Jonathan Franzen on freedom, fiction, and finding meaning
Today we got the chance to visit with Webster Groves native and acclaimed author Jonathan Franzen about his latest novel Freedom, his inspirations, and his methods. You can hear the whole conversation in the St. Louis on the Air archives, but here are some highlights:
On whether or not he's working on a new book
It takes me a long time to write a book. They’re years in development before I get any pages I can believe in. I have some vague thoughts. Usually the vague thoughts I have at this stage, they turn out to be completely wrong headed.
On what he's writing instead
We’re working on a series based on The Corrections for HBO, a four year series that could potentially be a really cool thing. I'm one of the Executive Producers and now basically writing the whole first season. To everyone’s surprise and to my surprise, I have some affinity for the medium. We’re expanding it a lot. The book would only be about 20 hours of TV and we need at least 40. I’ve been generating a lot of new material.
TV has changed since I was watching Hogan’s Heroes and All In The Family growing up in Webster Groves. What you’re allowed to do in terms of content and language and attracting really great actors has really changed with HBO and Showtime.
On calling his latest novel "Freedom"
That’s the question I’ve gotten quite a bit in the last year and I should have known better than to call the book Freedom, since I don’t want to answer that question. Freedom to me is a rich and complicated term. Part of the reason I stuck it on the cover of that book was that I feel as if a very limited and, I think, kind of dumb notion of freedom, which is sort of a 14-year-old ‘leave me alone’ kind of freedom, has taken hold politically in this country, especially in the last ten years. I think it’s safe to say that I don’t mean just that rejection of any kind of strictures kind of freedom. I think freedom is something you kind of grow into---it might have more to do with accepting limitations than denying limitations.
On the environmental themes in his writing
I had this love of outdoors and of nature and it translated into an environmentalist worry verging on paranoia in the 1980s. My second novel, Strong Motion, was really an environmental novel. But it turned out to be kind of a dead end for me. If you take environmentalism too seriously, you really end up hating mankind for what its doing to the planet. As a novelist, I can’t hate mankind. I mean, human relations are what novelists live and breathe. At a personal level too, to walk around hating yourself and everyone else because you’re polluting the planet, that’s no way to live. So, I kind of gave up on it for awhile.
Then to my surprise, I got involved with birds about ten years ago. That’s a long story. Nature no longer seemed this abstraction that we were harming. It became the home of these other animals that I really care about. I would not want to scare potential readers away from the book by making it sound like an environmental book. To me, the primary focus of the book is much more about the way human beings are to each other, especially in a family, a marriage, and a friendship kind of context.
On his characters
That’s really the challenge for me when I start to work on a novel: how to tell an essentially untellable story about the things that matter most to me by way of these invented characters. And that’s what I’m doing all these years when I’m not actually writing. I’m trying to really deeply imagine characters who I love and who have problems that externalize internal conflicts in myself.
On whether his characters are based on people he knows
They’re very substantially made up. There’s a paradox there. In order to be more purely autobiographical, in order to tell the stuff that really matters most to me, I have to really make it up. My own life, you know between The Corrections and Freedom, I published a memoir, The Discomfort Zone, very much a Webster Grove memoir. That’s a thin book. Like, I took everything interesting that had happened to me as a young person and it made a rather small book. So the actual incidents of my life, there is no way I could make a big novel out of, because I just haven’t had that interesting of a life. It really is very substantially made up.
I think where the other people come in…in order to connect with a character, I have to be able to picture him or her. So it’s really valuable for me to be thinking of someone I don’t know very well, I might have met them once. Patty, the main female character, Patty Berglund—I met somebody once at a party. She made an impression on me. I never saw her again. But I could picture her and I could sort of hear her. And that’s the right level because if I really knew that person better, well then I’d be thinking of that person. It’s really more like what that person stood for in my imagination that matters.
On how his new life away from St. Louis informs his writing
I meet people. I hear their stories. They’re very interesting. And it all helps in a way. But the kind of stuff you burn to write about is the really deep stuff. And most of that goes way back. So it has more to do with my parents or my early marriage, my brothers, my oldest friends. Those loom large in my dream world. It’s a funny thing. You go through life dreaming of the same people. There might be people that you know in the present who appear in your dreams. But the really killer dreams tend to be you’re eleven years old and you’re about to mess up in class or your father who is fifteen years is still living in your unconscious. And that’s the kind of stuff I’m more interested in getting at.
On making his readers uncomfortable
I’ve heard from a number of readers who’ve told me a nice way that they had to burn the book. Above all, I set out to be funny and allow you to have a good time while getting into the uncomfortable stuff. Often it’s the most important un-resolvable stuff in yourself that makes you uncomfortable. It’s the fiction writer’s job to get into that stuff. But you don’t want to create a book where you’re having an unpleasant reading experience. Having fun while feeling uncomfortable, that’s actually good.
There are two kinds of books. If you’ve had a hard day, if I’ve had a hard day, I’ll want to watch an episode of Friday Night Lights because, you know the coach and his wife, they have their flaws, but they’re both just radiantly good. If I’ve had a better day, then I like to read about people that are messing up the way I’m messing up and it’s okay to let that in. I’ve given up on thinking everyone is going to like me. I like myself, but I know not everyone is going to like me. That is an inevitable fact of life. The other kind of book is filled with characters who might not be entirely likeable, but you might recognize yourself in anyway.
On his research methods
I’m not somebody who enjoys doing large volumes of research. I was a decent enough student, but I never liked being a student. I enjoy reading books, but not as research. So the cooking in The Corrections, the heart of that came from, there was a restaurant in my neighborhood in New York where you could stand on the street and see what they were doing in the kitchen. So I did that instead.
The problem with research is that once you learn all these cool facts, you want to put them in the book. And a novel is not about facts, they can really get in the way of the characters and the story so I really try to keep it to a minimum and just make it up and then check afterward.
Don’t get me started on Twitter, I think it’s dumb.
On young people
I went through a period with being annoyed with young people. Certain political developments in this country, I thought, “Well where are the young people ? Why aren’t they out in the streets protesting the way they did in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s?" But then I got to know some better. There are four main characters in Freedom. The youngest, Joey, a 20 year old, for the longest time I couldn’t write him because I disliked him so much. But once you break through and find the humanity in the person, I mean, he turned out to be the character that I most liked and most enjoyed writing about. That sense of entitlement inevitably bumps up against reality in the world and then things get interesting. Then you actually have to start living.
In this world that’s broken up into so many meaningless bits of narrative, fiction gives us the chance to sit for months, years with a story and actually come up with a meaning, to create a world in which meaning is still possible. That’s the ongoing attraction of fiction in general in the world we live in. We can spend 20 hours in a world where it’s not just meaningless, like so much of life feels.