Conversation: Jonathan Franzen

BY Molly Finnegan  September 30, 2010 at 4:00 PM EDT

The Berglunds are a seemingly well-adjusted and well-off middle-class Midwest family, but as we learn very quickly: “Then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.”

The disintegration of their lives in a very fractured and unsettled, post-9/11 America is told in “Freedom,” the new novel by Jonathan Franzen. His last novel, “The Corrections,” won the 2001 National Book Award.

I spoke to him recently about his work.

 
A transcript is after the jump.
 
Also after the jump, watch Franzen read an excerpt from “Freedom.”

 

JEFFREY BROWN: The Berglund’s are a seemingly well-adjusted and well-off middle-class Midwest family, but as we learn very quickly: “Then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.” The disintegration of their lives in a very fractured and unsettled post-9/11 America is told in “Freedom,” the new novel by Jonathan Franzen. His last novel, “The Corrections,” won the 2001 National Book Award. Welcome to you.

JONATHAN FRANZEN: Nice to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: I read where you said that this started with a desire to write about your own parents’ experience, but you wanted to set it in our own time.

JONATHAN FRANZEN: I can’t imagine setting a book in the past. There’s something about the present that’s so present and pushes on my own consciousness so much and creates so many anxieties that I’m always looking for a way to move things into the now if I can. So I had to make my parents my age rather than their age, and this is what you get when you do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: So there’s something partly — a very familiar family story.

JONATHAN FRANZEN: Yeah, the details are different but the personality types was what I was after, and then particularly also they have a son whose relation to the parents is in some ways comparable to my own. So the whole thing was just shifted a whole generation forward, and I was able — so I had to imagine my way into what I would have been like if I had been 19 now.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m curious where this sort of starts for you, because “The Corrections” was also a family story, and I’ve seen you talk about or read you talk about the idea of going from childhood into adulthood and the disconnections there.

JONATHAN FRANZEN: Family is how I make sense of the world. I had a very powerful experience of it, these really giant figures in my life, and I was this little kid and I had two much older brothers and these powerful and often clashing parents, and every novel I’ve written — it’s been four novels — I’ve tried to draw on the energy of those intense family relations to power a book.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then you set them in a contemporary society. “The Corrections” came out just before 9/11, right?

JONATHAN FRANZEN: Days before, yeah.

JEFFREY BROWN: Days before, and now you’ve set the Berglunds among this world of post-9/11.

JONATHAN FRANZEN: I seem to be on a cycle of producing novels that’s similar to the cycle of American presidential administrations. So I had a Reagan novel, and I had a Bush I novel, and then I had a Clinton novel, and this would be sort of the Bush years in a sense. It goes up right into the present. I’m not writing for people in 200 years; I’m trying to create books that the people can connect with based on the experiences they’re having right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: But it’s interesting when you tie them to a presidency, because a lot of the talk your work generates, a lot discussion about the big novel, the social novel. Do you think of yourself as trying to express something about our times?

JONATHAN FRANZEN: That’s not the point. The point is to try to create a compelling experience that the largest number of people possible can interact with, relate to, get lost in. And the fact that it can be taken as a certain kind of portrait of the time is almost an artifact of that. It’s not the goal. And, you know, TV does what the social novel used to do, so you don’t need me to tell you what’s going on in the country. We’re bombarded with all that 24/7. What we need is an intense experience that takes away from that but is still informed by all of that bombardment.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, TV does some of that, the movies do something that novels used to do. I mention that because some of your characters even refer to “War and Peace,” you know, in thinking about how we live our lives, how grand the scale is and how grand the story telling is.

JONATHAN FRANZEN: Well, “War and Peace” was admittedly a model, because I think reading that novel is an experience everyone who can read should have at some point in their life. To have a book that is not so short that it’s over in an evening, something that becomes part of your life for a series of days and that you just don’t want to have end. That’s really the goal. And again that’s with the view to pushing back this electronic culture of tiny little bits of information bombarding you and gratifying you every five seconds. It’s a model, and the 19th century novels in general are a model of a different kind of time of thinking and feeling in a somewhat slower but hopefully more intense way.

JEFFREY BROWN: But very few novelists in our age get the kind of attention, you know. There’s the Time magazine great American novelists idea and then there is wild praise, and then that generates a sort of backlash that I’ve seen over the last couple of months. Why him, why so much attention.

JONATHAN FRANZEN: I don’t feel the weight of that. I feel an almost impersonal happiness to see any novel getting that kind of attention, because I had the feeling in many points in the last decade, 15 years that we had seen the last of that possibility for the novel in this country. But when I was growing up you’d look and you’d see Hemmingway’s picture on the cover of Life magazine, you’d see Steinbeck traveling the world and being some kind representative for the country. And it’s nice personally for me to be the one in that position, but I think I would be happy even if it were someone else just to see the novel throwing its weight around the way it once did and apparently still can.

JEFFREY BROWN: I ask this because we’ve talked to many people here about the future of the book and the age of the e-book and Twitter, et cetera, and all the things you’ve just been talking about. Do you fear for the future of the novel?

JONATHAN FRANZEN: Not so much. I think the more intense that world gets, the more the novel has the capacity to be that which is a relief from that, that which is an alternative to that. And that’s been the great happy surprise for me in the last decade both with “The Corrections” and now with “Freedom” to see that there is surprisingly a great hunger for something that isn’t that instant culture, that’s for something that is a little bit more interior.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The new novel is “Freedom.” Jonathan Franzen, thank you very much.

JONATHAN FRANZEN: Pleasure, Jeff. Thanks.