MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
Imagine you're sitting in a meeting at work or at home eating dinner with your family when suddenly you feel the need to walk, not to stretch your legs, not to get some fresh air, but to walk compulsively, uncontrollably, without stop for miles and miles until you collapse in exhaustion.
This is the condition that afflicts the main character in the new novel from Joshua Ferris, titled "The Unnamed."
And Joshua Ferris joins me now. Welcome to the program.
Mr. JOSHUA FERRIS (Author, "The Unnamed"): Hi, thanks for having me.
BLOCK: Let's talk about this walking man. His name is Tim Farnsworth. He's a partner in a high-powered law firm in Manhattan. He's got a wife and a daughter. And he also has this mysterious affliction that hijacks his body. What happens?
Mr. FERRIS: Well, I would say first of all that it's not really a feeling he has to walk but really his body overtaking him and forcing him to walk. So it's more of a disease rather than a compulsion.
He himself doesn't quite know if this is the case, and it's part of an element of the book that sort of discusses whether or not it's a mental condition or a physical, organic disease, but eventually, it concludes more or less that this is something that he's simply not in control of.
BLOCK: One episode comes late at night. He's taking out the garbage from his home in the suburbs. He's wearing a bathrobe, and it hits him again. He's had a remission. Why don't you read this section for us, Joshua? This is on page 33.
Mr. FERRIS: (Reading) He walked past neighbors' houses. He walked barefoot down Route 22. He walked past the supermarket - empty parking lot and an eerie glow. He walked past the Korean Baptist church and the Saks-anchored mall into the dreams of late-night drivers who took home the image of some addled derelict in a cotton robe menacing the soft shoulder. He looked down at his legs. It was like watching footage of legs walking from the point of view of the walker. That was the helplessness. This was the terror: the brakes are gone, the steering wheel has locked. I am at the mercy of this wayward machine.
BLOCK: And often what happens is these episodes come in freezing cold weather. His wife, Jane, does this to try to help him. She packs up a survival backpack. She puts all kinds of stuff in it - a GPS device, energy bars, a first-aid kit, because when he starts walking, he can't turn back. She wants him to have this pack on him all the time.
Mr. FERRIS: He has no control over where his body is taking him, and he has no control over where, eventually, his body will release him. And when it releases him, he has no energy to do anything but collapse in exhaustion. So it falls to his wife to take care of him and pick him up wherever he might be.
BLOCK: And he and his wife both seek all sorts of medical insight. They go to the Mayo Clinic and see all kinds of doctors. He gets MRIs. He takes bat wing extract at some point, but nothing can be determined. This is an unnamed illness. And there, of course, is the title of your book.
Mr. FERRIS: It's unnamed. It's undiagnosable. It's essentially incurable. As you mentioned earlier, it's recurring and remitting. So he has long stretches of time in which he's not afflicted. And over the course of the book, you see one of these sections and understand the way in which Tim and, I think, sick people in general re-embrace life and recognize that which has been taken away from them when their sickness hits.
BLOCK: How did this come to you, this notion of a man who could not stop walking?
Mr. FERRIS: I can't reconstruct the exact idea, but I knew that I wanted to talk about sickness without any of those pre-existing back doors that some sicknesses have, some of the pre-existing cures and sources of alleviation.
When we think of cancer, you know, radiation and chemotherapy come to mind. I wanted to strip down this character to the very barest essentials and see what happens when sickness can't go away and it can't be answered by all of the medical technology that the country has at its disposal.
BLOCK: So the reader, too, would be bringing no preconceptions of what this disease would be.
Mr. FERRIS: Ideally, you would look at this as the essence of sickness distilled to its purest form and discover what that really means, what it really means not only to be an individual who is suffering from this completely debilitating disease, but also a family who has to struggle through the uncertainties of it and all of its demands.
BLOCK: This is - it's a grim trajectory for this character. I mean, he's gets badly frostbitten. His body falls terribly apart. He loses his job, walks away from his family, and there is some redemption, but it's a downward spiral. And I wonder if you knew that going in, that that's sort of where this path would lead.
Mr. FERRIS: I wanted to track the length of a man's life, and I also knew that this was going to be, at a certain point in time, an unremitting disease. So he would be stuck with it for life.
I expected, as I was writing along, that it really wasn't going to have an easy answers. And I'm thinking, oh, this is probably not going to end happily. But hopefully, there are some things in the book that alleviate that relentlessness for the reader. I think some grace notes that are given to each of the characters, that, while maybe not happy in a conventional sense, do bestow some sense of grace upon them.
BLOCK: What was it like at the end, for you as a writer, to leave this character, Tim Farnsworth, behind?
Mr. FERRIS: Well, the grace note that I mentioned helped me enormously because it was difficult to sort of watch him toward the end of the book. And to leave him, I think on a note with which I leave him, was essential. It wasn't essential only for the book and for Tim but for me as the writer.
But it was difficult. I mean, whenever you work on a novel for a number of years, it's difficult to relinquish. But here, in particular, given the circumstances, I think that I felt a particular closeness to him because of his suffering. And I knew that I was done, but I wanted to keep going back and making sure that it was perfect. So it was tough to leave him.
BLOCK: Did the ending change over time?
Mr. FERRIS: The ending - actually the very ending, came to me early on, maybe halfway through the writing of the book, and I had always known that that's how I wanted to end it, but I didn't know when I would write it. And I ended up being in a Home Depot with my dad, and I wrote it on my BlackBerry because I knew exactly what I wanted to say right at that moment, when I'm always completely useless in a Home Depot.
So I took the BlackBerry out and started to write it and finished it in the Home Depot as well.
BLOCK: Which aisle were you in?
Mr. FERRIS: I have I mean, I have no memory of really being in there. I can only tell you what my BlackBerry looks like.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BLOCK: There's something about the spigots and the two-by-fours was inspiring.
Mr. FERRIS: The fact that I know nothing about the Home Depot or what's in it was inspiring me to think about other things, and so I just got on, well, here's how I'll end the book.
BLOCK: Well, Joshua Ferris, it's good to talk to you. Thanks very much.
Mr. FERRIS: Thank you so much. Nice to talk to you.
(Soundbite of music)
BLOCK: The new novel from Joshua Ferris is "The Unnamed." And you can read the first chapter at npr.org.
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