Talking with, Yes, Oprah's Latest Book Club Pick: Jonathan Franzen
Well, Time magazine is one thing, but the latest twist in the intersection between pop and literary culture is brilliant enough that it may land its leads on the cover of Us Weekly. Jonathan Franzen, known to many readers and nonreaders alike as "That Author Who Rejected Oprah" (though he's perhaps more accurately described as "That Author Who Expressed Ambivalence About Oprah's Book Club and Had His Membership Revoked") after his last book, The Corrections, was and then wasn't an Oprah pick, will finally be welcomed back, as Oprah Winfrey helped to launch off her show's final season today with a bit of reconciliation and closure by choosing Franzen's new novel Freedom. It's her first Book Club pick in a year--but, she promises, not her last one. (That's a sigh of relief you are hearing from booksellers and publishers across the country. Unless you're in Brooklyn in which case it may have been a tornado.)
Oprah calls Freedom "an epic family saga that has it all—sex, love…even rock 'n' roll!" When I picked it for our August Best of the Month shortlist, I said it was "a wrenching, funny, and forgiving portrait of a Midwestern family," and it is. I'm a big Franzen fan (check out Strong Motion too!), but it's been fun to see colleagues and friends, some of whom had never read him before--often because they were turned off by that whole Oprah episode--picking it up and devouring it as eagerly as I did.
The Great Reconciliation is an event so overstuffed with built-in plot and commentary that it feels like everything that can be said about it already exists, so I don't have much to add, even at this early hour. But as it happens the author in question made a stop by our offices earlier this week, so it's excellent timing to share our discussion. We didn't talk about Oprah, or Franzenfreude, or any of the other controversies that seem to attach themselves to this fairly mild-mannered novelist as if he were Missouri's answer to the Gallagher brothers. (That's not to say Oprah did not come up: after he read a very funny section from Freedom (on Connie's first visit to Joey in college) to a large group of people here at Amazon, the first question from the audience was one he must have gotten a few hundred times, asking him to explain l'affaire Oprah, to which he emphasized that he had actually been thrilled when he first heard she had chosen The Corrections. The complications only came later...)
Instead, we stuck to the book: how it came about (apparently one early seed was his crush on Mia Hamm) and what it's been like to have written the book everyone is reading (and that was before today!). You can listen to us below, or read the full transcript after the jump:
Amazon: It's been nine years, which was also the time, I think, between Strong Motion and The Corrections. I know this is a terrible question to ask a novelist, but I'm very curious about what that time is like and how a book like this comes together over such a period. Where did you start? How does a novel accrete for you?
Franzen: It accretes almost literally in the form of bad pages, failed attempts to get it going earlier. The nine-year thing is a little misleading because I did publish a complete and original memoir in that period. And the nine years between Strong Motion and The Corrections is also misleading because I had done a book's worth of essays in that time. So I like to think of it as more like four or five years between books.
Yeah, the accretion of pages: starting with 20 ideas or 30 ideas and trying to just failing for long enough that patterns in the failure start to emerge.
Amazon: Are those ideas based around characters, around people that walk into your story or are they things you capital-W Want to Say?
Franzen: Not things I want to say. It's very much character driven. Very late there comes in a wish to do something formally new. If there isn't some interesting thing going on formally, even if I have some characters finally figured out, it still won't happen until I get the formal thing too.
Amazon: Speaking of a formal question, I was curious about, I guess, the overture for the book, the first 25 or so pages. I love the way that works as kind of a chorus talking about the story we're about to read. Is that something you came to late in the game or was that something that you began with?
Franzen: It was basically the first thing I wrote. I had a hundred unsolved problems two years ago. One of the big ones was that I wanted the book to be set more or less around the present time, but three of my four main characters were by then in their mid-forties. I had to account for the first 20, 25 years of adult life.
Finding some overture that had its own integrity, and in fact was published as a short story in the New Yorker, was a way of getting that awkward couple of decades out of the way so I could get down to what I really wanted to write about. I was also interested, I came to be interested, in tracing what had been happening to the country and neighborhood life from the gentrifying early '80s to the sprawlified time we now live in.
Amazon: I found that as a reader--I found it very freeing almost, that overture that you start the story fresh again after hearing it once.
Franzen: You start to... I had an idea of some of the characters, but that overture was also really where I figured out more specifically what their stories were.It's fun to start a book from the outside, most famously Flaubert does it in these weird first five pages of Madame Bovary where we meet Charles Bovary, I believe his name is, through the eyes of his classmates in school. Then we never again come back to that. There's clearly something attractive for the writer in starting completely with the surfaces. Here's a mystery seen from without and then, having warmed up in that way, getting into it.
Amazon: Then the book turns to Patty through whose eyes most of the story is told. What about her first accreted for you and what drew you to her as someone to tell a story around?
Franzen: Strangely I think I was first drawn to her as a person who'd been a jock, and a jock she remains. The full dimensions of that didn't really come out until I was writing, and the importance of both competition and teamwork to her character. These are important notions that are floating around our culture now. Competition in particular is weirdly seldom spoken of given that it's considered, and may in fact be, the primary engine of our political economy.
But as far as I know, it came out of a little television crush I had on Mia Hamm or Brandi Chastain.
Amazon: And you tried to imagine what would happen if they broke their leg?
Franzen: Well, those women were truly at the top of their form. And when you reach that level, I think you're in just a different world. Novels tend to be written not about the people at the very top because suddenly they become historical figures. You're reading about Winston Churchill in a novel about Winston Churchill and everything you know about Winston Churchill gets in the way.
The same thing even if you set it in the present. You say, well, this person is the Speaker of the House, the United States House of Representatives. We know who the Speaker of the House is. And we also know who the star of the US Olympic Women's Soccer Team is. So you have to drop down a notch or two before you get into territory that can be fully imagined and fully owned by the writer.
Amazon: As someone who is often described as writing about the way we live now, how do you pay attention to how we live now and at the same time cut yourself off enough to tell a story about it? How do you balance those two things?
Franzen: Even if you put earplugs in, the essentials leak through. I've spoken of this before, but trying to shut out as much of the noise as you can so that maybe only one percent comes through. Then you actually could examine the signal when there's so little of it. When it's a hundred signals all jabbering away simultaneously, it's very hard. But if you don't allow yourself Internet at the office, if you listen to one or two songs at a time rather than have a playlist of 300 songs, if you read the business section of one newspaper, you get a lot. You get the whole picture but in loose enough form that you can start seeing the connections and making some of your own connections.
Amazon: I wanted to ask about God. More the author as God. There's a moment in The Corrections, which I was tearing through when it came out, when Alfred's on the cruise ship and he takes a spill. I became very angry with you because I thought you had killed him off. And there's a death in this book--I don't want to spoil things--that is quite arbitrary. I'm just curious how you make a decision to knock somebody off that you've created.
Franzen: It's sort of like asking a painter, "Why is there red in that corner?" The answer is almost as arbitrary as, "Well, there needs to be red in that corner." I don't think there is a God. And if there were a God, I doubt he/she would be an aesthete. But if there were, that's the kind of God I'd want.
Amazon: Who could see the form of a story?
Franzen: Yes. I think of someone like Denis Johnson, who's just a great American writer, as somebody who writes in a voice like the God I wish we might have.
Amazon: So it's been about two weeks since the book came out, although it seems even longer.[laughter]
Franzen: Yeah, it seems much longer than that at this point.
Amazon: Yeah, it's been a busy month and a half at least. It's been exciting to see a book out in the culture like that that I know that people outside of the business are going to be reading that I can actually have a conversation about. What conversation have you been hearing back from people who've had a chance to read the book already?
Franzen: It became apparent early in the summer, when the advance copies of the book went out to reviewers and people in the industry, both that I think a lot of people were hoping to see a wipeout. They were looking for the skis in the air and the explosion of snow, and that would be very satisfying. It also became apparent that people were actually just enjoying the book.
So far, because it's only been two weeks, I've not been hearing from all the people who have bones to pick with me. It's actually been great. I think that, in all modesty, I think that's what drove a lot of the pre-publicity for the book was people saying, "Well, we thought he was a bad person. But unfortunately the book is kind of fun to read." I don't read the reviews, but people have told me about some that sound like they were uttered through clenched teeth.
Amazon: I think pleasure is a big word, with all your books. I think you've written about this that it's not something we always associate with capital L literature, but it's something that I often... I mean, that's why I turn to capital L literature. It seems like one of the things you're trying to do is give people pleasure.
Franzen: Yeah, it's complicated. There are very important wonderful realms of literature which do not yield up their pleasure to the first casual reading. That's why we have, or used to have, literature departments in colleges where you would actually learn how to read Emily Dickinson. You'd learn how to read John Milton. You'd learn how to read Virginia Wolff.
So there is a certain connoisseurship, and people arrange themselves along the spectrum between the not-enjoyable-by-anybody to someone like Dostoevsky who, you know, you're two pages in and, oh my God! This young man is planning to make himself a new Napoleon by hatcheting his landlady.
So it's a big tent, and I would really want to stress that there are all different kinds of pleasure. I come from a place, a household, where books were not really read very much except to children to help them succeed in life. And I think at some level I'm trying to write books that my parents, who were not readers, might be surprised to find themselves enjoying while also trying to provide some of the more literary pleasures that it takes awhile to learn how to appreciate.