GUY RAZ, host:
Jonathan Franzen's novel, "The Corrections," hit bookstores in early September 2001. A few days later, life in America was no longer the thing he captured so vividly in that book. His new novel called "Freedom," takes place against the backdrop of the decade just past. It's already being hailed as a masterpiece of modern post-911 fiction, and it took Jonathan Franzen nine years to write.
Mr. JONATHAN FRANZEN (Author, "Freedom"): I need significant chunks of time to pass before I seem to be able to get a novel going, because I need to have something change in me. And, you know, the owl of Minerva flies at dusk. We see things better later in an administration. We see things later in an era. In some respects, it was good fortune for me that I wasn't trying to wrestle with 9/11 as it was being so over-wrestled with in the media.
The book was really written in 2009. It was written after Obama had been elected president, and we could see the decade in some pretty clear perspective.
RAZ: "Freedom" tells the story of the Berglund family, who live in a gentrifying neighborhood in St. Paul, and in particular, the story of the parents, Walter and Patty. At first, their life seems ideal, but over time, the relationship between them becomes more complicated as the children grow up and as Walter's old college roommate, Richard Katz, reenters their life.
Mr. FRANZEN: Walter is a portrait in the displacement of unspeakable rage about what's going on in his family through speakable rage about what's going on in this country. And, you know, this was in many ways a book about the first decade of the new millennium. And what was unmistakable everywhere, incredibly striking, was how angry everybody was - and over-the-top angry.
And Walter, who was once, you know, a mild-mannered 3M employee, becomes this over-the-top angry person. That's part of the arc of his character in the book.
RAZ: Much of the early part of the novel is actually written by Patty about Patty in the third person, and it's actually a form of therapy for her. It's, in parts, an account of a breakdown of her marriage to Walter Berglund, this incredibly earnest, devoted husband. Why did you want Patty to tell us her story? I mean, were you worried that we might blame her otherwise?
Mr. FRANZEN: Patty, like a lot of somewhat depressive people sitting on a lot of dark stuff, a lot of dark childhood stuff, a lot of anger, doesn't behave very well. And so it seemed important to try to get her right upfront and particularly to tell a little bit about her childhood so that one might have some sympathy for why she was so angry and why she was so lost.
RAZ: How do you begin to write in a woman's voice? Is that one of the most challenging things that you do as a novelist?
Mr. FRANZEN: No. Actually, it's not. You know, I had a very fraught, in some ways, close and over-identified, in other ways very estranged and prickly relationship with my own mom, but she was a very dominant personality. My father was a pretty strong personality, too, but my mother spent more time with me because my dad was on the road a lot.
And I feel like I got daily instruction for 18 years in how women think and what their needs are. And I was prime to therefore, to really try to downplay my own maleness and be extra particularly attentive to the way women - first my mother, later my wife - were responding to me and responding to the world. So it came to be second nature, and maybe not in such a good way, it led to it being strangely difficult to write about myself as a man in a direct way.
I think that's another reason the book is sort of halfway in her voice. I wanted to try to get it out of my own hands a little bit and leave some room for the narrator to identify with the three main male characters.
RAZ: And so much of Patty Berglund's story is about disappointment and about expectations, unfulfilled expectations. I think the core of this book is about relationships and about the family dynamics, the Berglund family dynamics. You yourself are single - you live with your girlfriend, I should say. You don't have any kids; you never have. How do you dive so deeply into family dynamics, parent to child dynamics, without having been a parent, because you've captured it so vividly?
Mr. FRANZEN: Well, I was a son. And I was a son, what's more, whose brothers had gone off to college when I was still really quite little. And I already talked about the ways in which I perhaps over-identified with my mother. I also over-identified with my father. And they were in their own way each so unsatisfied, so angry about so many things that it was impossible, really, for a sensitive kid not to internalize their view of the world.
And it resulted in my being this strangely middle-aged, you know, 14 and 15-year-old. And it certainly helps to know a lot of - to have a lot of friends and have brothers who have had children who've grown up before my eyes from infancy to college and beyond. I guess it's what a novelist does, right?
You take a small amount of information and you take a small number of subjects and you examine them very carefully and then you sit in a very, very dark, quiet place either literally or figuratively and imagine what it might be like not to be you but to be somebody else.
RAZ: I've read that you actually neutered a laptop to make sure that you have no ability to connect to the Internet.
Mr. FRANZEN: Yes, yes. No, that's - you can just - you take any Ethernet plug and you stick it in the little socket and then you Super Glue it in and take a coping saw and cut off the wire part and you're just permanently disabled for that form of transmission. And then the wireless card's easy to take out.
RAZ: I'm speaking with Jonathan Franzen. His new novel is called "Freedom."
I know that you sort of initially began this book soon after "The Corrections" came out. You struggled for a while to sort of get it going in earnest until about 2008, really right after the death of your friend, the novelist David Foster Wallace. Did his death in a sense kind of affect the pace of your writing?
Mr. FRANZEN: Well, yeah. He was in decline right around the time I was finally getting the book going. So initially, all the complications with his last months and then his death slowed me down. I mean, I just set the book aside for the better part of half a year. But once that was all over, the book became a way of at once responding to and avoiding responding to the loss of him.
I was able to tap into the anger you feel when someone you're very close to commits suicide and use that as a kind of motivator while also avoiding the grief and also creating an imagined world where - it was my job to go and live for the next year, enabled me to check out in a certain way. And rather strikingly, it's only in the last few months that I've come into closer contact with the real dimensions of the loss and the sadness about it that was blessedly absent. I was just mad during the writing of the book.
RAZ: I know that you have dealt with depression in the past. Obviously, David Foster Wallace did. And there are characters in this book who struggle with it as well, most notably Patty and Richard Katz. Did your experience or any of those other experiences that you sort of encountered feed into their experiences, into Patty and Richard's experiences in the book?
Mr. FRANZEN: My own experiences, certainly. The kind of world of pain that Dave was in makes anything I have ever felt look like, you know, champagne picnic at sunset in Central Park in comparison, really. When you have a mental illness at a massive clinical level, I believe it is probably the worst pain anyone can experience. So that's a different thing.
As for my own experiences, you know, I pull back from the brink just in time. And for me, that's part of work, because the bad feelings that are stirred up when you really, really, really want to write something and you really, really can't, and you also feel that the stuff that has to be written is the stuff that is unwritable, the most private, most upsetting parts of yourself, the extreme position you're then in as a writer, it seems bound to be accompanied by occasional significant darkness and some suffering.
RAZ: In the book, Patty kind of degenerates into a person unrecognizable from the way she comes across at the beginning as kind of earnest and doting mom, becomes depressive and alcoholic. Walter, over the course of the book, becomes more strident and judgmental of others. Richard Katz becomes more and more self-indulgent. Does it worry you, or should it worry us, I guess, your readers, when we see so many things in these characters, things we hate but always recognize in ourselves?
Mr. FRANZEN: Well, you know, it's - I don't write for everybody. I had the experience with "The Corrections." There's this certain percentage of people who read that book and who think the characters are despicable. Nothing like them, and they sort of underline that - nothing like me. These people are nothing like me. They're so horrible. They're loathsome. I don't really know what to say to that.
I guess it probably speaks to my lack of excellence as a human being that I don't even see these characters as being so outrageous. They're not selling their children's books in order to buy crack, you know? They're merely going through a tough patch in their life. And I'm in a peculiar position now because I've gotten so many responses to "The Corrections" and I'm getting them now to "Freedom" of affirmation from people who say, yeah, that feels so much like me or I really recognize X, Y and Z, not only in myself but in other people that I begin to think, oh, well, I'm really actually writing universally about the human condition.
But that's actually not true. There are plenty of people who are different from any of the characters I might write about. At the same time, I do have the suspicion when someone vehemently says, no, this is a terrible, terrible person; I can't stand them; they're loathsome. You know, I've read my Freud. When someone is protesting that vehemently, it makes me wonder, hmm, why this intense reaction?
And part of me is proud to get that intense reaction, even if it's a negative one, because I feel - to me, it means I'm getting at something. I'm doing something that is real enough to be upsetting, even if it's not always in a good way.
RAZ: Do you think this is your best novel?
Mr. FRANZEN: Oh, that's a hard question to answer, because underlying the story we see are these pools of rather red hot material from my own life. I felt uneasy and potentially ashamed by the book. And I wanted to produce something that really connected with how it feels to be alive now. And yet, so much of the book is given over to really rather microscopic narration of ultimately, possibly petty seeming emotional difficulties that I thought, wow, this doesn't look like that book that I, you know, imagined writing. This looks so personal.
So, needless to say, the last month or six weeks of responses has been, you know, basically, the feeling I have over and over again is one of tremendous gratitude. And the hardest part of promoting the book, going on the road, as I now am, is the weight of gratitude I feel. And it's not guilt. I just feel like I'm being loaded up with brick-like loads of gratitude.
It's an authentic feeling. And it's - I mean, I am sincerely grateful and yet, oh, how to ever give back in the way I feel I'm receiving right at this minute. I guess I will be paying for it next time I try to write a book, though.
RAZ: That's novelist Jonathan Franzen. His new book, "Freedom," just debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list.
Jonathan Franzen, thank you so much.
Mr. FRANZEN: My great pleasure. Thank you.
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RAZ: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. We're back tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night.