Photo © Kelly
Then We Came to the End
Little, Brown & Company
Interview conducted by Bret
BAJ: First and foremost,
congratulations on being a finalist for the National
Book Award! One of the staples of the finalist-interview
genre seems to be the question of where you were when
you found out. How did you find out about being a finalist?
Has it sunk in yet?
I don’t vary much day-to-day
when it comes to what and when I eat, and it was cottage
cheese time. Cottage cheese is a very polarizing food
and I don’t do much to help its cause because
I eat it topped with granola and flax seed. It’s
pretty grim until you acquire the taste. Why acquire
the taste? you ask. Because it’s high in protein
and low in fat and that makes good brain food, so I
started eating it for that, and then I acquired the
taste, and now I don’t go a day without eating
it. So I was on my way down the stairs for some cottage
cheese when I got a call from my agent, Julie Barer,
who asked me in a very casual voice if I wanted to hear
some good news. I had just handed her pages of a new
novel and thought she was calling to say she liked them.
I never made it to the cottage cheese. Julie and I had
champagne instead, which is also good brain food, but
for a different part of the brain. The news hasn’t
sunk in yet, no, mainly because of the magnitude and
stature of the other finalists. I think it’s sunk
in, and then I remember who else is on the list.
BAJ: In a country such
as ours, where reading is in such a state of crisis,
what is the role of the fiction writer? Does being a
finalist for such a prestigious award affect how you
view yourself in that role?
I take a cue from Vladimir
Nabokov on this question: the role of the fiction writer
anywhere is to bring delight to the reader and nothing
more. I can do as little—which is to say very,
very little—about the country’s woeful state
of reading as I can about the country’s woeful
state of geopolitics. All I can do is try my best to
provide the greatest amount of artistic delight for
that reader or two who decides to follow me where my
instinct and curiosity take me. I do right by that reader
if I do right by myself, and I do that by being attentive
to what’s interesting, peculiar, funny, eternal,
and by being attentive to words.
BAJ: How long did
you work on Then We Came to the End?
Then We Came to the End
has been modified to fit the author’s shortcomings.
The first draft was started in the spring of 2002 and
then wrestled to the ground and euthanized in the fall
of 2003. I just didn’t know what the hell I was
doing. There was a big story containing a whole bunch
of little stories and it was all held together by a
first-person plural narrative and I just thought, oh,
this is a fool’s errand, this is much, much better
than I’ll ever be. And that book still is. The
book that ended up being
I was lying in bed one night
in the spring of 2005 talking with my wife when the
voice that had eluded me, the voice of the book, came
into my head and I got up and started writing. That
draft—which contained a little scrap metal from
the old draft—was finished in a fury, in about
BAJ: What drew you
to the story?
Then We Came to
the End are under the constant threat of layoffs,
and that creates a specific group dynamic: the group’s
unquenchable scrutiny of itself. I thought it would
be fun to watch that group dynamic implode.
Probably the challenge of it. Tell a story with countless
characters from the point of view of a monolithic failing
advertising agency—go! Also, the challenge of
trying to turn an experience—I worked in advertising—into
genuine fiction. Not veiled autobiography, but an honest
sublimation of mundane experience into something deserving
of a reader’s limited time on earth. And finally
I was fascinated by the behemoth structure of a corporation—the
hierarchies, the coded messages, the power struggles.
I thought such a pervasive and inscrutable place merited
the sustained attention a novelist has to give to his
or her subject. The characters in
BAJ: How does the
book compare to other prose you’ve written?
It’s longer. It succeeded
to a greater extent. It got published.
BAJ: Were there moments
in your writing process where you worried the book wouldn’t
work? If so, how did you press on?
Then We Came to the End I started with
the wrong voice. It took me time to realize that, and
to find the right one.
Like I say, I didn’t press on. I quit! I quit
everything and eventually I figure it out. I’m
working on a book now, same thing. Started it. I thought,
great! Six months later I wanted to destroy it into
bits. Hole-punch it into oblivion. But then I realized
I’d just started the story in the wrong place.
BAJ: If there is a
common thread among this year’s fiction finalists,
it might be that all of the books employ interesting
narrative structures and scopes. In your novel, you
use the first-person plural narration—We—which
is maybe the rarest of all narrative perspectives. Did
you conceive of such narration before writing the book,
or did the symbiotic relationship between the subject
and structure emerge more intuitively?
My father took a great risk
around the time he turned fifty by starting his own
company. It was small at first; he was his only employee.
Yet his voicemail told callers that “we”
weren’t in right now, but if you left a message,
“we” would call you back. Who was this “we?”
It was just him! But of course, he had to be a “we”—few
people trust a one-man show. Over time I came to realize
that every company refers to itself in the first-person
plural—in annual reports, corporate brochures,
within meetings and internal memos, and in particular,
in their advertising. What used to be the royal we might
now be thought of as the corporate we. It’s a
company’s way of showing unity and strength; it’s
also a matter of making everyone feel as if they’re
a member of the club. This is especially true in the
advertising industry where everyone is dedicated to
getting more and more people to join the clubs of their
clients, clients who have dreams of greater market share,
bigger profit margins and, ultimately, global dominance.
In Then We Came to the
End, you see just who this “we” really
is—a collection of messy human beings—stripped
of their glossy finish and eternal corporate optimism.
It returns the “we” to the individuals who
embody it, people with anger-management issues and bills
to pay, instead of letting the mystic “we”
live on unperturbed in the magic land promoted by billboards
So, to answer your question,
the novel’s point of view was a no-brainer from
the beginning. Making it work just took me up and down
a long learning curve.
BAJ: Finally, when
you were writing Then We Came to the End, did
you have an audience or ideal reader in mind? If so,
Not really. I wanted my wife
to like it. I wanted my friends to like it. I suppose
in the back of my mind I have the vague hope that one
or two of the writers I admire most might pick it up
and enjoy it. But designing an ideal reader just gets
me into trouble. I start showing up at the desk in ties,
smelling of cologne, looking overeager and assaulting
the page with prettiness. I’m better off assuming
only one or two readers, those bound to me by blood
or vow, and then allowing myself to hope for more only
after the fact.
Anthony Johnston is the author of internationally acclaimed
and the editor of Naming
both from Random House. In 2006, he received the “5
Under 35” fiction honor from the National
Book Foundation. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’
Workshop, and is currently the Director of Creative
Writing at Harvard University. For more information,
please visit: www.bretanthonyjohnston.com.