Novelist/essayist Jonathan Franzen at The New Yorker Festival in New York City in 2013.

Novelist/essayist Jonathan Franzen at The New Yorker Festival in New York City in 2013.

Jonathan Franzen has been called elitist, curmudgeonly – and one of America’s greatest living writers. In 2001 he already had two novels under his belt when his third, “The Corrections,” took the literary world by storm. It was a bestseller, won the National Book award for fiction and became a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. His next novel, “Freedom,” was dubbed a masterpiece by The New York Times. And last year he published “Purity.” It features a man who reveals secrets by leaking documents on the Internet, but works to keep his own dark secrets unknown. Diane sits down for a conversation with author Jonathan Franzen.

Guests

  • Jonathan Franzen author of five novels, including "Purity," "Freedom" and "The Corrections," and five works of nonfiction and translation

Transcript

  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Fifteen years ago, Jonathan Franzen came out with his third novel "The Corrections." It registered as something of a seismic event in the world of American fiction. It was called the literary phenomenon of the decade and won a national book award. His next novel "Freedom" was equally well received. His latest work of fiction published last year is titled "Purity." Now, taking time off from working on a TV adaptation of "Purity," Jonathan Franzen joins me in the studio to talk about his life and career.

  • 11:07:38

    MS. DIANE REHMAs always you are welcome to join us, 800-433-8850. Send an email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Jonathan Franzen, it's good to have you here.

  • 11:07:56

    MR. JONATHAN FRANZENIt's great to be here.

  • 11:07:57

    REHMThank you. And you know, I've been thinking a lot of late about dreams and Jungian analysis of dreams.

  • 11:08:10

    FRANZENYou have?

  • 11:08:11

    REHMI have because I've been dreaming a lot. And in Jungian analysis of dreams, you, the dreamer, are part of every person in the dream. And I found myself wondering that is also part and parcel of the novelist, whether every character in your novels is really a reflection of some part of you.

  • 11:08:52

    FRANZENThat is a fantastic question. I'm glad to be in D.C. to get that question.

  • 11:08:57

    REHMOh, good.

  • 11:08:57

    FRANZENBecause it is so close to my own conception of what a novel is. I think I probably have a more Freudian understanding of psychology and particularly this notion of having objects in your head that someone, you know, a figure like your mother has an existence, of course, as another person, but then because you are so deeply exposed to that person, you set up this construct in your head, this object which then has its own kind of independent mobility and can start to attach itself to other figures.

  • 11:09:45

    FRANZENSo you might get married and then suddenly that mother object in your head begins to be attached to your wife. And yeah, it's certainly, first of all, the fact that there's a deep similarity between the process of dreaming and the process of both writing a book and reading a book. Makes the dream a very, very suggestive metaphor for fiction, but also particularly because of the kind of novels I like to write, which are so driven by character, I find myself basically sifting through my own psyche trying to identify these primary psychological objects.

  • 11:10:30

    FRANZENAnd the thing about them, just to get back to Jung's point is that that isn't actually my mom in my head. That is some part of me that has --

  • 11:10:39

    REHMOf course.

  • 11:10:39

    FRANZENExactly.

  • 11:10:40

    REHMOf course. And then, the reflection of what was your mom in your head could be displayed somehow within some measure of that character's character.

  • 11:11:00

    FRANZENWell, yes. I think it -- going to your other original point, whether I am in all of these main characters, yes, absolutely. I think it is simply a fact for me that I have to love a main character. I can't write it. It becomes a harsh or a cruel or a kind of icky thing if I try to write about somebody I don't love. And essentially the work, the hidden work, before I can start writing a book or, well, when I'm taking time off and I'm stuck is to try to create some kind of object in my head who I can feel that sort of love toward.

  • 11:11:47

    REHMOkay. So one of the characters in "Purity" is a Julian Assange-like character.

  • 11:11:59

    FRANZENVaguely, yeah.

  • 11:12:00

    REHMVaguely. So where's the love?

  • 11:12:04

    FRANZENWhere's the love? Where's my love for Andreas?

  • 11:12:06

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:12:07

    FRANZENAndreas Wolf? Well, he is someone who grows up as a very privileged kid in the -- under the Communist regime in East Germany. Comes of age around 1980 and then is -- he disgraces himself, lives in a church basement for nearly a decade and then emerges kind of as a self-proclaimed dissident after the wall comes down. So that's how he gets his start. Where is the love? He is a problematic figure. He is -- he yearns to be good, but he kills a person fairly early in the book. He kills a man, more or less, in cold blood, premeditated. It would be, I believe, first degree murder in this country.

  • 11:12:51

    FRANZENAnd he has an unhealthy attraction to young women throughout his 20s. There are these very disturbing aspects to his character, but when I thought about how he got to be that person, a mother appeared and so I gave him a mother and a father and then a biological father who, when you understand what it might have been like to be a boy growing up in that constellation of parents, you might start to understand, and perhaps sympathize with, the fact that he became such a messed up figure as a grown up.

  • 11:13:36

    REHMIt's interesting because I gather that your own mother and father did not really sort of relish the fact that you wanted to be a writer.

  • 11:13:51

    FRANZENThey set themselves up early on as the reality principle in my life and to a culturally conservative Midwestern family, being a writer seemed like an extremely irresponsible thing to do. I, of course, rebelled against that in my 20s and I've been extremely grateful for that resistance ever since. I had kind of exemplary parents in that regard. They were incredibly loving, incredibly responsible and they really worried about, you know, is he going to make a living. Nothing wrong with that.

  • 11:14:24

    FRANZENBut I have, you know, I know from many, many -- most of the people I'm friends with, have been involved with in some way, have had more problematic parents and I understand, I think, from having seen so many -- much more fraught parent/child relationships what it's like to be in a relationship like that. And Andreas is an extreme case. His mother is wildly bad. I've, you know, tried to have some good mothers in this book. It's a book of moms and there are some good mothers and some problematic mothers and then one really bad mother.

  • 11:15:03

    REHMWhen you think about Pip, who is another major character in the book, what measure of mother does she have?

  • 11:15:22

    FRANZENWell, she's one of these -- she's a California girl and has a sort of hippie-ish presenting mother who isn't very good at dealing with reality. And so, like a lot of kids, particularly from her generation, she grew up kind of having to be the parent in the family. Already at eight years old, she's taking on all these parental responsibilities and there -- she has this big child as a mother. So...

  • 11:15:54

    REHMA mother who walked away from...

  • 11:15:57

    FRANZENWalked away from some relationship and won't tell Pip who the father was, won't tell her where she was born, won't give -- and basically, changed her identity, destroyed her earlier identity, deeply buried it so no matter what Pip has done, she can't figure out who her mother really is. And yeah, and so that's a particular case of someone who, you know, she really, really, really loves her mother, but is also supremely frustrated with her.

  • 11:16:27

    REHMAnd do you love Pip?

  • 11:16:30

    FRANZENI do. You know, I was going to say on the topic of why Andreas is lovable, Andreas is funny. You know, you get him in an argument with his mom and he just has this wicked, dead, flat, ironic, comic manner. And Pip has some of that. Pip is very sarcastic. And, you know, a character who's funny, you've basically, you're two-thirds of the way there just if they're funny. I can't help it. I like funny people.

  • 11:17:02

    REHMIf your mother and father had had their way and you had not gone your way, how do you think you would have ended up professionally.

  • 11:17:17

    FRANZENIf I hadn't been a writer?

  • 11:17:19

    REHMRight.

  • 11:17:22

    FRANZENWow.

  • 11:17:22

    REHMWhat would they have wanted you to be?

  • 11:17:25

    FRANZENI think they hoped I would be a scientist or an engineer or worst case, a lawyer.

  • 11:17:32

    REHMWorst case.

  • 11:17:32

    FRANZENYou know.

  • 11:17:34

    REHMWorst case. We should kill all the lawyers, isn't that right?

  • 11:17:40

    FRANZENI mean, I don't think they -- they were not particularly anti-lawyer, but it was certainly not as honorable a profession. I have a brother who was already a doctor and, you know...

  • 11:17:53

    REHMIt worked.

  • 11:17:53

    FRANZENIt worked, exactly.

  • 11:17:55

    REHMJonathan Franzen, his newest novel is titled, "Purity." And he is now working on a television series based on that book. Short break, right back.

  • 11:20:02

    REHMWelcome back. Jonathan Franzen is with me. We are talking about many things, certainly novels, dreams. His latest novel titled "Purity" is one that is currently being put through the paces to create a television series. Now, I know, Jonathan, you're very busy working on that. How different is that for you? I know you are writing for...

  • 11:20:38

    FRANZENI am, indeed, writing scripts, yeah.

  • 11:20:40

    REHMFor television.

  • 11:20:42

    FRANZENFor television, yeah.

  • 11:20:42

    REHMThat must feel very different.

  • 11:20:46

    FRANZENI learned how to write for TV during the failed attempt to put the corrections into a four-year HBO serial format, yeah. So I -- at that time, I wrote ten scripts and discovered that, you know, I have some aptitude for it. I could write a script. So that part is -- technically, it's not scary, although I'm learning now from what I think is a master, Todd Field, who's also directing all 20 hours of the "Purity" show.

  • 11:21:23

    FRANZENBut, you know, it's -- ultimately, I came to really hate working on "The Corrections" because the book, by them, was 12, 15 years old. I was working on this thing that was just, you know, the scar had healed and I didn't want to have to reopen the wound. But here, I haven't -- I'm thinking about a new novel, but there is no novel between me and "Purity" and so it feels like it's still -- just 15 months ago, I was actively engage in rewriting it. And so to continue working on it doesn't feel so strange.

  • 11:21:59

    REHMTell me about the scar that you experienced.

  • 11:22:08

    FRANZENThe scar. Well, it -- you know, the eagle does come and pluck at the liver as long as you're writing the book. I mean, that is -- that's a Greek image for good reason. You have to open up something that most people wouldn't want to open and you, in your right mind, if you were anything but a writer would never want to open up. And, you know, you go to shameful or painful memories. You go to parts of yourself that you might prefer not to visit. That's all part of the daily work of writing a novel.

  • 11:22:49

    FRANZENAnd there is a feeling of relief, maybe even healing when you're allowed to stop going to those particular places that a particular novel requires. But as I say, if it's a recent book, it's not all healed up so it's not as painful to go back in.

  • 11:23:06

    REHMBut give me an example of something that hurts so badly in terms of the writing experience of either "The Corrections" or "Purity."

  • 11:23:25

    FRANZENWell, it's maybe safer to go back to the corrections, which is also probably my most -- the book that bears the closest resemblance to my own life. The parents in "The Corrections" were, you know, kind of cartoon versions of my parents and I wrote that book some years after I had gone through the most terrible years of my life watching my father lose his mind.

  • 11:23:53

    REHMI see.

  • 11:23:54

    FRANZENHe became demented and he ended up for two years in a nursing home.

  • 11:23:58

    REHMWith Alzheimer's?

  • 11:24:00

    FRANZENYeah, Alzheimer's, I guess, was the autopsy showed that was the, you know, the cause of death. And it was, you know, particularly terrible for him because the, you know, he probably spent his whole life thinking the one thing I don't want to do is be in a nursing home unable to control anything about my life.

  • 11:24:22

    REHMAnd was your mother still living?

  • 11:24:24

    FRANZENYes. My mom was still alive, although she, sadly, only lived four years after my father died. And there was a lot of grief and a lot of just terrible memories bound up in that. And I drew on all that when I was writing "The Corrections," both the stuff with my father falling apart, but maybe no less critically this belated realization of what a fantastic person my mother had been after she died. She and I had fought most of my life.

  • 11:25:03

    FRANZENShe was an impossible mother and Enid in "The Corrections" is sort of an impossible mother, but there was this growing realization as I was working on the book how much I loved this person. And to be having that realization after a person is dead is really actually very painful.

  • 11:25:19

    REHMAh, yes, indeed. How was your mother impossible?

  • 11:25:25

    FRANZENWell, you know, she was one of those women who probably should've been running a company. Maybe not a large company, but she was an extremely smart woman who instead, you know, had kids. She was very, very devoted to being a mom and a homemaker.

  • 11:25:44

    REHMOf how many?

  • 11:25:45

    FRANZENThree of us. I was very late. But even by the time I was in high school, my brothers were long gone and she was underutilized and just sort of, like, you know, like they say with a border collie, you know, you better give that border collie something to do or the border collie is going to start chewing your sofa. It's going to find something to chase unless you give it something to chase and it's not going to be what you want it to be chasing. And that was kind of my mom. She just had all this excess of basically, I think, intelligence and a sense of frustration.

  • 11:26:22

    FRANZENFrustration with her marriage, frustration with what she'd made of herself and she turned that on other people and she was very, very, very critical of other people.

  • 11:26:30

    REHMAnd you.

  • 11:26:31

    FRANZENAnd me in particular, yes.

  • 11:26:33

    REHMWhy you in particular?

  • 11:26:37

    FRANZENI think because maybe she over-attached to me when I was a little boy 'cause I came so late. They tried for a decade to have a third child and I came along and also the house had emptied out. My brothers were gone so she poured all of her -- and my dad was on the road a lot so she poured all this energy into me. And about the time I turned 12, I couldn't bear it and so it was just -- everything I did was to try to get away from her and she was hurt by that and became very critical.

  • 11:27:08

    REHMAnd that extended throughout her life?

  • 11:27:15

    FRANZENYeah. You know, it was sort of -- it was a bit of a roulette wheel. One day she'd be upset about something one of my brothers was doing. A week later, it would be something my other brother was doing and then a week after that, she'd turned her attention back to me. She -- there was -- you know, she was not a sophisticated person. She had a little bit of college, but she had -- she didn't really have a great education so she just, you know, in her unhappiness, she tended to locate the source of her unhappiness in her children.

  • 11:27:46

    REHMWas she alive when "The Corrections" was published?

  • 11:27:51

    FRANZENNo. She lived just long enough to see part of the first chapter appear in The New Yorker in June, 1999. But she did not read it, even though her sister, rather devilishly had said, oh, Irene, you don't want to read what's in The New Yorker. And she, by that point, she'd become a very, very serene and wise person in her last years. And she said, I'm not going to read that. That will just upset me. But why don't you tell me. So I actually sat on the sofa a couple weeks before she died and went paragraph by paragraph through the story and summarized what was in each paragraph so that she didn't actually have to read it.

  • 11:28:35

    REHMDid she recognize herself?

  • 11:28:38

    FRANZENYou know, she, by that point, she was looking at eternity so I think she said, thank you. Now, I know. You've satisfied my curiosity. That's all I need to know. And we didn't speak of it again.

  • 11:28:51

    REHMHow interesting.

  • 11:28:52

    FRANZENYeah, yeah. But I think it would've been difficult to write the book I needed to write while she was still alive because -- and in that regard, the loss of my parents when I was still young, it's a terrible loss that I continue to feel and miss them. But it was also incredibly liberating because I could then write whatever I wanted. And the only two people whose judgment I feared, my mother's and my father's, was no longer in play.

  • 11:29:26

    REHMWhen you say you could only write the book you needed to write after she had gone, when you expressed that need, I find that fascinating. What was it about that book that you needed to write.

  • 11:29:52

    FRANZENWell, it was not maybe the content so much as the method. My first two novels had been more old fashioned social novel, although, even there, you know, there was a bloody tampon in my second novel and my father was very, very distressed. Why do we need to hear about a bloody tampon? It's like -- but the books I needed to be writing were the ones that came out of the childhood I've had, which was this intensely psychologically charged world in which were these giant figures, these giant psychological objects to go back to what we were talking about earlier.

  • 11:30:35

    FRANZENAnd you know, you put some giant psychological objects in a room together and there's going to be conflict and it's going to be raw and it's going to be -- it's going to stir up all this stuff that, you know, if you're not a novel-reader, might be upsetting. And I think every one of the books that I published since they died, I think, would have been upsetting to them.

  • 11:31:01

    REHMReally.

  • 11:31:01

    FRANZENYeah.

  • 11:31:03

    REHMYou know, it's so interesting. Every article I have read about you refers to you, sooner or later, as a curmudgeon. How do you think you earned that reputation? You don't strike me, sitting here with me, as a curmudgeon. I'm just wondering about that.

  • 11:31:31

    FRANZENI'm not, you know, my friend, my late friend David Wallace, once started to describe me and he paused and he chose carefully the adjective opinionated. I do have strong opinions.

  • 11:31:48

    REHMSo do I.

  • 11:31:48

    FRANZENYeah, exactly. And you know, I feel like part of the brief of the novelist is to be honest so if I, you know, if I think Twitter is dumb, I'll say Twitter is dumb, you know, and I guess that can, you know, maybe -- curmudgeon's not such a bad word. Curmudgeon is sort of an affectionate word, isn't it?

  • 11:32:16

    REHMAnd do you think the most recent comment you made about not being able to write about race because you had not been in love with a black woman, was that curmudgeonly or was it simply an honest statement?

  • 11:32:40

    FRANZENWell, it was an honest statement. I'm not sure that's -- I think if I had adopted a black child, there are many, many situations or if I'd had a really great black friend, it's, you know, I haven't. There are many ways to find your way to intensely loving a person. But I think the, you know, I don't think it was a curmudgeonly thing, no. It was honestly saying I think a white writer needs to be very careful and very vigilant not to let a certain good, liberal intention blind them to the fact that you may not actually be in a position to fully understand what it's like to be black in America.

  • 11:33:33

    FRANZENSo, you know, I have strong political opinions. I actually still feel there's a very strong to be made for paying reparations to all African Americans. I think, you know, when I think about what would really solve our race problem, I actually think a -- it would be very expensive, but I think reparation...

  • 11:33:55

    REHMIt would go far.

  • 11:33:56

    FRANZENReparations would go far. It would say, there, and might even -- yeah.

  • 11:34:02

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have a caller. I'd like to welcome to, let's see, Gary from Columbia, Maryland, you're on the air.

  • 11:34:20

    GARYYeah, I just had a quick question to Jon. I'm a little late in the game to get started writing. I'm 35. I've got one short story unpublished under my belt and I've heard you mention your, you know, the hidden work that goes on before you write a novel. Could you sort of describe, like, your outline process and how much work goes into that?

  • 11:34:48

    FRANZENGreat question, thank you for it, Gary. The outline is not what takes all the time. I can -- you give me, basically, a key word and I will outline you a novel in an afternoon. It won't be a good novel. It won't be the novel you want to write, but it'll be a novel. The work I'm talking about has more to do with trying to identify what do I really care about?

  • 11:35:23

    FRANZENWhat is hot enough that it's going to generate pages that are alive? And it's really a self psychoanalyzing process. But in terms of the outline, it helps to have some idea where you're going and a rough outline might help in that regard. But really, perhaps, just knowing what the last paragraph of the thing you want to write might look like, it gives you something to work toward. You don't want to be in situation where you're just, like, following an outline. You want to be in a situation where it's exciting to go to work because you're trying to get to some difficult to get to place.

  • 11:36:05

    REHMAnd that would be for writing a novel, but what if you were working on a memoir, how would that be different, do you think?

  • 11:36:20

    FRANZENYeah. I think the problems with a memoir, assuming you have an interesting enough life to write a memoir about, they have more to do with tone. It's -- you have to -- and there, again, a certain amount of self psychoanalysis is not a bad idea because you might come in and you're furious at your father. Your father was a drunk. Your father was terrible, father left your mom, whatever. And if you go into a memoir thinking of yourself as the victim of a bad person, it's going to read like a memoir of a victim.

  • 11:37:05

    REHMYou're a victim.

  • 11:37:05

    FRANZENExactly. And so you -- the struggle of writing a memoir is to reach a place where you can see everything more objectively and laugh at it.

  • 11:37:14

    REHMJonathan Franzen and his latest novel, it's titled "Purity." You're welcome to join the conversation, 800-433-8850. Send your email to drshow@wamu.org.

  • 11:40:03

    REHMAnd welcome back. Jonathan Franzen is with me, and your questions, your comments are certainly welcome. Let's go to John in Tallahassee, Florida. You're on the air.

  • 11:40:17

    JOHNGood morning, Diane.

  • 11:40:21

    REHMHi.

  • 11:40:22

    JOHNI think you have a future in this business, by the way. I've enjoyed your show for a long time.

  • 11:40:25

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:40:27

    JOHNI had a question for Mr. Franzen. As the author of a book on Bob Dylan myself, I know that's -- that can be a rather difficult sea to navigate, and he did a really interesting interview with Dylan a while back, and I wanted to ask him about that experience.

  • 11:40:46

    FRANZENNo, in fact, I don't believe I interviewed Bob Dylan. In fact I'll say certainly I did not. You might be thinking of a different Jonathan.

  • 11:40:55

    JOHNOh, I'm sorry, I thought for sure you had one for -- in Rolling Stone magazine a while back.

  • 11:40:58

    FRANZENSorry to disappoint, no, that was Jonathan Lethem.

  • 11:41:04

    REHMJonathan, say again the last name.

  • 11:41:06

    FRANZENLethem, Lethem, I -- yeah.

  • 11:41:09

    REHMOkay, all right, an honest mistake. John in Tallahassee, thanks for calling. Tell us about David Foster Wallace. I know he was a dear, dear friend of yours and actually committed suicide.

  • 11:41:26

    FRANZENWhat do you want to know?

  • 11:41:31

    REHMI want to know about your relationship with him, how it grew, what it meant to you and what his death meant to you.

  • 11:41:42

    FRANZENWell, that's a -- that's -- a person could write a long essay about that.

  • 11:41:47

    REHMI'm sure.

  • 11:41:49

    FRANZENAnd maybe a person has. Gosh, what -- how to -- what to say. Yeah, I think -- I think there came a point in the late '80s when we both looked around, oh, you know, the literary landscape in America and decided, well, here's somebody to be friends with, somebody who -- you know, we had great respect for one another's work. And we were very different to start with, and I think as writers we became ever more different in that way -- you know, there are families where one brother plays basketball, and so the younger brother also plays basketball, but there's also the one where, you know, the younger brother instead decides I'm not even going to be an athlete.

  • 11:42:38

    REHMTo take up golf or something.

  • 11:42:40

    FRANZENRight, or flute or whatever.

  • 11:42:44

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:42:45

    FRANZENAnd so I think coming out of that intense fraternal love and rivalry, and I am -- I probably more than David was very comfortable with the notion that you could be competing with a brother you also deeply love, I think we -- you know, we kind of egged each other one. Like he would write a book, and I'd say oh, that's awfully good, and then I would write a book in response, and he'd say, oh, that's awfully good, and the thing that made it all work was that we just were really, really fond of each other.

  • 11:43:23

    FRANZENAnd so it was -- it was very complicated the last year of his life, and it was a terrible thing when he died, most of all for his widow Karen, but for many of his friends, as well, and of course for his family. And my response was not uncommon following the suicide of a loved one, which was I got really angry. And I -- that anger powered me into writing "Freedom." I just ferociously attacked that book because -- in a funny way because I wanted to keep that competition alive.

  • 11:44:09

    FRANZENIt was a way of not grieving. It was a way of keeping him, you know, a dynamic that was central in my life, that loving competitive friendship with him, it was a way to keep that alive.

  • 11:44:21

    REHMDid you know that he was heading in the direction of taking his own life?

  • 11:44:30

    FRANZENWell, there had been a number of other attempts that summer before, so yes, it was -- it was not surprise.

  • 11:44:39

    REHMWhat was it in his life that was so difficult to live with?

  • 11:44:47

    FRANZENComplicated question, and suicides are always mysterious. But, you know, he struggled with straightforward mental illness, which caused him excruciating pain is a short, clean answer.

  • 11:45:07

    REHMWas he on medication?

  • 11:45:10

    FRANZENComplicated story. He had been for 20 years on one medication. Those were his -- pretty much the years of his adult life. But he was trying to get off that and onto something else.

  • 11:45:26

    REHMAnd did he turn to you for help?

  • 11:45:30

    FRANZENYes, as much as a depressed person can. Of course when you're depressed that's the last thing you want to do is ask for help. I spent a week with him some weeks before he killed himself, and it was good, but he was very, very far away.

  • 11:45:51

    REHMThat's so hard to see in a friend, with whom you have rejoiced over so much.

  • 11:46:00

    FRANZENWell, this is one of the things that I got into in the New Yorker essay I wrote in part about that friendship and about his last months was the feeling that there had always been two sides of him. And one was just the most lovable person you had ever met, just hilarious, powerfully ethical, deeply courteous, very generous, sweet, capable of intimacy, but there had always been this other side.

  • 11:46:34

    FRANZENAnd he'd been -- he'd been aware of this other side of himself.

  • 11:46:38

    REHMWhat was that other side?

  • 11:46:41

    FRANZENWhat was the other side? Well, things get mysterious again, but it was not a nice thing. It was a dark thing.

  • 11:46:52

    REHMA dark side.

  • 11:46:55

    FRANZENYeah.

  • 11:46:57

    REHMThat his wife experienced with him, you experienced with him?

  • 11:47:06

    FRANZENIt's something he would talk about, yeah, something he would write about. It's there -- you know, his -- if you read his fiction, it's -- it's not all, you know, sunsets and roses. The fiction is pretty dark, and there are a lot of people who are wrestling with this notion of this terrible thing in themselves.

  • 11:47:35

    REHMThis kind of terrible thing in ourselves seems to be going on throughout this country, with the number of mass shootings and anger expressed, even in such daily activities as driving and being on the road or just ordinary day-to-day rudeness. What do you think is going on with us these days?

  • 11:48:10

    FRANZENWell, history is creeping up on us again, maybe.

  • 11:48:18

    REHMWhat do you mean?

  • 11:48:19

    FRANZENHistory is a very violent thing, and you get these pockets of peace and prosperity, and you think, you know, Western Europe thinks, okay, we've solved the problem of war. Europe was a warzone for millennia, and, you know, then we had the worst war of all, and it's like, okay, that will never happen again. And in fact we're all going to unify, and we're going to have a common currency, and they'll -- you know, we can completely demilitarize, and, you know, it's going to be this great kind of utopia of Western Europe.

  • 11:48:54

    FRANZENYou can do it for a while, but there's a lot of bad in people, and it creeps back in.

  • 11:49:04

    REHMIs that what you see happening now?

  • 11:49:08

    FRANZENWell, you know, it's -- every country has its contradictions, and part of our contradiction -- I mean, there are contradictions going right back to the birth of the republic between this incredibly welcoming nation of immigrants, all men created equal, notion of ourselves. But also there's the don’t tread on me part of it. And a lot of the people who came to this country, not only in the 17th and 18th centuries but ongoing, my grandfather was one of them, coming from Sweden, came here because they just didn't want anyone messing with them -- their business. They like their guns and don't like anyone telling them what to do.

  • 11:49:54

    FRANZENAnd when you have -- when you have this kind of inclusive ideology, and you have an expanding population, partly through immigration, that's going to inevitably come up against that sort of frontier, leave me alone, get off my land mentality, I think. And yeah, it's hard. You see -- I mean, you see the two ideologies when you're driving a car. That guy is the don't tread on me driver, and that guy is the, oh, yeah, please, I'll let you out of the parking lot, even though there are people behind me.

  • 11:50:29

    FRANZENYou know, it's -- that's who we are. And it would be less of a problem if we didn't have so many damn guns.

  • 11:50:37

    REHMAll right, let's go to Tony in Webster Groves, Missouri. You're on the air, Tony.

  • 11:50:47

    TONYHi, hi Jonathan. I saw you speak last fall at the Webster Groves High School, where I'm a substitute teacher, and I was incredibly impressed with that, how relaxed you were in front of that big crowd. I've read all your novels, and I'm always impressed by the intricate plots and the full characterization, and I wonder how often do these characters deviate from the way you started out and how often do the plots deviate.

  • 11:51:15

    FRANZENThank you, Tony, and say hi to Webster Groves. Yes, you're bringing back the stress of talking to an auditorium full of high school students, this high school I, myself, attended. I'm glad I seemed relaxed. I didn't feel relaxed. Your question is actually similar to the earlier one from Gary, and I would say you can't even speak of deviation given that I actually don't know a lot of things when I'm going into a book. So it -- precisely what I don't want to do is know in advance exactly who the character is, exactly what the story is, and the story and the character, as they develop, develop in this symbiotic way.

  • 11:52:09

    FRANZENThe story may need a character to behave in a certain way, and so you start to think about, well, what could make that character behave that way. And then once the character starts behaving that way, it begins to have an influence on the story. So there's a kind of back and forth, a dialectic between those two things and between planning the thing and then seeing what works on the page and then changing the plan and then changing what's on the page.

  • 11:52:31

    REHMTo Nathaniel in Bethesda, Maryland, you're on the air.

  • 11:52:38

    NATHANIELHi, hi Jonathan and Diane, thank you so much.

  • 11:52:41

    REHMSure.

  • 11:52:43

    NATHANIELSo I have a question about David Foster Wallace and that essay you wrote in the New Yorker. I read that as kind of an accusation, it kind of made me angry, I'm a big fan of yours and maybe even bigger of David Foster Wallace's, I'm not sure I'm the only one who was kind of angered by what you said. And I'm curious whether you still stand by I guess your interpretation of his suicide, that it was in some sense a way to prove that he was as terrible, a terrible person. It's been a few years since I read it, so I may have this wrong. Correct me if I'm wrong.

  • 11:53:25

    REHMAll right, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. How do you respond?

  • 11:53:31

    FRANZENYeah, well, I stuck my neck out with that essay. I think it's important to try to take risks in everything you write. Is that the only interpretation available? No, and that essay is now in my collection "Farther Away," and in that collection is a different take on David that was a part of a eulogy that I read at some memorial services. But the idea that -- I think there was an angry response in certain quarters because people wanted to believe that this was this really saintly, wise figure who had suffered a terrible disease and had succumbed to it.

  • 11:54:18

    FRANZENAnd I was really with the essay trying to redirect people's attention to the body of David's work. I don't think you can read that work and imagine that this is the work of a completely happy camper. He seemed to know an awful lot about an awful lot of very, very dark stuff. It seems to have come from personal experience. And, you know, as somebody who knew him for a very long time and knew him very well, it was as I was saying earlier to Diane, the wonderful part of David was truly, truly wonderful, but there was a dark part.

  • 11:54:55

    FRANZENAnd I think it's important -- it's been great to see the adulation that came to him belatedly. You know, he never won a prize, he was never nominated for a prize in this country. It's been great to see that adulation, but if you knew him, particularly something like the movie that came out last summer, David would have hated that movie and that you just -- it kind of makes you sick to your stomach in a way because it seems like what made him great, why we're talking about him, is the work, and you need to go back to the work and look at it not as a simple thing of here is this wise man but as here's a really tormented, incredibly complicated man.

  • 11:55:41

    REHMWhat was the movie called?

  • 11:55:46

    FRANZENPerhaps "The End of the Tour," yes, made over the strenuous objecting of the Wallace literary estate.

  • 11:55:53

    REHMReally?

  • 11:55:55

    FRANZENYes, absolutely.

  • 11:55:57

    REHMAnd you do not take back, I gather, your statement in that essay that he was in some way hoping to become a martyr?

  • 11:56:17

    FRANZENHe was a smart guy. The factor, it certainly crossed his mind. It's the kind of thing he and I would have joked about in any year but that last year of his life.

  • 11:56:36

    REHMJonathan Franzen, I'm sad that our time has ended because I really wanted to talk with you about your love of birding. So at some point before I leave, perhaps you'll come back and talk to us again.

  • 11:56:57

    FRANZENI would love to come back and talk as long as you want about birds and conservation efforts on their behalf.

  • 11:57:05

    REHMJonathan Franzen, and his latest novel is titled "Purity." Thanks for being here.

  • 11:57:11

    FRANZENThanks for having me.

  • 11:57:14

    REHMAnd thanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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