the world of young people with a complexity and lack of sentimentality that is rarely if ever explored in American literature." Short People includes ten stories about: Kids with their deadbeat dad, a sixteen-year-old prematurely crossing the threshold of sexual maturity, six-year old boys parting as one moves away to a distant place. Another story picks them up years later. "Case studies" in between the stories are tied to the profoundly moving "Failure to Thrive" and illuminates the thinking of a person who makes a harrowing and terrible decision. Of this collection, Furst writes, "I wanted to explore the often raw, comic and painful lives of children. Evoking a world of Transformers and Care Bears, Boy Scouts and summer camp first kisses and first feel-ups, weekends with dad and long afternoons at the public pool. I tell stories about kids trying their hardest to grow up and no one to teach them how…"
Robert Birnbaum: Far be it for me to question the title of your book, but I saw that you quoted the Randy Newman song, "Short People." This book isn't about short people; it's more about little people, children.
Joshua Furst: Right.
RB: Did you ever think about calling it something else?
JF: I thought about calling it lots of things. They all seemed shrill and overarchingly…
RB: What's an example of a shrill title?
JF: God Save the Youth of America.
RB: [laughs] Okay. I see.
JF: For one thing, Randy Newman is a brilliant songwriter. I thought it added a further layer of satire.
RB: I've always thought "God's Song" was a masterpiece.
JF: And "Sail Away" is absolutely spectacular.
RB: I even like the songs ["You've Got a Friend In Me"] he wrote for Toy Story.
JF: The Disney/Pixar stuff, I don't know about. He's gone Hollywood.
RB: You're not in love with Toy Story?
JF: I'm not in love with Toy Story.
RB: Give it a chance, it could be too mature for you.
JF: I had a girlfriend who has a little three-year old son. I watched Toy Story too many times to really appreciate it.
RB: Well, how many are too many?
JF: Like a hundred.
RB: [both laugh] Okay, well I haven't watched it that often. But I am still fine with it. You used the word 'satire'?
JF: I think that here is a certain amount of satire in what I do. As opposed to the unreliable narrator, there is an understanding that the reader will know about the subject matter of the story—to the degree that they will be bringing certain cultural references—that is a certain element of satire, in my mind. I am always attempting to be funny. The humor is deeply important to me.
RB: Yeah. I want to qualify my 'yeah' because a couple of these stories were quite harrowing. I am thinking of the story "The Good Parents," which is dreadfully sad.
JF: I don't think there is a story in the book that isn't heartbreakingly sad to me.
RB: The first two stories were true to my expectations of children's behavior, and thus I saw a structure to the sequence of the stories, but it seemed to drop off really quickly into despair.
JF: I don't know, dead ducks [referring to the first story] are sad [laughs].
RB: As are boyhood friends moving away from each other.
JF: The very last story ["The Age of Man"] that returns to the first story ["The Age of Exploration"] which when I originally wrote it was all one story. Then I thought, "It works better if you put that one at the end." The very last bit where you see them as adults, it colors what came before with a kind of sadness.
RB: You wrote the stories in Short People specifically for this collection?
RB: You didn't collect stories you had written.
JF I wrote two or three more stories about kids that were not included in the book. Because when I looked at the flow and the arc of the prose, they didn't move things forward in the right way.
RB: Why wouldn't you have attempted a novel?
JF: Uh, I am attempting a novel now.
RB: [both laugh] Okay, I get it. Say no more. Tell me about the interspersing of the case studies?
JF: Those are things I started with. Before I wrote any of the stories, I had written three times as many case files as are in the book. I was thinking novelistically in the structure of the collection. And I knew that they would be the connective tissue and then there was a question of how to work everything else into it a flow that would make them resonate. The story that they linked to, the second to the last story in the book ["Failure to Thrive"] was the very last thing that I wrote. So there is all this space in between, the files themselves, and the person that you find out was writing those files.
RB: Were you expecting to surprise readers in the story "Failure to Thrive"?
JF: I had expectations that readers would be angered by what happened.
RB: Were you working for suspense?
JF: Very much. The goal I had—and I don't want to give away the plot—was to present it in a way that the things that this character does —that the reader would be on his side, despite the fact that they didn't want to be. That is another thing, in my mind, that is a satirical endeavor.
RB: How was your childhood?
JF: How was my childhood? You know—I moved around a lot.
RB: Where were you born?
JF: I was born in Boulder, Colorado. Lived there for two years and my father went to work for the government and we lived in DC for about five years and then rural Wisconsin for ten. Resindale, near Fon du Lac. It's at the bottom of Lake Winnebago.
RB: It's a cool name. Did you like living there?
JF: No [laughs]
RB: Okay, where to next?
JF: I moved to New York when I was sixteen.
RB: So you are a hardened guy now, a New York toughie.
JF: I graduated from an inner-city public high school, probably the worst school in the city. Then I went to NYU for undergraduate work in theater.
RB: And the Iowa Writer's Workshop.
JF: They made me mention that [on the book's dust jacket]. They front-loaded that.
RB: It's curious to me that some people don't want to mention that they went to the Writer's Workshop.
JF: They were very kind to me at Iowa. The perceptions and misperceptions of writing schools in literary culture right now…
RB: It seems publishers still think it is a positive, saleable credential to have gone to the Iowa Writer's Workshop.
JF: Well, the thing about Iowa is that they are not teaching you how to write there. They are just buying you time. They know they are not going to teach you how to write. All they are doing is giving you two years to work.
RB: Well 700 or 800 people apply every year. And twenty-five are accepted.
JF: 1600-1700 people apply every year.
RB: Okay. Seventeen hundred apply and twenty-five are accepted, thus making being accepted a great distinction. So no one cares whether you learned how to write. That can be resolved quickly by if one bothers reading the work. Anyway, you didn't learn how to write at Iowa?
JF: I learned a few tricks. If you come in with a certain amount of talent, a certain amount of craft, a lot of things that might have taken you four years to figure out how not to do you figure out how not to do in two years.
RB: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
JF: When I was a kid. I was an actor, and at eight years old I acted in Waiting for Godot in the local college.
RB: That's better than being cast in The Toilet [Leroi Jones] or No Exit [Jean Paul Sartre].
JF: The Toilet is a beautiful play, actually. I created this whole mythology. I dramaturged the play and learned about God through Waiting for Godot. And then I did other various acting gigs until college. When I went to college I originally was thinking I would go for acting. Every play I was in I would spend so much more time analyzing the script than I was actually doing the acting craft. I eventually began writing my own plays.
RB: Why not make movies?
JF: I'm an elitist I guess…
RB: So hitch your wagon to two dying arts. [laughs]
JF: I want control over what I do. And film is all merchandising, all product…
RB: As opposed to Hilary Clinton's book, Harry Potter and that faux feral blonde's book? When did your school career finally tip towards, writing and less dramaturgy?
JF: I started writing poems and things like every seventeen and eighteen year old does after my parents were divorced. By that time I was finished with my freshman year. I never actually took an acting class at NYU. I already knew in my head that I didn't want to be an actor. I hadn't admitted it to all the people I had been spending my whole life saying I was going to be an actor to.
RB: It must have been hard for them.
JF: Yeah, it would have been terrible for them.
JF: Very upsetting. Because being a writer is very much more lucrative [both laugh]. Then I went into the dramatic writing program when I was a sophomore. I graduated in '92 and worked in New York theater until '99 when I went to Iowa.
RB: Who was in your cadre at Iowa when you were there?
JF: Our year was an incredibly distinguished year.
RB: That was the year that six or seven people were immediately published?
JF: Maybe eight of us by now. Within three months six of us had sold books. Tony Swofford [Jarhead] and Oscar Casares [Brownsville].
RB: Who else?
JF: A guy named Nick Arvin, who was an engineer before he became a full-time writer and he brings that to his writing. He worked at Ford for years and years. He has a very mechanical mind, so that the emotion has subtle quality.
RB: So what happened to his story collection?
JF: It seemed like he didn't have much support. It wasn't presented to the world in the right way…
RB: You graduated in 2001 and here you are, you've published a story collection, working with a much admired, big time editor [Gary Fisketjon]. In the last months at Iowa City walking around in ripped t-shirts and hanging at Starbucks, how far away from that are you now?
JF: Those last few months were by far the best months in Iowa because all the competition was over. You are able to look at each other’s work for what it is. Everybody is finally able to admit that they like the writers that Frank Conroy didn't like as much. That is part of what Iowa teaches you is that your own opinion is much more important than the opinion of the teacher. That's part of the goal, structured in an ingenious way that gets you to that point.
RB: I asked you who your classmates were, who was teaching? I know you thanked James McPherson and Frank Conroy.
JF: Chris Offit. I was going to thank Chris Offit, but he was going to write me a blurb, and then he didn't have enough time to get it in.
RB: Who else?
JF: Marilyn Robinson. She is a solid, solid intellectual. She knows more than you would think that anyone would be capable of knowing. And she has a big heart. Also Ethan Canin.
RB: By the way, did you teach in New York City?
JF: New York City has gotten rid of its arts programs in its classrooms but the New York Regents have not gotten rid of the arts requirements. So all of the New York art institutions, which also had their budgets slashed and all their funding sources dried up, are keeping themselves alive by doing arts education in public high schools. Because the schools are required to have it and they get grants for arts education. So I was teaching playwriting and theater techniques and various things like that in the public schools. I did that for a long time.
RB: Is your fascination with children and childhood development as at least exemplified by this story collection integral to the way you look at the world or just a passing interest?
JF: I was talking to someone who said they thought the books seemed more about parenting, in some odd way, than about children proper. To me it's about the way American society is formed as much as it's about the emotional lives of children. To me, it was an angle at which I could approach our culture, which would add up to more than another story about a slacker twentysomething at sea. Each story there are very personal reasons, ways that and indescribable emotions that I was trying to get at. And in "the Age of Exploration" especially.
RB: It's a bittersweet little story. More sweet, than bitter.
JF: There was a whole period of my life where everything was still true. Where lies and evil didn't exist.
RB: And this not such a period?
JF: No, this is a very surreal period of my life.
RB: So here you are, embarking on the more public and subsidiary part of being a writer. When do you get to your novel?
JF: I have a computer here with me. I am trying to keep working everyday in order to keep my head on straight. There are too many highs and lows on an hour-by-hour basis.
RB: How long does the publicity tour last?
JF: Off and on for a month and a half. Here and there.
RB: How's it going?
JF: Our first reading was in New York, and we had one hundred and fifty people there. The woman who ran it said it was the largest crowd she'd seen at the Barnes and Noble in Chelsea. It was good sign.
RB: I'm thinking about the free and easy kind of feeling that you affirmed in your last few months at Iowa. When you looked ahead what are your ambitions?
JF: From now?
RB: From then?
JF: Gary and my agent were in the midst of wrapping up the deal, so I was in a slightly different position than a lot of people. There was one other person who had sold his book. But I was completely confused. I got back to New York and before the deal was closed I was out of money and had no job prospects and had no idea what I was going to do. I was going to have to kick my sub-letters out and that meant my rent was going to have to be paid again. After we sold the book, I walked around in a haze for three months not knowing what to do. I went off to Asia for three months and wandered around in China.
JF: Ah, I have some ideas in my head. We'll see. I spent some time in India, and I'm working on something about India.
RB: Given that you sold a book quickly, do feel you like you were robbed of the opportunity to do some suffering?
JF: I'm not a young kid. I did a lot of suffering before I got there. A lot of the people who go there [Iowa] are twenty-four and twenty-five. I was living on ten thousand dollars in NYC in 1997, you know. And that's not very easy to do.
RB: Right. Okay. You are working on a novel. Can we talk about that?
JF: I'm working on novel about American tourists. It's got some twists that I can't talk about that make it a very big story. But structurally it's a pretty straight shot. It's a lot of fun to write. I'm working on another novel that's not as fun to write. It's a very big book.
RB: Within your aspirations, is fiction the only thing that you want to write?
JF: Plays are very important to me. At this point I only want to do theater if I can do it with the people that I have faith in. We have developed a repertoire and a relationship and know how each other thinks.
RB: That sounds dangerously like you only want to work with the people that you want to work with. As opposed to working with people that you can't work with.
JF: Exactly... which is the norm. I've developed a troupe and there are eight or nine actors that will work on my projects as long as we all have other means of making money —we actually do that sometimes.
RB: Other means of making money? [laughs] I'm sorry…
JF: Yeah. [laughs]
RB: Journalism, non-fiction?
JF: I would love to, but I don't think I know how. I have a deeply fictional mind. Every time I tried to write non-fiction I have looked at whatever the form is that I am supposed to be writing in, I feel like I am imitating the house style, whatever it is. I become so caught up in the formal structure issues, that I can't get around to the story. My good friend Megan Daum writes both. She is like that, she can write whatever. Ad copy for websites. She can do any of these things. I sit for an hour fretting over a sentence. That doesn't really get you very far in journalism.
RB: Right, editors will kill you. They'll take contracts out on you.
JF: And they won't like the sentence.
RB: [laughs] Maybe, if you ever get it to them.
JF: But they have very specific goals, and they are real-world goals, and my goals are all ethereal and based on these concepts of art.
RB: Another way to enter the fray is to write about things you like and then sell the pieces?
JF: I might like to do that. I went to Mongolia last winter fishing with a bunch of American businessmen who live in Beijing. It was a surreal trip, and I would love to just write that.
RB: What do you do besides write?
JF: I teach a little bit. I teach at Parsons School of Design. I teach composition type stuff.
RB: Have you thought of turning to crime?
JF: I have my fingers in some pies.
RB: [both laugh] I'll have to erase this so I don't become an accessory to your felonious activities. I can't do any more time.
JF: They're all international crimes. Harder to get caught.
RB: That's a relief. Do you have a picture of yourself in five or ten years? Cover of Vanity Fair?
JF: I was supposed to be in Vogue, but they lost advertising pages and cut the piece. Ben [Cavell] and I both. They were going to do a spotlight on short stories and feature Ben and me.
RB: Bummer. Your life is already down the tubes. They shouldn't have told you.
JF: They wrote the thing and they had to cut it. Knopf is going to call me and yell at me now.
RB: No they won't. They know the Vogue people don't read things like this.
JF: If in five years I have two novels out, besides these stories, and I can stand behind them and say I believe they are good books and there are a few people out there who actually understand what I was trying to do, that would be great. If there are a few more people out there who did not understand what I was trying to do but are caught up in it…
RB: You'll be able to get a table at La Moment. You are faced with a prototypical problem. You care about writing and you, whatever hard knocks you have taken, expect to make a living from writing.
JF: Not a good living. I hope to get by.
RB: Well, in NYC that's no small sum. Move to the country and you could live an affordable life. Would you move from NYC?
JF: I am thinking of moving somewhere that I can afford.
RB: Mongolia. [laughs] Sorry, I don't know what's gotten in to me.
JF: You're right there. The only places that I would feel comfortable are big cities on the coast or places that are not in the country. So I am thinking about moving to a non-American locale.
RB: Are you optimistic?
JF: Uh, some days. I 'm a pessimist by nature. I'm very much a skeptic.
RB: Take a whack at the question of why some many people want to be writers?
JF: America is a consumer culture. 100% consumer culture. It's not an industrial culture, and you have this huge upper middle class where if the kids get any education at all they don't want to be businessmen. They want to be artists. That's historically what you do. Your family attains money and then the next generation can go explore themselves.
RB: I wonder what the ratio of MBAs to writing MFAs is?
JF: There are a lot. And I am not saying it's a bad thing to do. It's probably a smarter thing to do than wanting to be a writer. [chuckles] You have to have the luxury to attempt it. In this country a lot of people have that luxury.
RB: Where would one discover this value of believing that in one's life you should to be able to make a living doing what you love? Is that some childish value?
JF: In your life you should be able to attempt to see if you are any good at what you love. People should have that.
RB: You shouldn't be a writer if you are a bad writer?
JF: Yes, I think you shouldn't be a writer if you are going to be a bad writer.
JF: It's not actually helpful to the cause of literature.
RB: Are you thinking of something greater than personal satisfaction?
RB: Adding to a body of work that will outlast our own existence?
JF: Literature is capable of doing things in the world that nothing else is capable of dealing with. There's something sacred about that. To feed your own ego is to work against the cause of literature.
RB: Who will be the gatekeepers?
JF: That's the question. That becomes the problem. When I was twenty four and working, toiling away this friend of mine who was an editor's assistant in publishing—who is no longer in publishing—said that if you've got people who are not related to you—who truly think that what you are doing is of value, that's enough for you to keep trying. Which makes a certain kind of sense to me. Everybody is going to have different taste, but if the only person whose taste you are feeding is yourself…
RB: I would have gone for a minion. That's sensible but still personal.
JF: If there are strangers that have seen it [your writing] and been touched. People should check themselves.
RB: Reality testing seems to be a scarce commodity. Would we have reality TV shows if people were checking themselves?
JF: That endeavor seems to be the same as the idea that everybody can be a writer. The idea that everybody can be an actor. In NY you can't take two steps without running into an actor living on their parents' money. By the time they get old enough to have real worries they can't scrape along anymore, the field narrows considerably and the ones that need to be that thing, need to do that thing, are the ones that keep scraping along—even when it becomes hard to do.
RB: So that would suggest that the ordeal, the obstacles, the dues paying really are necessary.
JF: I think they are. I think they have to be there. They are a good thing, actually. If you are not willing to sacrifice everything to do it, you really need to do something else.
RB: I was talking with Jamaica Kincaid and she suggested that many people, writers didn't feel that they have to pay something for what they choose to do.
JF: It's not a free ride. The thing is once you have to pay for it then you start to work harder to make the thing that you are doing worthy of that blood. And that's the difference between a good writer and a not as good writer. You're going to make sure that it's as good as it can possibly because it's the only thing you have to show for yourself.
RB: It's odd that this would become some kind of characterlogical test. We might be denied the fruits of some great art because someone didn't want to put up with all sorts of things.
JF: Then the person didn't have the stamina. To think a great thought takes a lot of not great thoughts to get to. And so they didn't have the stamina to get to the great thought. My gut feeling is that they wouldn’t have thought a great thought if they kept it up.
RB: Well, good. Thank you.
JF: Thank you.
© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing