In this interview, Columbia MFA candidate Jared Jackson speaks with Joshua Furst about his second novel, Revolutionaries, and sheds light on critical choices he made while crafting the book, which transports the reader to the 1960s—a period of love and violence, and a touchstone of cultural significance for those with visions of radical change and societal disillusionment. Filtered through the sharp voice of Fred, a grown-up child of the counterculture, Revolutionaries takes off the nostalgic, free-loving, psychedelic sunglasses of the period, and glares at the cost that idealism— genuine or otherwise—has on the relationships of those involved.
Joshua Furst is also the author of the novel The Sabotage Café, the short story collection Short People, and the children’s picture book Little Red Stroller.
When, and how, did Fred’s voice come to you? Why did you choose Fred to narrate the novel instead of Suzy, his mother, or Lenny, his father—the novel’s primary focus?
I was sitting on a park bench on the Maryland eastern shore. I was a Visiting Writer down there, so I had all kinds of time on my hands because I didn’t know anyone and had no one to talk to but myself. Those two sentences, “Call me Fred. I hate Freedom,” popped into my head. I’d been trying for years to figure out how to tell a story not about the Sixties radicals specifically, but I was looking for a way into the history of the counterculture in America and how it moved—not just though them, but past them, into my generation and beyond. And so, the only way to do that with any authority, it seemed to me, was to look at those radicals of that moment through the lens of someone not of that generation. So, that’s part of why it has to be Fred, and not Suzy or Lenny who narrates the novel.
But in the early drafts of the book, there were two things that were happening. One, I was trying to figure out how to tell Fred’s contemporary story, as an adult, and that caused all kinds of problems because that would’ve been a two thousand page-long book. Also, he doesn’t do anything. If all of their lives are in protest, Fred’s life is in protest of the protest, which boxes him into a place where he can’t do anything, and to me, is indicative of what happened to the counterculture in America, and specifically of my generation’s futile and ironic gestures toward alternate ways of negotiating their relationship with society. Another aspect of this was that the rage Fred felt towards his parents was so overpowering I couldn’t get other emotional nuances in. The early drafts were so full of contempt for these parents, specifically for Lenny, that the drafts were flat on the page. And what that meant—the way to solve getting Fred’s contemporary experience to the place that counterculture arrives at in the book—had everything to do with allowing him to gradually, slowly open up, to the experiences of his parents.
The novel is historical fiction. How much research did you do? When did you know to put down the research and allow the creative process to take over?
I didn’t sit down and explicitly do research. I didn’t compile information about this time period. I’ve always had a kind of fetish for this time period, and over the course of my life I’ve absorbed a lot of the information that’s in the book. And then, at some point, I had to fact check that, and that’s where a certain amount of the research came in.
The real research—and maybe this is what your question is really getting at—is in getting the incidental details right. At a recent reading, somebody asked a question about how I filled the book with pop culture from the time—that’s the stuff that makes it feel alive to its moment, right? That’s the more difficult stuff to figure out, but whenever you feel like you’re getting really deep into your research, and your research is becoming “the thing,” I feel like that’s the time to stop doing the research and start reminding yourself of what your actual story is.
I’m someone who loves epigraphs. I collect sentences and lines from things I come across, thinking, perhaps, someday, I may use them for a project. The epigraph for Revolutionaries is the Che Guevara quote, “The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.” At what stage in the writing process did you decide this would be the epigraph for the novel? How do you think it works in relevance to the characters? As the author, do you think Fred believes Lenny was guided by love?
I have two answers for the first question. As I was writing this book, I was collecting epigraph after epigraph after epigraph, and I had a page at the beginning where I would lodge them all. I had this imagined idea that I’d include eighty epigraphs, sort of like Melville did with Moby Dick, since the book is clearly talking to Moby Dick—at some level, anyway. But that didn’t go over very well. So, then I cut it down to four, then I cut it down to two. And then I finally settled on this one because it’s both of its time and ironically in conversation with what’s happening in the book.
Like I said, there’s an irony to the epigraph, in that we watch some behaviors that don’t seem like love play themselves out, and yet, there is also this massive amount of love. It just expresses itself in ways that are, maybe, not nurturing. And I feel like that thought, the overpowering urge to love, when transferred into a revolutionary mode, can separate the person who’s performing the revolution from being able to behave in a loving manner. And I think Fred understands that, too. And whatever contempt he feels—that’s his problem. He doesn’t disagree with the ideals, he just doesn’t know why he had to be the casualty.
Revolutionaries is published by Knopf and is available now.
Photo Credit: © Michael Lionstar