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Jonathan Franzen in 2006
Jonathan Franzen in 2006

Interview

Jonathan Franzen on fiction, fame and Freedom Add to ...

In the realm of what he calls "the digital junk stream," American writer Jonathan Franzen, 51, is still best known for dissing Oprah Winfrey's book club almost a decade ago, leading the great tastemaker to cancel a planned television appearance in which Franzen had hoped to promote his third novel, The Corrections. Despite that, the novel went on to sell almost three million copies around the world and to establish its author as a major literary voice.

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These days, there is virtually no resistance being offered to Freedom, Franzen's follow-up novel, to be published in Canada on Sept. 4. Another hilarious, heartbreaking family saga, Freedom chronicles the bumpy career of a picture-perfect Midwestern family as it descends from its wholesome middle-class existence into a maelstrom of confusion. The novel is populated by a Rabelaisian cast of characters, including shady defence contractors, billionaire coal miners, a has-been rock star and a slew of ungrateful children.

Greeted by rapturous reviews south of the border, Freedom instantly became the must-read novel of the year when Time magazine put Franzen on its cover this week, describing him simply as "Great American Novelist."

The Globe's John Barber interviewed Franzen, who also keeps a place on New York's Upper East Side, by telephone from the author's home in Santa Cruz, Calif.

I've never interviewed anyone the week they're on the cover of Time magazine.

Well, I'll try to make it as easy as possible.

How does it feel?

It feels all right. It doesn't feel as good as even a minor breakthrough in the work. Everyone says, 'It must be so exciting.' To begin with, I don't know where 'exciting' got a positive connotation. Beyond that, to the extent it means people are out there enjoying the book, it's very gratifying.

A lot of novelists don't expect to have readers. Now, you have the world at your feet. Does that change anything for you?

It's always an uphill struggle to get a book written, and to have a motive force behind me - in the form of the expectation of readers to get another book that they'll enjoy - means a lot on many mornings. There's a pressure that comes with that and pushes in the other direction and can shut you down. But on balance, it's a good thing.

What's different about Freedom?

I feel I'm offering something more directly from my life. I'm offering an exposure of things inside me in the hope they might correspond to things inside other people. There were plenty of risks like that taken in The Corrections, but I was more defended. I was more defended by anger and a certain kind of aggressive comedy, and it became necessary to let go of those things to get this book written.

This book is comedy. It even has a happy ending.I think in classical comedy, no principals can die. So to that extent it's not a comedy. But I believe in laughter. There's so much to be upset about in the world, I feel an obligation from time to time to have the final note in a book not be a despairing one. Or an ironic one. To actually maintain the possibility of some kind of hope.

So have you exorcised your old misanthropic ghosts in writing this?

I don't think I've exorcised anything - perhaps exercised something. Like many people who have a particular sympathy for the environment and for other species we share the planet with, I do have my days of raging misanthropy. They don't go away. That streak is still in me, but it's not the whole me. Some people say you're an elitist, whereas others accuse you of being populist because you write readable novels. Does that strike you as dissonant?

I try not to read things about myself, but word gets back nonetheless. It's only a slight exaggeration to say I would feel I'm doing something wrong if I weren't getting contrary responses. I'm a Midwesterner, I come from the middle - and rather uncomfortably so, I might add.

But part of my understanding of the Midwest I grew out of was that the door was open to everybody. In college, I got a taste for pretty hard-core literature, so that's a door I want to keep open. But as a casual reader, I don't like unnecessary difficulty. I think it's unfriendly to readers who have spent money and bought the book to torture them unnecessarily.

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