The 'Uncool' Passion of Jonathan Franzen

Best-selling novelist Jonathan Franzen has fallen in love...with birds. Writing for the July issue of National Geographic magazine, Franzen describes how migrating songbirds are being hunted in high numbers in Egypt, Albania, and other places along the Mediterranean. Franzen tells SciFri about the songbirds' plight and how his passion for birds has evolved.

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FLORA LICHTMAN, HOST:

Here in the U.S., being a birder mostly means watching - wandering around a patch of nature, binoculars in hand, eyes to the sky. While some wild birds - turkeys or ducks - might cross over to the dining room table, our relationship with wild birds is mostly one of watch, listen and maybe check it off your life list. In other parts of the world, that's not the case.

In many parts of the Mediterranean, migrating songbirds are being killed in huge numbers - sometimes for food, sometimes for sport, sometimes because that's what the ancestors did.

My next guest has written about that songbird slaughter for The New Yorker and, most recently, for National Geographic. You may know his name also from his best-selling novels. It's my pleasure to introduce Jonathan Franzen. He's the author of "Freedom" and "The Corrections," and his article "Last Song for Migrating Birds" appears in the July issue of National Geographic Magazine. Thank you for joining us, and welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

JONATHAN FRANZEN: Oh, it's nice to be on SCIENCE FRIDAY.

LICHTMAN: Well, that's nice to hear. So tell us about this last article that you did for National Geographic. Sort of sum up what the - what's happening in the Mediterranean in terms of songbird slaughter.

FRANZEN: Well, I should actually go back - three years ago, I wrote about this for The New Yorker, and it had been news to me some years earlier when I started watching birds in Europe that millions and millions, tens of millions of songbirds were getting killed every year, mostly illegally, in places like Italy, Cyprus, Malta, France, Spain.

And I'd written about that and tried to figure out what was going on with the people who were doing this, and along the way kept hearing, you know, it's really bad here in Italy. It's really bad here in Cyprus. But you ain't seen nothing if you haven't been to Albania or Egypt.

So what's - what is happening? What is happening is, really, for millennia, people have been killing migratory birds in the Mediterranean. The birds don't breed there, by and large, but every year, you have - even now, perhaps, five billion birds coming through each direction, spring and fall. Excuse me. And for human beings in the Mediterranean for millennia, this has been this great bounty of available protein.

Just, you know, for a couple of weeks, suddenly there's lots of protein, and you catch these things however you can. The problem now is that, first of all, in the European community, most of those birds are legally protected. And more important, a lot of the populations of these species are in precipitous decline because of habitat loss, pesticides, host of other factors.

And what was formerly kind of this nice surplus for the Mediterranean has now this enormous ecological impact, because the numbers are still very, very large, and people feel like they're doing what they've always traditionally done.

LICHTMAN: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, on NPR. I'm Flora Lichtman, talking with Jonathan Franzen.

Is the hunting going on on mostly the individual level? Is there any industrial version of this?

FRANZEN: I would say that, in the worst places, a lot of it is industrial. A lot of it is commercial, even when it's being done by individual farmers. So in the south of France, you might have - a farmer will have traps trying to catch ortolan for the illegal ortolan trade, still a sought-after little sparrow that people like to eat there.

When you go farther east in Cyprus, it's really - it's industrial, and it's done by, actually, criminal gangs. They will set up an enormous amount of netting, an enormous amount of sticky lime sticks that the birds get caught on. And then they'll broadcast birdsong playback, and they can catch several thousand birds in one night, in one spot.

And those things are selling to the restaurant for five euros a piece. So it's actually quite a commercial operation. And then, in Egypt, it's - where it's not illegal, it's done on a similarly industrial scale to partly - mostly as an industry to sell in bird markets in all of the coastal towns along the Mediterranean.

LICHTMAN: You've said this is - you've compared this to how we see fishing here, and I thought that was really interesting, and I - it made me wonder what accounts for the sort of differing cultural perspective. Why do we care about birds here?

FRANZEN: You know, I was in Egypt last fall for the fall migration, and the scale of the capture and killing of songbirds there was like nothing else I'd seen, and I'd seen a lot elsewhere in the Mediterranean. It was - you know, people would sit and shoot, you know, 60 orioles. One person might shoot 60 orioles in a day.

And I hung out with the people who were doing it, and really, the only way I could reconcile how distressed I was with how completely cool they were with it was to imagine how it would be to have a deep, emotional bond with trout or with sunfish, and to see people all over the middle of the United States going off and coming back with a string of fish.

You know, no one thinks twice about that, really. I mean, a few people may, but it's - there's - there seems to be some ethical line, and I'm - and we've expanded our circle of ethical concern to include pretty much everything warm-blooded. So it's really distressing to see this sweet, little hardworking songbird that has just flown 3,000 miles on its way to Africa getting killed as if it's nothing.

But once you start thinking - when you see that the Egyptians, in fact, are using the same nets, often, to catch birds and to catch fish, you realize, well, this is actually an arbitrary ethical line we've drawn. I - you know, it's one I can't help. It's - I see the little bird. It's warm-blooded. It's charismatic, and so it has an ethical status for me. But I can understand - and it was really eye-opening to be in a culture where that charisma is not perceived.

LICHTMAN: Hmm. Yeah. I mean, the piece - the pieces, The New Yorker piece and the National Geographic piece, were very hard to read if you have an emotional connection to birds. And I imagine they must have been hard to write, hard to witness those scenes.

FRANZEN: Yeah. For The New Yorker piece, I actually felt obliged to eat a couple of the little birds when I was in Cyprus. You know, you're trying - when you're doing environmental journalism, you're trying to do it in a way that doesn't make the reader want to simply close the magazine. And I wanted...

LICHTMAN: Not be too preachy?

FRANZEN: Yeah. You don't want to be too preachy, and you also - I was really making a strong effort to understand things from the poacher's side in that piece. And since, you know, these little blackcap warblers are a great delicacy in Cyprus, I thought, well, I'd better go and eat them, kind of as a way to build trust with the reader.

LICHTMAN: And I want to hear about that first bite when we come back from this break. Stay with us. We'll talk more with Jonathan Franzen about his latest articles and about bird watching in general. 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. Stay with us. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LICHTMAN: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, and I'm Flora Lichtman. I'm here with bestselling author Jonathan Franzen. You know him from "Freedom" and "The Corrections," and you're about to get to know him as a bird enthusiast, too. But I interrupted you in the middle of your story. So what was it was like to eat these birds that you've been covering?

FRANZEN: Well, it was terrible. In the case of the blackcap warblers in Cyprus, I - when I arrived at this restaurant, and they're all - they're doing it illegally. But everyone knows where to go and everyone knows how to ask for the birds. They're not on the menu. You get taken to a little backroom and, you know, it's all - there's a lot of smirking and winking that goes on. But in the parking lot, as I arrived, I was watching a pair of blackcaps that had nested in the bushes right by the parking lot. And I was early to meet the friends I was eating the birds with.

And so I watched these birds for a while, and the contrast between these amazingly graceful, life-filled, singing, sweet little birds in the bushes, and then this tiny, little, oily, bony, fatty mass of gristle on a plate. It was just - well, it was stomach-turning, I have to say. I, you know, I took a bite, and I hid the rest in my paper napkin. But I felt I had to take that bite.

LICHTMAN: And you buried them after the meal.

FRANZEN: Yeah. Well, to get rid of the evidence.

LICHTMAN: That was so touching.

(LAUGHTER)

FRANZEN: Yeah. Well, you know, it's insane, in a certain way. You know, this is a little animal and it's not a human being, and yet that's - that is - that's one of the signals of the according of ethical status to something. You take care with its burial. You know, we bury - our pet cat dies. We might bury that pet cat in the backyard, affording this human funeral rite to an animal, because you love it.

LICHTMAN: When did your love for birds begin?

FRANZEN: I have to say, it - I think it was always latent, but I had never done any bird watching until around the time my mother died. And I had some time in my hands, and I was surrounded by birds on this island in Puget Sound. And a couple of years after that, some relatives came to town to see the spring migration in Central Park.

And it was a park I thought I knew well. I went out on a Saturday afternoon in May. Half the city was in the park. And suddenly, I was seeing all of these birds that I had no idea of. It was inconceivable to me. You know, there were like five species of birds in Central Park. Everyone knows that. And suddenly, on this - one afternoon, in a couple of hours, I saw 50 kinds of birds, and many of them really, really beautiful.

The warblers were coming through, just - and the American warblers are fantastic. And it was like this whole dimension of the world had opened up. And I proceeded to bird watch on my own, and I felt as if I - of course, I, you know, I have a kind of protestant nature. And I thought, oh, I'm becoming addicted to this. This is bad. This is bad. I'm wasting time.

But at a certain point, I had to face the facts, and the facts were I'd just suddenly come to love birds. And you know, anywhere I am now, I'm listening to hear what's outside the window. Any bird, even the - something I've seen a million times, I just like to watch them move, and I feel this connection to them. I don't really know where it came from.

LICHTMAN: It can be a relief, I think. I mean, I read in "Freedom," Walter, one of your main characters, writes that it's not neurotic. To me, that's what makes nature peaceful. Things live or they don't live, but it's not all poisoned with resentment and neurosis and ideology. And that really struck a chord. I've been trying to figure why I, for example, I love being out in nature, and it calms me down, and maybe that's why.

FRANZEN: You know, I won't go so far as to say there are no psychopathic or sociopathic animals. There is - I'm speaking from Santa Cruz, and further down on Monterey Bay, we've had a problem with a - an aggressive - I believe it's a seal, possibly a sea otter, that had become crazy and was basically killing other otters and seals for no reason, just attacking them viciously and killing them, and it had become actually a significant problem. The body count was fairly high, and, you know, that animal had to be taken care of. But mostly, what you see, nature is full of killing.

I have a friend here in Santa Cruz who likes to describe birds as killing machines. And indeed, when you're out looking at them, they're just, you know, if they're hawks, they're on constant patrol, looking for things to kill. And many, many of the birds are constantly killing insects that - just all day long, killing, killing, killing. And yet it doesn't feel like our killing, if that makes any sense. And, yeah, I think it is a sense that it's not neurotic. It's necessary. This is what they do.

They're not doing it with any kind of sick intention. They're just doing what they do. And that, I think, has - so nature is very violent, and yet it feels peaceful, and I think it's that absence of neurosis that gives it that sense of peacefulness.

LICHTMAN: Do you have birds on your life list that you're just really excited to see or planning your life around to seeing?

FRANZEN: You mean unseen birds, birds I still need to see?

LICHTMAN: Yes. Or maybe your favorite birds that you want to go back and see.

FRANZEN: Well, I see my favorite bird almost every day here in Santa Cruz. It's a California towhee. It's not an uncommon bird. It's a very plain, brown bird, but it's just the loveliest thing.

LICHTMAN: Wasn't that one of the birds that you first got into?

FRANZEN: Yeah, I know. It was. It's definitely a beauty-of-the-second-glance bird. You know, if you glance at it, you say that is the dullest brown bird you ever saw. So it's partly the personality of the species. But also, if you look at it with binoculars, within that seeming plain brownness, there is this incredible richness of subtle detail in plumage. Birds I haven't seen, you know, someday I would love to see an ivory gull.

Ivory gulls are really in trouble, because they hang out with polar bears, and polar bears are in trouble now. So there is some concern that we will not have ivory gulls within a generation. And it is a pure white gull, a small, pure white gull. And it's kind of a unicorn status in my imagination at this point.

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: I feel like birds often take on that status and it's, you know, it depends from person to person what the unicorn bird is. They have that appeal.

FRANZEN: That's right. I think a lot of people who go to Costa Rica feel I need to see a resplendent quetzal because, of course, it is resplendent. It's sort of the gaudiest bird of the Western hemisphere. And I wouldn't mind seeing a resplendent quetzal myself someday, but as you can tell, you know, seagulls and towhees are kind of the ones I get really excited about. I think because - and I'm not that into large raptors.

To me, birds are - remind me of the kind of people I like, the people who are not really fitting in well with the modern world and who are, in some sense, feeling persecuted. And, you know, the kind of inconspicuous, seed-eating misfit birds, those are the ones I really love.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. This is sort of the reverse anthropomorphizing, right, where you see yourself in the animal? Now, I'm not speaking about you seeing yourself exactly, but, you know, I think I read that you wrote that in an essay, and I thought that was nice, that idea.

FRANZEN: Well, yeah. If you hang out with birds, you realize, you know, I don't think that they are thinking thoughts like I'm thinking. But when you watch their behavior, you realize that much of what they do, you're doing, too. You know, they spend a lot of time on personal grooming. They're really interested in sex at certain times of the year. They're, you know, they're hungry. They - and if you become a little bird crazy, as I have become, you start feeling like a bird when you're doing your personal grooming, or when you're thinking about sex.

So yeah, I - and that, of course, is at the center of that sense of ethical connection that I was talking about earlier. Once you - once any kind of identification is established, you can no longer treat the animal in the way you've been treating - you might have treated it before.

LICHTMAN: You've talked about bird watching in the past as a little bit uncool. I wonder, are you OK with it now? Have your thoughts changed, evolved on this?

FRANZEN: Yeah. Well, it's hard when you're a beginning bird watcher to be doing it in Central Park in New York, because there's no way to be inconspicuous about it. You're out there toting a field guide around and you're wearing these binoculars, and everyone else is their well-defended New York self, and you're out there hungrily looking for something. And it's really almost the definition of - well, it is the definition of being uncool, which is visibly wanting something, you know? So I struggle with that at first. But, you know, once you realize, well, this is who you are, it's healthy to stop worrying about how it might look to someone else. I've kind of embraced it.

LICHTMAN: I think that's probably good life advice. I wanted to talk a little bit about writing. Do you get something different out of writing journalistic non-fiction than fiction? Do you have to flex different writerly muscles?

FRANZEN: There are a whole set of - there's a set of skills involved with journalism that I have started to acquire. I've been - it's nearly 20 years since I did my first journalism, and it's really a - it's a completely different thing. The writing is such an afterthought. I enjoy traveling to interesting places. I mean, I spent three weeks in Egypt.

I was - and for 10 days, I didn't see another Westerner. I was going to places that Westerners don't go, you know, staying in Bedouin tents. And that's really cool. I mean, if you had told me when I was 10 you could have a job where you can go and sleep with the Bedouins in the desert, I would have said, sign me up. And yet it's a simpler thing. And at this point, I've done it for long enough that I know when I'm getting the story I need. And then I take very careful notes and make sure I've written down all of the dialogue.

And a lot of it is then just waiting around for the perfect moment, waiting for the scene to materialize. It's different writing fiction, obviously, because it all has to be self-generated.

LICHTMAN: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, on NPR. I'm Flora Lichtman, talking with Jonathan Franzen. So, speaking of self-generating, what are you working on now?

FRANZEN: Well, I'm working on a new novel. I have a non-fiction project coming out in the fall called "The Kraus Project," about - based on my translations of a Viennese satirist, Karl Kraus, but really trying to come to terms with the new nexus of technology and media and how it impacts our culture and our sense of interiority.

LICHTMAN: What does that mean?

FRANZEN: What does that mean? Oh, well, it's - I haven't worked that shtick up yet.

(LAUGHTER)

FRANZEN: I will have to do that in the next two months. The pub date is October 1. And typically, I get sat down in a room and someone says, now, try to describe the book in a sentence or two. And I haven't done that yet. So...

LICHTMAN: Well, we'll have to have you back for that, then.

(LAUGHTER)

FRANZEN: OK. I'm happy to. Yeah. That would be great.

LICHTMAN: So we - I read in an essay that you wrote and it was in the essay, "The Path Freedom," about this tension you felt between your loyalty to the people you love most and your responsibility to yourself, to being a writer. How do you think about this? Can you describe that?

FRANZEN: Well, there are several things. I mean, I had an upbringing that really stressed being useful to society, and that made it very hard that I'd chosen to be a novelist, because I didn't feel as if that was necessarily a socially useful thing to do. I was intending to give people pleasure, but you could eliminate the job of novelist from the world, and the world would still function pretty well. So that was hard.

And I - and the first time I wrote a piece of journalism, my mother - for The New Yorker, my mother just could not contain her satisfaction in that and said, this is what you should be doing. This is what you should be doing, because it wasn't lies. It was doing something socially useful.

And there is that aspect for me in doing journalism, that you can only sit in a dark room for so long making up stories before you start to feel you ought to be trying to do something to improve the situation of someone or something in the world. So I like the alternation between those two modes.

LICHTMAN: It was also I think - I was - keep going. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

FRANZEN: Well, I'm just going to go on and say that, eventually, I developed a certain sense of service to the community of people who want to spend time reading non-cliched books. Those are - that's my kind of community of misfits, people who will show up at a bookstore signing on a rainy Tuesday night. And I was just going to connect that to the particular way that birds speak to my heart, also. They - they're another embattled subset, I think. And so that's really where I see my service, is in trying to not serve the man, but serve the embattled subset.

LICHTMAN: I think that's the perfect place to leave it. Thank you so much for joining us today, Jonathan Franzen.

FRANZEN: My pleasure, Flora. Take care.

LICHTMAN: Take care. Jonathan Franzen is the author of "Freedom" and "The Corrections." His article the "Last Song for Migrating Birds" appears in the July issue of National Geographic magazine.

That's about all we have time for.

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