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Interview with Francine Prose: Brooklyn-born author of ‘Mr. Monkey’

Brooklyn BookBeat: ‘The Fourth Wise Monkey’

November 10, 2016 By Peter Stamelman Special to the Brooklyn Eagle
Francine Prose. Photo: Christine Jean Chambers.

Salvador Dali famously said “Have no fear of perfection — you’ll never achieve it.” But then Maestro Dali never had the chance to read Francine Prose’s flawless new novel “Mr. Monkey.” Because Prose has gone on record as saying, “Anytime anyone says that I’m writing satire, it makes my blood run cold,” hopefully I won’t arouse her ire if I describe “Mr. Monkey” as a comedy of manners for the digital age. Its time is very much the present, its place, inevitably, New York City and its deceptively simple plot device — one children’s play about a monkey that brings loosely connected characters together in alternately hilarious and heart-rending ways — is an astonishing tour de force.

If you are still undecided about what book to get as a holiday gift for the discerning reader in your family or circle of friends, the choice is clear — “Mr. Monkey” is easily the best read of the year.

Nothing in the novel is superfluous; Prose’s command is both adroit and refined. By the conclusion the reader realizes that, as funny and pointed as “Mr. Monkey” is, it is ultimately, about the most serious way of being human. And how often, in our halting attempts to be human, we screw up. To quote Octave in Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game”: “You see, in this world, there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons.”   

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Before our actual telephone interview, I met Prose for the first time in Fort Greene at a reading and book signing at Greenlight Books. Dressed entirely in black, with a small skull’s-head pendant on a slim chain around her neck, Prose has an appealingly bemused, deadpan air of detachment, which she used to great effect in reading a passage from the second chapter of “Mr. Monkey.” She’s Elaine May in no need of Mike Nichols, Larry David without the bile, the Isadora Duncan-like sprite in Feiffer’s classic line drawing “A Dance to Spring,” the Bennington grad (in Prose’s case, Radcliffe) you took to the Village Vanguard on a first date (to hear Miles) who rolled her eyes at you every time you tried to be hip. In fact, until I got a smile by describing the only completely unsympathetic character in her novel as a “putz,” I was worried I was, in fact, reliving that Vanguard date.

A native of Ditmas Park, Prose has written (including “Mr. Monkey”) 18 novels, seven works of nonfiction and four novels for young adults. Over the course of her career she has received numerous awards, grants and prizes, among them a Guggenheim Fellowship, the PEN Translation Prize and the Washington University Humanities Medal. In addition, she served two consecutive terms as president of the PEN American Center, was a finalist for the National Book Award for her novel “Blue Angel” and received the Rome Prize in Literature in 2006. One of her novels, “Household Saints,” was made into a 1993 film directed by Nancy Savoca. She also appeared with Dore Ashton, Marina Abramovic, Larry Gagosian and Robert De Niro in the 2015 documentary “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict.” (Prose has written a superb book on Peggy Guggenheim: “The Shock of the Modern.”)

One week after the Greenlight reading, I interviewed Prose about “Mr. Monkey,” the children’s play she saw with her granddaughter that inspired the novel and the sources for her bountiful imagination. (She has written 18 novels!) Here are edited excerpts from our telephone conversation.

Eagle: (Re: “Mr. Monkey”) How did you do it?! All those voices. And managing to keep all those hoops in the air without losing sight of the storyline or the internal lives of the characters?

Francine Prose: Writing the first draft, I kept a file of elements, incidents, characters, that had to be “seeded” early. For example, I knew that Lakshmi (“…the overworked, underpaid NYU drama-department graduate student who runs — who is — the costume department” at the “off-off-off-off Broadway” theater where “Mr. Monkey” is performed) would wear her klutzy policeman’s uniform home.

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Eagle: So, did you also already know she’d have a kinky boyfriend who looked forward to her arrival back at their Queens apartment in full regalia?

FP: (laughing) No! I hadn’t gotten that far.

Eagle: I was also struck by how you will cite a certain location early in the novel and then the same location reappears later in the book. As an example: We learn in the first chapter that after performances Margot (one of the play’s leads) frequently eats at La Isla des Perlas, a Cuban-Chinese restaurant near the theater. Then, in chapter seven — Mario (a waiter smitten with Margo) shadows her down 11th Avenue into La Isla des Perlas. All of this follows Margot, back in chapter one, recalling a Yale Drama professor who, at the end of Margot’s final semester, invites her out for what she thinks is going to be a chic, celebratory dinner — only to discover it’s a greasy spoon, Chinese take-out place, where the professor she reveres tells her “…if she wanted to be happy in life, she needed to lower her expectations.”

FP: Well, as I told you after the reading, I wasn’t even aware of the Yale Drama part of that until you pointed it. So much of the process is unconscious. That story is based on a friend who told me about a professor who gave her just such “encouraging” advice. Of course, I came up with the New Haven greasy spoon. As far as La Isla des Perlas, that’s kind of my homage to all those now long-gone Upper West Side Cuban-Chinese restaurants.

Eagle: Where we all used to go for cheap eats after smoking a lot of weed…

FP: (laughing) Well, I wouldn’t know anything about that … But I do miss those places. Just like I miss the sort of neighborhood church that Mario walks into before seeing “Mr. Monkey.” That’s a church that, because it’s next to the High Line, has either already been torn down, or about to be, so developers can put up a condo.

Eagle: Also, you seem to be fond of sly, almost hidden clues about what turn out to be important pieces of information. For example, it wasn’t until I read the book a second time that I realized that in chapter two, the weeping “well-dressed, middle-aged Latin guy in the hipster fedora” is our first introduction to Ray, the author of “Mr. Monkey,” who we get to know in much more detail in chapter six. You did some similarly subtle foreshadowing in “Lovers in the Chameleon Club.” Do you know beforehand you’re going to do this or does it happen organically?

FP: I’d have to say it does happen organically. It’s often not until readers point out these things to me that I am even aware of them. And again, so much of this is unconscious.

Eagle: The principal catalyst for just about everything that happens in “Mr. Monkey” is the grandson, Edward, saying to his grandfather during a minute of silence on stage while Margot figures out what to do about her dropped cellphone, “Grandpa, are you interested in this?” Were you at a play with your grandchildren when something like this happened?

FP: Well, the circumstances were slightly different, but, essentially, yes — a terrible off-off-off Broadway children’s play, a rare moment of silence on stage and my granddaughter asked me just about the same exact question. It was an innocent question, a curious question, not one meant to be hurtful. She was trying to figure out what I was feeling. And that’s exactly the motivation behind Edward’s question in the book. Of course, for the actors on stage hearing that question, the effect is devastating. And it reverberates throughout the rest of the novel.

Eagle: The grandfather is always so unfailingly kind and patient with his grandson, to the point that he doesn’t even question him when he, Edward, tells the African-American deli man that his name is “Tony.” Why?

FP: The grandfather would never ask or hint that the child was lying. He loves Edward beyond unconditionally.

Eagle: Did you know from the beginning that you would give Roger, the disliked director of “Mr. Monkey,” the last chapter, the last word? And why?

FP: Roger gets the last word because he has been despised.

Eagle: (SPOILER ALERT) And so that you can tie up the loose ends about who sent Margot the Chekhov quote?

FP: Yes, that, too.

Eagle: Chapter four is centered on “the Sunflower School” and its New Age director “Hugo.” It’s a hilarious chapter and on-the-nose about politically correct Brooklyn parenting. Is that Park Slope?

FP: Actually, the Sunshine School and the parents are more pan-Brooklyn: Williamsburg, Prospect Heights and yes, of course, Park Slope

Eagle: Speaking of Brooklyn, what are your memories of growing up in Ditmas Park in the ’50s?

FP: First and foremost, our house. It was quite large, with all these wonderful nooks and crannies where we could play. And stained glass windows. A storybook house.

Eagle: What was the neighborhood like then?

FP: It was all Jewish doctors! Seriously.

Eagle: Finally, you have a real empathy for actors, performers. Not only in “Mr. Monkey,” but, again, I’m thinking of “Chameleon” and Yvonne, Lou, even the acting coach Pavel. Did you ever want to be an actress?

FP: (laughing) No. I did play the Angel Gabriel in a Christmas pageant at Brooklyn Friends Academy where I went to school. But that was pretty much the extent of it. It’s hard to be an actress, especially today, with the emphasis on cosmetic surgery because digital close-ups register every pore, wrinkle, imperfection. But, of course, I do admire their resilience, their devotion to their craft. Even if, like Margot, they are in a moldy theater, getting less than scale, for doing a play about a monkey.

Eagle: Well, as the great British financier and politician James Goldsmith once said: “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.”

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“Mr. Monkey” by Francine Prose, and published by HarperCollins, is in bookstores now and available online. For more information, go to www.harpercollins.com.

 


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