Thursday, 7 October 2010
Meeting Jonathan Franzen
When I finally gave up any hope of doing anything representative of the American family, I actually seemed to have tapped into other people's weirdness in that way.
A striking leaf-design green wallpaper completely covers the main hall of Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery. Easy listening music thrums out of the speakers, all tunes referenced in the novels of Jonathan Franzen. Tonight Franzen himself will be talking about his new novel, Freedom, and he'll be signing copies.
Host and novelist Dave Haslam introduces the night, standing in with his back to the floor-to-ceiling windows as the sun goes down behind the park. He says there are 18 limited-edition copies of a Freedom publicity poster up for grabs. After telling us a little about the U.S. novelist, he invites Jonathan Franzen onto the main stage.
Franzen, his slightly crazy grey hair askew, picks up the wooden lectern and hauls it from the floor up to the stage. “This is the weirdest lectern I’ve ever seen,” he says. “It’s like a sermon box.” He turns it around, and we can see a strange slot in the wood, like he’s supposed to post something into it when he’s finished presenting.
He then dives into a segment of Freedom, a funny scene featuring a college freshman on the phone to the MILF mother of the girlfriend he’s ignoring.
After this, an Art Gallery representative tells Franzen that the “lectern” is actually a comment box for gallery visitors to post their thoughts on the exhibitions. She then asks the author about the title of the book.
Franzen mentions he felt like “an adolescent” up to the age of 49. “I wanted to write a book that would free me in some way,” says the 51-year-old. I guess we’ll have to read the book to properly get the title, to see whether it's just about feeling your age, or whether it's more than that.
Perhaps it was getting his face on the cover of Time Magazine that kicked him into accepting adulthood. Perhaps it was how his 2001 novel The Corrections made it into Time's All-Time 100 Novels. Regardless of this, Franzen is modest. “It's just a novel,” he says. “Don't take it too seriously.”
During the questions (when he describes straight-faced heavyweight writer Don DeLillo as “amusing”) a fan asks about how he’s been reported as being quite a nice guy. How much of that does he put on?
“I wouldn’t fake it,” he says. And he knows the importance of good behaviour in his position. “If a writer snaps a little bit,” he says, “you can see it going straight into a blog.” Indeed.
A punter asks whether he would persuade or dissuade people from becoming novelists, and whether others should encourage people to enter that competitive line of work.
“If an English teacher spots the kid is good,” Franzen says, “why not? We’ll still be reading fiction of some form (in the future). Besides, it’s good for the soul to write fiction.”
The guy’s getting old, as are many prolific authors, and despite hammering out good writing, his age is showing when a fan throws technology into the discussion. Currently 25% of his book sales are e-books. “I don’t like that,” he says. “Occasionally people stick a kindle in my face, and ask me, ‘can you sign my kindle?’ I think books are nice objects.” I agree. Kindles, it seems, don’t do it for him.
Signing time. My phone is now ancient and having a picture with him takes a few attempts as the shutter is slowing by the day. But of course, he doesn’t snap.