x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

'Freedom' did not come easy for Jonathan Franzen

The author tells how "turning down the noise" helped him to write a new modern classic.

Novelist Jonathan Franzen poses with his National Book Award after the 2001 National Book Foundatio's cermony in New York.
Novelist Jonathan Franzen poses with his National Book Award after the 2001 National Book Foundatio's cermony in New York.

Two days before I am due to meet Jonathan Franzen, literary London - at least, those among us who have circumvented a city-wide tube strike - assemble in a marquee next to the Serpentine. This is the British launch party for Freedom, a novel eight years in gestation and surely the most eagerly awaited literary fiction release of the decade. 

But Franzen's UK tour has already suffered unwelcome news. Earlier in the week his British publishers, Fourth Estate, announced they would pulp 80,000 copies of Freedom after its author alerted them to the fact that they had printed an uncorrected, draft version of the text. We listen, now, to a heartfelt mea culpa by Franzen's editor, and then Franzen himself speaks briefly, telling us that yes, the mistake had been a "big deal", but encouraging us to enjoy ourselves: "Let's speak no more about it," he smiles. But events are about to take a bizarre turn.

Minutes after the speeches, there is a furore around Franzen. The man Time magazine has just called "the Great American Novelist" is left apparently bemused, and minus his ever-present black-rimmed glasses. Soon, a police helicopter hovers above, strafing a search light through the darkness. An approximate report on what has happened now filters through the room. Two young men, we learn, approached Franzen, whipped his glasses from his face and ran into the night, dropping a ransom note: "$100,000 and your glasses are yours again." A short while later, Franzen is gone. The party breaks up, a mixture of amusement and disbelief.

Two days later, Franzen is closeted away in a side room at the Kensington hotel that is his temporary headquarters. I've prepared myself to find him out-of-sorts, but he seems phlegmatic, and is safely re-spectacled. Still, if he was in a less-than-excellent mood for the party, then glasses theft might have been enough to tip him over the edge: "I wasn't in a bad mood", he quickly counters. "If anything, I was slightly embarrassed by the abjectness of the apologies; it felt a bit like something from a Stalinist show trial."

So how did the whole thing look, from his perspective? He laughs: "The two men were shouting 'Channel 4! Channel 4!' They grabbed my glasses, painlessly, and ran out. I initially thought it was my editor and that I was supposed to follow him. Then I saw one of them leap a four-foot fence, and I realised." There is an element of the story that he is quick to clarify: "There was concern the perpetrator had entered the Serpentine, and that's what gave rise to the helicopter. I hope the London police don't routinely send out helicopters to retrieve pairs of glasses."

Days later, a British magazine confirms the thief to have been a drunken student, playing a prank. Franzen, for his part, seems content to shrug off the whole affair. He does, after all, have a book to talk about. Freedom is Franzen's first novel since 2001's world-conquering The Corrections. That novel, which so brilliantly captured 1990s Clinton-era America, became a phenomenon, selling more than 2.5 million copies and - arriving just days before 9/11 - helping to define an American fin de siècle. Since then, there have been a few short stories, journalism for The New Yorker, and a 2006 memoir The Discomfort Zone, but no successor. Early indications are for a broad consensus that the wait was worthwhile: Freedom is another long, expansive, state-of-America work, and has prompted an avalanche of coverage, much of it in accord with Sam Tanenhaus of The New York Times, who called it "a masterpiece of American fiction". Meanwhile, its author has taken the cover of Time magazine, making him one of a handful of novelists - JD Salinger, John Updike and Stephen King among them - to do so.

Clearly, then, Franzen's trip to London was always guaranteed attention, even before the the misprint debacle bestowed a new, front-page-news status on it. Depending on whom you believe, he has spent the last few days either incandescent with rage or laughing the matter off. So, which is it? "Laughing it off," he says. "I was mad for about five minutes: who wouldn't be? But I quickly went into sympathy mode for my publishers, who were moving heaven and earth to get the right version into stores."

The initial press release issued by Fourth Estate talked about minor typographical errors, but Franzen says the mistakes ran somewhat deeper: "The idea that there were only typographical issues did raise the question: what kind of prima donna is Franzen for insisting on a recall because the word Cypress is spelled like the tree and not like the country?" he says. "But I also revised a lot of bad sentences between that draft and the final version, and once you've removed bad sentences, the idea of someone reading them is kind of unbearable.

"This draft was the one sent out to editors and reviewers, so it's not something I would never let see the light of day, and I didn't have the feeling it gives a wholly misleading impression of the book. No one should feel obliged to re-read because of this," he smiles, "but the issue was serious enough to justify pulping." The novel tells the story of the Berglund family - Walter and Patty, their children Joey and Jessica - and Walter's friend, the ageing, semi-famous musician Richard Katz. We're carried from Walter and Patty's college years and across their early adulthood as 1990s suburban gentrifiers, on to their fractious mid-life in the early years of this century. There is a wonderful, incessant fluency about Freedom that belies the struggle that engendered it: Franzen endured seven years of false starts and self doubt before it came. "The worry of loss of power is present forever after the first book," he says, "it never goes away; or, at least, I worry for the writer for whom it does."

Meanwhile, beyond the confines of Franzen's Upper East Side writing studio, great changes were coming to America. The presidency of George W Bush, war in Iraq and the "war on terror", years of uninterrupted prosperity, suddenly interrupted. It's a rare review of Freedom that omits the phrase Big Social Novel, or Great American Novel, or some version thereof. But when I suggest that the headspinning tumult of the last decade might be responsible for Freedom's long gestation, it turns out that Franzen thinks about his fiction in very different terms:

"You suggest that it's my intention to capture something of society, and it really isn't," he counters. "It's crucial that novelists who set their novels in the present lead and not follow the culture, and that means turning down the noise that everyone else is listening to. "I came to the realisation in the mid-1990s that there is no way to get a novel off the ground if in a direct way you attempt to wrap it around everything that is going on across the globe. You have to go small, and see the world reflected in a single character.

"Everyone I know in the US is involved in the issues of the day, and feeling impinged on by various contradictions in their own lives. I still eat meat but I know what cattle farming is doing to the planet. I fly a lot, but I understand about the carbon footprint of that. If you just pay attention to character you get all that stuff, without having to get some elephantine plot off the ground." Freedom finally started to emerge when Franzen began to think about two characters in particular: his parents. Now 51, he grew up in the affluent Midwestern town of St Louis and reports a happy, nerdy, conventional childhood. Freedom, like The Corrections, is set in a fictitious, St Louis-ish Midwestern suburb: time and again, it seems, when Franzen "turns down the noise", what emerges are messages from that distant, Midwestern early life. But his parents also proved the avenue by which he was able to access his own adult experience. In 1996, Franzen divorced after 14 years of marriage. He now lives with the writer Kathryn Chetkovich. Neither relationship has produced children.

"The project for some years was to get at things about my parents and their marriage that there had not been room for in The Corrections," he says. "To write about my personal experience, that experience needs to be translated on to something else. So if I can make these characters as much as possible like my parents - that is, not like me - then I have a chance of working my own experience in, too."

Is there, then, a sense of working through difficult personal issues? A sense, even, of catharsis? "Yes, I think that's right. But the reason I do it is to try to write a good book, not to become a better person. And you don't necessarily know - you probably shouldn't know - what it is you're trying to get over when you're doing the work. The Discomfort Zone, for example, turned out to be the book through which, a number of years after she died, I figured out how to love my mom. It's not like I needed to do that in order to have a happy life. But something like that needs to happen to give the work some urgency and purpose."

A minute later, Franzen rewinds to this statement, seeking, carefully, to strengthen it. In person, liberated from the fluency that is made necessary by a television or radio interview, he speaks slowly, unfurling long, heavily considered sentences: "I really want to underline how, for me, the world of books divides into those where you can feel something has happened to the writer during the writing, and the much larger population where it is clear nothing happened, and how it's more important than ever that writers try to have something happen to them - that they engage with themselves."

It's phrases such as this - "turn down the noise", "engage with yourself" - that Franzen returns to repeatedly when talking about writing. This is a philosophy with practical implications: reportedly, he composed much of The Corrections while wearing noise-cancelling headphones and a blindfold. These days, he disables the internet connectivity on his work laptop by filling the ethernet port with superglue.

In fact, the need to tune out the ephemera is central to Franzen's whole conception of fiction and its purpose in the world. No surprise, then, that he is discomfited by the rise of technologies that have immersed us in an omnipresent information cloud: "These days, I still have the experience of being in public when I go out into a city," he says, gesturing out of the window, towards London. "But a whole generation of kiddies with their earbuds do not: they're listening to a cool soundtrack, and walking around in their own private movie.

"I don't have a coherent argument to explain why I find it so depressing that everyone is photographing themselves and their friends more and more and posting these photographs on Facebook, and yet, in America at least, the idea of any kind of true community feeling has been utterly banished." Franzen has, across this book tour, demurred when asked why he called his novel Freedom. But readers of the book will discern that we are close, now, to the heart of it: a deep unease at the conception of personal liberty that has dominated the last decade, a conception that, in its own way, informed both the Iraq war and the rise of the iPod.

"It's one of the great ironies of the age that for all the talk of the internet bringing us together, this is really the age of the atomised individual who in an increasingly vulgar, adolescent way believes in absolute personal freedom," he says. "We have turned into a nation of infants." This analysis, surely, informs Freedom's sometimes merciless treatment of Walter and Patty. But it informs, also, Franzen's answer to the question that is, for him, central, and that he has posed repeatedly through his career: in a culture like this, how can fiction matter? Franzen's answer is: greatly. That's because it is fiction, uniquely, that can act as the antidote to our culture: that can allow us to quieten, momentarily, the noise that the culture is generating and reconnect with our more authentic selves.

I check my watch and see our time is almost up. Enough time, though, to unfurl a few more sentences: "Electronic forms of communication - Twitter, Facebook, even the telephone - seem to me like topical anaesthetics that don't actually address my aloneness, they just distract me from it. Only when I'm reading a good book do I not have the feeling that I need to reapply another dose of contact or communication in order to get to the next hour.

"Why is it so much easier to read a New Yorker article on a subject you don't even care about that than it is to submit to a fresh short story by Alice Munro? I think it's because we know that something is going to happen in the course of that story that will recall us to a moment in our own lives when something irrevocable happened, to be recalled to the fundamental narrative of our lives instead of all the little narratives we distract ourselves with."

It sounds, then, as though we need fiction more than ever? "Well, I don't want to be prescriptive about what people need. I can report empirically that I got a real sense of a hunger for what the novel provides when I was on tour with this book in the US." 

There's something heartening in that, I venture. "Yes, there is something heartening in that."