The Rumpus One-Off Book Club Interviews Jonathan Franzen


The Rumpus (One-Off) Book Club talks with Jonathan Franzen about Freedom, what’s on his nightstand to read next, how he learned to like Republicans, and his aversion to research.

This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author and we post an edited version online as an interview. You can see the unedited discussion here. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Book Club click here.


Jonathan Franzen: Franzen here, checking in

Stephen Elliott: So, Jonathan, maybe we could just start with something basic. It was such a long stretch between novels.

Jonathan Franzen: Well, I was writing other things along the way.

Stephen Elliott: You produced a lot of great non-fiction in the meantime.

Jonathan Franzen: As periodic relief from the difficulty of writing a novel.

Stephen Elliott: Were you just waiting for it to happen? I wondered at one point if maybe you were done with novels.

Jonathan Franzen: No, no, I knew I wasn’t done yet.

Stephen Elliott: I think you said somewhere that it takes a year to write a novel but many years leading up to it. Am I quoting you right?

Jonathan Franzen: That’s exactly right. It’s very much like the proverbial iceberg.

Katharine Tillman: What happens in the many years leading up to it?

Jonathan Franzen: Failure, failure, failure is mostly what happens. But the failures start adding up to possibilities if you wait long enough.

Katharine Tillman: Failure is the only way to learn. Success teaches nothing… or does it? What has your success taught you?

Jonathan Franzen: The success of the Correx taught me that there are more – and more various – readers in this country than I ever would dared to hope for.

Elliot Macdonald: While they were written several years apart, I ended up reading The Corrections and Freedom quite closely together, and one thing that stuck out at me was that, while the characters in both novels obviously came with their fair share of problems, the characters in Freedom were much more likeable and redeeming overall. Was this perhaps just me, or do you think you wrote The Corrections from a much darker and more bitter place?

Jonathan Franzen: Thank you for noticing. Yes, there was more light in my life, if not in my room, during the writing of Freedom.

Hilary: Someone has to ask it, are you worried that with this book being an Oprah selection, people might not completely understand this novel as deeply as you might have liked?

Jonathan Franzen: Not worried, no, about Oprah’s fondness for the book interfering with other people’s experience of it.

Christine Neulieb: I’m wondering whether when you start a novel, you write a first draft that’s a big messy train wreck and go from there, or whether you tend to revise as you go?

Jonathan Franzen: No rough draft.

Donald Hines: How does one find the time to write or read or discuss novels in this era of fragmented communication?

Jonathan Franzen: For me it’s a matter of restricting Internet access to the late afternoon and early evening. Morning for writing, later evening for reading. But we all know how hard it is to resist electronic things.

Hilary: Is there a reason why the ending all came together so neatly? Is that the way you see life or the way you wish life could be.

Jonathan Franzen: I think sometimes amazing things do happen in people’s lives. Not often, and not to everyone. But sometimes.

Sara Campbell: People call you an ambitious writer. But do you set out huge goals for yourself, like capturing a generation? Or is this just what emerges?

Jonathan Franzen: “Capturing” is one of those words I don’t like. But I do like a novel that has a certain kind of reach and relevance, and I try to build novelistic foundations broad enough to allow it.

Katharine Tillman: Could you say something about the influence of War and Peace on Freedom?

Jonathan Franzen: Reading W&P is one of the great experiences a person can have, and I more and more think that the novelist’s job is to create powerful experiences… I was very taken with the character of Pierre, who is lovable because he wants to be good, and suffers terribly along the way. Hard not to want to steal that idea for a character.

Guest: Could you expand on why you think the nihilist novel doesn’t appeal to you as a writer? And if you have anything to say about David Shields’ Reality Hunger, which, you know, said the novel was dead.

Jonathan Franzen: Nihilism is cheap and easy. And the problem with Shields – I don’t even know where to begin.

Christine Neulieb: I was wondering how you decided to devote such a big chunk of the text to Patty’s autobiography instead of keeping the authorial voice throughout, especially when it seems like you intentionally blend your voice with Patty’s own during the autobiography.

Jonathan Franzen: But Patty’s autobiog: it’s so rare that I happen upon a voice I like, I couldn’t not use hers. As for the blending, well, I didn’t want to take another year to fix that….

Stephen Elliott: Have you read much Bolano? There seemed to be some influence in Freedom.

Jonathan Franzen: Bolano’s near the top of my nightstand reading pile, but I’m currently still quite innocent of influence.

Hilary: Your sentences are so well crafted. Do you spend much time on them or do they just flow from you?

Jonathan Franzen: I don’t think so much about sentences anymore, though for a long time I did. These days I’m just trying to make them adequate, and to press them into the service of the story. I use to revise heavily, now not so much.

Stephen Elliott: That’s interesting. I’ve heard that from a couple of other writers, about the story taking over.

Jonathan Franzen: Not so much that the story takes over, but that I want the writing to be an invisible medium of writer-to-reader transmission.

Elliot Macdonald: Why such a different reaction now to when The Corrections was selected [for the Oprah book club]? Did you perhaps feel that Freedom was an inherently better fit for the book club, or has your attitude towards the idea simply changed over time?

Jonathan Franzen: Oprah’s book club has changed a lot, and I’ve changed somewhat myself, but I was never opposed to doing the show – just worried about certain side issues like the logo and the B-roll footage and a certain kind of reader who reflexively hates Oprah’s picks.

Guest: This is something we’ve touched on in the discussions… how much research do you do for a story like this one?

Jonathan Franzen: I avoid it as much as possible. It gets in the way of invention. But I did go to West Virginia for four days, and I have some helpful sources in the Twin Cities.

Guest: No one ever asks about Eliza: she was such a major part of Patty’s early adulthood, and I wonder if she was meant to provoke Patty rushing towards the stable opposite (Walter). In many ways she seems like his opposite, and the catalyst for Patty choosing to be with him.

Jonathan Franzen: Thanks for noticing Eliza! I wasn’t sure what she was doing in the book, but I kept her in part for the very reason you mention.

Mia: Why was the story never told from Jessica’s [point of view]? It felt like that was missing. Is she really just exactly what she seems?

Jonathan Franzen: Jessica’s a little too well-adjusted to be interesting to this kind of novelist. Her crises probably lie in her future.

Peter Knox: Your characters can be so “unlikable” at times and “detestable” at others, do you worry that readers might have a hard time caring about them?

Jonathan Franzen: I worry about the likability vs. interestingness problem constantly. It’s up there with point of view and voice at the top of my to-do list when I’m working.

Peter Knox: I think empathy and sympathy are the strongest connections a reader could have.

Jonathan Franzen: Well, yes. I work from the premise that at some level I love and like myself, and from there I venture into the most uncomfortable parts of me that I can bear to look at. The resulting characters aren’t unlikable to me, therefore; but I have to think hard about how they appear to others.

Claudine: It seems as though there are characters in the novel that people are drawn to. E.g., Eliza towards Patty, Eliza towards Richard, Connie towards Joey… is there a particular quality that these folks have that make them loved in that way?

Jonathan Franzen: I wanted to do a book in which the main characters are chased, rather than chasing (and failing). The latter is easier, and tends to be funny, but I wanted to write from the other side, which is the side I’ve experienced… I haven’t had the experience of being the funny, lovable slacker with a hopeless crush on someone unattainable.

Sara Campbell: Can you [go] back to your comment about understanding for the first time why people would want to be a Republican?

Jonathan Franzen: I spent a summer trying to be The New Yorker’s D.C. correspondent, and I had the enlightening experience of hanging out with lots of Republicans I really liked as people. And I guess I have an Obaman optimism about the possibility of working across the chasms of rage.

Carolina: It seems like in various cases in this book, the characters actively push the limits of others’ devotion to them. Why is this an interesting point of exploration to you?

Jonathan Franzen: I’m always going for peak drama, which tends to be found at the extremes.

Elliot Macdonald: One thing I have noticed about your writing is that it often deals with the love between two people of the same sex. Not necessarily in a sexual sense … but in Freedom it works on a more emotional level, i.e. between Patty and Eliza or between Walter and Richard. What do you think has drawn you to exploring these kinds of relationships?

Jonathan Franzen: A great question, which I’m afraid I can answer briefly only by referring to how closely eros and writing are connected in my mind. The search for writable forms of desire tends to make me see erotic love everywhere.

Claudine: I sobbed at the end… but it was very touching the way it all played out. Do you think the ending is a happy one? I didn’t quite get that sense…wondered what you intended?

Jonathan Franzen: Thank you for being moved. I didn’t see the ending as happy or sad particularly: what I mainly wanted was a feeling of authentic ending. Which is what M. Silverblatt once lambasted me for wanting.

Thel Madonna: I’d like to hear about how you were edited – to what degree.

Jonathan Franzen: I wasn’t edited, per se, but Lorin Stein, now of The Paris Review, gave the MS an incredibly close and thoughtful reading, and I spent nearly a week making changes in response.

Linda: What else is on the nightstand… to read?

Jonathan Franzen: A Gate at the Stairs is the top book on the pile.

Robin Sampson: Do you have a next novel in mind?

Jonathan Franzen: Vague ideas, almost certain to lead to further failures….

Stephen Elliott: But you are going to write another novel…

Jonathan Franzen: Yes, Stephen. ASAP. Which may not be all that soon.

Carolina: What sort of non-fiction do you enjoy reading? Anything lately of note?

Jonathan Franzen: Loved Michael Lewis’s The Big Short.

Allison: Could the ending also be an example of one way we unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, limit our freedoms? By putting up these imaginary walls for people and events that can sometimes take a second, in this case looking into another person’s eyes, to bring down. Maybe the ending doesn’t have to seem like a “neat wrap up,” but an example of a freedom we do have but often forget or fail to use.

Jonathan Franzen: I hate to encourage or discourage interpretations, but I will say that you’re really on the right track here.

Stephen Elliott: Do you have any idea where you’re going when you start writing a novel?

Jonathan Franzen: I have some idea where I’m going, but not much. Not till the very end.


This interview was edited by Karen Duffin.

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