TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest, Francine Prose, is a novelist, book reviewer, cultural critic, and the president of the American Center of the International Writers Organization, PEN. Her books include the novel "Blue Angel," which was a National Book finalist, and the nonfiction bestseller "Reading Like a Writer." Prose's new novel, "Goldengrove," is told from the point of view of a 13-year-old named Nico who looks up to her older sister, Margaret. Nico is in awe of how creative and attractive Margaret appears to be. Early in the book, Margaret drowns. The parents are lost in their own grief, and Nico is on her own and lost.
Francine Prose, welcome back to Fresh Air. I'd like to start by asking you to do a short reading from "Goldengrove." Why don't you set it up for us.
Ms. FRANCINE PROSE (Author, "Goldengrove"): Sure. Nico, my 13-year-old narrator whose sister has drowned, is talking about how different their lives have been become, how different the lives of her family have become. And she's talking about the days and the night, and here, she's talking about how - what it's like to get through the night.
(Reading) It didn't matter how much noise I made. I knew that no one was sleeping. Insomnia was our language. We'd worked out a kind of system, an etiquette, you might say. When one of my parents roamed the house, the others would stay in bed and let my mother sit at the silent piano or leave my father to open and shut the refrigerator door. But if I was awake, alone, one of them would get up and find me in the dark.
The only semi-comforting part was that we didn't have to talk. They'd have been dreaming about her, too. The mystery of death, the riddle of how you could speak to someone and see them every day and then never again was so impossible to fathom, but, of course, we kept trying to figure it out, even when we were unconscious. Eventually, we'd go back to our rooms and lie in the dark and pretend for the others' sake to sleep, which I vaguely remembered was how you fell asleep, forced. You pretended then you were. The tricky part was, thinking about pretending to sleep meant you were still awake.
GROSS: That's Francine Prose reading a passage from her new novel "Goldengrove." Why did you want to write a novel about grief from the perspective of a 13-year-old?
Ms. PROSE: Well, I've wanted to write a novel, first of all, about grief. I began writing a novel in the aftermath - the immediate aftermath, really, of my own mother's death, and, you know, there's a part of the novel, the father in the novel owns a bookstore called Goldengrove, in fact. And at some point, he says, you know, when people come into the bookstore, I would try and figure out what was happening to them and try to find a book that I thought might be useful to them.
And in a way, writing "Goldengrove," for me, I was writing the book that I needed to read at that moment. I mean, I was in the state of grief. I was in the state of mourning. And I think one of the things that you want to know when that's happening to you is what's that like for other people. Do other people go through this? And most importantly, really, how does someone get through it? So that was the part about grief that I wanted to say. That was my intention.
Also, I knew that that - I knew that it would be an older sister who had died, and I knew that the younger sister would be telling the story. And I wanted to write about a 13-year-old girl. I mean, it seems to me that 13-year-old girls, they are a very under-appreciated, under-valued segment of our population. They're smart. They're articulate. They're funny. They're brave. And somehow they're just seen as girls, really as not having much to say. So I thought I would - it will be fun and interesting. Of course, I didn't know how hard it was going to be to write a narrator who has that kind of intelligence and who was that articulate and perceptive and have her go through this extremely difficult time, which I was going through as an adult, presumably better equipped to deal with that than she is.
GROSS: Yeah, well, I mean, you were an adult losing an older mother, and she's a 13-year-old losing a slightly older sister. And in some ways, the kind of grief and the way of dealing with the grief would be so different between what you experience and what she experienced, although grief is grief. But what were some of the things that you thought you had in common with the 13-year-old character in your novel, and things that you knew were really different between what you're experiencing grieving for your mother, and what she would have been experiencing grieving for her sister.
Ms. PROSE: Well, you know Terry, I'm very glad that you asked me to read the section that you'd asked me to read because that, for me, really is very close to the heart of the novel. I mean, the thing that Nico is trying to deal with, and which I was as well, is really the mystery of absence, which to me is that the heart of all that. How is it possible that someone who was there, someone you loved, someone you talked to, someone you spoke to every day could not be there anymore? And that's very hard for any of us, I think, to get our minds around that mystery. So again, being an adult, I was having a hard enough time.
For a child, and really, she's still as a child, she's a child on the brink of adulthood, so many things about being that age have to do with discovery, of finding out what love is like, finding out what death is like, finding out what the world is like, finding out what sex is like, all these discoveries. But whether we like it or not, or maybe we do like it, those discoveries keep going on. We keep finding out things. So in a new way my discovering what it was like to be in that state of shock and mourning was very much like Nico's discovery of what that was like and then her discovery of the world, really.
GROSS: The 13-year-old in your novel, the 13-year-old narrator had really looked up to her sister, and her sister was a few years older and had a boyfriend and had a sexual relationship with her boyfriend, and this was all of such fascination to the 13-year-old. And, you know, the boyfriend desperately misses the dead girl just as her sister does. And so the 13-year-old and her older sister's boyfriend end up forming some kind of bond, a bond that becomes a kind of dangerous bond, but that the relationship they have with each other, which was kind of created around the loss of a loved one, you described in the book as a hopeless love triangle with the dead. And I guess I'm interested in how that love triangle with the dead started forming itself in your mind.
Ms. PROSE: Well, I knew that I wanted there to be a boyfriend. And I knew that I wanted Nico to discover death and love and at least the outer, finally, I have to say safer, edges of sex at the same time. So the boyfriend was a kind of logical person - character to make those discoveries possible for Nico. But also, the boyfriend who, you know, he does - he is a senior at high school, and he does form a sort of dicey and, as you say, dangerous relationship with the little girl. I wanted him to be sympathetic as well.
And it - and about halfway through writing the book, I wrote a note to myself that said that the book wouldn't work unless the boyfriend was sympathetic. And essentially, he's as grief-stricken as everyone else and is even less equipped to deal with it than the others. And, you know, to find someone who's going through the loss that you're going through is comforting in a way. You know what's missing. You know what was there.
And also, that desperate effort to keep that personal life, you know, I think that there's something that's happening, like that in the novel, that is, every time Nico and Aaron, the boyfriend, listen to the music that Margaret, the sister, listened to or watch the films that she used to watch, there's something about her that remains in the world. So that absence that's so awful and so difficult for them to deal with, that absence is ameliorated just a little bit.
GROSS: Well, one of things that gets risky for the sister, though, is that, in some ways, the 13-year-old tries to become her older sister after her older sister dies, like wearing - and her boyfriend encouraged, you know, the older sister's boyfriend encourages this - the 13-year-old starts wearing some of her older sister's clothes and wearing vanilla-like perfume the way her older sister used to. And I could see where the comfort would be in that. I could see where it's also really dangerous to do that.
Ms. PROSE: Well, also, it's particularly dangerous for the 13-year-old because so much of the book is about how you find your identity at that age. I mean, that under the most normal circumstance, under the happiest circumstances, that's the struggle that a girl of that age is going through.
So to go through it under these extreme circumstances in which she wants to become her sister in a way so that she won't have lost her sister, so that her sister will still remain, and is being encouraged to become her sister by a boyfriend who doesn't want to have lost the sister as well, that's really the struggle she's going through in the novel, to find out who she is, even given the loss of her sister. And I don't think this is a spoiler really, but by the end, she realizes, I'm me; I'm not my sister. I'm actually a person who's going to go on to live a life. And that's, for me, really the triumph on the novel and of the character.
GROSS: My guest is Francine Prose. Her new novel is called "Goldengrove." You know, the narrator of your book is an adult remembering her life as a 13-year-old. And so, at the beginning of the novel, like on page two, she describes what Sundays are like. And I'd like you to read it for us.
Ms. PROSE: Sure.
(Reading) If all the clocks and calendars vanished, children would still know when Sunday came. They would still feel that suck of dead air, that hollow vacuum created when time slips behind a curtain, when the minutes quit their orderly tick and ooze away one by one. Colors are muted. A jelly-like haze hovers and blurs the landscape. The phone does ring and the rest of the world hides and conspires to pretend that everyone's baking cookies or watching the game on TV. Then Monday arrives, and the comforting racket starts up all over again.
GROSS: That really attracts me because, when I was growing up, oh, Sundays were sometimes like really hard to take. And I think it wasn't because things were quiet. It was, for me, because of the dread of Monday.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: It's like, Friday night is great. Saturday is great. And suddenly it's Sunday. You feel like the gloom of the week starting to present itself, and there's this, like, dread that would mount as the day progressed. And I remember, like, when the "Ed Sullivan Show" would end, that would be, like, the height of it. That's like, we're really close to Monday.
Ms. PROSE: I remember that really well.
GROSS: So, tell me more about what Sundays meant to you as a child?
Ms PROSE: Well, that's - that did seem to last forever. And it was, again, it wasn't - I mean, it wasn't the dread of Monday, but it was also somehow the feeling, it was - I mean, what I meant was, there seemed a kind of silence in the world. I mean, I grew up in Brooklyn, but - and in my neighborhood, there were still - you know, Brooklyn, the city of churches - you would hear the bells toiling in the morning. People will be going to church. No one was working. There was less traffic. There always was.
And I would kind to think, where is everybody? I mean, it was as if somehow, our house had been just unmoored from the rest of the world and was sailing off into some other world. And then Monday, you know, finally more noise, more traffic, more people. The world returned, even though it meant to go back to school and so, but - and, you know, the end of the book is sort of the same to me as that paragraph.
I mean, Nico is much older, and she's looking at a painting in the museum and everything stops, everything stops. And then a museum guard tells her she's gotten too close to the painting. And she's returned to the living world. And that was part of what I was writing about, I mean, the way in which the quiet of the world of Sunday, of the world of living beside the dead is so seductive and so engrossing. And then the life of the world comes back.
I mean, I had to tell you that kind of, even without directly stealing it, I took those two lines from a Philip Larkin poem, "Aubade," in which he talks about waking up in the middle of the night and facing, again, fears of mortality, solitude, isolation. And then he talks about the shrill rented world coming back. And I just loved that poem, It's one of my favorites. And that's, again, what I'm talking about here.
GROSS: Well, one more question. As somebody who's written a lot of novels and gotten a lot of reviews, when you review somebody else's book, do you feel like you should be extra sensitive to, like, their feelings and how will it affect them?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PROSE: I - you know, I've changed a lot over time. I mean, getting older changes you. I mean, now, when you're young or when I - you know, when you're young, you're more likely to say anything. I mean you're - you know, I don't know that somehow the idea of what the stakes are, it's less clear to you all that.
Now, I send back many more books that I review. I almost never write negative reviews. Rarely it happens that I do it, and the only cases in which I do is a writer who's extremely established, who no one questions, who has written a book that, and it's not, it's never what I think is bad as literature, really, so much as when I think it's bad politically, in the broadest sense. I mean, that is when I feel that there's some pernicious idea about human nature or women or family relations or race or class coming through the book, and I feel that I can't stop myself, or I shouldn't stop myself from saying so. But it will never ever happen again. I mean, the thought of trashing some hardworking first novelist in an important place, I just would never do that.
GROSS: Why not?
Ms. PROSE: Why not? Because I have so much respect for how hard it is to write a book. And also, I've learned over the years that opinions are opinions, that if I don't respond to a book, there are maybe thousands and thousands of readers out there who will. So I often - what I often say when I am turning down a book is that there are going to be people who love this book. Maybe you should try and find one of those because I'm not one, but I'm - I certainly can't speak for the ones who will.
GROSS: Do you think that this reluctance to write a negative review is in part a kind of woman's thing? You know what I mean?
Ms. PROSE: No. I think it's - I think - I really do think it comes with the age. I really do think it comes with realizing how hard it is, how hard what we're doing is. And, in fact, it doesn't get any easier, Terry. I mean, writing a book, you'd think after a number of books, you would just figure out how to do it, but that hasn't been my experience. I mean, each book, I feel that I'm reinventing the wheel. "Goldengrove" was the hardest book I've ever written. I mean, it was - because it was not what anyone would call satirical because it doesn't rely on humor in quite the same way the others did. And I really felt that I was opening a vein. I mean, I really felt that I was drawing what is in that book up from so deep within myself that I finished writing it with, again, new respect for my fellow writers.
GROSS: Francine Prose, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. PROSE: Thank you, Terry. It's been a real pleasure.
GROSS: Francine Prose is the author of the new novel "Goldengrove." You can read an excerpt of it on our website freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcast of our show.
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