The novel is, in part, about the exploitation of the Rosenbergs, who were executed in 1953 for espionage, accused of spying for Russia as it tried to build itself an atomic bomb. (Prose said she often returns to how “historical tragedy has been turned into kitsch.”) The book itself, however, is respectful of them.
“It is the most difficult tone to write,” said John Guare, a playwright, screenwriter and friend of Prose’s. “It’s a comic novel involving the Rosenbergs. How she maintains that tone, but it never veers into grotesquerie — you can’t imagine how technically difficult that is. And it doesn’t show.”
Prose describes herself as an “obscenely hard worker” but said her productivity is also a credit to her husband, Howie Michels. At the end of their first date in 1976, Michels, along with a Husky named Serge, moved into the SoHo loft Prose was sharing with six other people. They’ve rarely been apart since.
Prose said they split the child care when their two sons, Bruno and Leon Michels, were growing up, but Michels, a painter by trade, does “everything else.” Once during a phone call, he used “Leonard Woolf” — the name of Virginia Woolf’s famously nurturing husband — as a verb. Michels said he’d spent a lot of time “Leonard Woolfing” his wife that day. He even chauffeurs her in their Volvo station wagon, since Prose, like many native New Yorkers, avoids driving.
When their sons were young, the family would move from place to place so that Prose could teach writing because, she said, “teaching would take up less time than worrying about money.”
Today, she teaches literature at Bard College, offering classes like “Ecstasy, Obsession and Oblivion” and “Totalitarianism in Literature,” and at the Eastern Correctional Facility through the Bard Prison Initiative. She and Michels live in Ulster County, about 35 minutes away from Bard, in a house stuffed with art and books. They are both obsessive gardeners, Prose said, locked in an ongoing battle with the local chipmunks. She spends about three hours a day tending cucumbers and tomatoes, pear and apple trees. She got carpal tunnel syndrome last year from shelling peas.
Michels is also Prose’s first reader — no small job, as she can easily go through 40 or 50 drafts of a novel.