TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Jonathan Franzen has a new novel called "Purity" that was published today, which makes this a big day in the literary world. In a review of "Purity" Sam Tanenhaus wrote in The New Republic, quote, "Franzen may well now be the best American novelist. He has certainly become our most public, not because he commands Oprah's interest and is a sovereign presence on the bestseller list, though neither should be discounted, but becausem like the great novelists of the past, he convinces us that his vision unmasks the world in which we actually live," unquote. Purity is the name of the first character we meet, a young woman in her 20s who's known as Pip. She feels trapped by the $130,000 she owes in student loans, and she's living with squatters. Her mother, an eccentric loner, won't reveal much of her past to Pip and won't disclose who Pip's father is. Pip soon accepts an offer to work with the charismatic founder of a rival to WikiLeaks, which publishes secret documents as well as other secrets. She hopes this job will give her access to information that might uncover who her father is. In writing about these and other characters, Franzen writes about the Internet, secrets, feminism, marriage, parenthood, jealousy, divorce and murder. Jonathan Franzen, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start with a reading from the novel. And why don't we take it from the very beginning and by we I mean you (laughter).
JONATHAN FRANZEN: All right, page one.
(Reading) Oh, pussycat, I'm so glad to hear your voice, the girl's mother said on the telephone. My body is betraying me again. Sometimes I think my life is nothing but one long process of bodily betrayal. Isn't that everyone's life, the girl, Pip, said. She'd taken to calling her mother midway through her lunch break at Renewable Solutions. It brought her some relief from the feeling that she wasn't suited for her job, that she had a job that nobody could be suited for, or that she was a person unsuited for any kind of job. And then, after 20 minutes, she could honestly say that she needed to get back to work. My left eyelid is drooping, her mother explained. It's like there's a weight on it that's pulling it down like a tiny fishermen sinker or something. Right now? Off and on. I'm wondering if it might be Bell's palsy. Whatever Bell's palsy is, I'm sure you don't have it. If you don't even know what it is, pussycat, how can you be so sure? I don't know because you didn't have Graves' disease, hyperthyroidism, melanoma. It wasn't as if Pip felt good about making fun of her mother, but their dealings were all tainted by moral hazard, a useful phrase she'd learned in college economics. She was like a bank too big in her mother's economy to fail, an employee too indispensable to be fired for bad attitude. Some of her friends in Oakland also had problematic parents, but they still managed to speak to them daily without undue weirdnesses transpiring because even the most problematic of them had resources that consisted of more than just their single offspring. Pip was it, as far as her own mother was concerned.
GROSS: And that's Jonathan Franzen reading from the very beginning of his new novel, "Purity." I think that part of the novel is pretty funny. Do you see this as, in part, a comic novel even though you're dealing with some pretty serious issues and even though the tone is not consistently comic?
FRANZEN: Yeah, I've always thought of myself as a comic novelist. It's a tough row to hoe because comedy means light in people's mind, and there was an ambitious part of me that kind of chafed and was secretly relieved when the comedy was overlooked. But at a certain point it becomes wearing for people not to get the humor. I do these readings for my work and people come up to me afterwards and they say, wow, I had no idea this was funny until I heard people laughing. So it's a little frustrating, and yes, this book is no exception. It's - the overall spirit, I think, is comic.
GROSS: Secrecy is at the heart of "Purity." Just about every character has a secret that they have. At the same time, one of those characters is an investigative reporter who starts an investigative journalism organization. And one of those other characters starts an Internet group that's kind of like WikiLeaks and that - it's called The Sunlight Project. And they - their mission is to expose secrets, whether they're state secrets or more personal secrets. And I think one of the questions you're raising in the novel is what's the difference between secrecy and privacy, and what's the difference between a secret that should be exposed and a secret that is healthy to keep?
FRANZEN: Certainly, these are questions that I'd be happy if a reader asked, yes. I had the idea for the book - I kind of plotted it out roughly at a time when there was a great deal of anxiety about transparency versus privacy, secrecy and also a great deal of anxiety about what was happening to the very notion of identity, when so much of identity now seems to consist of what is online, what you present or what other people present about you. So, in a somewhat obsessive way, I gave every main character in the book some kind of secret, yes. And, well, here's the thing. Secrets have a different kind of value for novelist and you don't want to find yourself in the position, as a novelist, of hanging the suspense in a novel on a secret that will be revealed at the end because, for one thing, nowadays, someone could just tell you what the secret is. And then if that's what's driving the whole book, then the whole thing falls apart. But also because it seems like kind of bad faith on the author's part to withhold really important information. It seems like a kind of - well, sort of a low-class game to play with the reader. So the secrets are not from the reader, they're from other characters. And I realized that you can get a different kind of suspense going about when will this other person learn that secret or whether that other person will learn that secret. And that's what I did in this case.
GROSS: In talking about secrecy and privacy, is that something you feel like you have to deal with as a novelist? I mean, you're creating secrets for your characters, but you have to deal with your own privacy, too, because you got people like me interviewing you and wanting (laughter) to know all about you. And you take, as I think most novelists do, fragments of your life and filter them through fiction to make new stories. So is it difficult ever to figure out what's the difference between secrecy and privacy?
FRANZEN: Not so much for me. Andreas, who's the East German character in the book, has a little speech about how secrets function in the creation of identity and also in the creation of trust and intimacy. And his theory is that you need to have some things that no one else knows because that's how you're not just this transparent thing in the world. You - it gives you a firm sense of I'm me and I have things that only I know about me. And yet you don't want to be just totally locked up in yourself, you want to have intimate relationships. And the way those typically function is through an exchange of secrets. This is what I secretly think about party A, and oh, I have that same thought or I have a different thought. And that's how two friends might get together, by sharing things that they wouldn't necessarily share with everyone. And so when you imagine a society of total transparency or a society of total exhibitionism, you start wondering how can there be intimacy? But to get back to your other question about, you know, the fact that I'm in the business of betraying secrets about myself. I've written a lot of confessional essays. I've written a fairly confessional memoir. There it becomes weird, but there is a wish, I think, to be in an intimate relationship with a readership. And I'm not going to tell to you everything, but I'm going to tell you more than most people would tell the world because that's how trust and intimacy are formed. I'm not going to hold back. I'm going to - and the writer is in a weird position because that's not something most people do. Sometimes it begins to verge into a feeling of exhibitionism, like, why am I feeling compelled to tell this compromising story about my long-dead parents? You know, it's certainly a question my oldest brother asked me. Do we really need to hear anymore of that? But I guess I feel like if it's done for a particular purpose, it's OK.
GROSS: Yeah, so just something you just said, that your brother said, why do you need to tell that compromising story about your parents and embed that in fiction? And, you know, you...
GROSS: Oh, nonfiction - worse! Even worse!
FRANZEN: (Laughter) Yeah, worse. Yeah, exactly.
GROSS: (Laughter) And so, like, you've written about how you feel deep loyalty to family. Your parents were probably dead when you wrote that part that was seen as a betrayal - by your brother as a betrayal.
FRANZEN: Yes, yes.
GROSS: But do you still feel like that somehow even though they're dead, you can still betray them by revealing personal stories or revealing things that they would have preferred to be kept secret. Like, how do you come to terms with that, like, what the statute of limitations is on respecting the privacy and the values of someone who you're very close to, when they're actually no longer alive?
FRANZEN: I think you can't hurt them when they're dead, basically. My parents were good parents and I don't really have anything bad to say about them really. And I think if you read the nonfiction I've written about them, they tend to be very loving portraits, and that's key. It's not like I'm coming forward to blacken the name of people who can no longer defend themselves. I am working through my own memory of them, trying to convey what was really, really specific, interesting, great about them. And sometimes that does mean showing them at really tough moments.
GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Franzen. His new novel, "Purity" was published today. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Franzen. His new novel is called "Purity." So, you know, the book is also about relationships. And there's a really terrible marriage (laughter) at the center of the book between the artist, whose body is her art and who's very controlling of her body and at the same time kind of at war with her body, and her husband, who's a journalist who starts and investigative journalism site. And for their wedding gift, he gives her a novel that he started that's inspired, in part, by her, and he thinks that she'll be thrilled. But the gift makes her really angry because she thinks she's supposed to be the artist and he's supposed to be the critic. And she's angry that he's stolen her story. And he says, I promised her that we wouldn't compete and here I was competing with her. And it reminds me of something you wrote in an essay that's collected in your book "Farther Away" that your first wife, who was also a writer, claimed that you had stolen her soul from her to write your second novel, "Strong Motion." And you just made me think about the difficulties of two writers in a relationship who are living similar lives and experiencing similar things. But can they both tell the same story? Does one of them own the story? Does one of them own the story of their marriage?
FRANZEN: Yeah, it's a sad fact that writers should not be in relationships with each other. And yet, most writers like being in relationships with other writers. And these things come up time and again. It came up in my marriage. It's come up in subsequent relationships. There's always a tension over whose story is this. And it actually extends outside the intimate relationship. One of the most terrible things I ever received in the mail was a note from the mother of a boy whose death I described in one of my essays in The New Yorker. And she said it's not like I got the facts wrong. It was that this had been her story and her son and I had somehow taken it. And there was nothing I could do with it, in her mind, that could justify my taking her story. So that is a guilt that you take on as a fiction writer or as a confessional essayist. It's one of the reasons it's hard to be a writer, frankly, because you are doing things that when you were 16, you would've thought were morally indefensible. And it's a problem that doesn't go away. And you can - you know, you can make certain arguments. Well, we did this thing together. Why is that your story and not my story? I think some writers are cooler with it than others. My spouse equivalent who I live with in Santa Cruz, you know, some years ago she wrote an essay in Granta in which I appeared. And I have to say I was so incredibly grateful that somebody had done that to me because it (laughter) - because I spent so much time doing it to other people. It was nice to pay it back in a way and to feel that something that we had had together was of use to somebody else. So it's just - it's always there, yeah.
GROSS: Well, that essay was called "Envy."
FRANZEN: That's right.
GROSS: And it was about - first of all, she never mentioned you by name. You were always, like, a man or the man (laughter).
FRANZEN: The man, right.
GROSS: Yeah, and she wrote in that that it was actually very difficult for her, when after watching you struggle writing "The Corrections," it was published and it was this, like, sensation. And she felt jealous and, of course, didn't feel good about feeling jealous but that's how she felt. She felt your success left no air for her and that it was difficult for her to allow herself to keep writing, to give herself permission to keep writing without the success that you had achieved. So what impact did that have on you, outside of making you feel like, OK, and now it's your turn (laughter) to receive what you'd given up before?
FRANZEN: There was this story in The Los Angeles Times that we had broken up. That was one interesting outcome.
GROSS: You mean a false story?
FRANZEN: Totally false story, yes. But that I spent, like, a year having to say, no, no, no, in fact, that's not true. That was made up by The Los Angeles Times. You know, you work on these things. What effect did it have on me? What are you looking for?
GROSS: Your answer.
GROSS: (Laughter) No, what you want to say? I don't know.
FRANZEN: Yeah, no, no
GROSS: I'm not looking for a specific thing.
FRANZEN: No, I mean, yeah, I don't know. It was hard for a time and then it wasn't so hard anymore. Here's the thing, I am a writer, and I do what a writer does. And this all goes back to that unforgettable moment when my oldest brother had read "The Corrections" and thought he recognized himself in one of the main characters, and I thought he might just permanently hate me for taking some of his pet activities, like mixed grill, and putting them in a novel. And he said hating you is not an option. And that's because - and I sort of - I guess I kind of knew that all along that this is a relationship that can take this. It doesn't - it's hard, maybe. It might make for some rough times. But if I can't be a writer, then who is he in a relationship with? Who is he the brother of? And I think that that's broadly true. You have to be allowed to do what a writer does, and if a relationship can't take the identity of the - of one of the participants, then it's probably not going to last.
GROSS: I want to quote something that you told to Laura Miller in an interview. And you said, "it gets harder to write novels, not easier, as time goes by. And that has to do with using up the easy stuff, the stuff that is fairly close to the surface, and then going back for the mid-level stuff. And then suddenly all you're left with is this very deep stuff. And there is good reason why you haven't written about it before because you don't know how or you really don't want to talk about it." So are you implying that there are things in "Purity," in your new novel, that is that really deep-level stuff that you've avoided for one reason or another in the past because it was too difficult or you didn't know how to say it?
FRANZEN: That would appear to be the implication, yes.
GROSS: (Laughter) So can you talk about what that was and how you found a fictional approach for talking about it? Would that be betraying...
FRANZEN: Well ,yes, I mean the question sort of answers itself. If there are things that I can only talk about in symbolic form and in a made-up story, then I - it would kind of defeat the purpose of writing a novel if I could just (laughter)...
GROSS: (Laughter) Right.
FRANZEN: ...Sort of give you a list of what those things were and how I worked with them. What might be an example, there are a lot of mothers in the book. And some, I think, rather bad mothers and some kind of - some good, some bad mothers and maybe one ultimately pretty good mother. And I feel as if I needed a whole range to encompass the complexity of my feelings about my own mom. She was a really, really big personality and people who say, oh, well, you put her as - into "The Corrections" as Enid. It's like, no, I put a, you know, cartoon version of one layer of her into that book. There was so much more to her and there was so much more to the difficulty of my having that person as a mother and probably for her, the difficulty of having me as that youngest son. We spent a lot of time alone together, a whole lot. It was as if I was an only child. My brothers were so much older. My father was often on the road. So I had thousands of evenings alone with my mom. But there's, you know, the romantic nature of a certain kind of bond between mother and son and even the - not the literal sexual dimensions of it - but the kind of symbolic sexual dimensions of it. That's really hot stuff and really, really hard to talk about. And it's not even clear that I could talk about it because I'm not even sure what I would say. It's not like my mother abused me. It's not like she did anything wrong. Ultimately, she was a great mom. Look, you know, I've had a happy life. I've had a productive life. How bad could she have been? But there was - nonetheless, there were these currents, and I had the sense that those currents really, actually matter and are still operative in the way I relate to the world and to other people. And certainly nothing scandalous from my own youth but just a combination of a very involved mom who had some frustrations with her husband and an extraordinarily sensitive kid meant that I was in touch with those currents even though they were all kind of in my head.
GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Franzen. His new novel is called "Purity." After a break, we'll talk about how feminism is portrayed in his novel, how he feels about not having children and his friendship with the late writer David Foster Wallace. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Jonathan Franzen, the author of the best-selling novels "The Corrections" and "Freedom." His new novel "Purity" was published today. The word purity has many connotations in the novel. Purity is also the name of one of the main characters - a woman in her 20s who goes by the nickname Pip. Pip was raised by a single mother, an eccentric loner who has revealed very little about her past to Pip and revealed nothing about who Pip's father is. Pip's mother, during part of her life, has kept a journal, has kept notebooks, which become, as you describe it, a diary of torment. Every entry began with a daily to-do list and devolved into increasingly illegible self-diagnoses. I was really interested if you've known anyone who's kept a journal like that - that kind of hyper-vigilant journal.
FRANZEN: (Laughter) Well, sure, yeah. And to some extent, I've kept those myself in years when things aren't going well and, you know, my daily to-do lists, if you compare before the day and after, are a heartrending spectacle.
FRANZEN: There was a riff - there was a long riff, like a three-page riff that I took out of "Freedom" where one of the main characters, Walter, has these yellow legal pads. And he's so anxious about his job that he basically - in order to do anything, he becomes totally dependent on to-do lists. And it will be things like, you know, turn on the computer (laughter) just because he needs to be able to check a box because otherwise, he's so paralyzed with anxiety. And, you know, that's territory I know. One of the things I was doing in this book was presenting some struggling artists. And to me, having struggled myself, these are inevitably comic situations. I think in the case of those diaries of torment, it's maybe not so funny or you really have to have been there to find it amusing.
GROSS: Were they helpful to you, those diaries of torment?
FRANZEN: In the long run, sort of, yes. I guess. I mean, I went through it with "The Corrections" and with "Freedom" - not really with this book so much - where I was just floundering for years. And I - you know, I printed out the notes. I did them at the computer. You know, I have these - I have these thick volumes of printouts, hundreds of thousands of words. And it's very circular. Like, I would go three months, and I would be pursuing some thought. And I would find myself writing almost the identical sentence that I'd written three months earlier. And the loop would close and three months would disappear as completely useless, lost time. But I'm not sure it was really lost. I think some things need to be struggled through at their own pace.
GROSS: Let's get to the subject of feminism. You know, and you have been criticized by some people through, like, social media and through reviews for not being sympathetic to feminists or, you know, to some women. And I'm not endorsing that view. I'm just referring to that. And so in this novel, you kind of address feminism in some ways, like, you know, Pip's mother - I think it's fair to say she sees herself as a feminist, but...
FRANZEN: She's kind of a bad feminist, actually. One of the characters says...
GROSS: One of the characters says just that. One of the characters describes her as the kind of feminist who gives feminism a bad name. Of course, that's very toward the end of the book (laughter).
GROSS: Not everybody will get to that sentence. So I'm thinking it's a kind of dangerous character for you, for people who don't take that point of view that you're intentionally creating somebody who is not a very good example of feminism, although she sees herself as a feminist.
FRANZEN: Well, yeah, there's nothing I can do about people who don't want to finish a book. As far as I can tell, most things on social media require reading no more than a sentence of anything I've written. And often, not actually reading it except as it's been retweeted by somebody else. That's what I mean about a discouragement about the level of discourse. The rewards online are so much to the - to the extreme position, to the divisive position, to the out-of-context quote that seems scandalous because you've left the context out. That's, you know, financially rewarding and it's rewarding in terms of having followers. And it's all very discouraging. And it's like - I don't even - it just makes me tired to even want to try to rebut things that are so stupid. But in terms of the portrayal of this feminist, I mean, there are several - there are - there are three avowed feminists in the book, not just Pip's mother. There is Tom, the investigative publisher...
GROSS: And you describe...
FRANZEN: And then there's - there's Leila.
GROSS: You describe him as a strange hybrid feminist, behaviorally beyond reproach but conceptually hostile.
FRANZEN: That's right. And he has - he's been - well, he's somebody who came up in the '70s and was whole hog bought into the radical critique of '70s feminism of the patriarchy. And he felt I'm guilty. I belong to the patriarchy. Through no fault of my own, I've been born a man, and men have done terrible things to women. They continue to. And having had - you know, he had a mother who was sick most of her life. And he was kind of morbidly attentive to the sorrows and pains of women. He - he kind of went whole hog for that critique and came out the other side of it feeling like there's really - this is a dead-end for a man. All you can do is try to behave well. You can't make yourself not a man. And in part, the book tells the story of his trying to make himself not a man and barely escaping with his life - feeling as if he's barely escaped with his life. And then there's the third character, Leila, whose - who thinks of herself very much as a feminist and has been a working woman - hard-working, ambitious woman, successful woman with a career all her life, but feels like a betrayal of the sisterhood because she - you know, her primary relationships are with men. It's not a simple caricature of any kind of feminist. There is - there is a spectrum here. So that's one point. The other point, I think, is - no, help me out here.
FRANZEN: I'm trailing off.
GROSS: OK, let's move to an example (laughter) of - like you said, Tom almost, like, tries to not be a man and that doesn't work. And Tom's marriage to the transgressive artist who sees herself as, you know, a feminist. She says to him at one point - and this is probably the paragraph that's gotten the most attention from your book, you know, for whatever reason, but I want to ask you about it - she says to him that he needs to stop peeing standing up because it creates too much splash on the seat of the bowl, on the bowl itself, on the floor around it, and she can't expect him to clean up every time he goes. So she's going to ask him to sit down. And she basically says if I have to sit down, then you should have to sit down, too. And honestly, I really didn't know how to interpret that because I know - I'm pretty sure that Freud used to say that women had penis envy and that they wanted to be able to stand up. And, like, outside of situations where there's, like, a really filthy bathroom, I don't (laughter) - I don't think that's really an issue for women, that women envy men like that. And so I'm kind of curious hearing how that kind of made it (laughter) - made it in and what you're going for there.
FRANZEN: Well, that has to be taken in the context of his wife's whole personality. She's an extreme person. She has sort of a borderline personality, frankly. But it also has to do with this crazy idealism of youth, where the wish is to be identical, to merge, to have nothing, no differences between them. And for her, this is a difference. So yes, she talks the talk of feminism. But what's going on there is she's desperately afraid of being abandoned, and she has this kind of crackpot youthful notion, which many young people do, that, you know, if we can totally merge our souls and be alike in everything, then I will never be abandoned. So I got an interesting email this morning from a friend in Holland who says that all Dutch mothers teach their little boys to sit down (laughter). And I was like, really? That's interesting, tells you something about Holland. And that's merely to take one dimension of that particular scene. There is Tom's response to it. And to me, the whole description of that doomed marriage is a comedy. And it is - not everyone has been in a relationship with a difficult person that they felt trapped by, but many people have. And the friends I have who have get that that's a comic chapter. It's a very dark comedy of what happens when two people get together young and have this - this notion of total sharing - no secrets, no differences. And, you know, what you do in a comic novel is you exaggerate. You put salmon in the character's pants or you have this scene where one of the people in the relationship is being really, really irrational and difficult and asking for something that nobody should ask the partner for because it's funny. And because - because it - and because it's memorable and because it tears up the surface and gets at deeper things. And yeah, maybe the Freud stuff is in there and the envy, but I don't - I don't actually think that's what is going on for Anabel. Certainly, not - not in my mind. I wasn't thinking of Freud in that. I was thinking she has - has taken a particular self-pitying version of feminism and is using it kind of to abuse her boyfriend.
GROSS: Do you think a woman would ever do that?
FRANZEN: Do I think a woman would ever do that? I certainly believe that Anabel did that.
GROSS: OK, right. (Laughter) Fair enough.
FRANZEN: She does a lot of things. You know, she does a lot of things that not very many people would do.
GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Franzen. His new novel "Purity" was published today. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Jonathan Franzen, the author of the best-sellers, "The Corrections" and "Freedom." His new novel is titled, "Purity." Having children is part of the story in the book knowing or not knowing who your parents are, the decision to have or not have a child, and this might be too personal - not like everything else I'm asking isn't - but I know you don't have children, and I was wondering if you wouldn't mind if I asked if that was intentional or not.
FRANZEN: It was substantially intentional. I've written about - there've been a couple points in my life where I suddenly got interested in having kids. One of them was when my mother died and suddenly I was fired up. I had this relatively new girlfriend from Santa Cruz, and neither of us were getting any younger. And I suddenly kind of to honor my mother - is how it looks in hindsight - I suddenly became convinced that we should try to have a kid while the window of opportunity was still open. This was a disaster. She made it clear she wasn't interested in having kids. And so she, you know, she basically fled to California and I was just alone in New York until I gave up my crazy idea.
And then more recently sort of in the - around 2005, 6, 7, somewhere in there - I was really struggling to write the novel that became "Freedom," and I was feeling isolated and kind of just lost and thought, oh, it must be because I don't have kids. Here my parents were really into parenting. They totally strongly modeled being parents. And I was - I had written a family novel, clearly family was important to me. My parents were incredibly important to me. And I thought maybe, God, maybe I'm missing something. Maybe the reason I can't write is that I've gotten detached from life. I'm just this kind of inert figure floating toward old age and we should have some kids in our house.
And I've been reading George Packer about the situation with Iraqi refugees, and I knew that the war had orphaned and continued to orphan a lot of kids and I suddenly thought we need to adopt some kids so that we have a family. And this will give - because it was just too pressure to just be a writer. I thought, you know, I come out of family, I want to have a family. And I was all fired up about this for six weeks. And then I was talked out of it quickly. I was brought to my senses by my New Yorker editor who said, why would you do this, essentially - don't you have other work to do? So I got past it. So there were these couple of moments when I realized I really have lost something. I see my brothers. I'm close to my nephews and you know, many of my friends have kids. And I see that something changes in a relationship and also in a person's life through the process of having kids. And mostly it has not been an issue for me, but every once in a while I feel like well, that would've been an interesting, good experience to have, and one that would be really kind of right for me.
GROSS: What makes you think in retrospect that it would've been idea to adopt Iraqi orphans?
FRANZEN: Well, what my New Yorker editor said was many people can be good parents, not very many people can write novels like yours. So what I would've lost was an opportunity to really devote myself to digging ever deeper in my books. I think it would've - I would've become a different kind of person and maybe, you know, and maybe a better person.
GROSS: I know that you were very close to David Foster Wallace, and I'm wondering if you've seen the new movie based on interviews he did with David Lipsky who was a reporter for Rolling Stone. And apparently the movie's been very controversial among people who were close to him and to his estate, to his editor because he was such a private person, and they feel like he gave his permission to record these interviews but not to have a movie made about him. So I'm wondering if you wouldn't mind talking about it if you've seen the movie, what your thoughts about it are and if you haven't seen the movie is it because you've felt like you shouldn't see the movie?
FRANZEN: No, I had no interest in seeing the movie. Why would I want to see some actor playing Dave? Also, I'm very close to Karen, Dave's widow, and I know how hard she and the estate tried to stop the movie. And also, I had read the pieces by Tom LeClair and Glenn Kenny online. And I had a feeling I would probably feel the same thing they did - angry in the case of LeClair because the spirit of the movie was just so radically non-consonant with the spirit of Dave's work. And also because Glenn Kenny's piece was so filled with sadness, just to see this travesty basically of somebody he knew and liked and knew this was not a movie about him. It was a movie about David Lipsky.
GROSS: You know David Foster Wallace, I don't really know the circumstances and you know, behind his death. But I know he did suffer with, you know, periods of very severe depression and had tried to take his life much earlier like I think when he was a teenager. But being so close to him and watching how sadness beyond sadness about how, you know, profound depression can make you choose death. I'm sure you've battled your own depressions and your own demons the way most writers and so many other people have. Did you find it frightening that someone who you knew so well could be suffering to such an extreme?
FRANZEN: I think I got kind of life time immunity regarding extreme mental suffering because of the two years my father spent in hospital and nursing home with dementia and depression. So, I had seen somebody suffering horribly for a long time. And it's not immunity, it's my compassion is aroused, but it doesn't frighten me. David was not the only friend of mine who has been in a mental hospital. I actually never saw Dave in a mental hospital. I only saw him at home after his release - after his several releases if you count the '80s. So, I understand - if you're around people who are suffering from mental illness you realize that it's an illness, and you also have a sense of how different it is from your own manageable depression - or at least in my case - that it becomes physically excruciating and just you know, the most terrible pain you can suffer, many people report. And you really see that and it's just like being in the hospital with somebody who's in terrible physical pain. You - and it can be done and it's very frustrating not to be able to do anything about it or to be able to do like 1 percent of what you wish you could do because you know David would thank me repeatedly and assure me that I was doing something by being with him, but it was not very much what I could do. And it was like the window was in his eyes almost was 99 percent shut. And you know, he was such a personality 1 percent was still a lot, but that's what I was getting. The thank you's came from the 1 percent that was getting through, and I can tell so much was not available.
GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Franzen. His new novel, "Purity" was published today. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Jonathan Franzen, the author of the bestsellers "The Corrections" and "Freedom." His new novel, "Purity," was published today.
When you write, and when things are going well on a novel, is that like an escape from self, or does it get you deeper into self and deeper into the self-consciousness of self?
FRANZEN: I think it's substantially an escape from self. I'm making up stories. It's escape not just from myself. It's escape from everything.
GROSS: So that's a good thing, right?
FRANZEN: Yeah, it's like having this dream that you can go back to kind of on demand. You just - when it's going well, it's there waiting for you, and you can immerse yourself in it for six hours every morning. And it's like - yeah, it's the best of all drugs because you are totally awake, totally firing on all cylinders. Your mind has never been working better. You're not dulled at all, and yet you are in a fantasy land (laughter), and it's - and feeling no pain.
GROSS: There's an author photo in the back of your new book, "Purity," and in it, you're on the beach. I assume it's at the beach in Santa Cruz because that's where you live.
FRANZEN: No, actually it's a beach in Egypt.
GROSS: Oh, really?
FRANZEN: Yes. I was - it was after - I was in Egypt for three weeks reporting of the killing of migratory birds there. And we'd been in the Sahara and were very dust and very parched and hot, and we finally made it back to the Mediterranean. And my thought was - take off your boots and get in the water. So that's where that picture's from.
GROSS: Why did you choose that as your author photo?
FRANZEN: Because I'm just absolutely happy-looking.
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah, I thought you were, too.
FRANZEN: Yeah, because happy is - only somebody who's been in the Sahara for four days and suddenly has, you know, cool Mediterranean water around their feet can be happy. It was just such an incredible relief.
GROSS: Happy-looking is not the first description that comes to mind when people think of you, right?
FRANZEN: It's so weird.
GROSS: I mean, for - right.
FRANZEN: It's so weird.
FRANZEN: You know, I'm just, like - I am a glutton for fun. You know, it becomes a problem. Like, it's - I actually have a hard time buckling down and doing reading that I should be doing because, like, you know, there's such fun TV on. It's fun to play Hearts on a computer. It's so fun to play tennis. It's fun to bird watch. It's fun to eat good food in Santa Cruz. It's like, where does this idea come that I'm this sour guy? It's, like, crazy. But it's - it's - maybe I try too hard to keep it under wraps because I already feel sort of guilty for how well things have gone for me. And I have to be photographed with a frown to make clear that I'm not enjoying the experience...
FRANZEN: ...But really I am enjoying the experience.
GROSS: (Laughter). OK, Jonathan Franzen, it's really great talking with you again. Thank you so much for coming back.
FRANZEN: Always a pleasure, Terry. Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Jonathan Franzen's new novel, "Purity," was published today. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll hear Maureen Corrigan's review of "Purity," and I'll talk with Steve Silberman, the author of a new book about how our understanding of autism has changed over the decades and how certain myths about autism caught on. The book is called "NeuroTribes: The Legacy Of Autism And The Future Of Neurodiversity." And we have some good news to end today's show with. I'll let our producer, John Sheehan, reveal what it is.
JOHN SHEEHAN, BYLINE: This is Alice.
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SHEEHAN: That's adorable.
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GROSS: Those are some of Alice Sheehan's first sounds recorded by John. Congratulations to John and his wife, Darla, on their new baby, and congratulations to Lila on her new little sister. We are so happy for them.
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