A Guide To Prose, Fully Punctuated

Francine Prose,
Francine Prose, "writing for rhythm as well as for everything else." (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
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By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Francine Prose has thought a lot about writing in the 35 years she's been trying to make a living at it. And one of the things she thinks is: It can't be taught.

"Not by me!" the author says cheerfully. Black haired, laughing, in jeans and a flowered shirt, she's talking tradecraft over a Thai lunch near Dupont Circle, skipping words at the end of sentences because she's in a hurry to get to the next one.

Never mind that Prose supplemented her income by teaching creative writing for two decades. And never mind that she achieved unlikely bestsellerdom a couple of years back with a text called "Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them."

Can't. Be. Taught.

If you're a reader of book reviews, you've likely seen the Prose name. Her brother suggests she respond to the inevitable jokes with, "It could be Verse."

She has published 15 works of adult fiction, most recently "Goldengrove," out this month to generally strong reviews. (Janet Maslin of the New York Times called it "beautifully wrought.") Of her earlier novels, you're most likely to have heard of "Blue Angel," a tragicomic sendup of academia in which she conjures the Creative Writing Class From Hell. She has also written nonfiction, such as a biography of the painter Caravaggio, along with young adult fiction, children's books and countless pieces for newspapers and magazines.

She's down from New York for a reading and she's scheduled for two more this week: Friday evening at Borders-Baileys Crossroads and Saturday at the National Book Festival. And while it may be true that writing can't be taught -- let's withhold judgment on that a bit, shall we? -- an aspiring writer could certainly learn a few things from a conversation with Prose.

"Goldengrove" is something new for her, she says. Her other fiction, like "Blue Angel," tends to have a comic edge. "Goldengrove" has its funny moments, but "it's much more melancholy, it's much more elegiac and it's much more raw, really. One family, one tragedy, one girl."

The girl is 13-year-old Nico, who lives with her parents and older sister on the shore of Mirror Lake. The tragedy occurs early, and given reviews and the book's own flap copy, there's little chance you won't know what's happened before you plunge in. In any case, grief haunts the remainder of the story, which is told from Nico's point of view.

This brings us to what we might call Prose's First Nugget of Advice for Fiction Writers: You can write about what's really happened to you without being constrained by the facts.

What happened to Prose, three years ago, was that her mother died. "I was a wreck," she says. "It wasn't as if I was taking notes on my situation, but I thought, 'This is a very particular state of mind' " -- shocking, transforming, coloring everything -- "and I wanted to write about it."

Eventually, folding in another family's story she'd heard about, she realized that her novel would be narrated by a young girl. That presented interesting problems but didn't change the central concept. "The mystery of absence is the mystery of absence, no matter how old you are," she says. "How can someone have been there and not be there anymore?"

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