Joshua Ferris is just very good at what he does, which is writing fiction. His first book, Then We Came to the End, was a finalist for the National Book Award; his third, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, was one of the first American novels to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. When I first read his 2007 New Yorker story, “The Dinner Party"—the titular story of his new collection—a decade ago, I trawled Google for any and all discussions about it, and was more than a little perplexed I didn’t find any. I’m glad to have the excuse to talk about the story now, even if I did have to wait ten years.
Extra Crispy: What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Joshua Ferris: I always have the same thing for breakfast, but I didn't have that this morning. I had a bar because I went running. It was something peanut butter and jelly-flavored, high protein, gluten-free, delicious—a bar that gets refrigerated in health food stores. I had just come from a long run and needed something. And then I had, an hour later, two poached eggs, quinoa, vegetables, and spinach. Two breakfasts are good.
What do you normally eat?
Every day I have two scrambled eggs and two patties of Canadian bacon and a slice of seedy bread. It has lots of protein, low sugar. It’ll keep me going for about four hours without the need to snack. I use lots of butter on the eggs so it tastes good too.
You write about food really well: I'm thinking especially of the partially made dinner from “The Dinner Party.” Are there any specific breakfast moments in this collection?
In the story “A Fair Price,” the main character has bought a croissant and a latte for the man who's going to help him move his stuff out of story. When he sees the man, he thinks twice about offering something.
You also write a lot about masculinity and its costs. (You even make mention your fictional “terrible men” in the acknowledgements.) What about that subject interests you? Why is it important to talk about?
Men are awful. Women are awful too, but I know male varieties of awfulness a little bit more intimately. I think very often we turn to literature—to the story, to the novel—to be inspired, to find something beautiful, to locate the multitudes in each of us, all of that. But I also think that one useful purpose is to be honest about human nature. The relationships I've that scrutinized most deeply show a conspicuous gap between the way in which men promote themselves and the way in which they act. I can't think of a better vehicle for art or commentary than the story, for exposing that gap and revealing the lies and delusions we tell ourselves in order to soothe the memory of our actions.
What do these stories have in common?
From the very beginning I’ve tried to write stories—maybe also the novels as well—that drive closer and closer to a dreamlike state. One of the things that connects these stories is that they lift off from the subjectivity of the characters to a place that might diverge a little bit from cold, objective reality, where they start to mirror more that state between waking and sleeping. That's the place where revelation is had, where the uncanny enters in. Those moments are particularly apt for the short story because the short story has to be driven by some kind of revelation or sudden wisdom, insight, epiphany, whatever. So often that state feels dreamlike. The world shifts on you when you recognize something that was never there before. It feels like you are leaving some earlier, darker state of reality for something brighter, stranger.