Francine Prose, THE VIXEN

Francine Prose, THE VIXEN

Award-winning novelist Francine Prose joined Zibby for a Women on the Move event with the Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center to discuss her latest novel, The Vixen, which centers around the Rosenberg Trial. Francine shares some highlights from her research and which pieces of history were stranger than fiction. She also tells Zibby about the way she approaches and teaches writing, how her decades-long career inspired pieces of this story, and why this book took so long for her to write.


Marjorie Shuster: Good morning. Welcome to the Streicker Center. My name is Marjorie Shuster, coordinator of our literary events here at Temple Emanu-El. As always, I’d like to thank the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation for their sponsorship of this series. This is the, I believe, ninth in the series of eleven Women on the Move author events that we do where we meet well-known female authors. We hear about their careers and their lives and their books. I am thrilled today that Francine Prose, prolific and unbelievably fabulous author, is joining us, as is our wonderful moderator, Zibby Owens, who is also an author and a publisher and a mom. As always, please write your questions in the chat feature of Zoom. We will get to as many as we can. It’s now my pleasure to welcome Francine and Zibby.

Zibby Owens: Thanks, Marjorie. Hi, Francine. How are you?

Francine Prose: Thank you so much. I’m fine. Thank you both.

Zibby: Of course. Francine, congratulations on The Vixen, your latest novel. You have been such a prolific author, as Marjorie said, and have done so much writing about reading and writing yourself, which I also would love to talk to you about today. I was hoping we could start, for those who are here today but haven’t read The Vixen yet, if you could talk a little bit about that. Honestly, it read so much like a memoir. I kept having to flip back. I was like, is she the one who was sitting there with her parents watching the TV? Did I get it wrong? Obviously, there are some significant differences.

Francine: I was the one sitting there with my parents watching the TV, but my narrator, main character, is a man.

Zibby: I realized that.

Francine: In some ways, I was not the one. That first scene takes place in June 1953. My hero, Simon Putnam, just graduated from Harvard, is back having failed to figure out a plan for his future. He’s back with his parents on Coney Island. They’re watching the news reports of the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg which takes place on that night of June 19th. It’s a strange scene because they’re watching the reports on TV. At the same time, all these fifties TV series are interrupting like I Love Lucy and Ozzy and Harriet and the Nelson show and so forth. It’s complicated because Simon’s mother was a high school friend of Ethel Rosenberg, so the event has a kind of personal resonance for the family in addition to its historical resonance. Then we fast-forward about six months to September. Simon has gotten a job through the hard work of his mother and the offices of his uncle, who’s this kind of sadistic public intellectual, at a very old-fashioned, white-shoe — excuse me — WASPy publishing firm. His first job is to read the slush pile of unsolicited submissions that have come in. They were sort of fun to write, just titles for novels that would never be published by anyone anywhere. His first real assignment is to edit a first novel. He’s truly horrified to find out that it’s this sleazy, lurid, bodice-ripper very loosely based on the Rosenberg case. The novel is called The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic. The vixen in this case is Ethel who’s been renamed Esther Rosenstein, who’s this Mata Hari — happily, a word we no longer use — nymphomaniac who is just seducing everyone, Russian spies, American spies, American attorney generals, etc.

It’s a moral problem for Simon. On the one hand, he wants to succeed in his new chosen profession. He wants to be an editor at this fancy house. He wants to be accepted into the glittering Mad Men world of fifties publishing of three-martini lunches and social status and so forth. He knows that it’s wrong to publish this book or a book like this. It’s, again, a special problem for him because of his mother’s relation with Ethel Rosenberg. Much of the novel is Simon trying to work out his own conscience, really, how he feels about success, how he feels about what he’s been asked to do, how he feels about loyalty to his family, to the truth, what may be the truth. Then mixed in with that is the whole question of assimilation. His parents, although they’re really nothing like my parents, are the generation of my parents. Much of it was about leaving their big, working-class Jewish families and becoming part of the assimilated American middle class, upper middle class. He has to face the questions of what’s lost and what’s gained — in my opinion, much more is lost than is gained — by this assimilation which he’s attempting at great personal cost to himself throughout the novel. Also, then there are a number of subplots. As some dissatisfied readers have pointed out, he falls in love with every woman he meets. One of them is the putative author of The Vixen who’s this kind of odd, fay creature living in what may or may not be a mental hospital in the Hudson Valley. Then there are two other women. The novel tracks his progress from a confused young postgraduate mess to something much more — spoiler — stable that he is at the end.

Zibby: I thought it was so funny, the way you had him trying to pursue the graduate degree he wanted next in some completely random — I can’t even remember what it was because it was so —

Francine: — It was folklore and mythology. One of the reasons I had such great sympathy for him was that I was a medieval literature major also at Harvard. I was a medieval literature major. It just never occurred to me that this was not the most practical major if I ever wanted to make a living. Once I realized that I didn’t want to go into academia, there wasn’t a lot I could do with what I’d studied and what I’d learned. One of the things that made me happy writing the book was — I wasn’t planning this in advance — the way in which all the things that seemed to me, even, like kind of sidetracks or details turned out to have some actual bearing on what was happening in the plot. Yes, his studies seemed a little goofy, let’s say, but by the end, you realize that the same — what do I want to say? The same dark conspiracy underneath everything else was underneath that as well.

Zibby: Yes. It wasn’t just the folklore. It was the one that he wanted after. It was the job he wanted after that he couldn’t get. Anyway, whatever. I’m convinced I will find this, but never mind. It’s not even important. It’s not important, but it was really funny. I also found it so interesting, this intersection of when you’re watching something that is so harrowing and gruesome and emotional and then having to put it — the juxtaposition with the shows that their family was watching was one thing. It’s also representative of how we bring in the news of all these horrible things into our life, whether it’s a show that interrupts us or if it’s, we’re running around doing whatever and we open up the newspaper, and there’s some awful story. You’re like, oh. Then you just have to close the newspaper and go running off. It’s the integration of this horror into regular life. I find this fascinating.

Francine: For better or worse, that still happens. Some terrible, terrible catastrophe will happen, and then you’re not going to leave dinner burning on the stove while you watch it. Some other thing comes in. That first scene, it wasn’t until I figured out how to write that first scene that I realized I could write the novel. That was because I’d made many, many attempts to write it before. That first scene, one of the things that I wanted to happen there, I thought, well, this is sort of a way of signaling how much it’s about families. Although it’s kind of under the surface, that first scene, there are four families going there: The Rosenberg family, Ethel and Julius and their children, their sons; the family in the novel, Simon and his parents; and then the Ozzy and Harriet Nelson family; and Lucy and Desi, that family. This just bizarro comic, tragic interplay of these four families is going on all the way through that scene.

Zibby: Not to mention then you bring in the author’s family. Then it’s from your perspective and then the reader’s perspective. It’s this crisscrossed dance of all of the things going on. I read your essay in Lit Hub about the importance of clarity in writing and that writing has to be, above all, clear. When I was reading how you wrote this book, that is absolutely the case. I was thinking, as I was analyzing individual sentences, what did she leave out? What did she choose to keep in? How did she write this sentence? Tell me a little bit about the prose in the writing of this book and how you bring that approach to everything you write.

Francine: For one thing, it probably went through forty or fifty revisions, easily. I knew about fourteen at the beginning because I’d saved the drafts. Then I stopped counting. I have them. If I want to, I could find them on my computer. At a certain point, I start numbering the drafts just so I don’t lose anything. Yeah, let’s say fifty drafts. What’s the difference? Cutting is a great pleasure. It’s like losing weight with no pain. I love my word counter so much because I’ve lost fifty words and I haven’t noticed. Part of editing is just going through and seeing if you absolutely need everything that’s there, if the reader can understand what’s there without that. There’s a little danger, which is that once you cut it, it stays in your mind. That is, you may have cut something really essential that the reader needs to understand, but you’re still thinking it, so you have to go back and figure — then clarity, as you said, it’s the most important thing; every line, asking yourself, just on the simplest level, is anyone else but me going to understand what this means? That’s what I tell my students. I teach one class at Bard College. It’s a literature class, but my students have to write a weekly three-hundred-word paper. It’s very easy to teach them to write that way because it’s not just, we’re waiting until the end and they hand me a fifteen-page disaster. Often, I just say to them, what do you mean? They feel that they have to translate it into this language in which papers are written or whatever. As soon as they say, this is what I mean, then I say, well, why don’t you write that? I think that on some level, that process goes on all the way up and down people who have writing experience or no writing experience or are veterans or beginners, that need to say, will someone understand this?

Zibby: Interesting. You have written an entire book teaching people how to read as if you were a writer, what you can get from books in order to write more efficiently, how to analyze a text. I remember before I started this whole podcast thing, I was just a huge reader. I just loved to read for fun, but I wasn’t taking books apart. I remember sitting right here with this one author, Charles Duhigg, who I went to college with. He was like, “The first thing I do is I figure it out. I flip through it. I do this. I go through the sections. I do this. Then I read it again. Then I unpack the –” I was like, “You do what? I don’t do that.” Tell me about your approach and why this is important.

Francine: I do it line by line. Again, that’s how I teach. We just go through it line by line and say, okay, what kind of information are we getting here? What’s underneath the subtext? What does the writer not feel necessary to tell us? What are we getting without being told? Just to look at each word, each line, each punctuation mark, really, to see what effect it has on the reader. Also, one of the things you’re doing when you’re reading as a writer is that you know how many alternate choices and how many possibilities have been discarded to produce what’s on the page. You can intuit back to, for example, what would be the really bad way of writing this thing that’s so good that I’m reading? It’s not that hard to figure out. It’s very easy to figure out. It helps you realize why the good choice rather than the bad choice might have been made.

Zibby: Let’s go back to Simon and The Vixen and how he approaches his job in publishing and the slush pile. He’s questioning why some things are getting approved and some things are getting rejected and hiding things under the bed that he wants to read and all of that. There is so much subjectivity in what gets accepted and what doesn’t get accepted. What can we take away from the publishing world, particularly people who, perhaps, are trying to get published or things like that, from the era that he was publishing in? This kind of reminded me of Joanna Rakoff’s book about the letters from J.D. Salinger and how that person at the literary agency had to read through all the letters, this sort of time frame. How do you make sense of the submissions? Who should really be the person deciding what gets published? I don’t know. This is sort of a bigger question.

Francine: In listing the books that have been turned down, I made sure to find books, as I said, that would never get published anywhere at any time. You just look at the title and you go, I don’t think so. There’s that. Also, I think the most important thing to come out of any conversation like this is that the last thing that the writer wants to think about is, could this get published? Who’s going to publish this? How is my audience, existent or nonexistent, going to greet this? It’s the quickest way to stop yourself. Not only that, it’s the best way to deform what you’re writing into something that has, finally, nothing to do with you, but has only to do with some imagined readership that you might not have or might not ever have. Believe me, if I was thinking that way at the very beginning, I would not — if I had said to myself, who do I think is going to publish and read a comic novel about the Rosenberg execution? that would’ve been it. I was like, no. Absolutely, no. I’m not going there. There was something in me that, for whatever reason, had to do it. I just had to write that book. I think that that’s more important. The question, what is it you feel that you have to do? is much more important than the question, will anyone ever like this? Maybe they won’t. Maybe they will. You can’t tell.

Zibby: If you like it, someone’s going to like it. Maybe not everybody.

Francine: That’s what you hope, Zibby. That’s really what you hope.

Zibby: At least one other person out there.

Francine: I have to say, I feel that I’ve been incredibly fortunate. I was really worried for all sorts of reasons before this book came out because of what it is, because it is a comic novel, because of the subject matter. I was really shocked by the good reviews, to put it just simply, written by people who seemed to get what I was doing, who seemed to understand what I was doing, and who seemed not to be horrified by it. That was, I felt, a blessing and heartening to me because you just never know.

Zibby: I feel like you did a lot of the things that you’re supposed to do to make a great novel. You have a character we’re all kind of rooting for and yet kind of laugh at, and the underdog-ish-type guy. You just want to see him succeed. You wrote it well. It has all this intrigue. I know a little bit about the — this is embarrassing to admit, what I knew and didn’t know about the Rosenbergs. A little history is thrown in there, so you learn. It transports like a good novel should.

Francine: Thank you so much.

Zibby: You’re so welcome. Wait, tell me, how did you get started in this industry to begin with? When did you know you were a writer? When did you start writing? How did it all get to here?

Francine: My first novel came out in 1973, I think, ’74. I was very young. I was very, very young. Actually, my first novel was published b Atheneum, which was pretty much exactly like the publishing company in the novel, so much so that I tried to remember back to the layout of the office. I just tracked my way around the layout of the office. Pat Knopf of the Knopf publishing family was the head of Atheneum. He had the office that I gave to Warren in my novel, so, décor, British hunting club, gentlemen’s hunting club. I don’t remember if he actually had pictures of hunting dogs on the wall, but that’s kind of how I remember it. It started simply. It started in a way that I think would be more rare now, which was that I’d taken a few writing classes at college. Then I guess a year or two years after I graduated, I gave it to a professor of mine, Monroe Engel, who’d been my writing teacher. He sent it to his editor at Atheneum. He said, “I’m going to publish this.” This was before publishing got so corporate. This is before you had to bring novels to marketing strategies and explain what the demographic, readership was, etc. My editor, Harry Ford, who was a wonderful legendary editor, published a lot of poets. He published a lot of poets of that generation, W.S. Merwin and Mark Strand and Don Justice. You publish a lot of poets, and sales potential is not the first thing you’re thinking of. He really got it. Then it went along from there. I was, again, lucky, and lucky to have started off at a time very different from the atmosphere we’re in now.

Zibby: I recently started my own publishing company. I don’t know if you know. It’s called Zibby Books. I launched it in September. This is my office. There are no hunting prints.

Francine: Nice-looking.

Zibby: Next to my daughter’s room, basically. I do have this little team. It’s all remote now with today’s world. Our slush pile comes in electronically. We review it. It’s so funny to see what has changed. I’m so interested in where that started because a lot of things in publishing today have evolved not necessarily for the better. It’s just the way it’s happened. How do you go back to taking some of that personal touch of publishing in today’s super, super crowded market? I’m interested in your character, but also your experience being in the industry for so long.

Francine: I think one of the great things that’s happening is that so many of the smaller presses are coming back and succeeding because large corporate culture has never been a great friend of art. Yes, they fund it, etc., but not us in particular. I’m very glad to see that becoming less of a deciding factor. What kind of books do you publish, Libby?

Zibby: We are publishing fiction and —

Francine: — Zibby.

Zibby: That’s okay. Nobody gets my name right. It’s fine. I should just change it to Libby because everybody calls me Libby. We’re publishing fiction and memoir, twelve books a year starting in January 2023. Telling it like it is.

Francine: How exciting. That’s great. That’s really great.

Zibby: One book a month. I’m so excited about it. We’re getting amazing submissions. We’ve acquired ten books at this point. It’s fun. It’s really fun. I’m trying to do everything a little bit differently because I want to do it the way I want to do it. I haven’t worked in publishing. I want to do it from an author-and-reader-centered model. Anyway, I don’t want to detract from my conversation about your books, but I’m always looking for information and ways to do things better. The books are going to be great. It’s just this marketing. It’s so hard to break through anywhere. Nobody’s even watching TV. It’s just so hard. I literally said to my child the other day — she’s fourteen. I was like, “If I was even going to take an ad somewhere where I want everybody to see it, where would it be like?” She’s like, “What?”

Francine: One of my sons, my younger son, is a music producer. I got him to do a video for The Vixen, which is out there, it’s on YouTube, which was so brilliant. It blew me away. It got put up on Instagram. I don’t know if it sold any books, but it made me so happy, A, that it was out there, and B, that I could say to my grown kid, hey, make me a — it probably took him like ten minutes or something, but it’s fantastic. I’d recommend looking for it.

Zibby: Okay, so the answer is, hire your son to make videos for all of our books. Good.

Francine: Hire your kids, yes, for sure. That answers that.

Zibby: That answers that. You mentioned you had come back to this book over and over again through the years. Are there other books that have been gnawing away at you or you have some of it written and some of it not or things that are on your wish list to do?

Francine: Yeah, I have a couple of things. They’re all just so larval. I keep starting the first piece of memoir I’ve ever — not counting articles about what to feed your kids for dinner. Memoir about something that happened to me in the seventies, I’ve been thinking about that. Then there’s fictional subjects that just keep floating around but don’t exactly crystalize. I’m interested in those people in the nineteenth century that took pictures of ghosts, those spirit photographers. I’ve been thinking about that as well, but we’ll see.

Zibby: Interesting. What about your own reading? What do you like to read? What are some of your favorites? What are you reading now?

Francine: I’m reading Joy Williams’ new novel, Harrow. It’s fantastic. I’m reading — well, it depends what hour of the day you ask me. In the middle of the night, I like to read P.D. James. I can read mystery thrillers and forget who did it, so I’m always coming to them fresh, insomniac reading. Also, because I’m teaching — it’s a strange course. It’s called Sympathy for the Devil. It’s about how writers create sympathy for apparently unsympathetic characters. This week, we’re doing A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes. The week before last, we did this extraordinary book called Into that Darkness by Gitta Sereny. It’s nonfiction. It’s a book-length interview with the commandant of Treblinka. I said, okay, let’s see if there’s anyone who’s beyond sympathy. Let’s just push it as far as we can to see. Naturally, he came to mind. It’s rough. I felt sort of badly about putting my students through that, but whatever.

Zibby: There is all this debate about how you feel about a book with an unlikable character or narrator.

Francine: It’s maddening. I was reading, actually — New York Review of Books just published an Elizabeth Taylor novel, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. There’s a great introduction by Michael Hofmann. He says that the word relatable means that people are being narcissistic even when they’re reading. It reminds him, I can’t remember what the source, but some young woman saying, I don’t really like reading books because I’m not in them. I think that there’s some of that going on with relatability, a word I’ve asked my students not to use. I kept saying to them, it’s not about you. That’s the point. It’s not about you. You know about you. You don’t have to see yourself. You can see something about yourself that you never knew was there or that you recognize. I’m not Anna Karenina, but there are things about everyone I know and people in general that I see whenever I reread that novel.

Zibby: You think about how many different parts of yourself there are, of course, you’re going to find little its and bits and pieces of them everywhere. Although, I did just, for Hanukkah, give my kids books that say their names on the cover. You can personalize books from sites like Wonderbly and Penwizard or whatever. It could be so-and-so instead of saying a random character. I’m trying not to say my kids’ names because I like to keep it private. Let’s pretend her name is Jane. Jane Goes to the Market. Jane’s Bedtime Story. Then they go in and you can make the character kind of look like you. I guess I’m raising narcissists, is basically my point here.

Francine: That’s different, though. I think anything you can do to get kids to read is fair and square. I’m fine with a book with arms that gives kids a big hug. The fact that we’re competing with their screens, it really feels very, very hard, so anything that does that. I keep getting reports from friends who tell me how their children are buried in books. They can’t get their children’s head out of it. This is not my experience. Neither of my sons were that big a reader. My grandchildren, the jury’s still out. Except maybe for one, they don’t seem to be passionate readers. It was funny, my fourteen-year-old granddaughter took a book home from school she had to read for her . I said, “Oh, that book, it’s horrible.” She said, “There’s a blurb from you on the back cover, Grandma.” Then I had to explain that I’d reviewed the book and they’d picked the one really nice thing I’d said out of the review and put it on the cover. I had no control over that. I felt like some element of credibility had been…

Zibby: That’s funny. That is so funny. People are putting questions. I’m just going to maybe poke into these for a minute. Someone is asking, can you compare your writing process with regard to The Vixen to the writing process for Mister Monkey and also Lovers at the Chameleon Club? Similarities and differences?

Francine: In some ways, it’s always the same. That is, I’m not anyone who — I wish I wrote outlines. I wish I knew how a book was going to end up before it ended up. I just write one sentence. Then I rewrite it a hundred times. Then I write another sentence. In that sense, they’re all the same. Lovers at the Chameleon Club required quite a bit of research, Paris 1940. Then to take my characters to the Berlin Olympics, I actually had to watch Leni Riefenstahl’s insanely boring Olympia film like three times for research. That required a great deal more. Like Mister Monkey, Chameleon Club had different points of view. Mister Monkey was free-form. Mister Monkey started because I took my granddaughter to this painfully bad children’s musical. She asked me out loud in what she thought was a raucous moment whether I was interested. I said yes, but it turned out to be a quiet moment, so everyone heard. I said yes. Everyone heard her ask, so I felt like I had to write the entire book to make it up.

The Vixen was, in some ways, the hardest and the most fun because it was the one I’ve been trying to write for the longest, unsuccessfully. Then, as I said, when the pieces that I didn’t expect started just locking together, it was joyous. It was really joyous. It was like, whoa, I’ve suddenly figured out how this goes. I have to say that I’m still learning these things that I wish I had known when I wrote the book. For example, in the FBI’s case against the Rosenbergs, the principal piece of physical evidence was that Jello box that supposedly the Rosenbergs had used, or the two spies. The Russian and the American spies had these two halves of a cut-up Jello box. When they fit together, this was supposed to prove that they were on the same side. It was completely insane. Who would do this? This was a bit of theater that no one would . In the course of writing the book, I was thinking, okay, if this didn’t happen, someone had to make it up. That seemed obvious. There were only two possibilities. Either it happened or it didn’t happen. If it didn’t happen, which was my humble opinion, someone made it up. Then the book sort of led me to think about who did make it up. It was only months after the book came out that I was being interviewed by a historian. He said, “Obviously, the FBI could not have had the original Jello package in the court during the Rosenberg trial, so they just cut up a Jello box in some random way and used that as…”

Also, the other really shocking thing that I just found out within the last week — I’m trying to do this without too many spoilers, but whatever. One of the questions that comes up in the book were, who are the real writers of this novel? What was their purpose? Let me just put it that way. I did a Zoom panel for the Jewish Historical Society. The very wonderful woman who runs it wrote back to me and said she’d done some additional research. Sure enough, the State Department had encouraged the writing and publication of a book proving the Rosenbergs were guilty and authorized and promoted its distribution around the world. I had made something similar, let’s say. I really thought I had invented it as well. I think any writer has had the experience of life imitating art in the creepiest and most surprising and unpredictable ways. I was really shocked. I read the email, and I just did nothing else for the rest of the day but go, huh? What just happened? There was no way I could’ve known that. I thought I was just dredging this stuff up out of my own imagination.

Zibby: By the way, the section you wrote about the Jello box was so funny. Can I just read that paragraph?

Francine: Please. That’s my favorite part of the book.

Zibby: Oh, my god, it’s so funny. You said, “The newscaster tells us yet again how the state’s case hinged on a torn box of Jello that served as a signal between the spies. The communist agent Harry Gold had half the box; Ethel’s brother, the other half. Gold’s handlers instructed him to say, ‘This comes from Julius. The jagged fragments of the Jello box fit like jigsaw puzzle pieces.’ ‘She should’ve stayed kosher,’ Mom says. ‘Observant Jews don’t eat Jello. Cloven hoof, smooth hoof, the wrong hoof, I forget what.’ ‘Some rabbi ruled that Jello is kosher,’ says Dad. ‘Probably, the Jello people found a rabbi they could pay off.’ ‘Was Ethel kosher?’ I ask. ‘Who cares? There was no torn Jello box,’ my father says, ‘except in someone’s head.'”

Francine: There was no torn Jello box.

Zibby: You kept writing about it. You said, “‘The strawberry Jello is in Roy Cohn’s head.’ My mother curses in Yiddish. I say, ‘Did they specify strawberry?’ ‘Is this a joke to, Simon?'”

Francine: Yeah, Roy Cohn’s head. Roy Cohn is the evil Zelig that just keeps reappearing in this story. He was the prosecutor in the Rosenberg case and then Donald Trump’s mentor and McCarthy’s boy. He was around.

Zibby: Wasn’t there just a documentary or something about him?

Francine: Actually, the woman who made it — there were two documentaries about him that came out within the first three months. One of the women who made what seems to be the better one is the granddaughter of the Rosenbergs, Ivy Meeropol. She made that documentary. Then she made another one called — what’s it called? Witness to an Execution? I can’t remember, but it’s wonderful. I watched it a million times writing the book. It’s a documentary about her family and the case.

Zibby: Wow. Okay, put it in my queue. Do they still have those? There are some more questions. This is from Diane. As a reader but not a writer, do you recommend the in-depth analysis that you recommend to writers? Will a line-by-line analysis help me enjoy the book more? I just finished Herzog, which would need a lot of work to analyze, and wonder if doing this would’ve helped me understand more of it.

Francine: I never understood Herzog, if that’s any comfort. I don’t know. It depends what you’re reading. I don’t think it helps you understand any better. Maybe it does. No, that’s not true. I’m going to contradict that. One of the things that I do is I like to teach books in which if you’re not paying attention, there’s some really basic matter of fact that you can miss and not get. In some cases, that is very true. Mostly for me, it’s a way to appreciate it more, just to say, look at this fabulous sentence that this person wrote, how amazing, which I might not notice. On the other hand, if I’m reading P.D. James at three o’clock in the morning, I’m not stopping. She wrote perfectly well, but I’m not stopping and analyzing and marveling over every sentence. I’m trying to figure out who the murderer is.

Zibby: Barbara asks, as a new reader of your books, which one would you recommend I start with?

Francine: Have you read The Vixen? I don’t know. You should start with the newest one and work your way back, is my feeling. I have a special place in my heart for Mister Monkey. Mister Monkey, I think people — what do I want to say? Mister Monkey, a lot of people had problems with, partly because one of the subjects is — it’s about artistic failure and the terror of artistic failure. I think that’s an uncomfortable subject for many people. For some reason, more uncomfortable than the Rosenberg trials or the Berlin Olympics, but uncomfortable nonetheless. I’m very fond of it. Also, part of that novel, part of Mister Monkey is about being a grandparent, which I am. I think that is a subject that has been woefully underwritten about and written about wrongly or falsely, like, oh, the great thing is you can send them back. That’s not the great thing, in my experience. That book’s partly about that.

Zibby: Sharon was asking what the publishing house of personalized books was called. I’ll just say them again, the ones for my kids, if anybody’s interested. There’s one that’s called Wonderbly and one that is called Penwizard. Phyllis says, how do you instruct your students to balance research and writing?

Francine: Again, it depends what you’re doing. What’s fortunate for me, although I’d never seen it that way before, was that at a certain point, my memory had so many holes in it that I would read and read and read and then forget most of it, of what I’d read. Only the important things stuck in my mind. For this book, for example, I read a biography of Ethel Rosenberg and then two books that her sons have written, other prison correspondence, Ethel and Julius’s prison correspondence. Then one of the most helpful — well, several books about the CIA, which, spoiler again, has something to do with the novel. Then a transcript of the Army-McCarthy hearing, which was quite helpful, which actually reoccurs in the novel. There are things you can get from history that are better than what you can invent. For example, in the first chapter, Bob Considine, who was the reporter who was present at the execution, describes what he saw. That’s on YouTube. I just transcribed what he said on YouTube. Apparently, the part I found out later, he became quite an active anti-death penalty activist after the event because of what he had seen. That was a case in which research was incredibly helpful. The kinds of books I don’t like reading are certain historical novels in which the writer is just going out of his or her way to convince you that there’s historical authenticity here. There are many details about shoe buckles or foulards or whatever that I don’t particularly care about. They just feel that they’re there to establish authenticity rather than to add to what the novel’s giving us.

Zibby: Yes. I feel like it’s like you’re walking down the street and you trip over a crack or something. It stops you in your tracks. I don’t know how you feel about this, but Judy is asking, can you talk about your PEN controversy? I don’t even know what that is.

Francine: No, it just makes me miserable.

Zibby: How does the book relate to our current US political environment? Carol would like to know.

Francine: I wrote most of it during the Trump presidency. I was really kind of amazed by the similarities between the current moment and the fifties, the lying and the paranoia and the intense political divisions and the way in which people’s lives were destroyed by McCarthy without trial. All you had to have was a rumor, and that was it. You lost your job and etc., etc. Unfortunately, those divisions, I think, haven’t gone away with the end of the Trump presidency. I think that the polarization of our society is very dangerous and very intense still. In that way, it was like the fifties as well, the paranoia, the feeling that some communist was hiding under the bed and was going to send you and your children back to Russia. The thing is, it didn’t happen. Finally, it didn’t happen. We didn’t go to war with Russia. They didn’t drop a nuclear bomb on us. A lot of that was just theater and distraction, the way a lot of those things are theater and distraction. In that way, it’s similar to our own and every historical moment. If you want to try and figure out what’s happening, the thing you don’t want to look at is what you’re being told is happening. You want to look just underneath that or just to the side of it to see, why does everyone want me looking over here when something really weird is happening over there?

Zibby: You also don’t have to answer this, but Linda would like to know how you felt about Ellen Meeropol’s criticism of your book.

Francine: What can I say? I was very concerned about the Meeropol’s family reaction to the book. It just so happened that a very close friend of ours, Molly Elkin, is a very good friend of Ivy Meeropol’s, the granddaughter, filmmaker, documentarian. I called Molly. I said, “I’m worried about this.” She said, “Oh, no, the Meeropol family are really smart. Just because the lurid best-seller paints Esther Rosenstein as a slut, they’re not going to think that you’re saying that about their grandma. They’re readers. They’re very smart.” Sure enough, Ivy and her father, Michael Meeropol, asked for the novel in galleys and read it. I was cheered that they liked it. Her dad had stayed up all night laughing. I was supposed to go and give a reading for them. They have a reading series in Cold Spring. It was canceled because of COVID. I know that Ellen Meeropol, who’s the wife of Robbie Meeropol, the other son, didn’t like it. She felt that it was exploitative. I was afraid that that would happen. I knew that that would happen. I was worried about it myself. The reason I felt able to write it was that I felt that if I wrote about the exploitation of the Rosenbergs, that I wasn’t going to be guilty of exploiting because I was writing about exploitation. That explanation may not have worked for everybody. It clearly didn’t for Ellen Meeropol. I’m sorry. I’m sorry that it didn’t.

Zibby: Robin is asking, do you have a set of questions/process/system you would recommend we use when approaching reading as a writer?

Francine: Just read slowly. Read more slowly. Really pay attention. Also, one of the things that I keep telling my class, and I’m sure they’re just insanely bored hearing, part of it is just to, again, appreciate what a writer has done. For example, we did James Joyce’s The Dead in my class, the idea being sympathy again. How much sympathy do we feel for Gabriel Conroy? I kept saying to them, as I’ve said many weeks, Gabriel Conroy doesn’t exist. His wife doesn’t exist. His aunts don’t exist. A writer, James Joyce, sat down and put these words on the paper. There was something so miraculous about the fact that a human being had done that that it seemed — I think it changes your way of reading. You’re not looking for — I’m always amazing with haters who review online and say, oh, I hated this. I hated that. I hated the other thing. What about the things you loved? Let’s hear about the things that really moved you or that were important. We’re not all book critics, certainly. When I put together these reading lists for my classes, I think maybe once in all of that time I taught something that I thought was manipulative because I wanted to show them what it meant to be manipulative by writing. Short of that, I teach books that I love, that I can be a kind of cheerleader for because literature needs it at the moment. As I said, screens are out there. We’re on one.

Zibby: Robin likes that answer. She says thanks. That resonates with George Saunders’ perspective in his book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. Here’s an interesting comment/question, from Allison. On page sixteen and then at the end of the book, you speak of how “everything in the world is beautiful except what we do when we forget our humanity, our human dignity, our higher purpose.” Can you elaborate on why you chose to add this philosophical dimension? What is the intended meaning and the context of the broader intent of the book? Thank you.

Francine: To be perfectly honest, it’s a line, I think I credited, stolen from Chekov. It’s a line that occurs in the middle of The Lady with the Pet Dog. It’s a line that occurs to Gurov, our protagonist hero who is this awful womanizer, in the midst of being transformed by love, which is he, more or less, by the end of the story. I don’t know. It’s a quote about forgiveness, self-forgiveness, taking the high road, appreciating our humanity, thinking about who other people are and trying to see things from their point. I feel that Chekov really was God-like in some ways. He really was. I just feel like there’s something intensely religious and spiritual about those sentences, not mine, taken from Chekov, but I’m taking them. I wanted them in the book.

Zibby: I think that might be it. If anybody else has questions, you can put them in the chat. I think that was everything. Hi, Marjorie.

Marjorie: That was a wonderful conversation. Thank you very much. We learned a lot. I know that a lot of the members of our Women’s Auxiliary are watching because they’re going to have a book discussion on your book. I’m sure they learned. Thank you. I also would like to let everybody know that this evening we have Katie Couric live at six thirty at the Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center interviewed by our very own Zibby Owens. It will also be held virtually, so you can watch it either way. We’d love to see everybody there. The other thing I want to say is there’s something called, which is another personalized book service that my new baby grandson, somebody gave him. It’s all the letters of his name with animals. It’s another one. It’s adorable. Back to this, Francine, thank you very, very much for being with us. We hope you’ll join us in person again. I think you were with us probably about four years ago for Mister Monkey. I think I’m right. Am I right?

Francine: Maybe the Anne Frank book. I have some memory of it. I don’t know. Or Peggy Guggenheim. God, it could’ve been a lot of different .

Zibby: It could’ve been any of my books.

Marjorie: It could’ve been any of your books along way.

Zibby: I lose track. There’s so many.

Marjorie: I remember the event. We held it on 61st Street. I remember it very, very well. You signed books. It was great. Thank you very much.

Zibby: Can I make one quick plug for my #22in22 initiative? I’m encouraging people to go to bookstores more in 2022, so I’ve started #22in22. You can to For every couple bookstores that you visit, I’ve designed this whole system of incentives. You get a little badge. You can be part of a Facebook group. You’ll get a little bookmark and enter to win a five-hundred-dollar book shopping spree. Whenever you go to bookstores, starting now, you just log a bookstore visit, it takes two seconds, on the website. You log it. We have this whole thing. We’re going to track who does how many visits. Once a week, we’ll send out all the rewards. I think this will be really fun. I love bookstores. I think it’s time that we all make an effort to get back in there in person. The Streicker Center is a partner, so thank you to them for doing that.

Marjorie: I have already signed up.

Zibby: Amazing.

Francine: I’m on my way. Thank you.

Marjorie: Thank you both. Next week at eleven thirty we have, I believe it’s Ann Patchett.

Zibby: Yes.

Marjorie: That’s correct, yes. Please join us. Francine, we hope to see you again. Thank you very much.

Francine: I hope so too. Thank you.

Zibby: Thanks, Francine. Great to meet you.

Francine: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Bye.

Francine Prose, THE VIXEN

THE VIXEN by Francine Prose

Purchase your copy on Amazon or Bookshop!

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts