TERRY GROSS, host:
Yesterday morning, I spoke with Franzen about the novel and the response to it.
Jonathan Franzen, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's been just amazing to watch the story in pre-publication play out - Time magazine, the backlash against your success, before anyone except critics even had a chance to read the book. It's like you're a lightning rod. What's going on?
Mr. JONATHAN FRANZEN (Author, "Freedom"): Well, one thing that's been going on is I think my publishers were tearing their hair out because the books were not in the store and we were getting all the publicity. But that episode is now behind us.
What's going on, people seem to be liking the book. I think, you know, at the level of assigning magazine stories and things like that, it's driven by people actually enjoying the book and perhaps, in some cases against their will.
GROSS: What do you mean? They don't want to like you?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FRANZEN: Well...
GROSS: I don't want to like this.
Mr. FRANZEN: You know, it's - "The Corrections" did well, and you sort of tee yourself up on the batting tee to get whacked down. And that's - you know, who doesn't enjoy doing that as a critic or as an assigning editor? It's fun. It's good sport.
So the fact that they haven't felt like doing that is really, really nice and has, I think, driven a lot of the pre-publicity.
GROSS: Were you afraid of that, with this follow-up to "The Corrections"?
Mr. FRANZEN: I thought I'd written a book that I might, worst case, have to hand-sell, that...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FRANZEN: You know, I have a tour coming up and appearing at maybe 20 venues. And I figured if I could get 200 people at each to listen to a half-hour reading, they might want to read the book, and then it would spread by word of mouth.
That was my - that was how I imagined it selling as recently as about six months ago. Because - and going into it, you know, there was all the talk about, oh, the rise of the e-book and a general sense on the street that, like, two years ago, everyone decided we really don't have to read novels anymore unless they're by Stieg Larsson.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FRANZEN: And I didn't know what to expect. So it's actually really fun to see that people still are looking for a book that says something about how they're feeling now.
GROSS: Before we get to the book and a reading from the book, let me just ask you what it's like to be on the cover of Time and what you thought of the photograph. And I'll say, the photograph was so austere. It looked like Jonathan Franzen, founding father, or Jonathan Franzen, hip CEO of bank or something. You know, there was this, like, austerity, the kind of picture like you'd see on the wall of an institution, of the founding father of the institution.
Mr. FRANZEN: Knowing that the picture was taken in my garage...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: No kidding? Really?
Mr. FRANZEN: With sort of a turpentine-y smell from some old chairs that I was refinishing put it in perspective.
My dad was a big reader of Time magazine. And I was saying last night, when I met the editor at Time who made sure that the cover happened, that there was almost nothing I could have done, there's no prize in the world I could have won. I think, you know, meeting the president, even, would not have impressed him as much as being on the cover. And as that sank in, it became meaningful to me.
GROSS: Just one more thing about this. There's a certain amount of resentment of your success, I think, by some writers. And it's as if, like, you decided to put yourself on the cover of Time, and who do you think you are? You know, I mean, like, you don't decide to put yourself on the cover of Time. Somebody decides to put you on there.
Mr. FRANZEN: That's true enough. I haven't been following any of that closely. But the little bit that's trickled back to me hasn't sounded particularly ad hominem. It seems like there's a different critique. It'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. And I actually have a lot of those feelings myself and have had over the years.
GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Franzen, and his new novel, which just came out and is already a really big seller is called "Freedom." And I want you to read from the very beginning of the book. It's actually going to start with the second paragraph. Do you want to just set it up before you begin the reading?
Mr. FRANZEN: It requires only the setup of knowing that in the first paragraph, we are told that we are in St. Paul, Minnesota. And this is basically a couple of paragraphs about young gentrifiers in the early '80s in St. Paul.
Mr. FRANZEN: (Reading) Walter and Patty Berglund 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 10 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 sweat clothes 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 defecate 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 okay 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?
GROSS: That's Jonathan Franzen, reading from his new novel, "Freedom." So Jonathan, in this novel, you're in part looking at parenting, and you're looking at it from the perspective of several - of a couple of different generations, you know. And you're looking at, in the case of Walter and Patty Berglund, who you just read about, you're looking at how they were parented and what kind of parents they have - they will become.
And I guess I'm interested in why you wanted to write about this kind of arc of family.
Mr. FRANZEN: The phrase that pops into my mind is becoming one's own parent, which has several meanings. You - as - 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 in my life that they had provided I've had to learn to provide myself.
And very specifically, I wanted in this book to write about my parents' marriage and their parental experiences as I observed them with myself and my brothers. But I didn't want to set it in the '50s, '60s, '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.
I mean, I know lots of people with kids, and I've watched my friend David Means' kids grow up from, you know, weighing nine ounces to now heading off to college this week. But the primary impulse came from within.
GROSS: There's a part early on when Patty sobs to Walter about her parents: I hate my family. And Walter valiantly replies: We'll make our own family. And they do. They have two children. And it's like you're capturing here, in a way, the fact that some people decide to have children to do it right because they think their parents did it wrong. And then they realize how hard it is to raise children and not make really big mistakes.
Mr. FRANZEN: You know, I've been around listening to young parents or would-be parents certainly since I finished college in the early '80s, and it's a refrain you hear: We're going to do it right this time.
You know, Patty's mom never went to her basketball and softball games. Patty's going to be the mom who goes to every single game of her own daughter. You know, her parents ignore her at certain crucial points in fairly brutal ways, and she's going to make herself doubly involved in her own kids' life. And indeed, goes off as a pioneer to the new frontier in the early '80s, which is the decayed center of old Midwestern cities, and tries to create a better sort of fairy-tale existence, apart from the corruption and the disappointments that she'd grown up with on the East Coast.
GROSS: So she's going to be this active presence in her children's life, a kind of presence that her parents weren't in her life. But for her son, that doesn't really work out.
When we read a chapter from her son, Joey's point of view, we realize that he resents that she's tried to make him her, quote, "boy pal" and confide in him things that are uncomfortable for him to hear, like the fact that she was date-raped at the age of 17.
And he thinks that she sees his interest in things like Tupac's albums and his favorite TV shows as things that are in competition with her because she wants him to be entertained and fascinated by her. This is his point of view.
And the son thinks that his mother has tried to make him her designated understander. Have you seen that phenomenon?
Mr. FRANZEN: I've lived that phenomenon. I mean, there's a certain - in one respect, it was not at all like my own mom, who had practically Victorian notions of propriety, and it was not until the last few years of her life that she really began telling me the kind of stuff that I think younger parents, wisely or unwisely, are confiding to their kids at much earlier ages.
But yeah, it's - you know, you see it with the three or four times a day cell-phoning to grown children that parents my age now do. There's a - there's a quality of we are best pals, which is such a contrast to the sharp, heavily enforced distinction between grownups and children that I'd grown up with.
So I was both channeling something that had happened to me and some of the ways in which I felt oppressed by my mom's needs. But also, trying to register it in a contemporary way based on things I'm seeing around me.
GROSS: Another thing about the parents, Patty and Walter Berglund in this book, who want to do things differently than their parents did, they don't really know how to be authority figures to their children, especially their son. And Patty complains that her son Joey questions the basis of his parents' authority. And she says: We make him turn the lights out, but his position is that he shouldn't have to go to sleep until we turn our own lights out because he's exactly the same as us.
And then you describe how Walter, the husband, argues with his son over the difference between adults and children and whether a family is a democracy or a benevolent dictatorship. That's probably an argument you would not have had with your parents. They probably would've been the authority, period.
Mr. FRANZEN: No, I would've been spanked and sent to bed.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FRANZEN: And, as we're talking, I'm realizing the extent to which the book is a lament for the loss of a distinction between children and grownups. So, having grown up with this intensely meaningful relationship with my parents and having perceived them so much as different from myself when I was a child, I'm particularly sensitive to the loss of that critical distinction in the culture we have now.
And going further, I just finished reading Michael Lewis' terrific book "The Big Short," and there's this great line at the end where one of the traders -who actually made a lot of money on the financial crash of two years ago -says: We kept expecting the grownups to step in at some point and put an end to the fraudulence. And at a certain point, we realized there are no grownups. It goes all the way to the top.
And I was hoping, with this book, to allow some people to become adults. And the key moment of becoming an adult, the difference, one of the defining differences between an adult and a kid is that adults relinquish a certain kind of freedom. You can't lie around 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.
GROSS: Do you feel like an adult?
Mr. FRANZEN: Strangely, in the last couple of years, yes. I have come to feel like an adult. I don't really even know when it happened. It's only very recently.
GROSS: Well, how old are you? You're...
Mr. FRANZEN: I'm 51. But I still felt like a teenager in many ways as recently as a couple of years ago, and sudden...
GROSS: What changed?
Mr. FRANZEN: I wrote this book. I think it's occurring to me now, is probably the biggest thing that changed. There was - the death of my friend David Wallace might have been a part of that, as well.
GROSS: This is the writer, and he...
Mr. FRANZEN: The writer David Foster Wallace...
GROSS: ...committed suicide.
Mr. FRANZEN: Yeah, a couple of years ago. Just - 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, 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, not a person divided between a teenager and an old man. I feel, actually, about 51, and it's shocking.
GROSS: So what role did the suicide of your friend, the writer David Foster Wallace, have in forcing you or allowing you to cross the line into feeling like an adult?
Mr. FRANZEN: 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 who's even a couple 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. I was the person carrying on. And, you know, coinciding approximately 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.
GROSS: So, reading your book, I get the impression that you think of depression as, like, one of the defining epidemics of our time.
Two of the main characters have it, or at least - at least two of the main characters have it. Patty, who's the main wife/mother, actually writes an autobiography at the suggestion of her therapist, and a couple of chapters in the book - in your book - are chapters of this autobiography that she's written. And I want to ask you to do a reading here about depression. And this is from the point of view of Richard, one of the main characters in your book, who is an indie rock songwriter, singer, guitarist. So...
Mr. FRANZEN: Yes, who has recently had the traumatic experience of moderate success, and it's particularly galling to him, having been on the margins for so long - not galling, disorienting and, in a weird way, depressing to find himself on NPR, which is a distinction between him and me. I'm very happy to be here.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FRANZEN: Anyway, so this is - I'm just talking about his disorientation following a certain amount of success.
(Reading) Katz had read extensively in popular sociobiology, and his understanding of the depressive personality type and its seemingly perverse persistence in the human gene pool was that depression was a successful adaptation to ceaseless pain and hardship, pessimism, feelings of worthlessness and lack of entitlement, inability to derive satisfaction from pleasure, a tormenting awareness of the world's general crappiness.
For Katz's Jewish paternal forebears, who'd been driven from shtetl to shtetl by implacable anti-Semites, as for the old Angles and Saxons on his mother's side, who'd labored to grow rye and barley in the poor soils and short summers of northern Europe, feeling bad all the time and expecting the worst had been natural ways of equilibriating themselves with the lousiness of their circumstances. Few things gratified depressives, after all, more than really bad news. This obviously wasn't an optimal way to live, but it had its evolutionary advantages. Depressives in grim situations handed down their genes, however despairingly, while the self-improvers converted to Christianity or moved away to sunnier locales. Grim situations were Katz's niche the way murky water was a carp's.
GROSS: Why did you want to write about depression in your novel?
Mr. FRANZEN: People who have a depressive cast of mind are usually the funniest people you meet, and there's nothing like putting a couple of Eeyores into the text to make it at least a little bit funny. What else? Why did I want depressives in here? It's, you know, most interesting people become somewhat depressed at some point in their life, and I'm not writing books for people whose lives are perfectly great. People whose lives are perfectly great probably don't need to read books like the kind I write.
Only if you have some regular connection with some kind of darkness or difficulty or conflict does serious fiction begin to matter. And so it's simply realistic to let people, as the stories of their lives build toward dramatic peaks, to enter these dark woods from time to time. And it's really as simple as that. And then because I think it tends to be funny up to a point, up to the point where you need to be hospitalized.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Oh, yeah. That's a riot.
Mr. FRANZEN: And, yeah. I know. That's - and that's no joke. And it's important to make that distinction, that there is, you know, a major depression that really shuts you down - anything that brings you in the neighborhood of suicide, anything that suggests hospitalization. That's really a different animal altogether. But the much larger body of people who experience some depression in this country are doing it in ways that are - are feeling it in ways that are very much intertwined with the narrative of their lives.
GROSS: Sometimes I feel like the philosophy I was brought up with is summed up by the Mel Brooks song "Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst." And I'm wondering if you were brought up with that philosophy.
Mr. FRANZEN: I don't even know if I was brought up with it. I certainly witnessed it in my father, and just 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, and I -yeah. I didn't have to be taught. It didn't have to be modeled for me. It was really almost hardwired.
GROSS: So Patty, in your book, sees a therapist, and at the therapist's suggestion, writes an autobiography. Was that advice you ever got? I mean, you'd be writing one way or another. You don't need a therapist to tell you to write.
Mr. FRANZEN: 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, finding - having - 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, and - or I would try to get a character who is sort of like me and had gone through a marriage like I had or who had had parents like I had or had witnessed a marriage like my parents had, and the characters kept collapsing into me. And then I would be overcome with shame, and also a wish not to bare my - every aspect of my private life, and I would shut down.
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. My whole brain is just like on the brink of shutting down because it's so unhappy with the direction I'm taking things. And that's - it's not...
GROSS: Well, it's interesting that that pushes you to another place, as opposed to leading you a paralysis of depression.
Mr. FRANZEN: Right. Well, like I say, I - my father had that Mel Brooks slogan as the refrain of his life. But there was another parent on the scene and, you know, my mother just had boundless energy and she had a much harder life than my father did in many ways. She had bad health all her life but she was - and she would get down but she would just muster from somewhere this Apollonian ability to go on.
And so I, thankfully, could always step back right at the brink and it never turned into, you know, major clinical episodes.
GROSS: So it sounds like for you writing a novel is hard work, not only because you're creating characters and coming up with the right words and organizing a plot and all of that but because you're thinking really hard about contradictions in your own life and trying to work them through in some transformative way in the novel?
Mr. FRANZEN: Certainly. Yeah, that's the brief. If I'm just writing about something moderately interesting in using interesting well-turned sentences, it just has no life. It's got to come out of something that's - some issue that's still hot in me, something that is 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, sort of a war on certain strains in literary fiction that I was opposed to, and that kind of anger has become less interesting to me because it seems like a younger man's game a little bit.
And also, the writer is still too well defended. You are armored in your anger. And particularly, in the new book, I tried to let go of that or I found myself letting go of it and went to the deeper, more upsetting things, which were much harder to get onto the page, but whose presence I could feel. I could feel like some, you know, pool of magma beneath the crust, that there is heat down there. If I can only find a way to tap into it, it will make the pages hot in the way they have to be.
GROSS: You said before that you wanted to be able to say the unsayable in your novel, and I'm wondering if you could give an example of something that you've written that you thought of as being unsayable.
Mr. FRANZEN: The great thing about novels and the reason we still need them, I think will always need them, is you're converting unsayable things into narratives that have their own dreamlike reality. And instead of having factual statements about what is - here's the factual statement I will never make about myself, I can't make about myself, I'm too ashamed or afraid to make about myself. If that can be translated into characters who feel like they have some independent life, and if they're embodying through their story that informational material about myself, then I feel as if it's been not quite said but it's been enacted.
And if you want an example, I would say what happens to Patty and Walter's son Joey in the course of the book, in spite of how adamantly he's asserting that he's on the same level as his parents, at a certain point, the story, the world puts him in a position where he doesn't know what to do. And suddenly, there comes welling up all of these feelings about both of his parents, maybe particularly his mother, that he's just not prepared to handle. And even though the content that comes welling up in him is not quite not my content, that experience of being the very well-defended young man, who's nonetheless sitting on this impossible stuff, desperately trying to keep it under control, that enacted something that came as close to saying the unsayable as I could in that regard.
GROSS: Jonathan Franzen, it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.
Mr. FRANZEN: Thank you, Terry. It's always a pleasure.
GROSS: Jonathan Franzen's new novel is called "Freedom." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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