Francine Prose reading @ The Strand Bookstore

At 19.00 on Tuesday night, 07 October 2008, Francine Prose was at the Strand Bookstore, giving a reading from her newly published novel, Goldengrove.

It was a small section of the store on the second floor, in the space where the Art & Photography books were shelved. Zoraida and I arrived minutes before the hour, and found that there were approximately thirty or so chairs available for the reading. We saw that many towards the back of the section were empty, but they quickly filled up a couple of minutes before the start of the event. The owners had placed a platform with a podium for her to speak at, with a sound system used to amplify her voice over the traffic heard from the street.

The event started with a brief introduction made by the owners of Strand, the Basks. They mentioned that Ms. Prose wrote fifteen books of fiction and that she was President of the Important Pen and American Center. The program for the night would be the reading, a Q & A session, and personalization time for books. Then, they introduced the author.

Francine Prose walked up to that podium, thanked the small audience and the owners, and briefly talked about herself in terms of The Strand. She lives only about half a block away from the store and has been a faithful customer at the bookstore for more than thirty years, before her kids were born, buying and selling books. Then she started to talk a little about Goldengrove.

What caught my attention real well was the detail about the beginning. She admitted that her original beginning was the second page of the first chapter, and not the first page of the published novel. During the Q & A, when someone had asked about her inspiration for the novel, she said that it was tied to a family living upstate in New York, a real-life situation that was so “gothic” and “bizarre,” but for reasons of privacy she could not reveal anymore than that. She started to write the novel in 2003, the first chapter in the middle of the night. Then she stopped work on it until 2005, when her mother died. It was in that year that she realized that Goldengrove would carry a grief theme, aligned with her own feelings about her mother.

I listened to her read, aware only that the narrator was supposed to be a thirteen-year-old girl who would later grieve for her sister by carrying on relations with her sister’s boyfriend, an older adolescent who was supposed to be college-bound. “If all the clocks and calendars vanished...,” she read. Goldengrove’s narrator, Nico, was school-aged and referred to her sister, father, and mother constantly in the first several pages that Ms. Prose read outloud to us. The setting is in a small town, happening in 2004 or 2005. There is a defined contemporary moment that occurs when Nico mentions global warming to her older sister, Margaret. Altogether, it wasn’t a long section, and the author could only read so much- it was an event only up to 2030. But, it was interesting to note that the title of the book is the name of the father’s bookstore, a piece of information that was mentioned in the reading.

Then, Francine Prose opened the floor for the Q & A. At first, no one asked anything. She made a light comment made about how people wanted to ask questions but it was a matter of courage and being the first one to raise their hands. Zoraida and I were not going to be two of those types of people, but we did ask our own questions. Questions were predictable and safe, ranging from her name (it IS her real name!) to about her writing the book and Chekov, an author she holds in high regard. In her other book, Reading Like a Writer, she reserved the last chapter entirely for him and wrote of his prowess and technique.

Ms. Prose admitted to creating many drafts. Her method of revision consisted of making manuscripts on the computer, each draft with possibly ten drafts to it. For Goldengrove, she said that there were thirteen drafts saved on the computer. So, technically, she may have made as many as 130 drafts of Goldengrove. To revise for her means to go by each word, then line by line, a “micro to macro” technique. She wrote notes to herself about the characters and what they should be like, but not all those notes would come to fruition right away. In one instance, she made one of the characters sympathetic by the fifth draft. Imagine! Anyway, the second part of that question asked about finishing. When did she know that she was done with the manuscript? She knows she’s done with the book when the last comment is taken out and put back about one hundred to two hundred times. The last sentence of the novel, she said, took three months to complete.

As far as the narrative voice was concerned, she had no choice about making it a thirteen-year old girl. At first, she tried to put it with multiple points of view, using all the other characters besides the young girl, but eventually she wanted the intensity from the thirteen year old. The last chapter, she replied, was told in the view of the same person, but as an adult.

Francine Prose admits that she can’t keep a journal, mainly because she could probably not find a tone to write with. Within adolescent books she looked to for examples and inspiration, she found that there was a natural tone that she herself “couldn’t do.” Adolescent books she referred to were Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye, but the one that struck this natural tone in her was The Diary of Anne Frank. She does keep an idea notebook.

In dealing with writer’s block, she replied, “Time is really great for giving you the thing you don’t have.” Whenever she would get stuck with a story, she had to put it away because she couldn’t come up with what to put into it. Eventually something happened, and she would find that she could put it into her story and proceed. And so it goes with her writing.

Further writing questions she answered dealt with genre. She was asked about writing in the thirteen year old point of view versus writing for young adults. Ms. Prose explained that there were differences to account for: pacing, the language, and the complexity of the story. Those would often be subtle differences, but in doing so with subtlety, it could be found out who the story is intended for. While Goldengrove can be read by young adults, the reference to Nico’s name is dated, because it comes from a singer who covered “My Funny Valentine.” But, she does not hold teenagers to a lower standard. She thinks they are underestimated. In terms of the literature available for the young adults of today, she does not read them but she thinks that she may start again as her granddaughter approaches that particular age.

That was when Chekov and other bits about literature were mentioned. Yours truly asked about her second favorite author, because her favorite was clearly Chekov. She said that her list would be huge, but right now her newest favorite was Roberto BolaƱo, or at least that's how I felt with the spelling. (If you have a correction, please comment.)

The signing went rather quickly for me and Zoraida. I lamented for the entire reading on not bringing my copy (1st ed.!) of Reading Like a Writer, but I promptly took the opportunity of the night to buy Goldengrove and get it signed by the author. Zoraida purchased a copy of Reading Like A Writer.

We both exited as happy owners of personalized, signed copies. Next time I go attend a reading with Francine Prose, I’m not leaving my book again.