Francine Prose on ‘My New American Life’


At Work

Photograph by Stephanie Berger.

Francine Prose is a pleasure to interview. She is quick-witted and gracious, and there is this way that she says my name—“Oh, Thessaly, that’s an excellent question”—that makes me feel, for a split second, as if I’m the award-winning novelist that has something interesting to say. Her latest novel, My New American Life, is about a young Albanian immigrant named Lula, who is working as a nanny for a teenager in a quiet, New Jersey suburb. Her boss has offered to help her get a green card, so Lula waits and waits, until one day, three visitors, unannounced, knock on the door. Will Lula be deported? Are they long-lost Albanian family? Through Lula’s eyes, we see the promise of the American dream as well as the ways it might never come true. Prose and I spoke on the telephone not long ago.

Your protagonist is a twenty-six-year-old Albanian immigrant named Lula who lives in New Jersey. Why Albania?

If you are going to write a novel, I would not suggest that you pick an Albanian unless you are an Albanian. I was writing about immigration, and I wanted to pick someone from the most psycho-isolated Eastern-bloc country. If you go to the Czech Republic now, it is deceptively easy to forget what happened there. But if you go to Albania now, you are not going to forget it— you just can’t; then is now.

In a strange way, the novel began ten years ago, when I was staying at this really crappy Hilton in Tampa, Florida, for a weekend. We got there and there was a plate of food outside someone’s door in the corridor. It was there when we got there and it was there when we left, and I thought, This is just like Eastern Europe, because no one really cares if you ever come back again. In the late eighties, I went with my family to former Yugoslavia. We showed up at some restaurant, ordered dinner, and the waiter came back two hours later and said, “What? I had to eat my dinner.” End-stage capitalism and Eastern-bloc communism have a lot of things in common, as Lula discovers in the course of the book.

So you visited Albania?

I did. I got about forty pages into the novel and I couldn’t go any further. It turns out that you can’t find out about Albania on YouTube as much as one might like to. I mean, you can learn about people’s vacations and weddings and so forth, but not much more. So I went on a trip with the State Department. I was there for about two weeks and I just loved it.

Do you think one has to acquire experience to be a novelist?

Well, I would, because nothing has ever happened to me. I had to go to Albania; I couldn’t make it up. It more often happens the other way around. It is not as if you go around saying “I think I will have a love affair, and then I will write about one.” It’s more “Blah-blah broke up with me and said the most cruel thing,” and ten years later you find a way to put it into a book.

Let’s go back to the novel. Considering the stereotypes about young Eastern European women—supermodels, mail-order brides—I wanted to know how you envisioned Lula.

I think of her as someone who actually is pretty, but pretty in the way in which you can see someone’s intelligence shining out through her face. Which is very attractive, but it cuts out a lot of young movie stars where you can’t tell the difference one from to the other. Every so often you see someone and there is this quality of—I don’t know what you would call it—attentiveness or alertness or intelligence or humor which gives the person a kind of beauty. That is how I imagine her.

You mention an Albanian word, pashprese, which means desperate. Would you call Lula desperate?

No, she is in some ways the most optimistic character I think I have ever written. I know a lot of Eastern Europeans, and because of what they have been through and what they have seen, they have an attitude where they are not easily fooled. I remember watching the fight where Mike Tyson bit off Evander Holyfield’s ear, and there were two Romanians in a room with all these Americans. The Americans were going crazy with shock and horror, and the Romanians were like “Whatever.” That is characteristic of the difference.

So Lula is that, and at the same time she is here living the dream. She is trying to make it in this country the way so many people are and some do. When I was writing the novel, I taught for a semester at Baruch College. Four of my students were born here and the rest were all operating in a second language and geniuses as far as I could tell—working all night long and coming in to class a few hours later. It was the only class I ever taught where if a student fell asleep, I wasn’t even minimally insulted. I wanted something of their optimism and their reality consciousness.

But you write: “Why should Lula stop at translator? She was smart, she’d been a good student, she could be a judge!” Are you expressing pure optimism there? I felt, in that moment, very skeptical of the American dream.

Yeah, me too. As I was writing, I realized I don’t actually really believe this one hundred percent. There is the other side: there is Guantanamo, and certainly during the Bush-Cheney years it was terrible here. The other day, I was driving along Atlantic Avenue and I was thinking of how after 9/11 there were six cops on every street corner just to make sure that these guys selling halvah weren’t terrorists.

Lula is in limbo. She’s bored, waiting in the middle of suburbia for her green card so her life can take off. Why write about that period and not when she was a cocktail waitress in Manhattan or later when she is more settled?

That period of life fascinates me. Certainly, it was the hardest period of my life. You think, “I am supposed to have a life but I don’t have a life, so what is my life going to be?” It is terrifying. No matter who you are, unless you really luck out and one thing leads to another, going out into the world is really scary. I wanted that combination of complete stasis and complete crisis at the same time. In a way, the stasis is the crisis.

Do you have a philosophy about women in suburbia?

I think that it is a miracle to be able to drive down a suburban street and not see women’s corpses hanging from trees. But let me be clear about this: this isn’t to say that raising kids and doing the work of keeping a household together is not hard, satisfying, and underpaid. But I also think that there is something about work, about another kind of work, work outside the home, which is satisfying and sustaining in a way that is important.

You’re a very prolific writer, having written fourteen novels. What is your process? Do you write really quickly?

No, it takes forever. I work really long days and I work seven day weeks. I am also a maniacal reviser. I probably went through two hundred drafts with this novel, revising every sentence. I can’t even write an e-mail without revising! I have a level of attachment to every word that I put on a page or screen. M.F.A. programs are full of people who want to be writers, and half the time I think, “If you knew how much work it was, you wouldn’t dream that this was something that you wanted to do. If you knew the hours of solitude that you were going to have to put in, it wouldn’t even occur to you.”

You think it would scare some people off?

It would have to. I am sure there are some writers to whom it comes so easily that they can just sit down and write a novel. But all of those books of mine are a product of all that writing.

How many hours of solitude?

If things are going well I can easily spend twelve hours a day writing, but not writing writing, just thinking and revising and taking a comma out and putting it back in.

And what about nonfiction writing?

I am never going to do another book of nonfiction again as long as I live. Let me just say that.

Really! Why?

Why? Because you have to do a bibliography.

Couldn’t you hire someone?

Yeah, well, it doesn’t always work. Fact-checking is so boring compared to writing fiction. I don’t mind writing articles, that’s fine. I am working on a novel now that began as nonfiction. It takes place in France between 1924 and 1944, and a French person said to me, “You know you are going to have to spend years in the Bibliothèque nationale checking all the facts?” And I thought, “No I’m not.” I decided to do it as a novel. And it is heaven compared to spending all that time in the Bibliothèque nationale.