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.
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.
You said recently that nobody who has an Internet connection in their workplace could ever possibly write a good novel.
Every good writer I know needs to go into some deep, quiet place to do work that is fully imagined. And what the Internet brings is lots of vulgar data. It is the antithesis of the imagination. It leaves nothing to the imagination.
You have said it takes you four to seven years of writing before a novel really gets going. Is the difficulty finding a plot?
No, I can construct a plot in an afternoon. It's all about connecting with characters. When the characters have to be invented from scratch, it takes all the longer. And if the character's not invented from scratch then it's harder to access the stuff that really needs to come out.
People talk about the revival of the social novel. Is that your sense of what you're trying to do?
I have that sense less than some commentators seem to. In the same way that I can plot a novel in an afternoon - but so what? - I can sketch out a book that connects with a dozen different aspects of contemporary society in a couple of days. But again, so what? The people I'm writing for don't need me to tell them what the news is. They have other access to the news.
I'm not repudiating the social novel, I'm pointing toward its obsolescence as a news-bringing vehicle. I would say 98 per cent of the work I did on Freedom had to do with psychoanalyzing myself and developing characters, and 2 per cent of it finally went into direct attention to my social milieu.
D.H. Lawrence said writers write novels to change the world. Don't you have that opportunity?
If there's something in the world I'm really upset about, I'm going to do journalism about it. I don't want to burden the novel with excess fact. More importantly, it would distract me from doing what a novel really ought to be doing, which is forge a connection between writer and reader at a much deeper level.
Nevertheless, to give you an example, I think adulthood has become seriously undervalued in recent years. I'm not morally blaming anyone for wanting to prolong childhood into his or her 30s. It seems like a natural response to the sense that the world is too complicated to do anything about, so I have sympathy for the position. Yet I do feel very specifically that Freedom was an attempt to celebrate something other than youth culture.
That's not an ambition to change the world, maybe. It's more an ambition to shore up certain parts of the culture that seem to be slipping, and provide company and support for other people who feel the same way.
A lot of novels I'm reading are about escaping the boundaries of the biological family and finding the freedom to choose one's identity. But you're saying that's impossible.
In a culture of radical consumer choice, constraints of any kind become interesting to the writer. You can choose your friends, you can choose your clothes, you can choose all your products, but you can't choose who your parents and your siblings are. That's a fact. You can deal with it by running away. But in fact most people don't finally run away. They find some way to deal with it. That's a critical restriction on the somewhat phony kind of freedom that's peddled by our political economy.
The whole enterprise is to try to get below the surface. If you want surfaces, they're streaming at you 24 hours a day in our culture. The novelist's domain has always been and nowadays even more critically remains the deep interior. So I find myself drawn to the things that are inescapable, because I'm trying to create situations that force people to deal with what's inside rather than escape from it.
You said this novel was more personal. Does that mean you are dealing with characters you have more personal experience with?
Not in any direct way, no. That's one reason it took so long to get the book going. I had to find analogues to my own experiences that I could find no way to write about directly.
Certainly I was interested in my parents' marriage, but I didn't want to tell a story about something that began in 1943. I wanted to set it in a world I recognized and could move around in freely without a ton of research. I'm very opposed to research. I do the minimum, or possibly less than the minimum.
It distracts from the real problem, and the real problem is always character. Also, if I have too many facts, I start to feel responsible to them. Does the term "literary novel" have any meaning to you?
You need some word to account for the difference between Philip Roth and John Grisham. There are many striking differences, and this is with all respect to John Grisham. One of the striking things about so-called literary fiction is that it tends to be not morally simplistic. You don't have heroically good people and diabolically evil people. In other words, it's realistic. It's realistic about the actual nature of morality.
You have written famously of your doubts about the power of the novel to reach and to move people in the digital world. Has your subsequent success put such doubts in the past?
Oh no, that's ongoing. The terms of the struggle have changed a little bit. I think my sense of the possible audience for serious work has changed. It turns out there are more people who are hungry for some alternative to the digital junk stream than I might have guessed in my depressed years in the early nineties.
Back then, it seemed enough to perform a rearguard action for a small number of people - to not care whether anybody reads the work, but just to do it, make the sentences that are resistant, and hope to find a few kindred spirits who are grateful for it.
Nowadays, with the book industry in decline and people's discretionary time ever more fragmented, I'm inclined to reach out even more to the non-hard-core audience, to try to deliver something that would be fun to read and a reminder of why we still need books, a reminder of the things that only novels can give you.
Are you surprised by the popularity of your work?
Certainly it occasions sustained questioning of my anger and depression about the state of literature. And to go back to your question about misanthropy, it's a check against that to get reader mail from all different kinds of people, and from margins of society that I might otherwise write off or even be angry at. And indeed, one of my journalistic projects in the last decade has been to go and meet exactly those people who are making me angry.
You do that in the novel quite a bit, don't you? You have sympathy for some of your least attractive characters.
That's increasingly the project. If one of the definitions of a literary writer involves feeling keenly that the world is complex, that people are complex, that the moral story isn't simple, then that gives that kind of writer a role to venture into the places that make him the angriest.
What are you working on now?
I don't know. I'm working on getting up in the morning and dealing with the e-mail and doing interviews and writing little odds and ends. It's going to be months and months before they let me loose to struggle with a book again.
Is that good or bad?
It feels bad, because a day in which I get some writing done is by definition a good day, and a day in which I don't can never be that good a day. But realistically I know that so soon after finishing a large novel there's no way I'd be doing any good work on a new one. So I might as well spend the time trying to be an ambassador for Freedom. [Heavy sigh.]
This interview has been condensed and edited.