Overthink This: Your World Just Came Out in Hardcover

Q&A: Joshua Ferris, Author of 'Then We Came to the End'

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The book I've been recommending to everyone lately is a brilliant first novel titled "Then We Came to the End" by a young New York writer named Joshua Ferris. It's an often hilarious, vivid, oddly touching story about office culture -- anybody who's ever worked in an office with the usual complement of dysfunctional coworkers and managers will be able to relate -- but it's of particular interest to those of us who work in media and advertising.
Joshua Ferris
Joshua Ferris Credit: Kelly Campbell

The story is set in a Chicago advertising agency immediately after the dot-com bust, and the insight Ferris has into advertising-agency culture in particular is just delicious. His take on how neurotic "creatives" spend their days is spot-on, as is his take on the politics behind how certain ideas for campaigns do or don't advance internally.

Just published last week, "End" already has been sold to eight foreign markets, including England, Spain, Germany, and Russia. Ferris, who got an M.F.A. from the University of California at Irvine, also spent some time in the trenches of -- you guessed it -- the advertising industry. (Over the course of three years he worked at Davis-Harrison-Dion and Draft Worldwide, both in Chicago.)

He graciously agreed to let me grill him on how his adman past affected his present as a novelist.

For me, one of the most shockingly funny passages in your book comes within the first 25 pages: When one office worker's little girl goes missing and her colleagues volunteer to create a "missing" flier -- and then the group of them overthink it. They can't help but color-correct her image because the snapshot is sort of washed out, so then they also play up her hair and freckles, and then they obsess about the kerning on the "$10,000 REWARD" type, and even consider doing a little Photoshop work on her teeth. When you worked in advertising, how much of an overthinker were you?

Most of the time I was doing pretty copy-heavy projects -- newsletters, brochures. I'd start overthinking only when it came to concepting. Then I'd get very elaborate with my visuals and ornate with my headlines. I'd turn a half-page print ad into an eight-fold pop-up with a linticular and a music-chip insert. By that time someone would have emerged from an office with a very pithy, very entertaining six-word sentence, to be accompanied by an image as simple as a clown's face, and it would say everything the client requested in a perfectly clever way. I'd return sheepishly to my office with my origami.

Do you remember the first line of ad copy you wrote?

My first copy was for a brochure marketing a feed additive for poultry. They needed about 300 words to describe why this additive would make chickens grow faster. I presented them with an 80-page scientific dissertation with pie charts and cross-references. The lesson I learned thereafter was that I was writing for something called an audience. It was a major revelation, and it had impact not only on my copywriting but on how I understood writing in general, fiction included.
The novel is set in a Chicago advertising agency immediately after the dot-com bust.
The novel is set in a Chicago advertising agency immediately after the dot-com bust.

Another great thing about your book is that it gives the reader a bird's-eye view of an advertising agency as a sort of self-contained information economy where absolutely everything, the entire emotional life of the office, hinges on the flow, or lack of flow. Like, one of my favorite lines in the book is: "We never disliked Joe more than when he had information that we had, too, which he refused to tell us" -- a distillation of one of the major reasons why the office drones resent a particularly aloof, withholding middle-manager. When you were in the thick of it, did you come to these sorts of realizations about character? Or did you have to get distance from it before you really figured out why you hated and/or loved certain kinds of personalities?

Both -- I observed them at the time, I needed distance to write about them.

In advertising or the law or in medicine or at Wendy's, one is always grappling with the surrounding personalities. They do fit certain types, and you can recognize those types from way back, which is why politics and office life are both so often compared to high school. I believe that by high school we've made certain boilerplates for certain people ... and thereafter we use mental shorthand to define and explain.

I also believe, however, that this mental shorthand is very frequently wrong and lazy and hurtful. We think we know [our colleagues] by the clothes they wear, the music they listen to, their work product. But at night, one of them might go home to three wives. Another might be trying to cope with a dying father. A third, the one who makes lewd comments, might be considering divinity school.

In the end, did you have to get out?

Yes, I had to get out. But I also I saw the camaraderie, the professional fulfillment, the paycheck necessities, and I realized that for every one-part demoralizing, an office job provides one-part satisfaction. I wanted that ambiguity, that love-hate affair we have with work and the office, to be the narrator's disposition in "Then We Came to the End."

Have your former co-workers been reading the book? How are they reacting to it?

A few have. But not everyone. I haven't had any death threats yet.

~ ~ ~ E-mail: sdumenco@crain.com
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