Jonathan Franzen may be among the foremost novelists in America, but just one year removed from the publication of his latest masterpiece, ‘Freedom,’ the pain and struggle of literary creation seems far removed from his state of mind. At age 51, the writer whose four novels each resulted from epic, angst-ridden gestations, is on a sort of hiatus. His chief project is an HBO miniseries based on his 2001 breakthrough, ‘The Corrections,’ which he’s working on with filmmaker Noah Baumbach. He divides his time between Santa Cruz, California, and the Upper East Side of Manhattan, with various jaunts around the world to satisfy his extracurricular passion, bird watching. Franzen is no less intense than he was when I first met him 20 years ago, but seems far more comfortable in his skin, less the glowering outsider out to prove his talents to the world than a seasoned, successful artist who’s mastered his craft and found a certain ease in his eminence.
I’ve rarely read a book where I felt the interior lives of characters had been so obsessively pursued as they were in ‘Freedom.’ Is that something you set out to do?
The domain of the novel has been eroded by other art forms in the last 100, 150 years, and it makes sense to me to occupy myself with the stuff the novel still does better than any other form – getting down under the surface, under what we think we know about ourselves.
When you start a book, do you start with a character or a plot?
Character, character, character. My last three books have all started with the main female character or characters. They’re easier precisely because they can’t be mistaken for myself. It’s safe because the boundaries have been set up by the gender wall.
So no one is going to think it’s you.
I don’t really care what people think; it’s that I don’t have that experience of the wall coming down when I’m writing the character and suddenly it turning into me talking about what I’m like.
What’s your life like when you’re stalking a book?
Does part of you think, “I’ve been doing this for 30 years, I should just be able to sit down like Stephen King and start hitting the keys”?
One-half of me feels I ought to have learned something by now. Look what happened with ‘The Corrections’ – I am definitely a novelist now; there’s no question about it; I think this is the form I was born to create in – so I go in with this wonderful confidence, thinking anything I touch is going to turn to gold. Then it’s a year and a half, two years to be reduced to what Socrates reduced his interlocutors to, “speechless unknowing.”
You mostly wrote this book after your friend David Foster Wallace died, in 2008, right?
Yeah, 97 percent.
Was there a connection?
I felt his ghost throughout the book.
There’s a kind of natural, almost mysterious level of connection. I sold the book, unwritten, in 2007, and immediately set about trying to write it quickly to be out for the 2008 election. I was imagining a political novel. That’s one of the reasons I utterly failed to write it. The thought crossed my mind that I might be able to usefully be part of the political conversation. After five months, I was nowhere, so I gave up for a year. Just as I was starting to get going again, he killed himself. There was the immediate bodily grief of losing somebody I loved so much, but suicides generate a lot of anger, they hit the people closest to them, and I channeled that anger into a ferocious determination to write the book in a year. I picked up the tobacco thing again – I’d been off nicotine for years – and said, “Whatever it takes, I’m going to write this book in a year.” It was also a way of not really dealing with his death, like, As long as I have work to do, I can put that off.
How did that anger come out in the book?
I don’t think the anger came out in the book, because this book’s not about Dave. There was a point where it was seeming like it wanted to be more about Dave.
The Richard Katz character felt, to me, informed by Dave.
There was a little bit informed by Dave, but there was a point where I was struggling with the Katz character, and I realized I had two choices: I could make this guy me or make him Dave, and it was like, Fuck, I’m not going to make him Dave; it’s my book. But the anger was disabling, it was deforming the character, I was not loving that character the way I need to love a character, so I had to forcibly remove most traces of Dave.
It sounds like your impulse was to be pretty tough on him.
Dave was a more strenuously good person than I am. He really did walk through life trying to abide by certain hard-won moral principles, and consequently, he needed to isolate himself, whereas I was living in corrupt New York, playing a more rough-and-tumble literary game. Dave never wanted people to be mad at him. He scrupulously avoided anything that caused him to be disliked. I’ll say things that get people mad at me because, well, some people aren’t going to like me. Nothing I can do about it. Fuck ’em.
What did you think of bird watching before you got into it?
It seemed uncool. The defining moment was a walk I took in Central Park about 10 years ago at the peak of spring migration, and I had no idea how many kinds of incredibly interesting, beautiful birds there were in the park. I’d been walking in the park every day for years. So I had the revelation that there’s this huge thing going on in the world right in front of you, that you’ve walked past all your life. And I think it ties in with fiction writing in a way. As a fiction writer, you’re supposed to be listening carefully and looking carefully for the really interesting things that are not being noticed. And that’s really what birding is.
Do you do it in a methodical way – keeping notebooks and all that?
I keep records. I’m enough of a game player in all aspects of life. I enjoy the competition.
What’s the nature of the competition?
You’re sort of competing with yourself in the same way as when you’re playing a video game. You’re trying to outscore your last encounter with it.
So what do you do when you’re not bird watching? It’s hard to imagine you sitting around watching a football game.
Me watch a football game? In fact, that’s how I met my girlfriend, Kathy. We got to know each other watching Monday Night Football at The MacDowell [Writers] Colony. She comes from this huge Cal Bears family, and, you know, hatred of a particular team is a real portal for me. Through her, I was taught how to hate USC. I used to be a big baseball fan, but finally I felt, well, I’ve spent enough of my life watching baseball and reading box scores – except every day I look to see if the Yankees have lost. If they’ve lost, the day is just a little bit better. It’s the same thing with USC – especially in the Pete Carroll years when it was this big, unbeatable behemoth. And it tied in with my political sensibilities as well – the private university versus the state school.
Did you play any sports as a kid?
I was grossly, really horrendously uncoordinated as a teenager. And a part of that had to do with my eagerness. I had all this energy, and I couldn’t control my body. I would throw a basketball over the backboard consistently. My softball swing. I would tie myself in knots I was swinging so hard. I dreaded gym class. And it was a disservice because then I went to Swarthmore, which had a great tennis team. I just had it in my head that I’m not athletic. I didn’t realize until I was 30 that I had any athletic skill at all. That’s when I started playing tennis. And now I think, Oh, my God, if someone had gotten to me when I was 18 and taught me how to hit a tennis ball, I would have just had a better life.
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