Jonathan Franzen Interview
First published in The Sunday Business Post, Ireland, circa Sept 2010
Words: Nadine O’Regan
At a party in London last week, a pair of glasses was stolen. These were not just any glasses. These spectacles were ripped from the nose of one Jonathan Franzen, aka the author of The Corrections and Freedom, aka the most significant figure in the literary world right now. A ransom note was found for £100,000. The prankster/culprit and the glasses were apprehended with the help of a police helicopter.
The act was only the most recent indication of how big a star Franzen has become. There are others: Barack Obama is reading his new novel, Freedom; Time magazine put him on its cover — with the heading `Great American novelist’ — the first living writer to achieve the honour in ten years; and, after a spat that attracted global attention in 2001, Oprah Winfrey loves him again. Furthermore, the reviews of his new novel, Freedom, would make even his most garlanded contemporaries weep blood tears of envy. There’s a new term for it: Franzenfreude.
It’s not often that a novelist makes you feel like there’s a rockstar in the room. But as Franzen walks into the boardroom of the Royal Marine Hotel in Dun Laoghaire for this interview, it’s impossible not to feel a little nerdy thrill, along with that sense of impossibility that he’s actually here — it’s like someone more seen on television than in real life has just stepped out of the box and into your living room.
I’ve interviewed Franzen once before, in 2001, and the author looks just the same as he did then: tall, good-looking in a geek-chic way, with hair that’s flecked a distinguished grey.
“How have the past nine years been?” Franzen says, chivalrously introducing himself by gamely claiming to recall our first interview. Is he ready for me to turn on my dictaphone? I wonder. “I’ve assumed the position,” Franzen says, with a weary smile.
It’s 9.45am on a Saturday morning. Franzen is tired, having failed to sleep well the night before. Last night, he made the mistake of watching the edition of Newsnight that he’d filmed with Kirsty Wark.
Franzen doesn’t usually read or watch anything connected to himself, but this was different. During the reading he did for Newsnight from the UK edition of Freedom, Franzen discovered that a word in the book — Cyprus — was spelt incorrectly. A horrified Franzen read on to realise that an old, mistake-laden edition of his book had been printed in the UK and Ireland.
“It was unfortunate timing,” Franzen says drily, of his almost reality show-like discovery of the mistake. If you’re a Franzen fan, you know the rest of the sorry story by now. In the past week or so, 80,000 editions of the novel have had to be withdrawn, with readers offered free swap-overs to the new edition, if they’ve already bought the book.
The PR people accompanying Franzen here today wince when you mention it — apart from the huge level of public embarrassment it has caused, the cost to the publisher, Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins, has been estimated to be around £100,000.
“The Corrections, part two, eh?” as one friend quipped.
Franzen himself has been remarkably calm about events.
“It’s a sad situation,” he says. “But it’s not like I’ve been throwing chairs across the room or anything. It was a typesetting error more than a printing error. It was a matter of an old file being used instead of the final file. The differences are significant enough that it’s embarrassing. In the final version, there are 100 changes in the order of sentences that I think make it a better book.
“Regarding the characterisation, it’s minor stuff. When I went through the galleys, the Berglunds’ daughter, Jessica, came across to me as needlessly shrill, so there are perhaps half a dozen places where I took the edge off her shrillness. There’s an Indian American woman, Lalitha. She is described as being extremely attractive and that’s dialled back.”
In fairness to the poor typesetter now probably trying to hang onto his or her job, Franzen knows all about the damage the slip of a moment can wreak. The last time we met, Franzen was recovering from the Oprah debacle — after his third novel The Corrections was announced as an Oprah book club choice, Franzen said Oprah sometimes picked “schmaltzy, one-dimensional” books for her book club, and an infuriated Oprah promptly rescinded the nomination.
“Elitist!” and “Pompous prick” were just some of the comments hurled at him by the public, who felt slighted on Oprah’s behalf — and their own.
At his public reading in Dun Laoghaire later that day, Franzen will be gregarious, witty and engaging. But one-on-one, having experienced the long-term, negative effect that his own remarks can create, he’s more withdrawn than he used to be. He looks down at his hands a lot. He gets caught up in endless sub-clauses. He talks in safe, careful terms.
He has a conflicted attitude to fame. As his character, rocker Richard Katz, says of fame in Freedom: “I would hate the absence of the thing, but I don’t like the thing itself, either.”
However, despite all he may have learnt about humility and graciousness in recent years, it’s hardly a stretch to say that Franzen continues to have a deep sense of entitlement as a writer. After he published his first two novels, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, Franzen wrote his famous Harper’s magazine essay, in which he discussed the problems faced by contemporary novelists — and the novel as a shrinking form.
In the essay, he argued in favour of elitism. Elitism, he says, represents “the efforts of the individual to secure a small space of privacy within the prevailing din”.
“All people should be elitists — and keep it to themselves,” Franzen wrote. Of course, elitism is also the first refuge of the insecure — and it’s safe to say that Franzen knows a lot about what it’s like to be an insecure, unsuccessful novelist — his first two novels made barely made a ripple in the world on their release.
When I interviewed author Bret Easton Ellis in 2005, we talked about how success can make a person nicer.
“Oh, I know,” Ellis said. “Jonathan Franzen used to be such a prick; so red-faced and furious all the time. Now he’s really nice.”
I quote the lines back at Franzen. After a bit of throat-clearing and harrumphing, Franzen gives a rueful grin.
“He’s right,” Franzen says. “Up until about three weeks after The Corrections was published, I was a bizarrely angry person. One of the changes even between The Corrections and Freedom that I made was just to get the anger out of the book. When I would occasionally open The Corrections while struggling with Freedom, I was struck frequently by the level of anger in the book — it no longer made any sense to me.
“There’s a kind of anger that comes from a feeling of deprivation, a feeling of not being known. And once you have success at the level of The Corrections, it’s simply no longer appropriate to walk around with that level of anger.”
If The Corrections made Franzen as a novelist, Freedom has cemented his reputation as one of the most important novelists of our time. Freedom is an enormodome of a novel: vast (nearly 600 pages), sprawling and impressive. The first couple of hundred pages, in particular, are astonishing: Franzen has a knack of writing down things about family life that you might have thought or felt, but never seen articulated so well in print.
As with The Corrections, Franzen is at his most extraordinary when talking about ordinary people. His evocation of the middle-class, mildly traumatised Berglund family is superb: vivid, imaginative and wholly immersive. Other sections of the novel — which deal with environmental subplots — are less engrossing. Franzen reaches for high-art concepts while seeming more comfortable — and actually more innovative — on the ground.
Still, you can understand the plaudits — and not just because of the novel’s quality. Right now the literary novel is in the doldrums, with falling sales and many established novelists failing to secure new publishing deals.
For many, Franzen has come to represent an entire movement — the argument in favour of depth, in favour of taking more time to learn, to consider, to become a more reflective, thinking person.
There’s a generalised sense of anxiety coming from many of the characters in Freedom. At one point, Patty Berglund says: “Just because a person isn’t making good use of her life, it doesn’t stop her life from passing. In fact, it makes her life pass all the quicker.”
Our capacity for infinite distraction is something which worries Franzen.
“There’s an interesting coincidence,” he says, “between the rise of an electronic culture that allows you to be distracted by the instant messages, the tweets, the ringing phones, the episode of the Office that you can watch in the airport lounge on your iPad, all of these things — and a certain tipping point in terms of energy and the environment, certainly in the United States.
“Just at the point when to think about what’s really happening to the world is unbearable, we suddenly have the means to distract ourselves all the time. We don’t have to be bad or good people, as long as we keep ourselves busy. The novel is part of what remains of that quieter, more reflective place.
“People have been all too ready to declare the novel dead. But it may be — and I say this only on my more wildly optimistic days — that the novel has a [chance] of becoming more attractive, rather than less. It’s been gratifying to see how well the book has done in the States and, in my more wildly optimistic moments, it makes me wonder if there isn’t a hunger for precisely that experience. And whether this digitalised, atomised culture may be making the novel more appealing rather than less.”
If it sounds an unlikely hope, Franzen is perhaps our best prospect for keeping the dream alive. You might scoff at how he does his writing — he’s famous for using headphones, blindfolds and any form of sensory deprivation necessary to achieve the requisite concentration — but it all points towards the seriousness of the endeavour for him.
Freedom is his first novel in nine years, but he spent only a little of that time — just over a year — writing. The rest was spent finding the tone, battling the depression that came from “digging deep” and taking endless notes.
Franzen works from a little bedsit he rents near his apartment on the Upper East Side in New York — it doesn’t have a TV, radio, telephone, the internet or even pictures on the walls. He doesn’t have children, but he considered it at one point, he said, because he thought the experience of having them might help his fiction. That’s how seriously he takes his work.
His live-in partner of ten years, Kathryn Chetkovich, once wrote about the experience of being Franzen’s girlfriend. When they first met at an artists’ colony, she confided in him about her parents’ troubles and asked him what she should be doing to help them.
“You have to do your work,” Franzen, then a struggling writer, told her. “That’s your first responsibility.”
In her essay, Chetkovich noted, “he meant, of course, my writing, and he spoke with a confidence I had never managed to feel. He may have been struggling, but he knew what his work was. That was the first thing I envied about him.”
That’s the thing other writers still envy about him. In the face of increased indifference towards the novel, Franzen continues to maintain that impressive sense of purpose.