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Jonathan Franzen comes home

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 21, 2010 - Judging from the questions to Jonathan Franzen after his reading from "Freedom," the audience of more than 800 who packed Christ Church Cathedral Monday night included more than a few aspiring novelists. Why wasn't there more from the perspective of the character Jessica? Why did the character Patty have passages in the first person? How hard is it for a man to write a female character?

Franzen, who looked every inch the literary author, seemed surprised and even noted the "writerly" nature of the questions.

For the audience, or at least this member of it, that line of questioning yielded some wonderful nuggets, brief glimpses into Franzen's process of writing. Before Franzen wrote word one of "Freedom," he said he filled a "thousand pages" with notes about characters and themes, only to find about 20 pages "marginally" useful. He said he found male characters more of a challenge since he had to fight constantly to keep himself from "bleeding" into the character.

The impression he gave was of a deliberate, thoughtful writer yet one open to where his characters and story take him.

A serious writer but hardly ponderous, Franzen made his comments with a healthy dollop of self-deprecation. Facing the standing-room-only crowd, Franzen mused that he didn't know that everyone he ever met would be there. At times, he exhibited an impish quality. At the end of some answers, he twirled around, making a visual punctuation mark. And he even slyly made reference to Oprah, saying he admired her for using television to get people to read books. After a much-publicized dustup between the two years ago, Oprah has picked "Freedom" for her book club.

Toward the end, Franzen was noticeably wilting; he'd remarked on the heat more than once. "I'm not quite bathed in sweat yet," he said at one point, although he was clearly getting there -- and knew he was either lucky or unlucky enough to have possibly hundreds of books yet to sign. 

Susan Hegger comes to St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon as the politics and issues editor, a position she has held at the Beacon since it started in 2008.

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