This interview was originally broadcast on September 9, 2010. Freedom is now available in paperback.
Jonathan Franzen's new epic novel Freedom is a portrait of a Midwestern suburban family — two parents and two children slowly losing track of each other and themselves. It has been called a "masterpiece of American fiction" by Time Magazine and "an indelible portrait of our times" by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times.
In an interview on Fresh Air, Franzen says one of the central themes of Freedom is how people change as they straddle the world between their childhood and grownup lives.
"The key part of becoming an adult is that adults relinquish a certain kind of freedom," he tells Terry Gross. "You can't lie on your bed all afternoon, and you can't be possibly any number of things. You have to only be one thing or a couple of things."
Franzen also discusses the massive publicity generated by Freedom in the weeks before publication. He says that up to six months ago, he imagined that the book would sell slowly and that people would purchase it via word of mouth or perhaps at small readings he would give around the country. But the recent publicity — and critical backlash from other authors — did something entirely different: It made his publishers "tear their hair out because the books were not in the stores," he says.
In recent weeks, Freedom has generated controversy in the culture-at-large, particularly among several female writers who have criticized the extensive attention showered on his book by critics.
"The little bit that has trickled back to me hasn't sounded particularly ad hominem," he says. "It seems like there's ... a feminist critique, and it's about the quality of attention that writing by women gets compared to the quality of attention by male writers. I actually have a lot of those feelings myself and have over the years."
And, he says, he didn't expect any sort of critical acclaim from his fourth novel, particularly after the success of The Corrections and the changing face of the publishing industry.
"Going into it, there was all the talk of the rise of the e-book and a general sense on the street — two years ago — where 'We really don't have to read novels anymore unless they're by Stieg Larsson.' I didn't know what to expect," he says. "So it's really fun to see that people are still looking for a book about what they're feeling now. ... The Corrections did well [critically] and you sort of tee yourself up on the batting tee to get knocked down [by critics]. And who doesn't enjoy doing that as a critic or as an assigning editor? It's fun. It's good sport. The fact that they haven't felt like doing that is nice and, I think, has driven a lot of the pre-publicity."
Jonathan Franzen won the National Book Award for his third novel, The Corrections, which was also a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He is also the author of the nonfiction books How to Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone.
On how he got the idea for Freedom
"The phrase that popped into my mind was 'becoming one's own parent.' ... I recently passed the age that my father was when I first knew him as a person. Right around the time he was 50, I start having memories of him. So I find myself, without him around and without parents of my own, feeling like him, and also, since my parents died when I was relatively young, the kind of adult presence I had in my life that they provided, I've had to learn to provide myself. ...
"I wanted in this book to write about my parents' marriage and their parental experiences as I observed them ... but I didn't want to set it in the 50s, 60s [and] 70s. I wanted to set it in times contemporaneous with my own. So in that way, too, I turned my parents into people my age; into people I might be or I might know. And that was the real engine. It was something that came from inside."
On whether he feels like an adult
"Strangely, in the last couple of years, yes. I have come to feel like an adult."
[Gross asks what changed?]
"I wrote this book. I think it's occurring to me now. It's probably the biggest thing that changed. There was — the death of my friend David Wallace might have been a part of that, as well.... It wasn't enough to lose my parents. I still was the angry, rebellious teenager who occasionally stepped into the, you know, stern parental role and wrote somewhat forbidding essays about 'let's not be kids anymore. Let's try to write more adult fiction.' But in the main, as I walked down the street, I continued to feel at some level like I was, maybe not 16, but 23 — and that feeling has suddenly disappeared. And I'm noticing it now, because the last month has been kind of crazy with the pre-publicity and publicity for the book. And as I sit here this morning talking to you, I'm noticing I feel more like a single person, [rather than] a person divided between a teenager and an old man. I feel, actually, about 51, and it's shocking."
On how David Foster Wallace's suicide forced him to think about mortality and adulthood
"Death looks different when you see it in a parent or somebody of your parents' age than when you see it in a contemporary or a dear friend that's even a couple of years younger. It was a limited closeness but it was a very intense closeness we had as writer buddies, and it was played out mostly in biweekly telephone calls and I had the sense that I could pick up the phone, call him, and anything I was feeling — however strange — that had to do with the writing life or negotiating some position for one's self in the culture, all I had to do was start a sentence and he would finish the sentence and say, 'Yep.' And I would do the same for him. And to suddenly have that end and know it was never coming back and feel that as an irreparable loss — the world was no longer opening up ahead of me. I was the surviving person suddenly. ... Coinciding with turning 50 and feeling how fortunate I was to still be alive and how fortunate I was to still have the capacity to write, I think that had a lot to do with that sudden turn toward feeling my own age."
On the difficulty of writing a novel
"I don't want to be a performer. I less and less want to be a performer. And I can't seem to be a performer. If I'm just writing about something moderately interesting and using interesting, well-termed sentences, it just has no life. It has to come out of some issue that's still hot in me, something that's distressing me. And there are plenty of things to be distressed about and for a long time, I was able to get a lot of energy onto the page from certain kinds of political distress, environmentalist distress — even aesthetic distress. ... And that kind of anger has become less interesting to me because it seems like a younger man's game a little bit. ...
"You are still armored in your anger. Particularly in the new book, I tried to let go of that. I found myself letting go of that. [I] went to the deeper, more upsetting things, which were much harder to get onto the page but whose presence I could feel ... like some pool of magma beneath the crust. There is heat down there, if only I could find a way to tap into it."
On how the Mel Brooks lyric "Hope for the best / Expect the worst" is applicable to his life
"I don't even know if I was brought up with it. I certainly witnessed it with my father, and suddenly it began to be genetically expressed in me. I think about the time I finished college, which was the early Reagan years, when there was a dark nuclear shadow over everything. I didn't have to be taught. It didn't have to be modeled for me. It really was almost hard-wired."
On writing and depression
"I wanted to write long before I was in need of therapy. But having said that, much of the work on a novel for me consists in the kind of work you might do in a paid professional's office of trying to walk back from your stuck, conflicted, miserable place to a point of a little bit more distance, from which you can begin to fashion some meaningful narrative of how you got to the stuck place. And the stuck-ness, for the working novelist — or at least for this one — has to do with not wanting to get into certain intensely fraught or private experiences... [but] feeling that it's absolutely necessary to say things that are absolutely unsay-able.
"And I keep trying — I kept trying, through much of the last decade — to access these subjects, these dreamlike relations with important people from my past in direct ways.... So there was a lot of self-psychoanalysis, certainly, that goes into the work. And, along the way, becoming depressed — although it certainly feels lousy — comes to be a key and important symptom. It's a flag. And it's almost as if, when I start to crash, I know I'm getting somewhere because it's being pushed to a crisis."