Jonathan Franzen interview October 2010

'Close Up' Interview

This onstage interview with celebrated American novelist Jonathan Franzen was conducted by Dave Haslam on 3rd October 2010 at the Whitworth Art Gallery at a ‘Close Up’ event. The interview was preceded by Franzen reading a section about Joey in ‘Freedom’ and was followed by a twenty minute Q&A with the audience. Students, journalists etc; please acknowledge the source ( of any quotes taken from here.

‘Freedom’, the new novel, over the last couple of months has received so much attention and so much debate; were you expecting that and were you prepared for that?

No, you can’t ever allow yourself to expect something like that. I thought I was going to have to hand-sell the book! But at a certain point it became clear that editors in New York were liking the book a lot and that pieces were getting assigned that would give it a lot of prominence so it wasn’t a total surprise therefore. What was, “expecting”? What was the other…?

And were you prepared?

Much better prepared than I was with the last novel I published, that’s for sure. I had no clue of how to comport myself in public, having never been asked to do so before ‘The Corrections’ but now I have a little bit better notion.
It’s odd because we expect a writer and assume a writer is quite a solitary person and yet there’s also got to be this other part of you which has to be sociable and media-friendly. It’s not really a combination which would ever come naturally to someone, surely?

Um, I never minded public speaking, so that made it somewhat easier, and also I’ve thought more carefully and abstractly about the situation of the novel in the culture than most people have, so I’ve actually worked through a lot stuff in my head, and actually have some answers and also a body of work which will lead us away the story of the book which I hate to do. But there’s no question that the contrast between last year, which was probably the most solitary year of my life – although it was shared solitude with the woman I live with, and my good friends – during which I felt in this wonderfully deep silent routine, nd this is just so much the contrast to it, it feels helpfully unreal.

Are you having an unreal experience, even as…?

Even as we speak, yes. It’s a little bit of an out-of-body thing…

When ‘Time’ proclaimed ‘Great American Novelist’, on the one hand must have been thrilling but it’s now become a stick for people to beat you with hasn’t it?

Yeah, but God bless them for putting that phrase on the cover. There’s no reason to pity me for basically anything at this point; even if I were to contract the worst possible disease tomorrow, I still would have had a lot of good things happen, but it’s no fun to land in a country with that phrase having gone ahead of you. Because there’s really nowhere to go but down! You can only disappoint! And I wanted to say “It’s just a novel, it’s just a book. Try to enjoy it, hope you like it”. (pause) So I apologise…(audience laughs)

The book people at ‘Time’ had not been able to get a fiction writer on the cover for ten years, they really needed to make the strongest possible case and that was almost a message to the Editor-in-Chief that phrase I think.

So what you’re saying is that they can’t put a novelist on the cover and say ‘Pretty Good Author’ on it…

(laughs) And we’ll have another one in three weeks…

Also one of the pressures might be – I don’t know whether this is a new thing – but people expect writers to be nice and personable. Thomas Hardy, who notoriously locked his wife in a cupboard didn’t have to deal with instant public gossip going round the world, you know, saying I saw that person there, doing this or that and really he isn’t as nice as he appears, and I guess that isn’t the kind of pressure you imagined when you set out to become a writer.

Yeah, occasionally one gets irritable and even snaps a little bit and you can feel it going straight to a blog. On the other hand, the size of the audience makes possible certain things, and media are good; if you’re lucky enough to get on the right side of it, you can actually get out there with ideas – certainly about the novel and maybe even about other things – that ordinarily would struggle to find their way into some sort of mainstream consciousness. And fortunately I am a polite and nice person, and…

You’re not faking it…

That was a question that Dave Wallace wrestled with constantly, and I wrestle with sometimes but, no, why I would be faking a sort of disadvantageous niceness I don’t know.

In ‘The Corrections’ and ‘Freedom’ I’ve picked up how people get confused about your authorial voice because you like to echo the characters, there’s an echo of what they’re thinking, you write from within the characters, get inside them. For example when you were reading just now Joey talking about 9/11, clearly those aren’t your views, but having those multiple viewpoints means you’re in a way quite hard to pin-down. Do you feel that, and is that part of what you’re aiming for?

No, it’s not an attempt to avoid being pinned down because I also do a fair amount of non-fiction and journalism and I welcome being pinned down. I myself have multiple views of almost any issue and I write because of those contradictions in myself and those conflicts in myself and those ambivalences. To me that’s one of the great opportunities that the novel affords; to give full life to irreconcilable contraries and yoke them together as they are yoked together in this unitary body of mine.

For a male writer does writing a female character present a particular challenge?

It’s particularly fraught with risk. I can hardly imagine a harsher, quicker-to-condemn reader of other mens’ female characters than myself. The creepiness factor I think I’m very sensitive to, and also very very sensitive if I feel that a male writer is selling me not a plausibly real woman but somebody who’s a little too good or even a lot too good to be true. There’s a part of me that has an easy time spilling out the pages of about a female character finds myself drawn to embodying my own feelings and experiences in a female character; there’s another part of me saying “What’s wrong with you, why do need a woman why can’t you find a male character for that sort of thing?” and before long I have this crippling sense of shame and masculine failure. So; it comes out easily but all the censoring that follows is unpleasant.

In ‘Freedom’ there’s a large section that’s written by Patty Berglund…

Joey’s mother…

She’s been invited by her therapist to write it all down basically…

So she claims.

Given that she’s writing that section, did you at any point think that the actual texture of the writing should be a lot different to the texture of the writing in the rest of the novel?

Well, yes and no. My oldest brother, Bob, is a writer, and after ‘The Corrections’ got a lot of attention he wrote his own novel and he’s also at work on his own memoir and he periodically sends out these blistering assaults – Hitchensian assaults – on organized religion, and he has a tradition of vitriolic misanthropic Christmas letters. Actually in the DNA of the syntax and the prose there is a family relation, although obviously, I’m a more practiced writer, I do it for a living and I’ve been doing for thirty years. This is by way of saying, that of course there are resemblances between Patty’s voice and the free third person voice which her husband’s and her son’s chapters are narrated but I decided not to worry too much about that. There are some things that she does and only she does. And it’s to be understood as a first person autobiography that happens to be written in the third person, and there’s a kind of arch thing which she’s doing with that third person which I think is her own thing and not reflected in the other sections. But the fact that it’s probably still a flaw, I’m completely, like, cool with.

I’m not saying its a flaw, of course…

(laughs) I react defensively as though that it was understood that it were…

Sometimes when minor characters appear I feel there’s quite a lot of glee in your writing. For example, I’m a big fan of Doug in ‘The Corrections’, Eden’s husband…

Yes! Oh, Doug…

He fleetingly appears. I was wondering when you have a minor character who fleetingly appears do you actually also have stuff about that character that you know, but we don’t know about that character. Is there a whole history that you know about Doug that we never get to find out?

More likely I know the person who Doug is based on, so I do know a lot! (audience laughs)

Doug takes part in that bit when Chip is wandering round the foodstore with a piece of salmon hidden down the front of his trousers…

Yes, he’s the last person in the world that Chip is in his own masculinity-compromised state wants to encounter in that foodstore, yes.

Doug has I think quite an endearing thirst for intellectual companionship which goes into full effect when he sees Chip for some reason.

Yes, it’s possible I know a person like that, or even maybe two.

So what happens to Doug after that?

Well, you know…(pause) There wasn’t much more about Doug, but Eden Procuro actually was trying to become major character in the novel that didn’t get written and was still sticking around in chunks of that unwritable book and tried to make the basis of this one. But I don’t know what happens to Doug. I think he, er, I’m sorry…

Can he have a happy ending?

I think so, I think he coaches Little League.

What I like in your novels is the challenge to the reader, you kind of ask us to suspend our judgement on the characters. Is there a schematic thing that you work out in terms of, if for example you’re being even a bit nasty to one of the characters or torturing them slightly do you then tend to leven that -if ‘leven’ is a word – with a bit of compassion. How does that work?

I try to set up characters who I find essentially lovable in order that I can inflict unbearable situations on them page after page and sometimes it’s easy. I did like Patty all along because she reminded me of a lot of women approximately her age who I know both in the US and one or two over here too, and I just really liked her, so to give her a hard time… especially as basically as the narrator of her own story, the one giving herself the hard time.

The hard one was Joey because I could never stand the kid, I really, really disliked him; envied him for so unselfconsciously going after the main chance. He’s one of these super well-adjusted, pretty high performing kids from an urban gentry family who snickers at his parent’s liberalism and is on his way to one of those horrid financial jobs that’s going to make him worth a hundred million when he’s thirty. What’s to like about that? (audience laughs) Sorry if there are any people who made a fortune selling repackaged mortgages in the room.

You really torture him when you send him to Paraguay…

I feel like the torture begins almost immediately! Just dealing with this girlfriend he can’t shake at the bus station and then getting a call from her mother which is totally realistic. It happens nowadays in the US. I read that section at Amazon headquarters in Seattle and one of the Amazon employees “I just broke up with my girlfriend and her mother keeps calling me”. There are many, many reasons I’m glad I was born when I was and not thirty years later but that’s another item on the list. So to get to the point where I actually liked him enough and identified enough so that it didn’t seem unforgivable authorial savagery to inflict these things on him, a lot of work went into that, a lot of invisible work.

In ‘The Discomfort Zone’ – which is obviously a very partial memoir – you talk about your adolescence, and I wondered how much of your adolescence do you feel like you still carry with you now?

Suddenly much less, suddenly much less. (pause) I had made a vow going into promoting this book that I was not going to talk about the title but that’s a good question and it makes me want to point…(pause, picks up a copy of ‘Freedom’) I’m going to Germany on Wednesday and you can just imagine how the interviews will start, “Was ist ‘freiheit’?”, “What is ‘freedom’?”, and I will spend the next fifteen minutes trying to extricate myself from the concept of ‘freedom’; which I could not care less about. But since we’re all friends here, I will mention that I think the reason I slapped the word on the book proposal I sold three years ago without any clear idea of what kind of book it was going to be is that I wanted to write a book that would free me in some way.

And I will say this about the abstract concept of ‘freedom’; it’s possible you are freer if you accept what you are and just get on with being the person you are, than if you maintain this kind of uncommitted I’m free-to-be-this, free-to-be-that, faux freedom.

I suddenly woke up in the middle of an interview with National Public Radio in New York and realised it was a long time since I last felt like an adolescent. Not that long; I mean like two years or something. I am 51, so I probably last felt wholeheartedly like an adolescent when I walked down the street when I was 49. But it’s now occurring to me that that was part of the freedom I was after.

Another reason why I can’t even really be affected by all the attention it’s getting is that it seems to me such an absurdly private book, I literally did spend seven years taking three or four months a year to do what if I’d been doing what if I’d been doing another person would have been therapy thinking about things, trying to get position where I could find a way, find the characters, to write what I was about. You see the ‘Time’ magazine thing (picks up book again and holds up a bunch of pages); this much of the book is about this weird relationship one of the characters has with her stalkerish friend from college, it feels so unimportant but it’s important to me, I couldn’t get it out of the book, it felt like it had to be there. It’s just uncanny that this thing that I was so personally involved with now has this life of its own.

Although it’s a private book you’re ambitious enough to engage with the big world, the political world…

As a person I’m so pissed off about so many things, and grieving about so many things, I do engage, yeah.

In Europe we have our own problems of course, but when we look at America, I think many of us are quite scared/confused about political discourse in America, which seems very polarised and there’s a lot of heat but not much light, and I’m wondering if the novel is particularly useful as a way of delving into things over a long period of time which helps us to understand the American mindset in a way that that kind of political discourse fails to do?

I was trying to account for the rage of both the Left and the Right in the early years of the second Bush administration. I did consciously engage with that in this book, and several of the characters are very angry. And I do, in the book, hazard a few theories of why Americans have become so bad at governing themselves, and have become so angry. Everybody is just pissed off in the country in the US. We on the Left had a little bit of a respite from it as a few things got done and we had momentary control of two of the three branches of Government, but it’s like watching the elephant that instead of going off to die in the place where elephants die secretly, has gotten hydrophobic and is charging around goring everything with its tusks, and it’s a bad scene over there and maybe there’s a little light shed on that mindset here, I hope so. I don’t really think I will solve anything, but perhaps for an outsider – somebody not living in the country – you get a little of the flavour.

Should we be soon turning things over…?

I have one more question, which is just to ask you what attracted to English post-punk music when you were younger? We’re in Manchester and so I feel duty-bound ask you that question.

Oh, just that it’s so good! I came of age at the right time to connect not with the post-punk but the plain old British punk; that was the music on the radio all the time when I was college, and not just the big names but the Fabulous Poodles and whatever. If it had a UK label on it, it was like “Put it on, put the album on, drop the needle until we find the track we need to play”. But also I feel like English musicians – broad generalization, some notable exceptions – have a pretty good sense of humour, so the kind of sense of fatalism and tragic/comic sensibility that I look for in literature seems to be in a lot of the music that comes out of some of these declining English cities.

Correct answer! (audience laughs)

We’ll turn it over if there are any questions from the floor, if there’s not, well, we’ll just go on talking…

++++ questions from the audience ++++