On my way out the door Tuesday night to see Jonathan Franzen at the Fitzgerald Theater, I tweeted that after last year’s Minneapolis appearance by John Irving, “I’m going to be disappointed if we don’t get at least one story about fighting a porcupine.” Franzen didn’t mention any porcupines, but eerily, his final comments also involved lethal violence being visited upon small woodland creatures. More on that later.
Franzen was in St. Paul as part of the Talking Volumes series sponsored jointly by Minnesota Public Radio and the Star Tribune in association with The Loft. The appearance had a special significance because Franzen’s new novel Freedom—his first since the National Book Award winner The Corrections (2001)—is set in St. Paul. While Minnesotans, as always, have by and large been excited for the attention, some have complained that Franzen was a little sloppy with his history and geography.
Host Kerri Miller began the evening with a series of questions about Franzen’s Minnesota roots (though he was raised in St. Louis, the novelist’s parents were both Minnesotan and lived in the Twin Cities until shortly before he was born) and his choice of setting. Though he acknowledged that he enjoyed his family’s long vacations visiting family in Minnesota when he was young, Franzen noted that he only spent a couple of weeks in Minnesota as he prepared to write Freedom and stressed that the details of setting were relatively unimportant to him. Coming up with characters, he said, was “three or four orders of magnitude” more difficult.
Franzen’s relationship with his parents—now both deceased—has fueled much of his fiction (including The Corrections) and nonfiction, and he talked about his parents so much on Tuesday night that he felt the need to apologize for it. “So much flows from them,” he said, explaining that he still, consciously or unconsciously, imagines his parents as the primary audience for his writing despite the fact that they were suspicious of fiction. His dad’s preferred reading was trade magazines relating to his job as an engineer, and his mom had a hard time understanding why you would want to read something that wasn’t true. “I write to make myself understandable to them,” he said.
Like Irving, Franzen is a member of the school of thought that sees novel-writing as a noble but difficult pursuit—but compared to Irving, he’s less interested in the mechanics of plot than in his relationship (and, by extension, the reader’s relationship) to his characters. One of the rules for writing, he told The Guardian earlier this year, is “You have to love before you can be relentless.” His comments on Monday night made clear he was referring to his characters. It’s easier to be cruel to characters than to love them, he said, in part because characters “behaving badly” were more interesting than characters being well-behaved.
Among most Americans, Franzen is best known for the 2001 fracas in which he was disinvited from The Oprah Winfrey Show after making comments suggesting some unease with having his book known as an Oprah book. On Monday night, he advanced what he called “a theory” that the incident became a flashpoint because of populist flames being fanned against perceived elitists. Almost a decade later, he’s finally scheduled to appear on the show; Winfrey has chosen Freedom as the first book club selection of her show’s final season.
Winfrey has stopped featuring what Franzen regards as contrived footage of authors “walking reflectively through their home towns,” and he said that “at least one” other author of an Oprah book—a woman—had contacted him to express sympathy with his perspective. Despite Miller’s repeated questioning, Franzen wouldn’t reveal the author’s name, but he did say that “it wasn’t Toni Morrison.”
Franzen took several questions from the audience, and complimented his interlocutors on their excellent questions, the toughest of which concerned the amount of self-revelation in his fiction and nonfiction writing. He described his memoir The Discomfort Zone (2006) as a reaction to the international fame (and infamy) he’d gained in the wake of The Corrections. He felt the need, he said, to regain some privacy, ironically by revealing more about himself (or a certain version of himself) so as to put his writing and public comments in perspective.
The mention of violence against woodland creatures came at the evening’s conclusion, when a questioner asked about a selection Franzen had read from Freedom that involved a dispute over whether or not a catowner had a moral obligation to protect local fauna (Franzen is an avid birder) by keeping her cat indoors. Franzen explained that the conversation in the novel was inspired by an actual conversation a friend of his had with a neighbor who saw her right to let her cat roam as divinely given. The real-life cat was killed by raccoons, inspiring the cat owner to call for a raccoon eradication program. Franzen’s sympathy was for the raccoons. “So,” he asked rhetorically, “the problem is that the neighborhood isn’t safe for your predatory creature?”