Francine Prose, 1974

Francine Prose, 1974

Zibby is joined by critically acclaimed, bestselling author Francine Prose to discuss 1974, a remarkable, artistic coming-of-age memoir about the close relationship she developed with activist Anthony Russo, one of the men who leaked the Pentagon Papers—and the year our country changed. Francine shares how difficult it was to write about her younger self—although she has always hidden behind her fictional characters. She also shares anecdotes from her life in San Francisco in 1974 and explains how she wove historical and personal threads together. Finally, she hints at her next novel, which is set in 1857 England.


Zibby: Welcome, Francine. Thank you so much for coming on Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books to discuss 1974, A Personal History. Welcome. 

Francine: Thank you. 

Zibby: How was it for you writing this book? What was this like? It 

Francine: was really hard. It was really hard because I'd really never written anything about me, you know, like travel pieces with your kids.

It's not really about you. So, and, and as I was writing and I thought, oh, now I know I've been like hiding behind fictional characters in novels for years and years and years because, and, and I kept, I wrote a bunch of different drafts. And also looking back at yourself as a 20 year old, it was terrifying.

It was terrifying. And, and so, and I wrote one draft and my husband is a very good reader said, you really have to like that girl more that you were, you really just have to like, not be like, you know, how stupid I was, right? Like, why did she do that stuff? And so that was the hard part. That was the hard part.

I mean, the other, other one, you know, writing is writing and it was fun, like putting the sentences together and, you know, and changing this word and that word. I mean, that part is always the fun part, but just kind of trying to make a coherent story out of it. And also remembering, I mean, you know, there were whole, I mean, it just so happened that whole big chunks of it were just like indelibly engraved in my mind, you know, after a long time.

So that was like taking dictation, but then I had to like, You know, think how did I get there? And how does this happen? And, you know, et cetera, et cetera. And then the historical political parts. I mean, I don't know if people know, but there's this thread running through it was, which was that I was living in San Francisco in 1974 and my sort of boyfriend for a little while.

was this guy named Tony Russo, who was the guy that talked Ellsberg into leaking the Pentagon papers, Xeroxing, you know, leaking, blah, blah, blah. And we would like mostly just drive around San Francisco and he would tell me stories about his life and Vietnam and, you know, blah, blah, blah, blah. But, you know, there were things as things that I, you know, were just absolutely engraved.

I mean, You know, after, what is it? I mean, 50 years, right? I can remember that he had this weird habit of ordering sausages and blueberry pie and eating them in this cafeteria, this kind of, you know, skeezy cafeteria in the Tenderloin. And that was, and he was saying, Oh. You know, he said my friend, when he worked for the Rand Corporation, they couldn't have Chinese food for lunch, so his friend said, you know, this is the closest, this is the closest you're going to get.

So, so details like that. state of my mind and they were, they were easy and sort of fun to write about. But again, you know, but again, like the past, there are all these different parts that were happening at once. So there was that and then, you know, being a writer and my novels were starting to come out.

I mean, when I was a kid, you know, really stupid and then deciding how, how to end it, you know, how far in the future to bring it and so forth. How did you decide that? Well, you know, it just had to do with. I mean, there's this whole other thing running through the novel, which is about Alfred Hitchcock's film Vertigo, which, you know, it's filmed in San Francisco and it's like.

You know, I have this obsessive fascination with that film. I've seen it like 15 times. I mean, I just over and over and also something about driving around San Francisco really made me feel like that film and think about that film, which is also about obsession, which is kind of what the book is about too, but even though, you know, San Francisco, 1974, look nothing like 1958 when Hitchcock was, but I was still like running that movie in my head all the time.

So it ends with going to see the film. at Bard College, where I teach with my granddaughters, and somehow the music and San Francisco kind of brought it all back to me. Brought that whole, brought the whole spirit. thing back to me. And then I thought, Oh, okay, I want to write about this. So, you know, it was a great, I mean, it was a vertigo, but they had like a full orchestra doing the Bernard Herrmann score.

I mean, it was so intense. It was so intense. So, you know, so that's kind of what kicked it off. Yeah. 

Zibby: How did you decide you, you had lots of sort of short, punchy chapters where you, you keep us here and they're almost like little scenes, little vignettes. Did you decide to do it that way? Or that's just the way the story came to you.

Francine: Well, I mean, I was like, okay, that's as much as I want to say about that. I mean, because they're like, just 

Zibby: ran out of coffee, ran out of coffee. That's their 

Francine: little stories. I mean, like they're little and interpolated stories in there. Like, you know, there's for a while I have this other boyfriend that we go to Mexico and eat mushrooms and you know, blah, blah, blah.

But there wasn't, I didn't have that much to say about it. I mean, it was just part of giving the general feeling of what that time was. You know, so. 

Zibby: Actually you had, there was a passage I wanted to read. Is that okay from the boyfriend? 

Francine: Yeah, sure. 

Zibby: I don't often read passages about sex on this podcast, but I just had to read this passage.

Is that okay? Maybe I'll embarrass you. You said, I wish I could say that it was the kind of sex that is the answer to every question, the gift for which we wait, the fireworks ignited by every second. Spark of curiosity, affection, admiration, every laugh, every glimpse of a body part, every twinge of desire.

I wish I could say it was the kind of sex that makes you think that from now on life will never be the same. The kind of sex that makes you wonder how someone could know what you have wanted all your life, what you will always want. I wish I could say it was the kind of sex that makes you think, now I understand why we have bodies.

I wish I could say it was the kind of sex that makes you think, This is why people leave their happy homes. This is why they blow up their lives. To feel like this just once or just once more. I wish I could say it was the kind of sex that makes someone say, I want to have your child. I wish I could say it was the kind of sex that makes you think how brilliant nature is for attaching the survival of the species to something that feels like this.

I wish I could say it was the kind of sex that makes you stop thinking, but I can't say any of that. Because it wasn't. 

Francine: I know. Well, you know, writing about bad sex by writing about good sex, it's like, you know, but again, I mean, you know, it's so funny you chose that passage because John Guare, the playwright who's been super supportive of the book, said, We went to his house for dinner and he said, Oh, there's, I love the book.

There's this passage. I want to read you. And he, it was that passage. And I went like,. 

Zibby: You're kidding. 

Francine: No, it was that passage. I went like, no, no, no. It's okay. Like, I know what it is. Like, I don't want to, you know, But yeah, I mean, it was, it was a hard thing to write about, you know, I mean, in a way, bad sex is easier to write about than good sex, because bad sex is like, you know, it's, I mean, like Blue Angel, there's bad, really bad sex in it.

And good sex is impossible because the language has been just stolen by pornography and whatever. But, but, you know, and also that passage would have been awful. If it didn't end with, like, this, it wasn't there, I mean, you know, I mean, if it wasn't there, I wish I could say if it was just, it was, you know, it was just, like, unbearable, but it wasn't.

It really wasn't. 

Zibby: How did the people in your life, how have they so far taken this book, and have you shown it to anyone, and did you have to clear it with anybody? 

Francine: Well, the, the lawyers at, at Harvard, like, picked up a couple things and they were, and, but they were very easy to change, you know, a little phrase that they want to take it out and hear that.

I gave it to my son to read, who's my younger son, who's, uh, 40 in his early 40s. And he's a very good reader. He's a musician, but he's a very good reader. And he said, it took him a long time. He was mostly reading on his phone, of course, traveling. And he said, he said, I found it really scary. And I said, why?

Cause mom took drugs and had sex. And, you know, he goes, he goes, no, he goes, because I have daughters. Right. And I mean, his girls are like 17 and 13. So it's like that, you know, and I got, okay, he really got that part of it. Like, you know, what, what it's, I don't know. Maybe you, maybe you sail through it, Zibby.

I don't know. But, but being a young woman in your twenties is tough. It's not easy. I mean, it certainly wasn't then, and, uh. 

Zibby: I would not say I sailed through it. Those words have never come out of my mouth. 

Francine: Well, that's what you want for people, but it just doesn't, it just, it's not set up that way. So, yeah.

And my husband has been, you know, as I said, has been like an amazing reader all along. I don't know. I mean, I haven't heard from my ex husband in a long time. about it. And he's, you know, I'm, I really tried to be fair and it was ridiculous to like get married your senior year in high school. That was just an insane thing to do, you know, 1968, 69.

So, you know, but no, I don't think, I think it's okay. And I talked to a couple of the people just to get You know, the people, like my roommates in San Francisco, I talked to him and, you know, so forth. So, yeah, we'll see. We'll see. Well, we'll see. I mean, that's, you know, another reason for not writing about yourself.

This is, it doesn't, it's not about you. So. 

Zibby: Well, I think that it was so interesting that You're so, that we can be so critical of ourselves, so much so that it would ruin someone else's experience of reading about the younger versions of ourselves, like, that's such good advice to just go a little easier on our characters when they are, in fact, us, right, and go a little easier on ourselves in general.

Francine: I know. No, and, and it really, I mean, that's so weird about parts of your life being disconnected in a certain way, where you become different people. No, but, but. Having sympathy for, for, you know, why, I mean, because really, if one of my granddaughters was in that situation, you know, riding around San Francisco with this guy, I'm like, Like, no, like, don't do, don't do it, don't do it, but there I was, like, you know, completely in it.

So, you know. I

Zibby: mean, let's, let's blame the prefrontal cortex development. It was not your fault. 

Francine: I know. Well, I know. I think that's probably right. I think that's probably right. I think that's, I mean, I really do think it's a lot, has a lot to do with, you know, the biology of certain stages of your life. 

Zibby: So, now that you've written about yourself.

Do you feel like that's good? I finished and now I can't wait to get back to fiction. Like, how do you? Yes. 

Francine: Yes. Yeah, yes and also I don't know it's sort of like there are other parts of my life that I don't know I mean that it was so dramatic in a way I mean that part was so dramatic and then you know as I say in the book Four years after that book, I, my first child was, my son was born, and things like quieted down quite a lot, right, as they still are, but it wasn't, you know, and people do, I mean, people write wonderful books about motherhood and young motherhood, and I mean, other things that I, you know, the things I think about that time that, You know, I might, but, but I don't know.

No. It's so, it's nice to make things up. It's so, you feel so clear and clean about it. You know, it's not me. It's not me. 

Zibby: Do you have another book in the hopper? Like something you're working on now? 

Francine: Yeah, I'm working on a novel that's set in England in 1857. 

Zibby: You sound really excited about that. 

Francine: I am. Yeah. No, it's really strange.

It's a super strange book. It's just a super strange book, and I don't know, it's, I just finished, I mean I'm sort of finished, I mean I'm sort of finished, and I don't, you know, I'm still at this, I mean my husband liked it, but he's the only one that's read it, so, I mean that's the stage it's in. So I don't know, I mean it may be completely unintelligible for all I know.

What was she thinking? What was she thinking? But you know. 

Zibby: So what is the secret to continually writing fiction that keeps people's interest, that forges a career, all of that? How, what is the secret sauce? 

Francine: You know, it sounds, I just really like doing it. I like doing it. I mean, there are times where it's like, really hard and I hate it and I hate myself and my life for thinking that this was like a reasonable thing to do or that I could do it or something, but when it's like those days when it's going well and like I, some idea pops into my head or, you know, or I get the nerve to say something that I wanted to talk about, I go, okay, you know, I mean, I like gardening too.

I mean, I like hanging out, you know, I mean, there are other things I do, but I don't know, I would really miss it if I wasn't doing it. I mean, you know, if I had something to do, well, you know, 

Zibby: I love that. It's so great. I mean, it's so simple, but so obvious like to be a writer, you have to love it. You have to.

Francine: It helps. Which isn't, you know, again, I don't want to sell it like it's, you know, like, you know, completely false advertising. There are days when it's just horrible, just a horrible thing to do. I mean, really horrible and always hard work and always harder work than you think it's going to be. I mean, just you know, in a way the memoir was easy, because I knew how things, the order in which things had happened, but it was hard because I had to figure out how to put the moving pieces together, so and that, that's, that's work, you know, I mean it's like, and fiction too, you have to know a certain amount about the pieces.

These characters and what they're doing. And it's like lovers of the chameleon club. I need, I had a whiteboard where I just put the years in and all the characters just to figure out how old they were, you know, at the different times. So, and, you know, people don't think about this. They think, Oh, you have an idea, you know, super creative and you just like have some inspirations.

But you, but you're like, you know, a friend of mine once said it's like being a grocer when they used to like add up the numbers on the paper bag. I mean, it's like, that's part of the job. 

Zibby: Yeah. Got to know a little bit of math. Might as well. 

Francine: Oops. Well, yeah. Always a problem. 

Zibby: Amazing. Well, is there anything that you're really hoping that people, aside from wanting to protect their grandchildren, get out of this book?

Francine: Yeah. I'm not telling them how to do that. I don't know. I mean, I think, well, you know, I had a straight, I mean, it was, it was so weird to write in a certain way and I really didn't know how I felt about it, but, and so I let it go for a long time. I mean, I didn't open the page proofs. I mean, when the page proofs came at first, I was saying like, I feel like I got this package of anthrax and if I open it, but then I started, I did the audio book, which I'd never done before.

And I kind of started, I mean, it sounds like narcissistic, but, but I kind of start to love the way the story moved, like just the way the story moved, and And I was interested. And also, I actually cared about this girl in the story who, who happened to be me, but not in a way that, you know, blah, blah. So, so I just hope people have that experience.

And also, I think, I mean, you know, it's sort of, it is sort of about how the 60s turned into the 70s. And we're living now in something worse than the 70s. But it's not like the 60s, that's for sure. But, you know, to live in a time when you really thought, like, things are gonna get better. Like, we're gonna figure out a problem, a solution to all these problems.

And the, you know, war's gonna stop. And the, you know, we're all gonna, I mean, we really believe these things. You know, well, well, you know, just to get political for a second. Roe v. Wade came in in 73. It's like, yeah, like, you know, and now here we are. So I just feel like that history, you know, to be able to present it in a way that, well, I don't mean to diminish it, but it goes down easy in a certain way.

Like you learn, learning the book, you learn a certain amount of the history of that time, but it's not like taking a class in it or something, or, you know, having to take a test, having to take a test on it. I mean, but it just, it's there. And, and I think it's important. I mean, I'm always sort of, you know, I teach and I'm, and it seems like the seventies and the eighties kind of dropped out of my school.

College, undergraduates, kind of just dropped out in a way, like they don't, they weren't paid, it wasn't paid a lot of attention to when they went to high school, but I mean that was, so, but it happened, you know, and a lot of really, a lot of important things happened. So, so that too. I mean, you know, young girl, me, blah, blah.

And then 1974. So. Is that what you had? I don't know. 

Zibby: Sounds good. It sounds great. 

Francine: I probably should have let you do it, but yeah. 

Zibby: No, it's perfect. It's perfect. Francine, thank you so much for sharing your personal history with the rest of us. This is, by the way, the coolest cover ever. Don't you just love it?

Francine: It's on the cover. A friend of my son's designed it. Danny Miller. He's not real. He's a designer. And, you know, I've known him since he was like eighth grade and I said, Danny, you want to do like a book cover for me? And they did. I love it.

Zibby: It's so cool. It's just so cool. Oh my gosh. Anyway, congratulations and good luck with your X reading it and all the stuff.

So, uh, Yeah. 

Francine: Thank you. Thank you, Zibby. 

Thanks so much. 

Zibby: No problem. All right. Have a great day. Bye bye. 

Francine: You too. 

Francine Prose, 1974

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