Interview with Author Jonathan Franzen

I fear striking this match, but let’s see what happens …

A baby monkey fighting with a kitten has more than a million hits on YouTube. The one with the Bengal cat “talking” to her kitten has attracted nearly 2 million viewers. And the 10 best cat bloopers? More than 8 million hits. If you’re still reading this, bless you. Everybody else may be watching YouTube.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed, and please remain calm if your ears are still virgin to this news, but we—that would be the many Americans that make up the thing we refer to as society—have developed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Please refrain from Googling that on your smartphone and bear with me.

Now that billionaires have spoon-fed our addictive minds the likes of Facebook and Twitter—don’t click there just yet for it will still be thriving after you read this—and cell phones have given us unlimited opportunity to communicate with each other by not really communicating with each other (much) at all, it’s easy to become susceptible to—how shall I put this?—being ridiculously scattered. If you’re still in doubt that we might have lost a bit of ourselves, take a close look around and you’ll see all too clearly that we have not only lost some mental footing, but also we have also tumbled farther south than we ever imagined. Allow your gaze to linger even longer and you may even see that we’re crawling, on hands and knees (and needs), bellies bloated, in the land of Dumbed Down, a perverse oasis where our hearts are allowed to remain empty and the distractions from actually noticing the huge expanse of that emptiness are … Just Too Good To Pass Up.

I fear these admissions may be taken as chastisement—trust me, I, too, drank the delicious modern-tech Kool-Aid willingly—when, really, I think what I am doing is simply rallying in the troops; perhaps calling in for some back-up reconnaissance because I still believe we human beings (and I don’t think I am going out on a limb here) are creatures that, deep down, crave real connection. And there seems to be less and less of that actually happening in the “real” world. Worse, I fear we’ve become complacent and unwilling to really try to connect, as we sit beneath the tech rainbow with glazed-over eyes, not even noticing the colors that surround us.

I bring this up because of one man: Jonathan Franzen. And I am fine with blaming the genesis of these admissions on an award-winning, best-selling novelist, who splits his time between New York City and (in creative seclusion) in Santa Cruz. Mainly because Franzen himself brings up the very issues that have been plaguing me. (You, too?—not to be confused with YouTube.) Things have changed. And Franzen expounds about all that, and other topics, to winning ends in his new book “Farther Away,” a fine collection of essays so well crafted they have the power to grab you and hold you—right there—in the moment.

In one of his essays, which blends his insights on the nuances of Robinson Crusoe and today’s high-tech mental meltdown, the author notes that “The blackberry on Robinson Crusoe Island was like the conquering novel, yes, but it seemed to me no less like the Internet, that BlackBerry-borne invasive, which instead of mapping the self onto a narrative, maps the self onto the world. Instead of the news, my news. Instead of a single football game, the splintering of fifteen different games into personalized fantasy-league statistics. Instead of The Godfather, “My Cat’s Funny Trick.” The individual run amok, Everyman a Charlie Sheen. With Robinson Crusoe, the self had become an island; and now, it seemed the island was becoming the world.”

Most people are aware of Franzen’s work, or, at least, his name. Born in the Chicago suburbs and raised near St. Louis, Mo., his literary life really took flight in the late ’80s when his first novel, “The Twenty-Seventh City,” was published. Critically acclaimed, it laid the groundwork for other prominent works in fiction and nonfiction. Readers also savored his magazine articles—from the New Yorker to Harper’s Magazine (“Perchance to Dream” was mindbending)—but when his novel of social criticism, “The Corrections,” hit bookstores in 2001, and, at a time when there was still a plethora of physical bookstores, it nabbed the National Book Award for Fiction and the 2002 James Tait Black Memorial Prize. The novel was also a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize. There was also a curious headline-grabber: Franzen spoke out about his worry that “The Corrections” was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, sighting that the Oprah logo on his book might turn away male readers. Needless to say, the buzz generated more book sales and it became one of the decade’s best-selling reads. (An HBO series was in the works, but fizzled.)

Prolific as he is, Franzen has generated other notable works over the last decade—“The Discomfort Zone” and “How To Be Alone”—all the while enjoying a budding friendship and professional rivalry with another best-selling author/creative beast, the late David Foster Wallace. When Franzen’s next novel, “Freedom” was released in 2010—the tale chronicled the complex relationships of several members of an American family and their close friends and lovers—it, too, quickly became a bestseller.

cover Farther AwayThe observations he makes about the world we now find ourselves living in, in “Farther Away,” are bravely shared and it’s easy to see why Franzen is considered to be one of the most significant writers of our time. (And take note: Not all of his essays revolve around disconnectedness.) Here, on the eve of his only promotional appearance for “Farther Away” (7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 16 at Bookshop Santa Cruz—although, he delivers the commencement speech at UCSC’s Cowell College that same day ), Franzen shares the state of his mental and emotional affairs, and, well, more. (Because there’s always more.)

GOOD TIMES: Like many readers, I have appreciated your observations about the world, about life. So, tell me: Where are you at, what do you think has happened to us, as a culture, and where do you think we are headed?    

JONATHAN FRANZEN: Those are big questions.

I thought I’d start big and work my way down. But you often write about embracing pain and bring up the idea of not running away from the uncomfortable, and how we can find something there. Why do you steer us in the direction to ponder that?

Where to begin? I guess I come from a Protestant work ethic and that life is not all play; that there is some effort involved. And even if it is all about play, there is still some effort involved. There is a certain amount of pain involved even if you’re trying to play tennis, or run a good marathon. It’s not such a foreign concept: to make the most of yourself and make the most out of life, you sometimes have to do things that are uncomfortable, painful.

That’s a little bit vague, but I think where we are is  … getting swept along by our technology. People have been prophesying this for more than 100 years. I have been working on a book on the Austrian satirist Karl Kraus, who already, in 1910, was talking about the incompatibility of technology and human intelligence. And within another decade and a half, Aldous Huxley was writing ‘Brave New World.’ People have been foreseeing something fundamentally transformative about tech for more than 100 years. They have been expecting that. I think we humanists, after going through a period of alarmism—like those people waiting for the end of the world in 2012, and it doesn’t end, and somehow you go on; somehow the world does not seem to be ending—the tech realm is taking on a life of its own. Even though technology is supposed to empower you, you are not empowered when you are forced to live in the world that technology is creating; creating in an almost automatic way. There’s no logic to it. There’s no humane directive behind it. It’s not like it’s better to be able to watch cat videos on YouTube, but the logic of the technology of today means that you can spend all day watching stupid cat tricks on YouTube.

God help us …

There’s a radical absence of anything like informed consent. It’s there whether you want it or not. So, I think writers and readers are particularly susceptible to the irritations of that. We like well-ordered, meaningful worlds. That’s what I am doing as a novelist; as an essayist. I don’t have the answer but for as long as an essay lasts, I am constructing a story, a little narrative, a little discursive world in which everything makes sense.

In a novel, a fairly large fictional world, meaning is possible. But out in the real world, the noise is so total that you can’t hold onto a shred of meaning for longer than five minutes before it gets contradicted or blown away by something else. For the reading types, that leads to a profound sense of powerlessness. Not only are decisions not being made but in many cases, conversations aren’t being had. That was evident to me in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. There was a strange absence in the kind of discourse we had seen, certainly, leading up to the second World War, and the first World War. Or even Vietnam. And Vietnam was secret and the run-up to Iraq was out in the open and we were still not having the conversations.

Why not?

We live in weird times. We are getting more powerful, and powerful because we live with this technology, and I think we are becoming more powerless. And to me, that is an opportunity, not just as a reader but as a citizen reading novels, because I can catch my breath there and experience meaning. It’s the same thing with a well- written article in the New Yorker or McSweeney’s—‘Oh yeah, I remember what it’s like to follow an argument and follow it and have it mean something.’

Is it true that you totally ‘unplug’ when you write?

I can’t have an Internet connection where I am working. I do take a BlackBerry if there is some piece of business I need to attend to during the day. And if the work is going well, I don’t use the BlackBerry. But if I don’t want to be distracted, then I’ll just waste hours checking my email every five minutes. It’s really bad.

We’ve become an ADHD society.

It’s really a lot like that, and a writer is a purveyor of a certain kind of product. We should be creating carefully imagined pieces of work. People find it so strange and I get asked this question a lot and say, ‘Oh my God, how can you not have Internet in your office?’ And I say, ‘Well, if you were the purveyor of highly purified silicon for the electronics industry, people wouldn’t find it strange that you keep your workplace clean of bacteria.’ And that’s what the Internet—worse would be TV—is for me. It’s how I have to keep the factory clean.

Your works are often revered. In the last decade you unleashed ‘The Corrections’ and then ‘Freedom’ and, of course, many magazine articles. So where does all this ‘creativity’ come from?

When I am working on a novel—actively trying to write—there are just big chunks of lost months where I am struggling; where I am forcing myself to stay in the saddle for another month, and another month after that, even though I have a sense that it is not working. And I would love to find a substitute for that so that I can be more productive in those months. But I think subterraneanly, there is something going on. I am learning, slowly being pulled through it. And I cannot stand more than four or five months of that in a given year, and I have to go off and do some journalism or something.


It’s safe to say that in “Farther Away” Franzen offers some of his most compelling work. It is a luscious literary assembly of soulful observations and otherwise thought-provoking musings that cover a diverse range of subjects. In one of the book’s earlier essays, fittingly dubbed “Farther Away,” he recounts re-reading the book considered to be the “first” English novel, “Robinson Crusoe”—on the far away island of Masafuera, in the South Pacific. (He later scattered some of the remains of his friend David Foster Wallace there, but more on Wallace later … ) Another entry, “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” highlights what Franzen considers to be one of the greatest irritations of modern technology development, the one that “has done lasting harm of real social significance”: the cell phone. “The world ten years ago was not yet fully conquered by yak,” Franzen writes, and goes on to illuminate how cell phone conversations in public have become a new kind of pollution. In “Comma-Then,” he shares his irritations with writers using the word then as a conjunction without a subject following it. And, in “What Makes You So Sure You’re Not the Evil One Yourself,” he explores the creative fabric of Canadian short story writer Alice Munro, revealing how much he appreciates stories … “because they leave the writer no place to hide … There’s no yakking your way out of trouble; I’m going to be reaching the last page in a matter of minutes, and if you’ve got nothing to say I’m going to know it.”

Yes, Franzen so beautifully captures our attention with these essays. And what a treat it is to have the author pull down the blanket from the head of the big bad wolf of our fears and doubts and stare them down, eye to tormenting eye. Fears, doubts, emotions from which humans run away. And not just run away from, but screaming ad nauseum, because their discomfort so pains them. But these themes of grief and loss—and the art of leaning into them as opposed to crying after some other arrangement—play so well with others here, too. For every brilliant, sobering look at the disconnectedness modern technology often spawns, Franzen also touches upon the possibility of tracing one’s own footsteps toward personal progress.

How do you decide what to write?

It’s become almost invariably defined that I should write something when I feel like, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to write that.’


I mean there are certain kinds of things that are easy; some newspaper in England asking, ‘Would you write a thousand words on what’s wrong with Twitter …’ I don’t want to write that because that’s not an interesting piece to me, but if I feel an emotional or psychological resistance to something, that I am nonetheless attracted to doing, that means it is going to be an adventure. In the book, I talk about the conviction that a piece of writing isn’t worth doing unless you don’t know how you are going to do it when you go into it. I started to figure that out in the ’90s, when I started doing magazine work. I was allowed to be a journalist, allowed myself to be a journalist and an essayist, and I did two pieces in a row.

One was in a maximum-security prison. I was afraid to go into a maximum-security prison, and I said, ‘Well, I’d better go into a maximum-security prison, more than one if possible. A couple of months later, the New Yorker editor said, ‘How about writing about the tobacco industry?’ And I literally said, ‘That is the last thing I want to write about.’  And I was still smoking then, secretly, like most people I knew, and I just didn’t want to think about it. And my editor said, ‘Therefore you have to write it because it’s the last thing you want to write about.’ And that became kind of a rallying cry. So that’s how it comes to be—I have to have some sort of feeling, and I have to distrust those feelings.

There’s a piece on China in the book because I had become so mad at China, so enraged—not because they had taken over our economy … we have nobody to blame for that—but because of what they were doing to the environment. Taking the sharks out of the sea, and cutting off the fins. All of that. I just walked around seething with this hatred for 1.2 billion people. And I thought, ‘This can’t be right. I don’t enjoy seething with hatred,’ and I thought the picture had to be more complicated than that. But I knew going in that I had all of that anger. I thought, ‘Here is this subject that is going to yield something because I am going in so pissed off.’

What type of writing—fiction, nonfiction—do you enjoy writing the most?

Broadly, the hard thing about fiction is that it is freely inventive. You have unlimited choice. I would argue that unlimited choice is a form of tyranny. Americans and consumers suffer terribly from too much choice. And for the novelist … any word can follow the first word you write. It branches out from there into an infinity of possible stories you can tell. So you’re really going solo. It’s really like the person who wants to climb Everest by himself. That’s why you see so many novelists writing about something … ‘Oh, I am going to write about this battle of the Civil War. Nobody knows about it.’ But it’s terrifying, like being on the side of the mountain without support.  So I think that is the excitement and challenge of fiction.

What about journalism?

Frankly, what I love most about journalism is that I get to go out and be a worker, on the clock, saving my receipts, and learning a profession. The writer stays at home most days, like a sick child in the bedroom while everybody is out either playing at school or working at school. You’re this horribly isolated, disturbed person, alone in a room. For me, to go out on a job, like my dad, did—he was an engineer—it’s a way of connecting with him. I am a man like he was; someone is paying me to take this trip. So I love that.

And essays?

The essays are purely a formal challenge. Not purely. They are a formal challenge in that they are more like filling out a large crossword puzzle. You have a subject. It’s not freely inventive. The structural challenge of that is what I think attracts me.


With growth—real growth and real integration—comes a certain amount of pain, as Franzen points out. But how does one truly learn from the pain?

Franzen was drawn to writer David Foster Wallace for some time before they officially met in the early ’90s. Wallace’s first novel, “The Broom in the System” was launched in the late ‘80s, and by the mid-‘90s, his other works were being published in GQ, Harpers, Esquire and other outlets. It’s easy to understanding Franzen’s fascination. The two writers were on curiously similar literary paths. Franzen’s “The Twenty-Seventh City” also came out in the late ’80s and “Strong Motion” in 1992. But when Wallace’s second novel, “Infinite Jest,” was released in 1996, it had so swiftly turned publishing industry heads and fascinated readers who, perhaps were not yet aware of their hunger for the kind of hysterical realism that Wallace so abundantly could feed. Its numerous end-notes, and footnotes within footnotes, themes of recovery, depression, child abuse—tennis, even—were some of the winning ingredients that filled the futuristic outing.

It took several correspondences before Franzen and Wallace actually met, and Franzen notes them in “Farther Away,” describing their initial encounters as “stressful” and “rushed”—much less intimate than exchanging letters. But, in time, they became friends and, by Franzen’s own admission, literary rivals. But healthy rivals at that. So, it’s fitting that the author writes about Wallace in “Farther Away,” revealing his mixed emotions about Wallace’s suicide in September of 2008. After years of struggling with depression, Wallace hanged himself in his backyard.

“There was the person of Dave, and then there was the disease, and disease killed the man as surely as cancer might have,” Franzen writes of Wallace in the book. “People who like to be in control of things can have a hard time with intimacy. Intimacy is anarchic and mutual and definitionally incompatible with control. You seek to control things because you are afraid.”

He also writes that he once told Wallace, “people like us are so afraid to relinquish control that sometimes the only way we can force ourselves to open up and change is to bring ourselves to an access of misery and the brink of destruction.”

Of Wallace’s writing, Franzen is equally candid: “He had the most commanding and exciting and inventive rhetorical virtuosity than any writer alive. Way out at word number 70 or 100 or 140 in a sentence deep into a three-page paragraph of macabre humor or fabulously reticulated self-consciousness, you could smell the ozone from the crackling precision of his sentence structure, his effortless and pitch-perfect shifting among levels of high, low, middle, technical, hipster, nerdy, philosophical, vernacular, vaudevillian, hortatory, toughguy, brokenhearted, lyrical diction.”

These are some of the most revealing admissions Franzen offers. It also exposes another rich emotional layer of the man (Franzen) whose words continue to compel and bewitch.

You write so candidly about David Foster Wallace. What has been one of the most interesting things you have learned from knowing him?

[Long pause] I don’t think of a close relationship in terms of what you learn from them. I think one thing that was striking about us was how love and competition co-existed. And thinking about that, especially at the time he died and right around the time I was starting to work on ‘Freedom,’ put me on the trail of looking at love and competition in other settings, particular in other families. And I started to think about it … I didn’t actually know of a family where there wasn’t competition, and the family is the seat of love in American society.

So I wrote a book about it. [Laughs]. But I think people are afraid of talking about competition. For me, the experience of coming to have such deep love for David, and feeling that love from him, and also having to learn how to negotiate the fact that we were still rivals, detoxified competition for me. It was not like I hate Dave—I was mad at him when he killed himself, but at no point did I hate Dave. I love Dave. I mean, I still wanted to beat him [competitively], always and large. And I could barely keep up with him on the tennis court. When we played chess, both of us were bad at it.

cover franzenI can picture the scene—you and David Foster Wallace on opposite ends of the chess board.

There was very thick tension in the room.

So, after all this, what is some of the best advice you’ve been given about life?

Well, the New Yorker editor that said, the last thing you want a write about, write about … but one of the pieces that did not go into the new collection was a long piece of political reporting I did for the New Yorker—and I had no experience as a political reporter. I had volunteered to be the Washington correspondent for the magazine and I had been given the job, and the day before I had gone to Washington, I had gone for a walk with David Remnick, the editor of the magazine, and said, ‘I feel like I am going to be terrible.’ And I am sure he said this to writers every day … he said, ‘I start making mistakes when I get out of bed in the morning.’

That was a really nice thing to say when I was heading off to Washington because he is an outstanding reporter, and the idea of him making mistakes … it never occurred to me. But the ‘life’ advice, the line I am always quoting—it’s a rallying cry of mine. Don DeLillo said, ‘The writer leads, he doesn’t follow.’

I am sure he could have found a way to not make it gender specific. I’ve tried in my head many times to rewrite it for him, but there’s a particular rhythm to it. The writer leads, comma, he doesn’t follow—period. And since it was from one guy to another in a private letter, I thought it was OK. That has been and remains my rallying cry.

Don’t go chasing after the culture. Lead the culture.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned about yourself lately?

It was really interesting to learn that I am really not excited about anything related to Hollywood. I got drawn into the HBO project to make a show out of ‘The Corrections.’  And I was working with some great people—Scott Rudin and Noah Baumbach—and I had an opportunity to design the show along the lines I wanted to, and somehow I got drawn into them, writing a few scripts, and that turned out to be a struggle because we were all trying to figure it out. At a certain point, I started to say, ‘Why am I doing this?’ And, in a sense, tried to back out—remaining the producer and designing but I didn’t want to write. And my Hollywood agent said, ‘Oh, it’s because you haven’t been on set, seen the actors, heard them reading the lines. It’s going to be so exciting,’ and I said. ‘OK.’ And I continued to write for another four months and production started on the pilot in January, and terrific actors were involved. Chris Cooper—I have such profound respect for him. He’s such a great persona and an amazingly good actor. Some of the scenes in the pilot I cannot stand to watch because they are so good.

But basically, I was not excited. It was fun to meet him and the other actors, but it was unbelievably boring. I started watching the dailies and I kept waiting for the excitement to happen. [Laughs]. And it gets back to the DeLillo thing. Am I going to chase after Hollywood like a little puppy? I’m the fucking writer—that’s the attitude writers should have. The writer leads, Hollywood should follow. I came away feeling the emotional truth of that.


Special Author Event: In his only book talk and signing on behalf of “Farther Away,” his new collection of essays and speeches, Jonathan Franzen will be at Bookshop Santa Cruz (1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz), at 7:30 pm Saturday June 16. Purchase a book beforehand and receive a signing voucher for the event. For more information, call 423-0900 or visit  Open seating will begin at 6 p.m. for the 7:30 p.m. event. There are no reserved seats.

To Top