Book Festival interview: Jonathan Franzen on religion, fame and tackling a trilogy

Ahead of his virtual appearance in Edinburgh, the celebrated US author talks to David Robinson about his early churchgoing in St Louis and tackling a trilogy for the first time

Let me take you on a journey to a tiny corner of Jonathan Franzen’s memory. We’ll start in Webster Groves, a prosperous suburb of St Louis, Missouri, where the now 63-year-old grew up “in the middle of the country, in the middle of the golden age of the American middle class”. By the time he hit his teens in 1972, Webster Groves was solidly Republican, the kind of place that voted for Goldwater in 1964 and Nixon in 1968. Yet the church Franzen attended at the crossroads of its two main streets was so unconventional that the local newspaper actually worried that the town’s youth were spending altogether too much time there.

Writers are often plagued by questions about which bits of their fiction are rooted in their own experience, and in the past Franzen has been cagey about whether there’s any meaningful link at all. Yet he now says that the early 1970s suburban Chicago youth fellowship he describes in his latest novel, Crossroads, the first of a projected trilogy, actually has quite a lot in common with the First Congregational church he attended in suburban St Louis. Trendy youth pastor? Check. Sunday evening encounter groups emphasising emotional honesty and personal growth? Check. Blindfolded trust exercises? Check. Working with the poor, deliberately downplaying religiosity, month-long missions to Navajo reservations in Arizona? Check, check, check.

“It was part of the mix that made me who I am,” he tells me over a Zoom call from Santa Cruz, California, where he lives with his “spouse equivalent”, writer Kathy Chetkovich. “In the middle of this conservative suburb, you had 150 kids doing this completely different thing. And being changed by it. I myself was changed by it.

Jonathan Franzen PIC: Janet Fine

“I was the intellectual kid in my group. This one time, the meeting hall was divided into two corners: one corner was ‘all heart’ and the other was ‘all head’ and we were told to position ourselves on that spectrum. Because we were all teens, 90 per cent of the group clustered around the ‘all heart’ corner. There were some brave souls spread out in the middle, and in the ‘all head’ corner there was just me and my friend Ben. We were the kids who found out things [a self-confessed nerd, he had a chemistry lab in his parents’ basement]. But we had a little trouble with the heart stuff.

“I came from a nice family, all very well behaved. But in that group there were lots of kids who came from really troubled households with all kinds of addiction problems: drugs, alcohol, physical and – I believe, in some cases – sexual abuse. Even though I remained an intellectual writer, I felt I had been granted access at an early age to forms of emotional extremity I would not otherwise have had a chance to experience.”

Twelve years ago, when Time Magazine put him on its cover under the heading “Great American Novelist”, the strapline read that Franzen “shows us all the way we live now”. That would have held true for his 3m-selling breakthrough novel The Corrections (2001), Freedom (2010) and, to a slightly lesser degree, his last and rather less successful novel Purity (2015). But Crossroads, he says, marks a turn away from “topicality and hot-button issues” and is set five decades ago. The story of a single family, it is mostly told over just two days. It is also a masterclass in characterisation and, to my mind, his best book yet.

So superbly drawn are the Hildebrandts – pastor Russ, neglected wife Marion, agnostic student (and likely Vietnam draftee) Clem, cheerleader daughter Becky and high IQ drug-dealing youngest son Perry – that it’s hard to imagine Franzen doing anything other than fleshing out their characters once he had already written a skeletal first draft. But no: that’s not the way he works. The intricate detail really is in there from the start.

“I work in a very linear way and am hostile to books you can feel were written from an outline,” he says. “Obviously, though, I have to start with a general idea. With Russ, that was that he had been humiliated, that his rival was in the office next to his and they hadn’t spoken for three years.” (This is where Franzen’s imagination can draw on his Webster Groves memories: while Russ is the more traditional clergyman; his rival is the trendier, down-with-the-kids youth fellowship leader Rick. Russ reacts to humiliation by itching to begin an affair with an attractive widow in his congregation.)

“All that is enough to get me going. Character is story, and the dramatic situation in which a person finds themselves? That’s what character is. So if I can get a good, fraught situation going, if I can make it sound authoritative to the reader – and to me – then it becomes a given and the other characters have to fall in line.”

For someone with a reputation as an intellectual curmudgeon, Franzen turns out to be unexpectedly courteous. He answers questions carefully, taking time to unpeel creative intent from hype. That line about “tracing the inner life of America”? That’s his agent’s, not his. So will the trilogy be any more than a family story? “I don’t know. And it’s important for me that I don’t know.” Why doesn’t Crossroads actually mention that it’s the first in a trilogy? “Originally, I was going to write one book which spanned 50 years but the first bit got out of hand. So I told my publishers it was going to be a trilogy and they liked the idea, and that became a press release.

“I wanted it on the record, even if not on the book itself. I wanted to create an expectation of myself. To give myself something I should fear being ashamed of if I can’t do it.”

“It’s hard work writing a long book in your sixties or even seventies. Fear of failure is a good motivator.”

Crossroads is published by 4th Estate, price £20. Jonathan Franzen will be appearing (remotely) at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Friday 26 August at 6.15pmb

FROM HIS EDINBURGH DEBUT TO BELATED SCREEN ADAPTATIONS: FRANZEN ON FRANZEN

Franzen’s first time at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (in 2002, promoting The Corrections) I remember it well. I was on stage and the microphone was snatched out of my hand by a very exercised physician from Lithuania. He was bent on making the point that “Lithuanians. Do. Not. Eat. Horsemeat.” Two staff converged on him to get the microphone off him.

What were his feelings about being called a Great American Novelist on the cover of Time magazine? If it wasn’t me getting that cover but one of my rivals or someone I didn’t think worthy, it would be a very short step from concluding that such a person was bad just because I would be resentful of their being on the cover and not me. There is inevitably a feeling of “why did he get that? We hate him” and if you look for reasons to hate I’m pretty good at providing them in some of the things I write – non-fiction mainly, though there are some provocations in my novel Purity. My public image is “We have to admit, his novels are good, but in his non-fiction he’s a real asshole.”

What do people often get wrong about your writing? I do think there is a subset of readers who don’t get the humour. But generally, a lot of people have read the books and I don’t feel misrepresented. I think I am perceived as being a mean and angry person because I can be a bit polemical in my non-fiction. There are two theories here: one is yes, I make my arguments in a strong form and I am upset about some issues and that in turn might upset some people because I speak my mind. And the other is, maybe I am a mean and angry person! So who knows? The other thing is that sometimes I write with a degree of irony and if you don’t get the irony it reads quite differently.

Are environmental issues always going to be a key ingredient of a Franzen novel? Actually, I’m moving away from feeling obliged to engage with it, though it was a big fact in the Navajo nation in 1972 [and in Crossroads]: there was a very real sense of betrayal that while environmentalists were fine with protecting national parks and and white country, they basically were not interested when asked for help. This was an early strong incidence of what we would now call environmental injustice.

How are you finding writing a trilogy? You know, people are very nice and they will say, “Oh I just can’t wait for the next volume.” I have heard that now hundreds and hundreds of times. But that’s not really what they want. They may think they want to know more about the character, but what they really want is a dense, urgent, fully constructed novel. They want to have another experience like they had with the first book and that experience is not going to consist of “Oh well, interestingly, Clem then went on to teach biology at university and had three children and experienced the kind of problems that people had in the mid-1990s.” Some writers can do it. [Italian novelist] Elena Ferrante is a real inspiration to me with her Neapolitan novels, telling the story of two women over 30 or 40 years in a linear way, yet her later books aren’t just extrusions and focus on particular crises.

Why haven’t any of your novels been filmed? There was a deal announced last month with Freedom [Melanie Marnich, Golden Globe-winning writer of The Affair and Big Love, is to adapt the novel for TV with Snowpiercer producer Tomorrow Studios and Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions] and other people are already hard at work trying to make a show out of Crossroads. I wrote Crossroads after doing a lot of work on the screenplay for Purity – I wrote 11 hours of scripts for Showtime, although it ended up not being made. But I think Crossroads has the right kind of episodic structure, there aren’t many scenes that go on for longer than five pages, and I think it would translate well to TV.

Will the subsequent novels in the trilogy have the same kind of structure as Crossroads? How similar will they be? When I read, say, an Alan Furst novel about spies in the 1930s and 1940s, the next time I’m on a plane journey, I want to read a book by him that does the same thing, but different. I am aware of that [reader’s wish] but am powerless to deliver it. I can’t interest myself in doing something that I have done before. One of the attractions of Crossroads was that I had never done that before: I had never spent 400 pages on things happening in one single day and trying to weave together five storylines unfolding in that time. So that probably means I won’t do it again.