Novelist Jonathan Franzen is living the dream: a hot new novel, a Time magazine cover, anointment by Oprah, a spot in President Obama's vacation luggage, and the most surprising accolade of them all—a serious literary novel debuting at No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list.
Franzen was in town Tuesday night for an appearance on MPR's Talking Volumes at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. The event was sold out, of course, and there was plenty of extra buzz in the room because—if you haven't heard already—Franzen's new book, Freedom , revolves around a couple, Walter and Patty Berglund, who live (for the first 200 pages, anyway) in an old Victorian on Ramsey Hill.
Wearing author-black everything—jeans, boots, shirt, jacket, glasses—and carrying a weathered black briefcase, Franzen took his seat across from interviewer Kerri Miller and immediately ingratiated himself to the audience by proclaiming that one of the reasons he likes the Twin Cities so much is that we "take seriously" things like books, theater, and art. "It's not that way everywhere," he said, confirming what everyone in the room already knew: that the best way to start an interview is by giving a friendly shout-out to the hometown crowd.
Franzen's book is littered with local references—W.A. Frost, The Guthrie Theater, Central High School, St. Catherine's University, Macalester College, Prince, etc.—and contains painfully accurate depictions of a certain kind of liberal-leaning Minnesota parent, neighbor, and citizen. Franzen said he didn't have to do much research for the book, though, because he spent much of his childhood driving up 35W from St. Louis to visit his cousins, who lived in Palisade, and grandmother, who lived in Columbia Heights.
Since most people haven't had time to read Franzen's 600-page tome, Miller spent more energy talking about the man's Minnesota connections and his kerfuffle with Oprah nine years ago over his ambivalence about her "O"-ness choosing his last book, The Corrections , for inclusion in her book club. (For the record, Franzen says it was all a horrible misunderstanding. He said he also found out later that he's not the only writer who has been uncomfortable about having the Oprah seal of approval slapped so prominently on their book cover.)
To prevent such a disaster from happening again, Franzen sent galleys of Freedom to Oprah, along with a personal note. The biggest laugh line of the night came when Miller tried to press him about what the note to Oprah said. "It's personal," he demurred, but she insisted: "C'mon, what did the note say?" Franzen seemed just about ready to spill, but then took a sip of water and said, "I know you're just doing your job, but I'm not going to bite." "I almost had you," Miller said, to which Franzen replied, "That's the difference between then and now."
The conversation roamed far and wide, from his childhood in St. Louis growing up as the son of parents who did not read novels, to his passion for bird-watching (which he cultivated in northern Minnesota), to how he goes about constructing his characters and finding ways to sympathize with them, especially the ones he doesn't like.
For whatever reason—a reluctance to ruffle the guest's feathers, perhaps—Miller did not press Franzen on his more writerly reasons for setting the first part of the novel in St. Paul. Yes, the central characters live there, but in the book, St. Paul also represents the sort of American environment where middle-class life is a stifling, repressive hotbed of conformity; where surface politeness hides deep currents of anger and resentment; and where two people who seem to have everything—good jobs, a nice house, well-adjusted kids—can in fact be utterly miserable. It isn't St. Paul's fault that Patty and Walter Berglund aren't happy, but the very average-ness of their lives is why it takes so long for them to figure out that their marriage isn't working so well.
Franzen was an affable guest. He's a looser, funnier guy now that he's on top of the literary world. He doesn't take himself so seriously these days, and even joked that he's not even entirely sure he "exists" anymore as an individual consciousness, an existential uncertainty that may help explain his affinity for Kafka.
After the obligatory Q&A, Franzen complimented the crowd on the intelligence of their questions, especially one about how he mustered the courage to be so open and vulnerable in his memoir, The Discomfort Zone . The question stumped him, he admitted, and after a minute or two of trying and failing to come up with a coherent answer, he finally just shrugged and said, "It's what I do."
Having read Freedom , I can tell you that he does it very well, whether he's writing non-fiction or fiction. It's a book worth reading not only because of the Minnesota references, but because it's a substantial and important effort by a writer who deserves the attention he's getting. Now, if we could just figure out how more writers can become pop-culture heroes, America itself might become a more "serious" place, one where books, theater, and art matter just a wee bit more than they do now. After all, what's freedom worth if you never use it?