Franzen frets four frequent questions

Published 7:42 pm Sunday, May 15, 2011

Four questions dog authors “at events like this,” the apparent “price we have to pay for appearing in public,” Jonathan Franzen, the finale to the Dogwood Fine Arts Festival, said Saturday night at Dowagiac Middle School Performing Arts Center.

“They’re maddening not just because we’re asked them so often,” he said, “but also because with one exception, they’re difficult to answer. The first of these perennial questions is, ‘Who are your influences?’ … I’m always asked it in the present tense. The fact is, at this point in my life, I’m mostly influenced by my own past writing. If I was still laboring in the shadow of, say, E.M. Forster, I would certainly be at pains to pretend I wasn’t.” Forster is best known for ironic, well-plotted novels examining class difference and hypocrisy in early 20th-century British society.

“I feel oddly nervous,” Franzen admits, like junior high — “without exaggeration, the most socially stressful three years of my life.”

Franzen, 51, whose third novel “The Corrections” in 2001 won the National Book Award and whose fourth novel “Freedom” last August landed him on the cover of Time magazine (only the second time in a decade after Stephen King for a living writer to appear) and on its list of the 100 most influential people in the world, was sponsored by K&M Machine-Fabricating, Cassopolis.

The New York Times praised “Freedom” as a “masterpiece of American literature” and one of the 10 Best Books of 2010. Oprah made it a Book Club selection.

Franzen, born in Western Springs, Ill., grew up in Webster Groves, Mo., outside St. Louis.
He cited influences in his 20s as including C.S. Lewis, Isaac Asimov, Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon.

“The plots of my first two novels were substantially borrowed from two movies, ‘The American Friend’ and ‘Cutter’s Way.’ More like stolen, actually. To me these various influences seem not much more meaningful than the fact that when I was 15, my favorite music group was The Moody Blues,” Franzen said. “A writer has to begin somewhere. Where he or she begins is almost random.

“It was Franz Kafka’s novel ‘The Trial’ taught by the best literature professor I ever had that opened my mind to the greatness of what literature can do and made me want to read some literature myself … fiction as a vehicle of self-investigation. It’s not enough to love your characters and it’s not enough to be hard on your characters, but you always have to be primed to do both at the same time.”

Franzen summed up his reverie on influences with the observation they’re often negative: “I don’t want to be like this writer or that writer.”

He considered Philip Roth an enemy until he read “Sabbath’s Theater,”  the 1995 National Book Award winner, and “its fearlessness and ferocity became an inspiration.”

Two, authors are always asked what time of day they work and what they write on.

“This is the most disturbingly personal invasive question. It forces me to picture myself sitting down at the computer every morning at 8 o’clock. I don’t want anybody else in the room — including myself.”

Three, “I read an interview with an author who says at a certain point in writing a novel, his characters take over and tell him what to do. Does this happen to you, too?”

“This one always raises my blood pressure,” he said. “The novelist’s primary responsibility is to create meaning, and if you somehow lose track of your characters, you would necessarily be avoiding it yourself … everything under the sun is imaginable in the abstract, but the writer is always limited by what he or she is actually able to make work on the page.”

Four, is your fiction autobiographical?

“I’m suspicious of any novelist who can honestly answer no to this question,” Franzen said. “Of the four perennial questions, this one always feels the most hostile. I feel as if my powers of imagination are being challenged. What makes my life any more interesting than anyone else’s? Why didn’t you do the honest thing and write non-fiction? Why dress it up in lies? What kind of bad person are you? My own novels are not. In 30 years, I don’t think I’ve published more than 20 or 30 pages of real-life scenes in which I’ve participated. They rarely seem to work in a novel. They embarrass me, they don’t seem interesting enough or, most frequently, they don’t seem quite relevant to the story I’m trying to tell. My conception of a novel is that it ought to be a personal struggle. Kafka devoted his whole life as a writer to his struggle with his family and women … there’s an important paradox here that I’d like to stress. The greater the autobiographical content in the fiction writer’s work, the smaller, superficial resemblance to the writer’s actual life. The deeper the writer digs for meaning, the more the random particulars of the writer’s life become impediments. This is why fiction is almost never easy … it’s a prejudice of mine that literary work cannot be a mere performance. Unless the writer is personally at risk … it’s not worth reading. This seems to be all the more true in an age where there are so many fun and inexpensive things a reader can pick up than a novel.”

Asked about writing with a “moral code,” Franzen said the Bible’s Ten Commandments boil down to two — “love God and love people. You get to a better place and actually treat people better when you’re not always saying ‘don’t do that, don’t do that, don’t do that,’ but put yourself in loving relationships with other people. Oddly, people behave better when they do that because they’re not walking around furious from telling people all the things they can’t do. If there’s any kind of moral code down underneath, I’m not going to judge people.”

His original questioner rephrased her thought to “your characters are very real and the base that you’re writing from is very strong.”

“Thank you,” he said, but “that isn’t a question.”

Of shifting from fiction in The Corrections to a book of essays and a memoir before coming back with Freedom nine years later, the author said non-fiction is “much easier, basically. I have a great editor at the New Yorker who took a chance on me in 1994 and assigned me a story on the Chicago post office. I had zero journalism clips. A very fine Chicago Sun-Times reporter gave me his source because his editors wouldn’t let him write it. It took a number of years to figure out how to do an I voice, but once I had it, it’s there. The two biggest problems of fiction, tone and point of view, are solved already.

“I go in with my self-ironizing tone and it’s easy after five years of figuring it out because it’s essential for non-fiction. There’s frustration when you work on a novel and you’re slow, as I am, and there’s a new story dominating the headlines every day. Some of them are upsetting. I come from very stern, Protestant work ethic parents who drilled into me that I should be doing something useful for society. My mother made that clear, and telling lies for a living is not part of that,” let alone the amount of wasted time which seems to pass during the process.

“Three months of days and I come out at the end with a bunch of circular notes that get me back to where I started,” Franzen said. “It’s horrible,” so going out, completing a non-fiction story and publishing it with its little impact” has an appeal before he “goes back and suffer some more with fiction.”

Franzen, who is fluent in German and “cut my teeth on German literature” while studying in Berlin as a Fulbright Scholar in 1981, was asked about having his work translated into other languages.

“My Finnish translator is amazing. He checks facts I wouldn’t check and finds errors,” noted Franzen, who got some chuckles pausing during his prepared remarks, pulling out a pen and repairing a typo.

Asked to think back to grades K-8 for his fondest and least favorite teachers, since “gifted and talented adults were generally gifted and talented students,” Franzen answered, “This is an interesting question I’ve never had before. I don’t remember her name, but my seventh grade social studies teacher was the worst because she was tasked with basic information about the colonization of North America up to the American Revolution and we had to do Missouri history. She clearly was bored out of her mind. It wasn’t really her fault because the teaching plan was rigid” and evaluated on memorization.

“My favorite was my sixth grade teacher. I can see now that she was not the best of those teachers, but she really wanted to be liked. Irish, spoke with a brogue. This was the late Sixties, early Seventies, so she was all into crazy stuff. Lots of art projects, theater projects. She actually cursed in class.”

Of the environmental theme in “Freedom,” Franzen said, “I will not deny I’ve become involved in conservation issues. The book that actually contained a plea for the environment was ‘Strong Motion,’ ” his second novel in 1992 which drew on his work in seismology.

“That came from my very angry moral years when I knew I was right and rich polluters were wrong,” Franzen said. “I think the book actually transcends some of its young author’s anger. Nevertheless, I never wanted to do that again, partly because I don’t think it’s effective. I care about these issues, like sharks in the South Pacific harvested for fin soup. Sad fact, and we should do something about it, but I don’t want to read about it. I’m very conscious of that, getting up on a soapbox, when I write. So I come back to the environment not in an angry, judgmental way, but coming from the love I have for birds, which took me by surprise 10 or 12 years ago.”

As his mother prepared to die, he realized, “My life was more important to me than it was to her. What mattered most to her was her own life, which was about to end. Her last gift to me was the implicit instruction not to worry so much about what she or anybody else might think of me, but to be myself — just as in dying she was being herself. The other really helpful comment came from my friend, David Means,” a Kalamazoo short story writer.

“When I complained to him about how mad I was being driven by the problem of Chip Lambert’s sexual history, his most insightful comment was his most opaque. He said to me on the subject of shame, ‘You don’t write through shame, you write around it.’ To include shame in the narrative without being overcome by it, to isolate it and to quarantine it as an object rather than letting it permeate and poison every sentence. From there it was a short step to imagining that Chip Lambert will have his dalliance with a student. Once I had that idea that his primary objective was to eliminate shame, I wrote the rest of Chip’s section in a few weeks and the rest of the novel in a year.

“The biggest remaining problem that year was that Gary Lambert bore a certain superficial resemblance to my oldest brother. Since he’s the most sentimental and sensitive person in my family, I didn’t know how I could use details from his life without hurting him and jeopardizing our good relationship. I felt guilty and disloyal about laughing at real-life details that weren’t funny to him. This was why I resisted autobiographical fiction in the past, yet the details were too meaningful not to use. It wasn’t as if I concealed from my family that I was a writer listening carefully to everything they said.

“Finally, I discussed the matter with a friend of mine who, to my surprise, became angry with me and reproached me for my narcissism. What she said was akin to my mother’s message on our last afternoon together: ‘Do you think your brother’s life revolves around you? Is he not an adult with a life of his own? Do you think you’re so powerful that something you write in a novel is going to harm him?’

“Being loyal to yourself as a writer is more difficult when you’re just starting out. The benefits of being on good terms with your friends and family are obvious and concrete, but there comes a point where they begin to equalize and the question then becomes, am I willing to risk alienating somebody I love in order to continue becoming the writer I need to be? For a long time in my marriage, the answer was no. Write as truthfully as possible. If you really love the person you’re writing about, it will reflect that love. I’m happy to report that my brother and I are now on better terms than ever. I remain deeply grateful for his reply to an advance copy of The Corrections: ‘Hating you is not an option.’ After he read the book he said, ‘Hello, Jon, it’s your brother, Gary.’ ”

Franzen, introduced by Karla Pruis, thanked his audience for “coming out on a Saturday night to hear a writer talk.”

“Tonight’s speaker is the author everyone’s talking about,” she said.

“Maybe you saw President Obama carrying around his latest novel, ‘Freedom.’ You may have heard him interviewed on National Public Radio. He guest-starred in a ‘Simpsons’ episode on TV. Perhaps you saw him on ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ or saw him on the cover of Time magazine. ‘Freedom’ took nine years to write, but was worth the wait.”