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The Novel, 'The Vixen,' Explores The Moral Ambiguity Of 1950s America

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The writer Francine Prose teaches literature at Bard College, and one of her classes is about totalitarianism. In her latest novel, "The Vixen," she explores the moral ambiguity of 1950s America, the height of McCarthyism. Her book is loosely based on Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the suspected spies for Russia who were executed in 1953. Turns out, Francine Prose has a real-life family connection to the Rosenbergs.

FRANCINE PROSE: My mother went to high school with Ethel Rosenberg, Seward Park High School on the Lower East Side. And she and her friends, all of whom lived to be quite old, remembered Ethel and knew her. And so even though my mother's politics were quite different from Ethel's, her execution was a tragedy in our family. So - and I remember I was 7 at the time, I think. But I remember how powerful it was, and it always stayed with me. And also I wanted to write about public executions of people whose guilt had not been entirely proven. So that all came together writing about the Rosenbergs.

PFEIFFER: And there do seem to be parallels to today in terms of how people can interpret or determine their own truth, that it's sometimes hard to agree on what just happened, and do we agree that this person is guilty? Were there intentional modern-day parallels there?

PROSE: Well, yeah. I mean, they're terrifying, modern-day parallels. When I was writing about the Cold War era, it seemed to me so clear that so many of the things or the ways that people thought and behaved then had come back to haunt us.

PFEIFFER: How much license do you think authors can take in fictionalizing history?

PROSE: Well, one of the things that haunted me and haunts my narrator Simon all the way through the novel are the last words that Ethel Rosenberg sent to her lawyer. And he read them during the TV coverage of the execution. And Ethel said in her letter, you will see that our name will be kept bright and unsullied by lies. And it's such a beautiful line. It's such a beautiful line. And that was the line that, as I said, haunts my character and haunted me, that even though my character, Simon, is assigned to edit this cheesy, lurid potboiler written for various reasons or based on the Rosenberg case, even though I was writing that, I was trying to stay very clear about the truth and the ways in which the truth had been distorted for reasons that had nothing to do with the truth.

PFEIFFER: Yeah, and your - this - the lead character, Simon, feels this obligation not to be part of what he sees as desecrating the memory of this woman.

PROSE: Yeah. He's been raised in a certain way. He has ideals. He has a conscience, although it's a little slippery. And all those things, his conscience and his ideals are being constantly weighed against his ambition and his fear of getting fired if he stands up to something he knows is wrong. So it's partly about coming of age and partly about being a whistleblower and the risks and dangers and courage that that requires.

PFEIFFER: You mentioned coming of age, and this is also a classic coming-of-age story and reflections on that process of change. You have a character who wants to shed where he came from, Coney Island, and - but then he's not sure how to fit in to his new surroundings. And he later worries he shed too much of where he came from, and then he longs to go back. Does that reflect your life in any way? Or what were you trying to convey there?

PROSE: Well, a couple of things. I mean, that was it was much more my parents' life than mine. But beyond that, one of the things that Simon's going through - I've always been interested in the question of how someone develops a conscience. I think it's in so much literature that we care about how you decide what's the right thing to do or how to live in the world or how to be a human being. And I was interested in finding a kind of light, not heavy but seriously political way of tracking that process in my character.

PFEIFFER: Was that fun for you to write the cheesy novel portions, the novel that everyone was making fun of? Did you have fun doing that?

PROSE: It was heaven, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: (Laughter).

PROSE: I mean, it was heaven. As I say, writing badly on purpose is so much fun. Writing badly accidentally or because you can't do anything else or because you're having a bad day or because that's what you think you do - no fun. But when you sit down to say, I'm going to write something really terrible today, it's just pure joy.

PFEIFFER: There's a lot of funny but harsh commentary on the world of authors and writers and publishing, even more interesting because it comes from you, someone who's a prolific writer. You get into the insecurities of writers, authors and their fragile egos, you know, how embarrassingly vulnerable they are to flattery, even insincere flattery. How much does that reflect your own life in publishing?

PROSE: (Laughter) Well, a lot, of course, I mean, especially the vulnerability and the response to insincere flattery. But beyond that, I think I was writing about it a partly vanished world, a kind of old-school publishing that I knew. My first novel came out in 1973. So publishing was still in the '50s in a certain way. I mean, it was still very "Mad Men." There were still the three-martini lunches. There really were. So the scene in the novel in which Simon gets drunk and falls over at lunch with his uncle actually happened to me at my lunch with my first editor.

PFEIFFER: Oh, really? You were the one who couldn't stand straight after multiple drinks at lunch.

PROSE: I was the one who couldn't stand straight. That - c'est moi.

(LAUGHTER)

PROSE: Yeah, c'est moi. So - and the ways in which those guys felt free to make jokes about women's breasts and and it was OK to sleep with all the young women at the office and - it was very "Mad Men." So that was part of what I wanted to talk about, I mean, a world that's changing partly for the good.

PFEIFFER: You have written so much for so long, but for an outsider looking in, it looks almost effortless.

PROSE: (Laughter) Effortless? No, it's really hard. It's really, really hard. In every way, it's hard. And in a way, I think you want it to be hard. You want the challenge of doing something that's harder than whatever you've done before. But at the same time, there are moments of great pleasure and fun. And I think unless you have those moments where you're just - where everything else goes away, where you're enjoying, for example, writing the bad novel within the novel or listening to this character rant about his glorious past, that makes it worth it. And the difficulty - the memory of the difficulty or the sense of the difficulty, it just kind of fades away, if only for a few moments.

PFEIFFER: Francine Prose is the author of "The Vixen." Thanks so much for talking about this.

PROSE: Thank you, Sacha.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANKO'S "OPALE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.