A conversation with novelist Jonathan Franzen.

A Conversation With Jonathan Franzen

A Conversation With Jonathan Franzen

Interviews with a point.
July 31 2016 6:03 PM

Jonathan Franzen on Fame, Fascism, and Why He Won’t Write a Book About Race

An exclusive conversation with the novelist.

Jonathan Franzen.
Jonathan Franzen.

Watter Al Bahry

“Manhattan is just all bank branches,” said Jonathan Franzen as he walked through the living room of his home in Santa Cruz, California. When he visits his former neighborhood on the Upper East Side these days, he can only think: “This was a nice grocery store; now it’s a bank. This was a nice liquor store; now it’s a bank.” Santa Cruz, a college town and beach city, suits him better. Franzen’s house, though part of a generic housing development, is perched on a beautiful ravine with a lovely view of both the ocean and the conservation area below. There are plenty of opportunities for birding, which Franzen loves. (When the conversation happened to turn to Jamaica, he casually stated that he had seen 27 of the island’s 29 unique bird species.) He shares the place with his longtime partner, Kathy Chetkovich, also a writer.

Isaac Chotiner Isaac Chotiner

Isaac Chotiner is a Slate staff writer.

I first caught sight of Franzen, casually dressed, picking up his mail outside. Inside, the modest living room is tidy, and less book-heavy than one might expect. Franzen is now 56, but despite his grayish hair and unshaven chin, his face is still boyish. For someone so often characterized as remote or even curmudgeonly, he is strikingly friendly and inquisitive. When I confessed under questioning that I am not a birder, he recommended the practice with passionate generosity, offering specific locations I could visit in my hometown of Oakland, California, and doing so with the sincerity of someone who is not trying to tell you how to behave but rather suggesting something that he believes will genuinely offer you pleasure.

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Franzen published his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, in 1988. But it wasn’t until his third book, The Corrections (2001), that he became the subject of both widespread adulation and controversy. Ever since he skirmished with Oprah Winfrey—the media equivalent of invading Russia—after The Corrections was chosen for her book club, he has largely avoided doing publicity. He straddles the line between highbrow and middlebrow, a hugely successful commercial novelist who can seem uncomfortable with the commercial success of his work. When he does give interviews or write essays, those forays into public life have almost always been contentious.

In just the past few years, for example, he was widely mocked for saying he had considered adopting an Iraqi orphan and criticized for writing an article on climate change in the New Yorker, in which he claimed that the scale of the problem meant that humans were giving short shrift to pressing matters such as bird conservation. His critics have at times gleefully slotted him into the role of “clueless white male novelist,” an out-of-touch egghead who, they argue, occupies more of the cultural limelight than he deserves.

Freedom, published in 2010, and Purity, released last year, were both 500-plus-page novels that provoked considerable praise and then fierce debate about whether their glowing reception was overblown—and a symptom of gender bias in literary criticism. Purity, which is out in paperback on Tuesday, has already been sold to television—Daniel Craig will star in the Showtime adaptation as Andreas, the Julian Assange–esque character who dominates much of the globe-spanning (and partially Santa Cruz–set) story.

Before the interview began, Franzen asked whether I wanted an espresso and suggested we sit at the table so he wouldn’t be tempted to doze off. We talked for more than an hour. He would often pause for very long periods of time before answering my questions; he enunciates carefully and clearly cares about finding the appropriate term—although in the service of proper diction, rather than political correctness. But he would also occasionally get excited and start speaking with a theatrical quickness.

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During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the impact of fame on a writer, whether he’ll ever write a novel about race, and the state of Donald Trump’s mental health.

Isaac Chotiner: It’s been a weird year for America. Has the way you think about the country changed in some fundamental way?

Jonathan Franzen: Well, there are two different big things going on now. One is the state of race relations, and the other, which really is independent of that—although there are points of intersection—is the rise of Trump and Sanders as either nomination-clinching or nearly nomination-clinching protest candidates. Race is very much in the news right now because of these police shootings.

That feels like a separate phenomenon. I read someone pointing out, I think it was in the New Yorker, that radicalism tends to arise not when things are toughest but when people have been offered some hope that has not been delivered on.

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Have you ever considered writing a book about race?

I have thought about it, but—this is an embarrassing confession—I don’t have very many black friends. I have never been in love with a black woman. I feel like if I had, I might dare.

[I adjust the microphone, which he stares at for a moment.] Good, good, good. The mic. Got the mic pointed toward me. I am doing all the talking here. [Pauses.]

You were saying you have never been in love with a black woman.

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Right. Didn’t marry into a black family. I write about characters, and I have to love the character to write about the character. If you have not had direct firsthand experience of loving a category of person—a person of a different race, a profoundly religious person, things that are real stark differences between people—I think it is very hard to dare, or necessarily even want, to write fully from the inside of a person.

In the case of Purity, I had all this material on Germany. I had spent 2½ years there. I knew the literature fairly well, and I could never write about it because I didn’t have any German friends. The portal to being able to write about it was suddenly having these friends I really loved. And then I wasn’t the hostile outsider; I was the loving insider.

Well, there are obviously characters in your novels who are unlovable.

Well, how would you define love?

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I was wondering what you meant by love, actually.

Hmmmmmm.

Early in Purity it goes into Pip’s head where she is listing what it meant to love her mother: pitied her, suffered with her, felt an unsettling attraction to her body, wished her greater happiness, found her dear. I think it has to do with recognizing that another person is another person and getting that in a deep way. And wanting to be with that person and enjoying being with that person in spite of their flaws. So, like, [in Purity,] Andreas has many repellent features, but because he had a messed-up childhood, and because I think he has probably struggled all his life with mental illness, and because I have known people like that, and because he wasn’t just an evil person—he was constantly struggling to become a better person—I was very moved by that wish of his, which I think is an authentic wish, to be a better person. That was my point of connection to him. No matter what he is doing, he is aware of what he is doing, and he is thinking about it, and he tries to be honest. He has many fine characteristics too. And also, you know, a lot of love is identification. And I am, you know, a person of many parts. And not all those parts are necessarily stuff I’d like to broadcast to the world in nonfictional form.

This interview is the place to do it.

Exactly. I know what paranoia is like. I know what it is like to worry about what people are saying about you, and become obsessed with what people are saying about you. All these things that [Andreas] experiences—he is at a much higher level of fame than any writer could have—but some of the stuff about fame, you know, I identified with that.

Have you ever gotten obsessed with what people are saying about you?

[Long pause.] In a really negative way, yes. In that I go to extraordinary lengths not to hear what people are saying about me. But that is itself a form of, well, it’s a form of self-protection because I know that all I have to do is hear one phrase—somebody will report to me all innocently, oh, somebody said such-and-such about me or about something I wrote, like I did this piece for the New Yorker a year-and-a-half ago where I made some, I thought, sensible points about the reality of climate change and the unavoidability of radical climate change, and people said, “Oh God, somebody called you a birdbrain. Somebody called you a climate change denier.” And all it takes is one little phrase like that, and I will lie awake for hours at night constructing pithy, lacerating rejoinders to some idiotic … truly, just a phrase is enough to keep me awake for hours.

It seems like you are very willing to weigh in on controversial subjects, though.

Well, yeah.

That’s somewhat surprising if you know the response is going to hurt you.

Well, that’s right, but you can only be hurt if you hear the response.

Right, but these things have a way of trickling down to us.

Things do have a way of occasionally getting around the firewall, but it’s a complicated equation. I am aware of having been very fortunate—probably objectively over-rewarded as an American novelist and occasional journalist and essayist—and I am aware that I began with privileges that I had nothing to do with, starting with good health, starting with being white, parents who were such-and-such, brothers who were such-and-such, good education up to a certain point, and also, because I am over-rewarded, I don’t have to worry about making the mortgage every month. So I feel like because I have these privileges, these luxuries, I should try to speak up whenever I can because I am much better positioned to take the punishment than someone in a less secure place would be. That’s part of it.

I’m so not confrontational; I don’t think of myself as a brave person, but I suspect that if this country fell into fascism, and journalists were being persecuted and freedom of speech was being trampled on, I would probably stand up and get myself shot over it, just because there are a few things I really care about.

Do stupid comments on social media get to you? What about a long and thoughtful review? Do you engage with that sort of thing?

No. I don’t even read positive reviews unless they are absolutely certified by eight different people to not contain one thing that could upset me.

Really?

Yes. You know, even a really nice review will say, will make some little fig leaf of criticism—not a fig leaf but just a sort of pro forma criticism, because they don’t want to be seen as completely abjectly positive, when of course all the writer really wants to read is abjectly positive. And it’s like, [imitative voice] “That was a great review, it would have been so much better if you didn’t have that one little paragraph of criticism.” [Laughs.] “Because I disagree with your criticism! Don’t you see why I did that?!” Or, or, better yet, a review which is like a total rave but they get some fact wrong, and then they criticize you because they have misread it. And it’s like “Arrrrrrrrghhh, it’s clear in the book, you just misread it.” It’s like, why would you want to do that?

I don’t want you to feel like you have to lie on the couch for this question, but why do things like that bother you so much?

[Gets up.]

Are you going to lie on the couch?

No, no. [Takes my water glass to refill.]

So why do you think it bothers you so much?

Well, I don’t think it is just me.

You think you are just more honest about it?

I don’t know about that. One of the great Denny Hastert lines was, “I don’t blow my own horn about my own humility.”

OK, well.

You can get lost in that particular sentence and spend several minutes trying to find your way out of it.

I am doing that right now.

I don’t know how humble I am.

My longtime book editor Jonathan Galassi likes to say, [does deep voice] “Writers never forget a slight.” I think it is universal. We never forget a slight. Writers are incredibly envious, and they also, yeah, never forget a slight.

Are there writers you envy?

I don’t feel that so much now that I am settled in who I am.

But in the cartoon universe of the writer’s imagination, every two years, three years, four years, five years, the entire nation should put down what it is doing and pay attention for several months to that writer’s new book. And it should be reviewed everywhere, and there should be endless packed houses wanting to hear what that writer has written, and it should stay atop the best-seller list for several years, and then all should fall quiet until the next book comes out. So no matter how well you are doing, if you don’t have a book out, and you are seeing somebody get attention, there is a little part of you that says, “Why are they paying attention to that person? Has everyone read my book?” It’s insane. It’s completely insane, what the writer secretly wants.

I actually, despite feeling over-rewarded, think, “Oh yes, but I didn’t get this prize nomination. What was that?” It’s not really envy, but in the writer’s imagination, there is a zero-sum game. Everything someone else is getting is being taken away from you. You can be very rational about it and say, “That’s insane, it’s a big tent, there’s room for lots of us.” But I don’t know. Maybe this is not a universal feeling. Maybe I am a very bad person.

I am sure this feeling extends to other professions too, though.

But particularly the writer feels it. The writer feels it particularly because you work out of thin air. You don’t even have an instrument. It is all—your poor little ego is out there, unprotected, with no drummer or bass player to hide you. You could have chosen any words in any order—there are no rules about that. So what’s out there has your name on it, and it is purely authored by you. It’s an expression of who you are. And so I think the ego is uniquely exposed in the writer to the vicissitudes of reality.

How do you balance not wanting to hear criticism on social media with the fact that you find issues regarding the internet and democracy important and presumably you want to engage with them? To understand social media, do you have to engage with it?

[Pause.]

Because I assume you aren’t spending your day on Twitter.

No, I am not spending my day on Twitter. [My feeling on this] grows out of my experience as a fiction writer, which is that it’s better not to know too much about something. Go in, get a little taste, follow your intuition: What is your instinct telling you about what you are observing? And then get out and really think about it and use your imagination. So, you know, my beef with Silicon Valley kind of goes back to just this animal instinct that tells me this technology doesn’t seem to have liberated people. It seems like people are walking around enslaved to their smartphones. Just behaviorally, that’s the hit you get.

[I also went to] the kind of liberal arts college where you were rewarded for speaking knowledgably about things you read one chapter of hastily the night before your exam. But [as] a fiction writer … if you pay really close attention to the little things, you can get a lot out of them. One experience intensely received can tell the writer a lot.

Is there any contradiction between that and what you said earlier about not feeling you could write about race because of a lack of experience?

No, that was about love. That was about love. I feel it’s really dangerous, if you are a liberal white American, to presume that your good intentions are enough to embark on a work of imagination about black America. I am particularly vigilant there. I have thought about it—you know, race is big in America.

Have you thought about writing a shorter book or short stories? Your last few books have been big.

All of my novels have been the same size: about 530, 540 pages. That’s my size. Nell Zink is always pestering me to write a sort of Ethan Frome–like short novel that will get assigned in high schools because she wants my literary estate to keep receiving enormous amounts of money so that it can be donated to bird conservation.

Just to go back to Trump: George Saunders wrote this piece for the New Yorker where he hung out at Trump rallies—

It was a very good piece.

Would it have interested you to be assigned that piece?

It was right up George’s alley. It was a great piece for him. I tried out for one summer as the New Yorker’s Washington correspondent.

Was that when you wrote about Hastert?

It wasn’t a very good experience, my being in Washington. Saunders was obviously doing a different kind of piece, and one which his incredible sympathy for—and engagement with—people working at the low end of the economic ladder in America stood him in good stead for. It was perfect for him. But I also find politics very confusing, ultimately. I found Washington exquisitely boring.

Do you mean that you would not have the same sympathy for people?

Saunders was better at striking up a conversation with a Trump supporter than I would be. I can do it, but it makes me uncomfortable. He can do it with a kind of sincerity that I don’t think I would have. I don’t know. I work well overseas because people don’t have preconceptions of what kind of person I am based on my glasses or my clothes.

What do you think your glasses and clothes make people think about you?

[Or] just the way I speak.

It’s a matter of level of diction, maybe. Just the way the vowels and the consonants get articulated and enunciated.

You do enunciate.

I do enunciate. It doesn’t intimidate if I am talking through a translator, so in my overseas reporting it is no problem; I just start talking to people. Here it is a little different.

You seem to have pretty liberal politics—

I do. I’m a liberal Democrat.

You must know that a lot of the response to you is surely that you are this white guy writing about white guy things.

And yet some people like it, so you can’t please everybody. You should worry if you are pleasing everybody. I write for the people who like the kind of books I like.

How would you define the books you write?

Well, they ain’t political novels, that’s for sure.

You don’t think your books are political? They aren’t like Advise and Consent, sure. But they are political, no?

They are aware of politics, but they do not advance any particular politics. And they do not require that you share the politics of the writer in order to appreciate them.

What is your writing routine when you are working on your books?

Oh, it’s so seldom I have a writing routine. [Laughs.] I wish I were writing all the time, but those days are tragically few. But when I was writing my most recent published piece, which was my Antarctica piece for the New Yorker, I got up at 8 in the morning and ate breakfast, reading the paper edition of the New York Times, which I am still getting.

And then I get in the car and I drive 10 minutes to my office on campus. It is a small, dark, cold, quiet room, and I work ideally for six hours and try to get 1,000 words written, and then I come home and spend two hours on email. And then go to the gym, or play tennis, have a drink; Kathy comes home from seeing her mom; we have dinner; we watch some TV; we do some reading. Those are the happy days.

Could be worse.

Could be a lot worse, yes. I get paid for this. It’s remarkable.

You said you have an office on campus. What are you teaching?

I am not teaching. I have not taught since 1997.

Are you breaking into someone’s office?

No, no, how to put this? I have a working relationship with one of the colleges [at UC–Santa Cruz] and I have done things like give a commencement [speech].

Two hours on email is interesting.

Pretty much, yeah. Call it a minimum one hour. I am running a business, for one thing, so every day there is business email about a lot of requests to do things, and I don’t have anyone who will find a nice way to say no to those things. So I have to do that. And that’s wearying. You might get three requests in a day, and you can’t do any of them, but you want to be nice to the person who is asking.

You were nice to me when you said no to me numerous times before you agreed to this interview.

Good, I am glad that is how you remember it. That was not written by an assistant, let me tell you. So factor in a couple of those. Then there is stuff from the agents, and lately there has been stuff from TV, and then all the friends. It may not be long emails. One of the reasons I try to stay on top of it is that you don’t have to write a long email if you reply quickly, whereas if you let a week or two go by you feel like you actually have to write more. You let it sit there for a while and you feel obliged to actually write a letter.

You mentioned television. What is it like to have your work adapted?

As they say on Law & Order, “Your Honor, they opened the door to that question.” [Laughs.] “He’s right, counselor.”

I interviewed Jhumpa Lahiri several years ago and asked her about having The Namesake made into a movie and she just said, essentially, Mira Nair did that. “It was her Namesake.”

Well, The Corrections has foiled all attempts at adaptation except for a 12-part BBC radio play. I think that was all anyone was ever able to do with that book. That includes the team I was part of trying to make a four-year HBO television series out of it, an ultimately imperfectly conceived endeavor. I took—I wouldn’t even say perverse satisfaction—I took straightforward satisfaction in that book’s defeat of attempts to adapt it. It’s like, “Yeah, because it’s a novel. Novels are novels.”

So was The Godfather.

Right. Well, Corrections was a little less straightforward in the story it was telling, kind of structured in a different way. Yes, more than kind of—it was structured in a different way. And I ended up greatly relieved when that show was not picked up after the pilot was made because I felt I was going back to something I was done with.

So now I am involved again in an adaptation as a writing executive producer. I am adapting it with a couple of other players, including Todd Field, a talented guy who has an idea, and I am excited by his idea. I haven’t had the same sense of “Ugh, I’m so sick of this material” that I had with The Corrections. I think this might have had partly to do with timing. There is no other book standing between me and Purity. It was still kind of fresh. I was still working with that book 15 months ago. The wound is still open, so it isn’t as painful to get back into it.

Purity also seems easier to adapt.

You noticed it, Todd noticed it, yes.

What television are you watching? I am sure you have heard the cliché now that television series are the new 19th-century novels. Is TV a big part of your cultural consumption these days?

Emphatically yes. So much so that I had to redefine my definition of a novel to include serial cable television, just because it became so striking how it was finding its way back to the serial novel form that Dickens and Dostoyevsky did. They were all writing in these serial forms. The social novel died at the hands of film and television, and yet there were pleasures, there were satisfactions that the social novel had afforded in the 19th century. People had been born after that form had died, but there was still, I think, a natural hunger for it.

Any favorite shows?

Well, it’s somewhat embarrassing to confess that we started the third season of Silicon Valley and got two episodes in, and felt that we liked the show so much, and don’t remember every twist in how they got to this point, so we are just about done with rewatching the first two seasons.

What are you reading now? Contemporary fiction or older stuff?

Both. I have read a lot of the classics, but I will reread. There was this wonderful moment a year-and-a-half ago when I realized I had dismissed Hardy because I’d had a traumatic experience as a college freshman with Jude the Obscure. And Hardy, it turns out, is one of the great novelists of all time in English.

What about current novels?

Well, I am always looking for a good one. The one I really enjoyed and admired a couple months ago, and I am slightly embarrassed to say I don’t know how to pronounce his last name, but it is Tony Tulathimutte. It’s a book called Private Citizens. In his brilliance, he overwrites a little bit. But it’s a real book. He’s a big talent. I was really excited by that. I’m reading Hannah Tennant-Moore’s novel Wreck and Order. I am about a third of the way into that. It is good.

How much do you engage with pop culture? Do you feel you have to if you are writing big books about America?

No. I’m lazy. I don’t like to do research for books. Sometimes I put a gun to my own head and force myself to do research when I know nothing about a subject, but the idea of subjecting myself to things just to gather impressions—I upbraid myself for not being a real novelist because I won’t go out with a notebook and gather impressions. I won’t wade into difficult situations trying to get material.

No, the pop culture I consume is only that which I enjoy. So I know a lot about the NFL because I continue—it’s a sort of sad admission to make, but I continue to really liking watching NFL football games. [Laughs.]

Football is so great on television that—

It is so great on TV! Everything. And the rules, the judgment calls. It’s a beautiful thing. I know quite a bit about baseball too. I have fairly thorough knowledge of a fairly small group of, you know, rock bands that I happened to be deeply involved in during some period when I needed some music to listen to.

I’m two-thirds of the way down the road of life. There are whole genres of music I am never going to know anything about. Yeah, well, so what? A lot of people don’t know much about the genres I like. I mention Wussy and mostly I get blank stares. Even the Mekons I mostly get blank stares.

That’s what you’re getting right now.

Yeah, exactly. They don’t know those groups and I don’t know their groups and it’s a wonderful world. And the rest of it is whatever comes through my filter, and the filters really are the New Yorker and the New York Times. And I spend a lot of time engaged with birds and bird conservation, so that cuts into my pop culture consumption.

Just to go back to dealing with criticism: Having to deal with criticism is in part about being famous, right?

Lots of people who aren’t famous are getting shamed every day.

True, but not many of them year in and year out.

Yeah. I am back on Law and Order, and I am saying “Objection, there is no such thing as a famous writer.” And the judge is saying, “Let him proceed.”

How do you think fame has changed you or your life?

Stipulating that there is no such thing as a famous writer.

You’re not George Clooney. I’m not saying it’s the same thing.

You’re darn tootin’ it isn’t. Because George Clooney can’t take a New York City bus. Your possibilities for being a person in the world are really limited if you are truly famous. You might not want to venture out without a bodyguard.

Yours let me in.

I know. When I saw you, I dismissed them.

I’ve probably heard from more people from my childhood than I would have had I not gotten some attention. Of course, all I would have had to do was go on Facebook, and I would have heard from all those people.

You haven’t ventured onto Facebook?

No, no, I just don’t see where in the day I would put those four hours. [Laughs.] No, I shouldn’t be snarky about it. I don’t professionally have to be on it. [Sarcastic voice] Acknowledging that that’s a privilege, I am not being hounded by my publisher to promote myself via Facebook.

But I am just trying to take your question seriously.

OK, I was in Australia. This is really narrow and inside baseball, but the Australian government has a productivity commission that basically wants to deprotect Australia’s booksellers, publishers, and authors, in a way that many other countries with rather free-market policies like the U.S. and U.K. still protect their authors and publishers and booksellers. So I attended a bookseller’s association annual function, and I was presenting a prize to somebody. I said that even in America, we are not so stupidly in love with the free market that we don’t protect our publishers. And that’s all I said. And it got some play. It wouldn’t have gotten play if I hadn’t been a well-known American writer visiting. I felt like I had performed a little mitzvah there. And here and there one has a chance to actually speak up and bring attention to something because one is well-known.

But you don’t feel like people treat you differently?

I have no doubt that some do. And it is possible to become paranoid about that: “They don’t like me. They like me because of my toys. They like me because I live in my parents’ big house,” or all those paranoid fantasies that were so beautifully treated in, not Wolfcatcher [starts snapping], you know, the Steve Carell movie, Fox

Foxcatcher.

Thank you. Foxcatcher—little brain-freeze there, which is a great movie about just that isolating power that in that case wealth has. But wealth and fame sort of function in similar ways in terms of [you] not trusting whether people like you or what you represent.

I wonder that about Trump, and how wealth and fame have affected him. I think he may be mentally ill.

Yeah, that one doesn’t project well into the future. If he gets elected president, it will only get worse, that particular mental illness.

You said earlier that the one way you have courage is that if a fascist rises and starts imprisoning journalists, you won’t be afraid to speak out—well, you might get the chance.

Exactly, exactly. Militating against the likelihood of that is my dislike of joining rallies. But just to complete the thought: [30 second–long pause.] My friends are still my friends, and most of them have been my friends for so long that I know that they liked me for what I was, and yeah, you can sense pretty easily when someone is being friendly because of what you represent and who you are. And occasionally I will tolerate that. But basically I am surrounded by lots of reality. I live with somebody who liked me when I had nothing.

And now we can finally turn to birds.

OK. [Laughs.] What do you want to know?