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Return to Flight

Checking in with Jonathan Franzen on the eve of what will likely be his next literary smash

Photograph by Greg Martin

There’s no introduction needed. You already know Jonathan Franzen as the Webster Groves–raised writer whose 2001 novel The Corrections—a family drama born of a neighborhood one could call Webster Groves–ish—attained both major acclaim (a National Book Award) and a major readership. Franzen fiction is back: His highly anticipated follow-up novel, Freedom—about the trials and separations of one Minnesota family—comes out this month. I caught up with the author by phone in July, and I can report that while a decade of success and recognition certainly hasn’t gone to his head (there’s that Midwestern Nice), it hasn’t exactly brightened his outlook on life and work either.

Early on, I asked how different the process of writing Freedom was from the agonizing creation of The Corrections, which The New York Times Magazine famously detailed as including both a blindfold and vodka shots.

“Sadly, not very differently,” Franzen said with good humor and a sigh. “I cried out loud to various loved ones at various times in the last six to eight years that I felt as if I was writing a novel for the first time. I think on the one hand, that’s the way you’re supposed to feel. And I don’t really look forward to the day when it’s easy. I think if it’s easy, it’s probably not worth doing. On the other hand, I can’t help but think there’s got to be a simpler way. There was a point in 2003, after I’d been struggling for 12 to 18 months, when I happened to read Stendhal’s great book, The Charterhouse of Parma, which famously he composed in 53 days. So he’d written The Red and the Black, which made a name for him, and then he went and was in the diplomatic service for years in Italy, not even trying to write fiction. Then everything gelled inside him, and he sat down and dictated an even better novel in 53 days. There’s an idea! He was in Italy, for God’s sake. And he was going to parties and just doing the diplomatic thing, partly in Parma. And then, in no pain, sat down and dictated a fantastic book.”

Franzen took a stab at this Stendhalian existence, signing up to be the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. It didn’t stick: “Unfortunately, I just didn’t have the constitution to do Washington reporting. I did one piece and I just couldn’t bear to listen to another two hours of nothing in which there was one 5-second interesting quote. So I’m still looking for a better way.”

I’d heard Franzen speak elsewhere about the importance of developing characters early on in a novel project—that no actual writing happened until he knew these people who’d be populating the pages. So how did Freedom’s characters—especially the core couple, college sweethearts Patty and Walter Berglund—come to him and develop?

“Bit by bit over many years,” he said. “Largely through a process of five-page false starts. Sometimes one-page false starts. Occasionally 20-page false starts. Also through the generation of an enormous quantity of notes. It’s not as if there’s any composition until I have the characters figured out. The whole book was written in 2009. And even then I had to stop for three or four months because I’d taken a wrong turn and had quite the wrong notion for the whole book.”

The problem: Franzen first built Freedom as a collection of documents (one character’s autobiography, for example) rather than as a unified narrative. I responded with interest to that idea, and he demurred: “Yeah, it was kind of a cool idea, technically. And, as it turned out, quite wrongheaded and useless in actuality.”

What was quite useful for the novel’s plot (as the striking cover suggests) was Franzen’s personal interest in birds—which many first learned about in his terrific essay “My Bird Problem,” published in The New Yorker and collected in his St. Louis–heavy collection The Discomfort Zone. I asked about the birding opportunities for those of us still living here (the author now splits his time between the east and west coasts), and Franzen brightened.

“St. Louis gets excellent spring and fall migration,” he began. “Tower Grove Park is particularly noted as a place where birds who can’t find anywhere else to spend a night recovering on their long flight hang out, in the spring and fall. There are some lakes right across the river around East St. Louis that get migrating shorebirds. The bald eagles that hang out in winter along the river toward Alton are worth a definite trip. And for the really serious crackpot birder, there’s the Eurasian tree sparrow, which is found only within 100 miles of St. Louis and nowhere else in North or South America.”

One bird central to Freedom’s plot is the cerulean warbler, whose decline is blamed in part on the “fragmentation of the habitat.” Surely Franzen meant for such a key phrase to describe more than just the warbler. Paging back through the 600-page novel, I notice something I’d scribbled on the margin of a page: “This family feels miles apart.” I ask Franzen to talk about fragmentation, especially at a time when we’re supposed to be so connected.

“Well, I of course take the contrary view and feel as if technology, under the guise of connecting us, in fact isolates individuals and fragments public discourse incredibly. That’s the fragmentation I really was after in the book. Capacious novels are my personal act of resistance to and rebellion against this infinity of little information bits and little cute messages and the whole utterly fragmented, unhomogenous mediascape we live in.”

Franzen paused (he thinks deeply while he talks, pausing often), picked up that gripe about the state of the world, and placed it back onto his slightly slumping shoulders: “To try to gather things together into a coherent narrative that exists over time—that’s the challenge of the fiction writer.”

Jonathan Franzen reads from Freedom September 20 at 7 p.m. at the St. Louis Public Library’s Schlafly Branch, 225 N. Euclid. For more information, contact Left Bank Books, 314-436-3049, left-bank.com.

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