Franzen On The Book, The Backlash, His Background

Jonathan Franzen i i

Jonathan Franzen is also the author of The Corrections: A Novel, and The Discomfort Zone, a memoir. He is pictured above at The New Yorker Festival Fiction Night in New York City in 2009. Joe Kohen/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Joe Kohen/Getty Images
Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen is also the author of The Corrections: A Novel, and The Discomfort Zone, a memoir. He is pictured above at The New Yorker Festival Fiction Night in New York City in 2009.

Joe Kohen/Getty Images

Jonathan Franzen's new epic novel Freedom is a portrait of a Midwestern suburban family — two parents and two children slowly losing track of each other and themselves. It has been called a "masterpiece of American fiction" by Time Magazine and "an indelible portrait of our times" by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times.

In an interview on Fresh Air, Franzen says one of the central themes of Freedom is how people change as they straddle the world between their childhood and grownup lives.

"The key part of becoming an adult is that adults relinquish a certain kind of freedom," he tells Terry Gross. "You can't lie on your bed all afternoon, and you can't be possibly any number of things. You have to only be one thing or a couple of things."

Franzen also discusses the massive publicity generated by Freedom in the weeks before publication. He says that up to six months ago, he imagined that the book would sell slowly and that people would purchase it via word of mouth or perhaps at small readings he would give around the country. But the recent publicity — and critical backlash from other authors — did something entirely different: It made his publishers "tear their hair out because the books were not in the stores," he says.

In recent weeks, Freedom has generated controversy in the culture-at-large, particularly among several female writers who have criticized the extensive attention showered on his book by critics.

"The little bit that has trickled back to me hasn't sounded particularly ad hominem," he says. "It seems like there's ... a feminist critique, and it's about the quality of attention that writing by women gets compared to the quality of attention by male writers. I actually have a lot of those feelings myself and have over the years."

And, he says, he didn't expect any sort of critical acclaim from his fourth novel, particularly after the success of The Corrections and the changing face of the publishing industry.

"Going into it, there was all the talk of the rise of the e-book and a general sense on the street — two years ago — where 'We really don't have to read novels anymore unless they're by Stieg Larsson.' I didn't know what to expect," he says. "So it's really fun to see that people are still looking for a book about what they're feeling now. ... The Corrections did well [critically] and you sort of tee yourself up on the batting tee to get knocked down [by critics]. And who doesn't enjoy doing that as a critic or as an assigning editor? It's fun. It's good sport. The fact that they haven't felt like doing that is nice and, I think, has driven a lot of the pre-publicity."

Jonathan Franzen won the National Book Award for his third novel, The Corrections, which was also a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He is also the author of the nonfiction books How to Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone.


Freedom
Freedom: A Novel
By Jonathan Franzen
Hardcover, 576 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List price: $28
Read An Excerpt

Interview Highlights

On how he got the idea for Freedom

"The phrase that popped into my mind was 'becoming one's own parent.' ... I recently passed the age that my father was when I first knew him as a person. Right around the time he was 50, I start having memories of him. So I find myself, without him around and without parents of my own, feeling like him, and also, since my parents died when I was relatively young, the kind of adult presence I had in my life that they provided, I've had to learn to provide myself. ...

"I wanted in this book to write about my parents' marriage and their parental experiences as I observed them ... but I didn't want to set it in the 50s, 60s [and] 70s. I wanted to set it in times contemporaneous with my own. So in that way, too, I turned my parents into people my age; into people I might be or I might know. And that was the real engine. It was something that came from inside."

On whether he feels like an adult

"Strangely, in the last couple of years, yes. I have come to feel like an adult."

[Gross asks what changed?]

"I wrote this book. I think it's occurring to me now. It's probably the biggest thing that changed. There was — the death of my friend David Wallace might have been a part of that, as well.... It wasn't enough to lose my parents. I still was the angry, rebellious teenager who occasionally stepped into the, you know, stern parental role and wrote somewhat forbidding essays about 'let's not be kids anymore. Let's try to write more adult fiction.' But in the main, as I walked down the street, I continued to feel at some level like I was, maybe not 16, but 23 — and that feeling has suddenly disappeared. And I'm noticing it now, because the last month has been kind of crazy with the pre-publicity and publicity for the book. And as I sit here this morning talking to you, I'm noticing I feel more like a single person, [rather than] a person divided between a teenager and an old man. I feel, actually, about 51, and it's shocking."

On how David Foster Wallace's suicide forced him to think about mortality and adulthood

"Death looks different when you see it in a parent or somebody of your parents' age than when you see it in a contemporary or a dear friend that's even a couple of years younger. It was a limited closeness but it was a very intense closeness we had as writer buddies, and it was played out mostly in biweekly telephone calls and I had the sense that I could pick up the phone, call him, and anything I was feeling — however strange — that had to do with the writing life or negotiating some position for one's self in the culture, all I had to do was start a sentence and he would finish the sentence and say, 'Yep.' And I would do the same for him. And to suddenly have that end and know it was never coming back and feel that as an irreparable loss — the world was no longer opening up ahead of me. I was the surviving person suddenly. ... Coinciding with turning 50 and feeling how fortunate I was to still be alive and how fortunate I was to still have the capacity to write, I think that had a lot to do with that sudden turn toward feeling my own age."

On the difficulty of writing a novel

"I don't want to be a performer. I less and less want to be a performer. And I can't seem to be a performer. If I'm just writing about something moderately interesting and using interesting, well-termed sentences, it just has no life. It has to come out of some issue that's still hot in me, something that's distressing me. And there are plenty of things to be distressed about and for a long time, I was able to get a lot of energy onto the page from certain kinds of political distress, environmentalist distress — even aesthetic distress. ... And that kind of anger has become less interesting to me because it seems like a younger man's game a little bit. ...

"You are still armored in your anger. Particularly in the new book, I tried to let go of that. I found myself letting go of that. [I] went to the deeper, more upsetting things, which were much harder to get onto the page but whose presence I could feel ... like some pool of magma beneath the crust. There is heat down there, if only I could find a way to tap into it."

On how the Mel Brooks lyric "Hope for the best / Expect the worst" is applicable to his life

"I don't even know if I was brought up with it. I certainly witnessed it with my father, and suddenly it began to be genetically expressed in me. I think about the time I finished college, which was the early Reagan years, when there was a dark nuclear shadow over everything. I didn't have to be taught. It didn't have to be modeled for me. It really was almost hard-wired."

On writing and depression

"I wanted to write long before I was in need of therapy. But having said that, much of the work on a novel for me consists in the kind of work you might do in a paid professional's office of trying to walk back from your stuck, conflicted, miserable place to a point of a little bit more distance, from which you can begin to fashion some meaningful narrative of how you got to the stuck place. And the stuck-ness, for the working novelist — or at least for this one — has to do with not wanting to get into certain intensely fraught or private experiences... [but] feeling that it's absolutely necessary to say things that are absolutely unsay-able.

"And I keep trying — I kept trying, through much of the last decade — to access these subjects, these dreamlike relations with important people from my past in direct ways.... So there was a lot of self-psychoanalysis, certainly, that goes into the work. And, along the way, becoming depressed — although it certainly feels lousy — comes to be a key and important symptom. It's a flag. And it's almost as if, when I start to crash, I know I'm getting somewhere because it's being pushed to a crisis."

Excerpt: 'Freedom'

Freedom
Freedom: A Novel
By Jonathan Franzen
Hardcover, 576 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List price: $28

The news about Walter Berglund wasn't picked up locally-he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now-but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times. According to a long and very unflattering story in the Times, Walter had made quite a mess of his professional life out there in the nation's capital. His old neighbors had some difficulty reconciling the quotes about him in the Times ("arrogant," "high-handed," "ethically compromised") with the generous, smiling, red-faced 3M employee they remembered pedaling his commuter bicycle up Summit Avenue in February snow; it seemed strange that Walter, who was greener than Greenpeace and whose own roots were rural, should be in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people. Then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.

Walter and Patty were the young pioneers of Ramsey Hill-the first college grads to buy a house on Barrier Street since the old heart of St. Paul had fallen on hard times three decades earlier. They paid nothing for their Victorian and then killed themselves for ten years renovating it. Early on, some very determined person torched their garage and twice broke into their car before they got the garage rebuilt. Sunburned bikers descended on the vacant lot across the alley to drink Schlitz and grill knockwurst and rev engines at small hours until Patty went outside in sweatclothes and said, "Hey, you guys, you know what?" Patty frightened nobody, but she'd been a standout athlete in high school and college and possessed a jock sort of fearlessness. From her first day in the neighborhood, she was helplessly conspicuous. Tall, ponytailed, absurdly young, pushing a stroller past stripped cars and broken beer bottles and barfed-upon old snow, she might have been carrying all the hours of her day in the string bags that hung from her stroller. Behind her you could see the baby-encumbered preparations for a morning of baby-encumbered errands; ahead of her, an afternoon of public radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint; and then Goodnight Moon, then zinfandel. She was already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street.

In the earliest years, when you could still drive a Volvo 240 without feeling self-conscious, the collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn, like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job, and how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousting a drunk from your lawn furniture, and how to encourage feral cats to shit in somebody else's children's sandbox, and how to determine whether a public school sucked too much to bother trying to fix it. There were also more contemporary questions, like, what about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts OK politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood? Was it true that the glaze of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead? How elaborate did a kitchen water filter actually need to be? Did your 240 sometimes not go into overdrive when you pushed the overdrive button? Was it better to offer panhandlers food, or nothing? Was it possible to raise unprecedentedly confident, happy, brilliant kids while working full-time? Could coffee beans be ground the night before you used them, or did this have to be done in the morning? Had anybody in the history of St. Paul ever had a positive experience with a roofer? What about a good Volvo mechanic? Did your 240 have that problem with the sticky parking-brake cable? And that enigmatically labeled dashboard switch that made such a satisfying Swedish click but seemed not to be connected to anything: what was that?

For all queries, Patty Berglund was a resource, a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen, an affable bee. She was one of the few stay-at-home moms in Ramsey Hill and was famously averse to speaking well of herself or ill of anybody else. She said she expected to be "beheaded" someday by one of the windows whose sash chains she'd replaced. Her children were "probably" dying of trichinosis from pork she'd undercooked. She wondered if her "addiction" to paint-stripper fumes might be related to her "never" reading books anymore. She confided that she'd been "forbidden" to fertilize Walter's flowers after what had happened "last time." There were people with whom her style of self-deprecation didn't sit well-who detected a kind of condescension in it, as if Patty, in exaggerating her own minor defects, were too obviously trying to spare the feelings of less accomplished homemakers. But most people found her humility sincere or at least amusing, and it was in any case hard to resist a woman whom your own children liked so much and who remembered not only their birthdays but yours, too, and came to your back door with a plate of cookies or a card or some lilies of the valley in a little thrift-store vase that she told you not to bother returning.

It was known that Patty had grown up back East, in a suburb of New York City, and had received one of the first women's full scholarships to play basketball at Minnesota, where, in her sophomore year, according to a plaque on the wall of Walter's home office, she'd made second-team all-American. One strange thing about Patty, given her strong family orientation, was that she had no discernible connection to her roots. Whole seasons passed without her setting foot outside St. Paul, and it wasn't clear that anybody from the East, not even her parents, had ever come out to visit. If you inquired point-blank about the parents, she would answer that the two of them did a lot of good things for a lot of people, her dad had a law practice in White Plains, her mom was a politician, yeah, a New York State assemblywoman. Then she would nod emphatically and say, "Yeah, so, that's what they do," as if the topic had been exhausted.

A game could be made of trying to get Patty to agree that somebody's behavior was "bad." When she was told that Seth and Merrie Paulsen were throwing a big Halloween party for their twins and had deliberately invited every child on the block except Connie Monaghan, Patty would only say that this was very "weird." The next time she saw the Paulsens in the street, they explained that they had tried all summer to get Connie Monaghan's mother, Carol, to stop flicking cigarette butts from her bedroom window down into their twins' little wading pool. "That is really weird," Patty agreed, shaking her head, "but, you know, it's not Connie's fault." The Paulsens, however, refused to be satisfied with "weird." They wanted sociopathic, they wanted passive-aggressive, they wanted bad. They needed Patty to select one of these epithets and join them in applying it to Carol Monaghan, but Patty was incapable of going past "weird," and the Paulsens in turn refused to add Connie to their invite list. Patty was angry enough about this injustice to take her own kids, plus Connie and a school friend, out to a pumpkin farm and a hayride on the afternoon of the party, but the worst she would say aloud about the Paulsens was that their meanness to a seven-year-old girl was very weird.

Excerpted from Freedom: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen. Copyright 2010 by Jonathan Franzen. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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