Book Festival interview: Jonathan Franzen on religion, fame and tackling a trilogy


Let me take you on a journey to a little corner of Jonathan Franzen’s memory. We’ll start in Webster Groves, a prosperous suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, where the 63-year-old grew up “in the middle of the country, in the middle of America’s middle class golden age.” By the time he reached his teens in 1972, Webster Groves was a staunchly Republican, the kind of place that voted for Goldwater in 1964 and Nixon in 1968. Yet the church Franzen attended at the crossroads of his two main streets was so unconventional that the local newspaper was actually worried that the town’s young people were spending too much time there.

Writers are often plagued with questions about what elements of their fiction are rooted in their own experience, and in the past, Franzen has been suspicious that any meaningful connection exists. Yet he now says that the suburban Chicago youth community of the early 1970s that he describes in his latest novel, Crossroads, the first in a projected trilogy, actually has much in common with the First Church. Congregational he attended in suburban St Louis. Trendy youth pastor? Check. Sunday night get-together groups emphasizing emotional honesty and personal growth? Check. Confidence exercises blindfolded? Check. Working with the poor, deliberately minimizing religiosity, month-long missions on Navajo reservations in Arizona? Check, check, check.

“It was part of the mix that made me who I am,” he tells me on a Zoom call from Santa Cruz, Calif., where he lives with his “spouse equivalent,” writer Kathy Chetkovich. “In the middle of this conservative suburb you had 150 kids doing this completely different thing. And be changed. I myself have been changed.

Jonathan Franzen PIC: Janet Fine

“I was the intellectual kid in my group. This time the meeting room was divided into two corners: one corner was ‘all heart’ and the other was ‘all head’ and we were told to position ourselves on this spectrum. As we were all teenagers, 90% of the group coalesced around the “all hearts” corner. There were brave souls scattered in the middle, and in the “all heads” corner, there were no was just me and my friend Ben. We were the kids who discovered things [a self-confessed nerd, he had a chemistry lab in his parents’ basement]. But we struggled a bit with the heart stuff.

“I come from a beautiful family, all very well brought up. But in that group there were a lot of kids who came from very struggling families with all kinds of addiction issues: drugs, alcohol, physical abuse and – I believe, in some cases – sexual.Although I remained an intellectual writer, I felt that I had early access to forms of emotional extremity that I otherwise would not have had the chance to experience.

Twelve years ago, when Time Magazine put him on the cover as “Great American Novelist,” the tagline said that Franzen “shows us all that we live now.” This would have been true for his 3 million-selling breakthrough novel The Corrections (2001), Freedom (2010) and, to a lesser extent, his rather less successful final novel Purity (2015). But Crossroads, he says, marks a shift away from “hot news and burning issues” and is set five decades ago. The story of a single family, it is told most of the time over just two days. It’s also a masterclass in characterization and, in my opinion, his best book to date.

The Hildebrandts are so beautifully drawn – pastor Russ, neglected wife Marion, agnostic (and likely Vietnam-recruited) student Clem, cheerleader daughter Becky, and youngest son Perry, a drug dealer in High IQ – that it’s hard to imagine Franzen doing anything but flesh out their characters once he’s already written a first skeleton draft. But no: that’s not how he works. The intricate detail is really there from the start.

“I work in a very linear way and I’m averse to books that can feel like they were written from a plan,” he says. “Obviously, though, I have to start with a general idea. With Russ it was that he had been humiliated, his rival was in the office next to his and they hadn’t spoken in three years. (This is where Franzen’s imagination can tap into his memories of Webster Groves: while Russ is the more traditional pastor; his rival is Rick, the more hip and depressed youth community leader. Russ reacts to the humiliation of burning to start an affair with a pretty widow in his congregation.)

“All this is enough to keep me going. The character is the story, and the dramatic situation in which a person finds himself? That’s what character is. So if I can set up a good tense situation, if I can make it seem authoritative to the reader – and to me – then that becomes a given and the other characters have to line up.

For someone with a reputation for being a grumpy intellectual, Franzen turns out to be unexpectedly courteous. He answers questions carefully, taking time to disentangle creative intent from hype. That line about “tracing America’s inner life”? He’s his agent, not his. So will the trilogy be more than a family affair? “I don’t know. And it’s important to me that I don’t know. Why doesn’t Crossroads mention that this is the first part of a trilogy?” writing a book that spanned 50 years, but the first bit got out of control. So I told my editors it was going to be a trilogy and they liked the idea, and it became a press release.

“I wanted it on the record, even if it’s not on the book itself. I wanted to create an expectation of myself. Give me something that I should be afraid to be ashamed of if I can’t. TO DO.

“It’s hard work to write a long book in your 60s or even 60s. Fear of failure is a good motivator.

Crossroads is published by 4th Estate, price £20. Jonathan Franzen will appear (remotely) at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Friday August 26 at 6.15pm


Franzen’s first time at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (in 2002, promoting The Corrections) I remember it well. I was on stage and the microphone was snatched from my hands by a very experienced Lithuanian doctor. He was determined to argue that “the Lithuanians. Do. Not. To eat. Horse meat.” Two staffers converged on him to take the microphone away from him.

How did he feel about being called a great American novelist on the cover of Time magazine? If it wasn’t me who got that cover, but one of my rivals or someone I didn’t think was worthy, it would be very short to conclude that such a person was bad just because I resented them. to be on the cover and not me. There is inevitably a feeling of “why did he get this?” We hate it” and if you’re looking for reasons to hate, I’m pretty good at providing them in some of the stuff I write – mostly non-fiction, although there are some provocations in my novel Purity. My public image is, “We have to admit his novels are good, but in his non-fiction he’s a real jerk.”

What do people often get wrong about your writing? I think there is a subset of readers who don’t understand humor. But generally a lot of people have read the books and I don’t feel out of place. I think I’m seen as a mean and angry person because I can be a little argumentative in my non-fiction. There are two theories here: the first is that yes, I present my case in a solid form and I am upset about some issues and that in turn might upset some people because I say what I think. And the other is, maybe I’m a mean, angry person! So who knows? The other thing is that sometimes I write with a degree of irony and if you don’t understand the irony it reads quite differently.

Will environmental issues always be a key ingredient in a Franzen novel? In fact, I walk away from feeling obligated to engage in it, even though it was a big fact in the Navajo Nation in 1972 [and in Crossroads]: there was a very real sense of betrayal that while conservationists were okay with protecting national parks and the white country, they were basically not interested when asked for help. This was a strong early incidence of what we would today call environmental injustice.

How do you find writing a trilogy? You know, people are very nice and they’ll say, “Oh, I can’t wait for the next volume.” I’ve heard that now hundreds and hundreds of times. But that’s not really what they want. They may think they want to know more about the character, but what they really want is a dense, urgent, fully constructed novel. They want to have another experience like they had with the first book and that experience won’t be “Well, interestingly, Clem went on to teach biology in college and had three kids and went through the kind of problems that people had. in the mid-1990s.” Some writers can do that. [Italian novelist] Elena Ferrante is a real inspiration to me with her Neapolitan novels, telling the story of two women over 30 or 40 in a linear way, but her latest books are not just extrusions and focus on particular crises.

Why have none of your novels been filmed? A deal was announced last month with Freedom [Melanie Marnich, Golden Globe-winning writer of The Affair and Big Love, is to adapt the novel for TV with Snowpiercer producer Tomorrow Studios and Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions] and other people are already hard at work trying to make a show out of Crossroads. I wrote Crossroads after doing a lot of work on the script for Purity – I wrote 11 hours of scripts for Showtime, although it ultimately didn’t get made. But I think Crossroads has the right kind of episodic structure, there aren’t many scenes that last more than five pages, and I think that would translate well to TV.

Will subsequent novels in the trilogy have the same type of structure as Crossroads? How similar will they be? When I read, say, a novel by Alan Furst about spies in the 1930s and 1940s, the next time I get on a plane I want to read a book by him that does the same thing, but different . I know about that [reader’s wish] but I am powerless to deliver him. I can’t be interested in doing something I’ve already done. One of the appeals of Crossroads was that I had never done this before: I had never spent 400 pages on things happening in a single day and trying to weave together five scenarios set in that time. So that probably means I won’t do it again.


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