Hypertext Interview With Peter Ferry

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Interviewed by Christine Rice

If you like a good mystery, a complex plot, and characters you can really sink your teeth into, your summer reading list should include both of Peter Ferry’s novels: Travel Writing and Old Heart.

In his first novel, Travel Writing, Peter Ferry offers up a solid dose of metafiction–in the spirit of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions and many others–with a main character much like himself: a high school literature teacher named Peter Ferry who is also a travel writer. It’s a mystery that, for me, called to mind stylistic elements of Dashiell Hammet, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway .

In the first few pages of Travel Writing, Peter Ferry (the narrator…stay with me now…) bemoans the reaction he gets after telling people he is a high school teacher.

So, I’m a teacher, a high school teacher. In our society that gives me very little authority. About the highest compliment most people can pay a teacher is to ask why he or she became a teacher. That’s supposed to be flattering, as in “You could have really done something important with your life.” To boost my stock, I guess, I also do some writing, especially travel pieces for newspapers, magazines, and travel guides.

On the next page, the narrator tells this anecdote:

Before teaching I worked for a publishing house. I sat in a windowless cubicle writing textbooks for which someone else made a lot of money; it isn’t glamorous, but you can get rich if you can get every eighth grader in the state of Texas to read or at least buy your thirty-dollar book. and somehow people think that it is glamorous. I would go to parties and say I was an editor, and people, especially women–and that was important to me then–would say, “Oh, really?” and raise their eyebrows and look at me a little more carefully. I remember the first party I went to after I became a teacher, someone asked me what I did for a living, and I said, “Well, I teach high school.” He looked over my shoulder, nodded his head, said, “I went to high school,” and walked away.

During our interview, Peter Ferry the writer (you with me?) admitted that last anecdote, about the party, happened just the way he wrote it. As a writer and teacher myself, the honesty, timing, and humor of that last line will stay with me always. There are lines in novels you will never forget. That particular line (among thousands of other beautifully-crafted sentences written by Ferry) is one of them.

Old Heart, Ferry’s second novel, is an adventure novel with an 85-year old protagonist, Tom Johnson, at its center. This novel digs deep into Tom Johnson’s psyche and past life and follows and, in the spirit of great adventure books like Don Quixote, Tom Johnson sets out on a quest: to find his long lost love, a woman he had met during his service in World War II. He travels to the Netherlands, to a small town where he thinks the woman now lives.

I caught up with Peter Ferry to discuss both of his novels but I’ll start with his latest, Old Heart.

Christine Rice: In our youth-crazed society, you chose to focus on a character in his eighties. I found that refreshing and beautiful in so many ways. Can you talk about that choice? Did you ever doubt that choice?

Peter Ferry: I didn’t really doubt my choice to write about an eighty-five year old man but others did; they said that young people wouldn’t buy a book with “old” in the title, and they may have been right. Old Heart has been a modest success, but that is the advantage of being a retired teacher with a cushy pension. I don’t have to write to make a living and get to write what I want, and I wanted to write about getting old because I am getting old and I was inspired by a friend named Athene Macgruder who I quote in an epigram (“You probably think I was always old. Well I wasn’t.”) because she made me see old people as something more than just old. I was also inspired by my mother Mary Lewis Ferry who lived life to the hilt right to the end of her ninety-four years. I like to think of Old Heart as a kind of fairy tale for adults and Tom as a kind of octogenarian Toby Tyler off to join the circus. I doubt that I’d run away as Tom does, but I like to think I’d be so courageous.

CR: As a novelist, what advantages and/or challenges did Tom Johnson’s age present?

PF: That he had nothing to lose is a great advantage and advanced age gives him license to say and do things a younger Tom might not have. The challenge is verisimilitude. I kept having to age him, have him stumble, forget things, tire more easily and sleep longer. It seems to me that the challenge of aging is not to deny it as we often try to, but to accept it in the sense that one has done what one is going to do, and the rest is gravy. That’s what Tom does, and with that comes a certain freedom.

CR: At times, your writing – style, tone, language – reminds me of Ernest Hemingway and also of F. Scott Fitzgerald. But your sensibility as a writer allows your characters wider and more sympathetic berths. You present your audience with a 360-degree view of the character – their problems, their successes, their faults, their failures – so that the reader can make up her own mind about the character.

What authors have influenced your writing? How has teaching these writers influenced your writing?

PF: Your questions are very perceptive. Hemingway and Fitzgerald were my first literary models and heroes. If my view is a little wider it may be because I have outlived them both (I just turned seventy). So they influenced my writing a lot, but later so did everything Virginia Woolf wrote and some of James Joyce – especially “The Dead.” I often read the end of “The Dead” before I start writing because I think it may be the best told story ever. Or I at least read something I admire so that I am in the company of really good writers. Lately is has been Elizabeth Strout’s story called “River” in Olive Kitteridge, Martin Seay’s remarkable novel The Mirror Thief, and you Christine Rice in your wonderful stories in Swarm Theory, the one called “Known Issues” about the mother who leaves her kids in the parking lot of a seedy motel while she is shooting up and “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know” which is so honest it should make every teacher’s blood run cold.

CR: Thanks for including me in such fine company!

You also set forth characters who seem to be devices for the overall plot – simple people, laughable characters – and then, through the lens of time, develop them into sympathetic characters…the original or first impression wiped clean by a deeper understanding of the character.

This happened with Charlie in Travel Writing and Dickie in Old Heart.

Can you talk about how you employed those ‘secondary’ characters to build/develop the main characters in both of your novels?

PF:  You are so right that they started out as devices and grew into characters. Tony was a reason for Tom to stay in a bad marriage. He is modeled on a young guy named David Jonaitis who collects shopping carts in the parking lot of a grocery store where I often shop, and sings Beatles songs as he does it. David became my friend and consultant and finally character. Dickie was something for Tom to do while he was waiting to fall in love with Pim again. He is an amalgam of two Dutch guys I once knew who were both very memorable. So that’s my trick. I often use live models and modify them. I write about interesting people I know and take liberties with them. One for whom I didn’t have a model but was just a device in the beginning was Nora, Tom’s granddaughter. She started out as a way for him to stay in touch with home but just kept stepping forward to do and say this and that until finally my agent Wendy Strothman said, “Hell, why don’t you just make her the narrator?” So I did and in the end she, in a certain Nick Carraway way, becomes the main character because she is the one most changed by the action of the story even though for a long time the reader isn’t even sure who she is or if she is speaking.

CR: My father fought in World War II, survived some pretty horrific battles. Old Heart revealed a great deal to me about the War but also about the mindset of that generation. My Dad rarely spoke of the War…never, really. Finally, after much badgering, he told me a story and the gruesomeness of it cured me from ever asking again.

Did you have someone in your life who fought in WW II or was Tom based wholly on research? And why did you choose a veteran of World War II instead of Vietnam or Korea?

PF:  I chose World War II because my dad was a chaplain in it, the timing was right but also the setting was right. In 1991-1992 I was a Fulbright Exchange Teacher in The Netherlands in a town called Veldhoven in the province of Brabant which had been liberated by the Americans on September 17, 1944. On that day each year including 1991 many houses in the village fly an American flag. Another day a marching band came down our residential street and we took our two little kids and joined the parade which had to do with the unveiling of a plaque by a little canal two blocks away. Great fun. Then my neighbor told me the story. During the war the Germans had taken all the village church bells and melted them down for lead. In Veldhoven the people had hidden their bell in the canal. The ceremony was commemorating their risky initiative. Suddenly I realized that the war had taken place right here, right in our village and on our block. One more story: our five year old went to the local kindergarten and at first she struggled although in the end she spoke fluent five-year-old Dutch “with a perfect Brabant accent.” But September was a steep learning curve and was pretty tough. One day she came out of school crying and her mom who had just bought a kilo of pork chops when she meant to buy a pound started crying, too. Another parent was touched and told her own mother about this. At Christmastime there appeared on our doorstep a little package in which was a hand knit child’s sweater and a note that said in very careful English, “Karin told me that you and your daughter were sad. Once long ago your people helped my people. I have always wanted to say ‘thank you.’ This is my thank you.” That’s why I wrote about World War II in Holland.

CR: I was recently asked to speak to a class about the intersection of life and art in my own novel. When I sat down to make the list, I was surprised by how many intersections there were. Travel Writing is a book that, in many ways, follows the reality of your own life. In what ways does Old Heart intersect with reality, if at all?

PF: I think that everything I write is based in one way or another on my own experience. I actually witnessed the auto accident that begins Travel Writing. The only difference was the girl driving was not killed, so I killed her because it made for a better story and a more profound moral conflict: “If you have the chance to save a person’s life and don’t take it….” And of course I lived in Holland and spend lots of time there still and was taught by my parents both how to live and how to die. And all my character’s doubts, questions, dilemmas, judgments and prejudices have of course been mine.

CR: Old Heart is about a lot of things (marriage, family, war, aging, friendship, endurance, forgiveness) but, for me, it hinged on the enduring influence of love, of how love changes, the meaning of love. In addition to Sarah van Praag, Tom’s heart belonged to his son Tony.

You write:

Tom and Tony sat in those chairs for the next nine years, Tony’s short legs never quite reaching the ground, Tom’s long ones usually crossed, one foot dangling. They sat in them all summer, of course, and all fall, as early in the spring as they could, and even on selected winter days when the temperature moderated, the sun shone, and the wind died down. The neighborhood kids whom they let fish from the dock always waved and called them “the big man” and “the little man,” and one once said to Tony, “You’re almost little as me.”

“‘That’s ’cause I got Down syndrome,” Tony explained with something like the patience a parent shows a child. “It makes you little. ‘I’m little but I’m old,'” he then said, paraphrasing his father and quoting Harper Lee.

Can you talk about Tony’s character? How did he develop on the page? In what ways did he influence Tom’s character on the page?

PF: I agree with you that the book is about love in all its forms: love of men and women for each other, a parent for a child, a person for a memory or an ideal, lost love, failed love, self love. As for Tony, in addition to what I wrote above, Tom says that Tony saved his soul. That’s because Tony was the laboratory in which Tom discovered love as well as patience, compassion, appreciation, generosity and amusement, and Tony responded to Tom finding all those things in himself as well. They played off of each other; that’s the way they developed on the page. Another good question.

CR: Did you travel to Brabant to research this novel?

PF: I lived in Brabant for one year but then for twenty years I did a student exchange with a Dutch teacher I met there, so I’ve spent a lot of time in Holland and I love it. It is my second home, or maybe my third home after Mexico.

Brabant is a quiet, largely rural land of dairy farms and villages. In Hedda Gabler when Ibsen wants his character George Tesman to write a really boring book, it is on the handicrafts of Brabant in the Middle Ages, but it was the perfect place for our young family because we were a real novelty as we would not have been in Amsterdam or Den Haag. We were very minor local celebrities. Strangers would knock on our door and ask if they could come in and practice their English. We were interviewed by the local paper and invited everywhere. It was such fun and it changed my life.

CR: Because travel is such a big part of both of your novels (and because you are also a travel writer), in what ways, besides the obvious ones, does travel influence the way you conduct yourself in the world? In what ways does travel influence your work?

PF: In addition to the year I lived in Holland, I lived one in Mexico and that changed my life, too. I think the reason is that travel allows you to look back on yourself, your country, your culture, even your principles and beliefs in a way you can’t quite when you are at home. You go away hoping to learn about other people, but in the end it is yourself you get to know better.

CR: You have this wonderful ability to step back and see the larger picture. Both of your novels take a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle-type approach: something needs to be figured out and only by piecing together many different and seemingly unrelated threads do you get to the heart of the matter, to the truth. Characters’ secrets tend to play a large part in your plots too.

Pacing and overall structure is so important to your work. Neither book follows a simple chronological order. I loved the ease with which you moved back and forth through time. Are you an ‘outliner’ or do you let the narrative develop more organically?

PF: I like the Anne Lamott notion that writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights allow you to. The rest is a matter of faith. In Travel Writing I wrote the first twenty pages one summer and then during the school year walking back and forth to the train, I figured out how the story would end and the next summer I wrote the last eighty pages. Then I took a sabbatical and filled in the rest. That was my first draft. I took me five more years to get a final one.

In Old Heart I got Tom and Pim together which is about three-quarters of the story, but then I couldn’t figure out what to do with them. I and they kept looking for their old love. It took me a couple years to realize that it was dead and I had to let them find a new one. As for the Conan Doyle stuff, I love figuring out the story because it’s kind of a puzzle, but in the end characters and ideas rather than the plot motivates me to write.

CR: What surprised you about Old Heart (in the writing, in the response of readers…anything)?

PF: The whole process I just described surprised me page by page and day by day. I always want to keep going to see what’s beyond the headlights. In the end all the surprises are within yourself. Ultimately writing is a very self-centered, self indulgent activity. So are interviews like this one in which you get to talk about yourself at great length. Thank you for the opportunity.


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