What Jonathan Franzen Told Me About Freedom

I had the chance to interview Jonathan Franzen earlier this summer for a pretty brief piece in St. Louis Magazine, and since only a bit of our conversation made it into the finished article, I thought I’d post some quotes from the cutting-room floor. Actually, just one exchange about Freedom, the New One. I didn’t much care for the novel when I read it, but I was interested in hearing Franzen talk about the novel’s characters and structure. Here’s a bit from that part of the conversation, some of which made it in:

Me: I was recently going back through some previous interviews you’d done. In one of them you talked about how tone was pivotal for you to establish first in the process. I think there was another interview where you talked about the development of the characters, in giving a lot of time to understanding these people before real composition started. Or plotting. If I have that accurately, how did these characters develop for you? Was this a Walter and Patty story? Did you see a larger family at once? How did these characters come to you and develop?

Franzen: Bit by bit over many years. 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. 

Me: Really. Are you comfortable talking about that notion? 

Franzen: Well, I’d proceeded until the end of the big chunk of Patty’s narrative. And then I had a very different idea of what the rest of the thing was going to look like. And then I tried, in the usual fashion — I wrote about 80 pages of what I wanted to be the next section and ended up hating it, basically. This is probably not very interesting for your readers, but up until just over a year ago I was imagining this thing was going to be a novel of documents. That there was just going to be — the only non-document was going to be the opening section, which is itself looking at a family from the outside, and then everything else was going to be various documents. 

Me: Interesting.

Franzen: Yeah, it was kind of a cool idea technically. And, as it turned out, quite wrong-headed and useless in actuality. 

Me: I’m trying to imagine what that would have been like. Was it Katz’ songs— 

Franzen: —it was not supposed to be very long. What is there in the book — much of it was written against a steady stream of moderate shame. I was ashamed to be spending so much time on what could be seen as rather trivial dramas of a college girl. I have an uneasiness about male writers, including myself, who narrate — who get too taken with their main female character and neglect the more masculine parts of themselves. So it was a daily struggle to overcome my resistance to giving as much space as I did to that particular autobiography.