Like everyone else still left standing in this business, I write because I have to. Unless you are engaged in genre writing of some sort-Hallmark cards, medical thrillers-inner compulsion is just about the only excuse left. A more interesting question is why I write the sort of things I write, and as I look back over my work of the past few years, especially the stories in Leaving the Neighborhood, Chekhov's distinction keeps coming back to me. He says that there is a confusion among people who understand that every story has a problem in it. He says that we need to remember the difference between solving the problem and stating the problem correctly. I think that what I am trying to do, over and over and with mixed success, is to state the problem correctly.
In many of the stories in Leaving the Neighborhood, the problem is marriage, that lifelong emulsion of oil and water that keeps separating until we find the energy to stir the pot again. We can't solve the problem(s) of marriage, but maybe we can state some of them correctly. So in the book's opening story, "The Vortex," for instance, I am trying to look at a problem of a young woman who returns briefly to her older former lover, not as a case of boredom or inadequate love, but as entwined with the overlays of fantasy that rule desire, and the selfishness of desire. In "Mud Time," the central mystery appears to be whether or not an accused child molester is guilty, but again, I want to state the problem differently, as a problem of sexuality and parenting, and how one walks the tightrope of life with these elements in balance.
Some of these stories are political, in the same sense of problem-solving vs. problem-stating. I believe with all my heart that most of the dangerous directions in which our culture is heading come from framing issues in received, simplistic ways and then plunging ahead to "solve," say, the problem of terrorism. And so stories like "Leaving the Neighborhood" and "Politics" play a bit with this notion that certain conclusions will be reached (the gay teacher has the hots for his student, the politician has earned the privilege of doing as he pleases) when in fact the issues are buried somewhere else entirely. I don't know what, if anything, fiction can do to help our culture recover its sanity, health, and beauty. I do think we owe it to the Muse to keep framing the issues we see, and not those the powers that be want us to see.
Since publishing Leaving the Neighborhood, I've published my fifth novel, Nerves of the Heart, which looks at a family in stress. The plot of the book revolves around a nine-year-old heart transplant recipient and the mother of the girl whose death provided him with a heart. But the subtext of the book is all about the metaphoric workings of the heart, the way it pulls at us and insists on its way regardless of what makes "sense." The book was a finalist in the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel and was published by the University of Tennessee Press in 2002. Since then I have completed a new novel manuscript, "That Night at the Café," set in the south of France and featuring a group of would-be poets whose lives change after a death. I am also working on a memoir of the early 1970s.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Ferriss has degrees from Pomona College, San Francisco State University, and Tufts University. She has worked in both trade and literary publishing, and has taught literature and creative writing in prep schools, colleges, and universities. Ferriss currently teaches at Trinity College and lives in West Hartford, Connecticut, with her sons.
Ferriss has been publishing fiction, poetry, and literary criticism for many years. In addition to her five novels and collection of short fiction, she has published one work of literary criticism: Sleeping with the Boss: Female Subjectivity and Narrative Pattern in Robert Penn Warren, (LSU Press, 1997), and dozens of published short stories, poems, articles, essays, and book reviews.