A couple of years ago I interviewed Jonathan Franzen for The Sunday Business Post (paywall, alas). The occasion was the publication of Purity, a book I liked very much. This is a lightly edited transcript of our chat, which took place in the Merrion Hotel, Dublin, on 5th October 2015.
KP I want to ask you a couple of process questions.
JF Okay, yes, absolutely.
You make a lot of notes, you talk to yourself.
They’re not very concrete notes, by and large.
What’s the tone of those notes?
It’s basically variations on the theme of “What is wrong with me?” “What is the problem?” “Why is this not working?” I think it’s closer…It’s what you do in psychotherapy. We all imagine eavesdropping on somebody else’s psychotherapy and I think by and large it’s probably not very interesting, because it goes in circles, it tends to be rather obsessive, and maybe to the outside observer would seem kind of beside the point. It would be a question like, “Am I allowed… Isn’t it weird to have three sections of this book from the point of view of a 24-year old woman? Isn’t that creepy?” And trying to talk myself into the permission to doing that [sic], or… uh… yeah. Three or four months might be spent on “What is his line of work? What is that character’s line of work?”
And what solves that problem? Something you come across in the paper, or…
It’s a really hard problem actually, what the character does. And we’d be rich men if we had a dollar for every architect or molecular biologist in a novel. Architect is just right. And my heart sinks whenever there’s an architect in a novel, because it’s so clearly, “Oh, I want something sort of artistic, like, you don’t want to be too on the money!” It doesn’t sink as far as it does when I find out there’s a writer
What’s that Gore Vidal line, where he says the protagonist of a novel will inevitably practise the one art form his creator knows nothing about.
Exactly. That’s good. Haven’t heard that one, I’ll start recycling that immediately.
So it’s fruitless questioning, the form the notes take.
I don’t want to have an outline for the book. Yet I’m trying to understand what I might be doing in it. Typically I’ll start with – the questioning doesn’t even start, usually, until I have something? The first section of this book I wrote really quickly.
Oh, that preceded the rest?
[Very dry] “What does he do for a living?” [laughs]
Held you up for a while, huh?
Yes. Tom Aberant had been a kind of fading midlevel Hollywood actor for quite a while. Then he was a math whiz. A collector of antique computing devices, for a while. He was the Chief Financial Officer for the McCaskell Corporation, which does still appear in the book, involved in a bitter proxy battle… And each of those conceptions involved writing pages that weren’t working.
And yet the whole novel hinges on him being a journalist.
Yes it does. So that tells you how little I planned in advance.
That seems extraordinary, because it’s a very complex plot. If I’d guessed, I would have said that the first section would have been one of the last written.
That’s where I was just discovering what the plot might be. Part of the process is writing yourself into corners. Setting up devilishly hard problems to solve, because the solving of them maintains the writer’s interest, and hopefully the reader’s interest.
You mentioned the potential creepiness of writing from the POV of a 20-year old girl. And Andreas is a character who’s kind of at war with his own creepiness.
I think that’s correct. It was useful to therefore have him in the book. I could offload a lot of the creepiness onto him. Because I had a particular fondness for him as a character. But there again, I knew that he had killed someone as a young man, and I thought, well there’s a sympathy problem for you. And so there was a lot of time spent trying to find a way that it would be okay for him to have killed someone. Not great, but okay. Sub-ideal, killing people in cold blood and getting away with it. [laughs]
It’s not the most direct route to sympathy.
No, exactly. And I had Annagret in the first chapter as an annoying German peace activist. And it took me a long, long time to figure out, Oh, Andreas knew her.
That genuinely took me by surprise, you’ll probably be glad to hear.
Good, yes. Perhaps we shouldn’t be talking about it in an interview, spoiler-wise.
You have an essay, “On Autobiographical Fiction,” in which you say that the problem of the novel is in some senses overcoming shame, depression, and guilt. What form did that struggle take with Purity?
[Long pause] You know in five years I might be willing to talk more openly about that. The guilt and the shame are still fresh. I wrote that autobiography piece about The Corrections, which had been out for many years, and I felt that it was safe to talk about it by that point. [Incredibly long pause] The guilt and the shame actually are hand in hand. I think if you spend a lot of time alone, as you know, you start feeling sort of monstrous? And it can seem that writing itself is a monstrous thing to do. You are opening up precisely the kind of thing that most people spend their lives keeping securely under lock and key. You worry about collateral damage. Even if you make everything up, you still feel like you’re somehow pillaging your own experience, stealing from your experience of other people. [Pause] So… So it’s hard for me to want to answer your question with specifics. [laughs]
Maybe in five years.
Maybe in five years, yeah.
One of the striking things about The Corrections is the way in which it ventriloquizes various languages that, since the book came out, have become ever more centrally the languages of our moment – economics, neuroscience, pharmacology.
But in Freedom and in Purity there seems to be a move towards a cleaner prose. Is that something you’ve felt occurring naturally or was that a conscious decision to move away from parodying or satirising those languages?
Certainly the satirical impulse went away. And as Pip herself says near the end of the book, losing that hostility came with the risk of being less funny, which was alarming to me. But I am just generally less angry.
Is that because of success?
It’s unclear why I was ever so angry. But yes, having an actual – having put stuff out there that was enormously difficult to write because I was so ashamed of it, and hearing a lot of people say, “Oh, that’s me,” or “I know that character, I know that person” – I thought, this is so freakish, how dare I put this out there? It’s just hard to feel angry at the world that contains those readers. But also, once I hit my forties, it seems like the obligation of the writer is to entertain the possibility that they’re wrong about everything. I think I became much less sure of what’s right and what’s wrong. So a certain kind of moral outrage and moral certitude were no longer possible. The language… [long pause] It took me a long time to get Freedom going, and whenever I was writing in that Corrections vein, it felt like I was just repeating myself. And it seemed like I was showing off and I just started hating that. And also realised that although I was good at it, I’m better at other things? And that language can start to get in the way of things I’m better at?
So is there a conscious pursuit of, towards a kind of clearer line, as opposed to a more metaphorical line?
Yes. The Corrections was such a riot of metaphor. I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life as a writer trying to top it.
Can I tell you what my favourite line from The Corrections is?
Gary has called Enid to tell her the kids won’t be coming to her for Christmas. And the line is, “This camel of disappointment balked at the needle of Enid’s willingness to apprehend it.”
Which I laugh at on a regular basis. So thank you.
Yeah. But also, I actually think it’s generally true of most writers that the writing becomes more transparent as they get older. It could simply be that the brain becomes less elastic. And I also didn’t want to – it finally seemed [long pause]…It’s not that I don’t still want the sentences to pop. I want them to pop. But I want them to pop… But I don’t want them to pop with thought. I don’t necessarily care about how many Ls are in a sentence. And I did, actually, you know, I was so microscopically attuned to prose in The Corrections that it really did seem to matter how many Ls and Rs were there.
But it creates an extraordinary prose.
Yes… yes. So let no one say I can’t do it if I want to.
The prose in this novel does seem transparent. You’re reading page after page going, this is a window into the psychological processes of these characters, and then you come to a paragraph of description, and it’s a description of Santa Cruz and the fog rolling in, it arrives, I think about sixty pages in and it’s quite striking, because it seems like a return to the outside world.
The fog paw.
The fog paw. Exactly.
I did also discover that that kind of effect, if deployed sparingly, has more impact than if it’s paragraph after paragraph. But the psychology is so much more interesting to me, ultimately, than anything you can do lyrically.
And is that part of growing older as a writer, more experienced?
[Truly epic pause, chooses following words with unbelievable care] I felt that I had not seen a bad marriage done to my satisfaction. Yeah. At my age, knowing what I know and having written what I’ve written, I felt like I could do something I hadn’t seen before, at a level of intensity and specificity that I hadn’t seen. And I think it’s actually hard to do both.
You have to sacrifice the lyricism a little.
And that chapter – Tom’s chapter – it puts you through the wringer.
And you could describe the entire book as a package for that section. A tower of candy with a bitter poisoned centre.
I mean it reminded me horribly of at least one relationship I’ve had.
Which Freedom also did – Connie and Joey in Freedom, which seems like a rehearsal for this. The hermetic quality of those relationships, you capture very well.
Thank you for noticing that.
That hermeticism, I’ve been there, I’ve been in that.
And I haven’t seen it done on the page.
That was the thing. Whereas I read Lolita or Pnin, and I say man, I just couldn’t sustain that level of syntactical and imagistic and metaphorical excellence, page after page, without that being the only thing I was doing.
But it becomes oppressive in Nabokov, I think.
I think it does, too.
There’s a mausoleum quality to this, page after page of flawless—
Updike has that effect on me, yeah. I think this is the prose I always wanted to write, but I was so scared when I was younger, and I was so hungry for acknowledgement that I was really a novelist worth taking note of that I didn’t let myself relax and write the way I’m meant to write until Freedom and this book, this book in particular.
My editor has obliged me—
Okay, yes, go ahead!
In terms of your public profile, there’s a persistent note of – hostility, I guess is the only word. I have an acquaintance – a female academic – whose Facebook newsfeed is pretty much devoted almost exclusively to finding fault with you and your out-of-context quotations in the Guardian and so forth. That level of hostility you seem to provoke, I wonder why that is, because to me that you’re articulating, that you should be on the same side as people like that.
[very dry] It’s puzzling. I don’t read it, so I don’t know what the particular beef is. I actually asked an audience at Norwich last week, because some woman had brought it up – an unhappy sort of person had brought it up. And I said, “What is it I’m accused of?” Of course she had no idea. She’d only just come armed with quotation. And so I actually asked the whole room, it was 500 people or something, to get a concrete sense…
That’s a brave thing to do!
Well [laughs]. What is it feminists in particular are finding fault with in me? And it’s things like, my books are obsessed with looks.
I think you could go through the 1500-odd pages of Corrections, Freedom & Purity without finding much in the way of describing looks.
No, I make a point of not doing physical descriptions of characters anymore. I realised I tend to skip past those myself as a reader. Some facts are important, but then you have to keep hitting on them.
Do you think it’s a problem where, you are overidentified with a character like Andreas Wolf, who as I said is sort of defined by his war with his own creepiness – let’s say that less experienced readers aren’t seeing what you’re doing as a kind of sympathetic project to imagine yourself into a character, they’re reading in a kind of single-entendre way, you know, “These must be the thoughts of Jonathan Franzen!”
But that is so stunningly stupid that you wonder, does this person know how to read fiction at all? Here are people who clearly don’t know how to read a novel. [Anguished] Why do they care? It’s genuinely puzzling to me. My best theory is that what is frustrating to a certain kind of extreme person is that I’m not extreme. I’m not an elitist. In fact I write these rather popular novels. But I’m also not purely a populist. I have aesthetic standards. I have literary cred. I’m not a sexist ogre, in fact anyone who knows anything about me and my history knows that I’m a lifelong feminist. But that’s frustrating because it’s actually more convenient if I were an ogre, and it threatens the foundations of people’s extremism to have someone visible who is not extreme.
What’s it like, living with the knowledge that out there, there is the ogre version of you?
Andreas gets into it. You can either… If you start caring about what your persona is online there’s no end to it. So to me it’s a binary situation, you either engage with it and it takes over your life, or you ignore it and you get to have a life. It’s easy for me to ignore it. Why would I want to read people saying nasty things about me? What’s the fun in that? I really do have better things to do. It’s a little hard to think that people who know me a little – my neighbours in my apartment building in New York – that they’re, “Oh!” It’s sort of embarrassing to think of them happening upon some hateful site and thinking, “Wow, we thought he was a nice guy but he turns out to be horrible.” I think it’s easier than a lot of people remember not to pay any attention to your online persona.
And yet you clearly know the internet incredibly well, I mean the style, the tone of online discourse…
Yes. You know, a little goes a long way. No, I mean, I’m on the internet all the time. And people will recount to me the nature of the discourse. When I published this piece on climate change and conservation in the spring, the result was not a discussion of the issues I’d raised, most of which I think was fairly incontrovertible, but this full-on ad hominem attack. Before I could delete it, I would glimpse some of the headlines from the bloggers. You know, “Bird-brain.”
Some subeditor stayed up all night thinking of that one.
Exactly, right? And it also doesn’t take a particularly subtle analysis to understand the economic model of the internet, which is all about clicks, and that the very economic structure of it will penalise moderation. Once you’ve seen a little immoderation, and read a couple of books about the internet, you get why things are the way they are. And I’m as compulsive as the next person. I just try to channel. I’m not looking at Twitter feeds, but I certainly am following certain baseball games inning by inning.
The Guardian recently had this Iraqi orphan story…
A story that was told in Time magazine, properly, five years ago. So not only was it a Daily Mailish, idiotic thing for the Guardian to do but it wasn’t even news. It was like, they were so stupid, and I hate them so much for it. And I’m so sympathetic with the editor who wrote the piece, Emma Brockes, because no one was talking about her piece. I didn’t read it, of course, but people told me it was a good piece. And I could tell talking to her, this is a real person with a brain. And it all got swept away by the click imperative.
I have a friend who’s also a writer, and we often wonder – How do you know so much? I guess the question is, how do you stay in touch with the larger stupidity? The moronic inferno?
The moronic inferno. I don’t really know that much, I make a lot of stuff up. And once you get over the sense of responsibility to facts…
…then it doesn’t take much to set up the parameters that you can invent. I do think I have some gift at it. I could swear it comes out of my laziness as a student and my particular hatred of doing research. I think I learned early on to get a sense of how things work and then bullshit my way through?
It’s very convincing.
But the key developments in Purity were when – one of the key developments was when I went out to dinner with an East German friend of mine and told her what I intended to do with the character of Andreas. She said, “That is completely impossible. Here’s why.” I was disappointed to hear this. She said, “Here’s what would be possible. Not likely, but possible.” So she basically drew, with rather heavy ink she drew this circle within which – a circle of possibility within which I could just make it up. I also [long pause]… I’m not being disingenuous, I’m not being falsely modest, I really don’t like doing research, I don’t know that much stuff. But it happens that my spouse equivalent, all the time, she will ask me a question about science or technology, and I will give her such a plausible answer, basically just out of my hat, that she’s completely satisfied by. “That’s a great story, I believe that!” And often I’m right! Often it happens, because I did do a lot of reading about science and technology at various points in my life. But sometimes like weeks later I’ll discover, Oh, I was completely wrong. [laughs] The point is that there’s not that much information in a midsize novel like I write. Once you subtract dialogue and “He got up from the table and answered the door,” it’s a rather small number of actual facts anyway. So what you’re really I think describing is much more about form and about tone. Everything has to be ultimately formal, because it’s just words on the page, arranged according to some pattern. And I suspect that if I were ever interested – which of course I’m the opposite of interested – I could give you an account of exactly how authority is established. And it’s mimicry, too. You hear things and you get the sound of them in your head. I kind of know how Texans talk. “I want you to get buck-naked and lay on it.” I grew up close enough to the South to know that’s what they say.
[laughs] So it’s the ear.
Yeah, it’s ear and then a bunch of subliminal formal tricks to give the impression of great authority.
How do you feel about The Twenty-Seventh City now? Do you look at it often?
[laughs] As seldom as I can. I like to say it was an impressive book for a 25-year-old to have written. But there again, where do my facts come from? The facts all came from listening to the radio when I was growing up. Just a good publicly-minded CBS affiliate in St Louis. And you get these phrases in your head. Why do you ask?
I’m always curious about how writers feel about their early stuff.
I was trying so hard to be impressive. It’s difficult for me, I can so see through it now. When I do look at it, I will say sometimes, Oh, well that’s a good sentence. But I can’t see that book any more. I can’t see it. I’m not quite embarrassed enough to have it pulled off the market.
I think you should stand by it. It’s important.
Thank you. There’s a James Fenton poem about owning up to what you were. How important it is and how hard it is to actually say, I was that.
And of course when you’re a writer it’s on the record, it’s there.
How do you feel about the – for want of a better phrase – academic canonisation of your friend David Foster Wallace? I have another friend, an academic, and he’s a serious DFW guy.
That stuff mattered to Dave so much more than it did to me. And I know that that’s what he went after. It seems to me natural and good for him that he got what he wanted.
But you don’t covet it yourself.
[uncertainly] No. No, I’d rather be loved than studied. Which is not to say that the people who study Wallace don’t love it.
Passionately, in some cases.
Passionately in some cases. But he came from an academic family and that whole dynamic made sense to him, and I come from an aggressively egalitarian family that was suspicious of the academy, they couldn’t wait to get done with school. There was no way I was not getting a Bachelor’s degree, my parents would have killed me, but man was I happy to get away from that drag. And I know what’s in my books. I know that if somebody wants to find stuff it’s there. But I don’t care if they’re looking.
You want to be read.
[long pause] Yeah, it’s nice to feel you matter to somebody. But people send me their Master’s theses about The Corrections and I just, I don’t want to look at them. Whereas if somebody comes up to me when I’m signing books and says, “You got something about my marriage that I’ve never seen anywhere else, I felt ashamed of it, I don’t feel so ashamed,” I’m like – why would you want to have a paper written about you when you can have [that]. And again, it’s not to belittle Dave’s work, because I think, especially for people — [Franzen’s publicist interrupts] Give us a few more minutes. We’re having a nice time. Uh… I think Dave’s work has intense meaning for people who know the kind of territory he lived in.
Is he still there for you, as a – rival is the wrong word.
Rival? Not so much, no. He was, still, when I was writing Freedom, but I kind of shut the door on that. I’m annoyed by – canonisation is fine. The sanctification irritates me. All these supposed Wallace scholars and fans lining up to like that shit Lipsky movie.
Which I haven’t seen.
Well why would you see it?
It’s a terrible book. I mean it’s good to the extent that it’s Wallace—
But Lipsky is a terrible writer.
Exactly. But the project is a stinker from the start. People say, “Oh, Jason Segal really nails Dave.” Oh, really? How did you know Dave? “Well I’ve seen a total of whatever, 316 minutes of his public appearances.”
With a certain kind of writer, and I think you are that kind of writer, people feel they know you. I had a hell of a time coming up with stuff to talk to you about, because in a sense I’ve been talking to you since I read The Corrections, what, 12, 14 years ago.
So is the movie a kind of wrongheaded attempt to grab that impulse we have with writers we admire…?
[pause] I think it’s a cynical project. [pause] It’s wrapping David Lipsky and those horrid producers in a mantle of somebody else’s suffering.
I feel obliged to ask you about – Trump, Sanders, 2016 – what’s your sense of it?
I’d love to see that race. I don’t think we will. But they’re perfect social media candidates. And I mean that as meanly as I possibly can.
The worst case scenario seems like a Jeb Bush presidency. I mean Trump seems like a cartoon who’ll self-destruct at some point over the next year.
He’s got to, right? [pause] Italy sort of survived Berlusconi. It’s not like the Republic will die, no matter who is elected. In the dark years of Bush who could have seen that we’d elect a black intellectual as President?
You met Obama, right?
I did meet him, yes. I liked him a lot!
He seems increasingly attenuated, as a presence.
Yeah. [pause] He’s immensely smart. And he’s immensely well-read, which means that when he does an important speech, he really connects with it, because he’s connecting with the speeches he’s read, great speeches in American history and world history that he’s read. And he’s speaking in a context that makes sense to him, which is the history of great speeches. He has no skill for connecting with people, as far as I can tell. I liked him, but then, I’m a pointy-headed intellectual. We talked about Presidential history.
I get the sense that he’s seriously reigning in the pointy-headedness.
He tries. He overuses the word [flawless Obama impersonation] “folks.” I dunno. The world’s a mess, and who the American President is is only a small part of why it’s a mess. It’s gonna be a mess with a good President, it’s gonna be a mess with a bad President.
But the Neocons did so much damage, do you not think a Hilary presidency would be slightly more ameliorative in the short term than a Jeb Bush presidency?
[truly epic pause] What is anyone going to do about the Middle East? What is anyone going to do about climate change? I’m much more persuaded by an analysis of the world that looks at the wealthiest ten per cent and understands that as a totally transnational phenomenon and that the wealthy Chinese, the wealthy people in Singapore, the wealthy people in India, the wealthy people in England, have much more in common with each other than, say, China and Vietnam do. So there are so many interesting, mostly dystopian ways to think about the future, having to do with this ever-more-solidifying divide between people who have a whole lot and people who don’t have much. I see the Internet as basically peddling digital democracy and in fact hastening the solidification of that division between the seriously wealthy and everybody else. And you can see it in a very practical way in what’s happening to freelance writers. Content providers get paid nothing. Platforms get rich. Maybe I myself am falling victim to the capitalist narrative – the capitalist narrative is libertarian and anti-government, it speaks in terms of government’s irrelevance. And yet, I’m at least resisting that overall narrative, but even so perhaps what I’m succumbing to is a feeling of, Ugh, does it even really matter that much? So I’ve got my issues, like who’s gonna do a better job of maintaining our environmental protections and our commitment to species other that ourselves, and obviously the Democrats would do a much better job. But neither Clinton nor Obama was any good. And Al Gore evidently didn’t really want to be President, so, there you are. On that note, perhaps…
You need to go eat.
I need to go eat… I hope we got something you can use. Very nice talking to you.