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Francine Prose's 'Mister Monkey' Novel Inspired By Her Granddaughter's Cheeky Comment


Francine Prose's his new novel is the backstage story of a threadbare musical made from a shopworn children's book that's performed by a ragged group of actors in a remote-from-Broadway theater that will soon be rubble below condos beneath Manhattan's High Line. What's not to love? "Mr. Monkey" is the new book by Francine Prose, who's the author of 21 novels, including a scad of bestsellers. She's the former president of the PEN American Center and a distinguished visiting writer at Bard College and joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

FRANCINE PROSE: Thanks for having me on the show.

SIMON: A remark from your grandchild inspired this story?

PROSE: (Laughter) Yeah. I took my granddaughter, who's nine at the time, but she was about four or five, to a play that was very much like "Mr. Monkey," but it wasn't "Mr. Monkey." And it was a children's musical, and it was way off Broadway. And it was supposed to be bright and funny and raucous and delightful. And I kept thinking it was kind of tragic because the budget was so low that the actors' costumes were falling apart, and the lighting director couldn't find the actors. And I think even my granddaughter sensed that something complicated was going on.

SIMON: Everyone's a critic, aren't they?

PROSE: Everyone's a critic. So at some point in the play, my granddaughter said, in what she thought was a very noisy, loud moment in the play - she said, Grandma, are you interested in this?

SIMON: (Laughter).

PROSE: And - yeah. And it turned out to be a completely silent moment in the theater, and everyone heard it. The actors clearly heard it. And my granddaughter was horrified. Even she knew. And I said very loud, yes, I am. So then I had to write the novel so I wouldn't have been lying to her.

SIMON: At the center of much of the story is Margot. Yale School of Drama grad, just like Meryl Streep, I guess.

PROSE: (Laughter) Not exactly.

SIMON: Well, I mean, the Yale part.

PROSE: (Laughter) Right.

SIMON: And she plays Portia (laughter). But Mr. Monkey's Portia, not Shakespeare's - Mr. Monkey's lawyer. What does this play mean to - you mean to Margot in her life - at this point in her life?

PROSE: Well, Margot is really kind of amazed to find herself playing Portia since she had dreams. I mean, she was the star of her Yale Drama School class, and her dreams were of playing Chekhov. She was played Sonya in the in her school production of "Uncle Vanya." And now somehow the mysterious thing has happened, which is decades have gone by, and she's playing Portia McBailey (ph), who is defending a monkey from charges of petty larceny.

SIMON: A monkey played by a boy in a monkey suit, which is actually a chenille bedspread, right?

PROSE: Yeah, it's a brown chenille bedspread. I mean, that's how low the budget. The heroic costume director, Lakshmi, has had to make a costume out of it - out of a bedspread that she got at Goodwill.

SIMON: Could I ask you to read a section?

PROSE: Sure.

SIMON: It's on page 7. I think it's the second full paragraph. The one that begins - they are in this together.

PROSE: Sure.

(Reading) They are in this together. Everyone is happy to be here and disappointed to be here, glad to have a part in a play, glad to work for scale, but truthfully not all that overjoyed to be working in an off-off-off-off-Broadway production of "Mr. Monkey," the umpteenth revival of a cheesy-but-mysteriously-adorable musical based on the children's classic novel. The actors and the stagehands behave as if they've taken the blood oath not to complain, except for 12-year-old Adam, who whines because his monkey suit smells, and he can't breathe. Only the interns are cheerful, as are Jason (ph) and Danielle (ph), who have taken a break from their drama class to play the Jimson (ph) kids. By the end of the play, their widowed father, Mr. Jimson, marries Portia the lawyer, played by Margot. Jason and Danielle have no idea that "Mr. Monkey," the musical, is not the beginning of something, but rather the middle. Margot hopes it's the middle of something, that something being the bewildering stall in which Margot's life is circling.

SIMON: Has Margot, this creature of the theater, stopped hoping for greatness?

PROSE: (Laughter) No. She still thinks that something could turn around.

SIMON: Yeah.

PROSE: I mean, all the characters in the novel have reached a point at which - or many of them - at which things aren't going exactly the way they planned. But I didn't know what I was doing when I wrote this novel. I really had no idea where it was going. But what kept shocking me as I wrote it was that everybody's life was turning out kind of better than they had imagined - or, frankly, that I had imagined. So it never occurred to me that this book would have a kind of hopeful, redemptive, happy ending, but that's where it turned out it was going.

SIMON: Was it fun to come up with the story of "Mr. Monkey" - scenes and occasional lines?

PROSE: (Laughter) Yeah. I mean, I had to write in my head. I could tell you, you know, songs from this musical that never made it onto the page. But I had to write in my head the whole musical. And also, my worst fear was that someone - one of the actors from the actual play - some of them might recognize themselves in the novel.

SIMON: Oh, yeah.

PROSE: So I had to change it so completely that no one would ever know what I'd based it on.

SIMON: Francine, what kind of people wind up in the theater?

PROSE: People who like being other people, I think, which is something that they have in common with novelists. And, also, I think actors are very observant. I know a few actors. I don't know very many. But one of the things that I'm fascinated by is the way they watch people in the same way writers do, picking up little gestures or little - the way they walk or the way they talk, hoping that they can use those things in - when they're called on to play a certain part. And writers do the same thing. I mean, writers are watching to see how people behave and so forth.

SIMON: Yeah. Question for you, as the former president of the PEN American Center - is it going to be possible in the future for someone to make a life as a writer when there's so much free stuff out there?

PROSE: (Laughter) I hope so. I hope so. I mean, I think it'll be easier. I mean, what happens to writers is not as bad as what happens to musicians with Spotify. And so for them, it's - you still have to pay something. But people still obviously think that that's possible. I mean, MFA programs are full of young people wanting to be writers. I keep meeting kids who want to be writers, so - and it's all - it's very - it makes me very hopeful. I mean, there's some - somebody's out there still reading, and somebody's still out there wanting to write. So, you know, the novelist Richard Price had said something like the novel will be around at our funeral, so I assume that's true.

SIMON: Francine Prose - her novel "Mr. Monkey" - thanks so much for being with us.

PROSE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.