The Fire of Work, and the Concerns of Literature: Q&A with John Freeman

FreemanMugI’ve known author and former Granta editor John Freeman since (and I’m guessing here) 1998. At the time I was the deputy book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, and Freeman was one of many freelance critics working for the paper’s Sunday Book Review section (which, thankfully, and perhaps miraculously, continues). Freeman is probably the most prolific freelancer with whom I’ve ever worked. (The book critic Martin Rubin would be a close second.) Month after month, it seemed as if his reviews and author interviews appeared in just about every periodical in the country that did any sort of book coverage. In fact, his output was so colossal that you couldn’t help admiringly wonder if here was a person who might be making a living, even if barely, as a non-staff book reviewer.

The extent of Freeman’s work as a journalist covering books (because that’s what he really was before working for Granta, given all the features he produced back then along with the reviews) is impressively displayed in How to Read a Novelist (372 pages; Farrar, Straus, & Giroux). Here we have brief but telling encounters with more than 50 authors, in interviews taking place between 2000 and early 2013. “The only thing an interviewer can do to capture what a novelist truly does,” he writes in his book’s introduction, “is to make them talk and tell stories, and think aloud.” Via email, I talked to John Freeman, who recently joined ZYZZYVA’s roster of contributing editors, about some of the literary greats of whom he got to do just that, about putting together How to Read a Novelist, and about what he’s learned about writing in his literary career.

ZYZZYVA: In your conversation with Haruki Murakami, he told you about the importance of repetition in creative endeavors. What exactly did he mean? And did you see how that could apply to you as a critic?

John Freeman: In person, Haruki Murakami speaks of writing as if he were a miner. Like he goes into a deep hole every morning with a helmet and light and blasts away until he finds a vein. Repetition is important in this metaphor, because there will be lots of failures and rubble, then something gorgeous or useful will glint in the dark. For a critic there isn’t much room for failure. You read quickly and on deadline and then have to write to word count, also on deadline. Your fire should be a refiner’s fire: dependable, always on, somewhat wasteful. It’s why I think critics, daily critics, find it difficult to do much else. You have to use everything you’ve got to keep up the pace and intensity in public, which is what you do when you publish what you write that quickly. It’s like a public performance.

Z: Did your time at Granta help you to further understand how literature works, in a way you might not have done so if you weren’t editing a literary journal?

JF: Absolutely—editing the magazine changed the way I read in a couple ways. First of all it made me think a lot about the conditions in which literature flourishes, and why it’s so hard to get a big readership for a journal in English now. The reception Granta had in China and Brazil and Portugal and a few other countries was so overwhelming, it was a strong reminder that the function of taste-making goes beyond helping writers’ develop a craft, say, or helping people pass the time. There’s a social function to literature, one we often scoff at but is deeply felt (and needed) in parts of the world that are developing. I would include the United States in this category. How else to describe the profoundly democratic spirit and anger in books like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Gilead? They pace the limits of being American, among other things. They make that experience of being American intimate.

I also found, in editing Granta, that I understood my taste better. I realized I’d been drawn to books that took me some place fabulous. Either a place or a time, or even—as with say David Markson, or Donald Antrim’s fiction—into a mind I found fascinating. I think Granta’s tradition was to execute a collision—of mind and place and time—around something that needed to be witnessed. Of course in the hands of the right writer anything is worth observing. Still, I do believe there are hierarchies of importance in what gets written about: it boils down to what’s at stake. The submissions at Granta were so good, and the writers we could work with so excellent, for me the question I wound up asking most often was, Does this matter? Does it have to be written and told?

Z: Many of the writers in your book talk about their vocation in nearly physical terms. We hear that one has to be tough and brave, of a person being willing to spend themselves entirely for the sake of creating a work. We don’t often talk about writing in terms of it requiring vigor, but that seems to be the case, no?

JF: It’s a physical act, a possession. We often separate the body and mind, as if that’s possible. Like they are two separate instruments. But the work of keeping a novel in your head, of doing the daily labor of sitting down to write it, requires enormous energy—a word that kept coming up in interviews. Energy. To listen to the novelists, writing was about converting physical energy into intimate mental and literary power. So that you feel the words and the characters jump off the page. I think it’s why there’s often a cult around older novelists—like Philip Roth or Joyce Carol Oates, or AS Byatt—who seem to be defying the limits of their age. I mean, Roth in his 60s was more formidable than ever. And Oates, you wonder how she sustains just one of those books a year, let alone two or three.

How to Read a NovelistZ: Nadine Gordimer makes the excellent observation to you that re-reading novels is vital, that we can’t get the full breadth of a rich work without it. Has that been your experience as well?

JF: I haven’t until recently had the chance to re-read a lot of novels. There was just so much I hadn’t read. And there still is. But I’m teaching now, so most of what I assign are books I’ve read at least once. I taught Rabbit, Run in one course, and was surprised at how dark it was, very dark, more of an existential novel than a realistic one. I had forgotten how strange The Wapshot Chronicle was, how much like a play The Women of Brewster Place felt, how Christian A Tale of Two Cities seemed in its design … almost all of the books have held up, happily. Some of them—like Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Rabih Alameddine’s I, The Divine—just get stronger each time, because there’s more of me (and less of me) to appreciate how much they sing through the hollows of loss. Even a great writer can’t take you all the way there. You have to experience loss yourself, often, to appreciate how much they were trying to tell you.

Z: Speaking of re-reading, what was it like to read pieces you’ve written so long ago?

JF: Oh, it’s mostly embarrassing, like a dog returning to its vomit. You know that hound look of, God, OK, I might as well eat this cause it’s here. I tried to write as if I didn’t exist, that I was just an invisible eye or something, but my fingerprints are there in my prose. So editing the pieces again was pretty important, shaving down the writerly tics I fell in love with, the repetitions, to make another turn of the lens for clarity sake. I want the reader to feel, as in some of my favorite writers—like Murakami, like Bolaño, like Woolf in her best moments—that there are no words on the page, you’re just seeing with an extra-bright light. And this seems especially important to me in the case of a profile, where you’re trying to put them in the room with the writer, as if they are there asking the questions.

Z: How did you decide which of the scores upon scores of writers you’ve interviewed to include in the book? Did anybody get left out whom you really wanted to have in there?

JF: It wasn’t a very systematic process. Ultimately, I wanted a group whose books were important and beautiful, where the encounters, even if short, as in with Jim Crace or Jonathan Safran Foer, felt real and intense. For me that cut in half the 300 profiles I’ve probably written over the years. Still, there are lots of people I wanted to include. Gary Shteyngart, Nicholson Baker, Shirley Hazzard, Daniel Alarcon, Lynne Tillman … I thought the pieces I’d written on them were good enough, but the book was getting too big. And I also felt for reasons I couldn’t specify but felt that somehow they didn’t fit this group. Not sure why. Maybe in ten years I’ll make another one? Then there were pieces I wish were good enough to rescue. I’d written interviews of Richard Russo and Alan Hollinghurst, Colm Toibin, John Banville. But some of them were Q&As, and I think the first time around I missed the boat on Russo’s anger about the failing American dream. Then, even in these days of the Internet, I’ve lost a few pieces, they just vanished—so I should have had Julian Barnes and Gao Xingjian and Jayne Anne Phillips in there, but those pieces are gone. Poof.

Z: In your conversation with David Foster Wallace, whom you write is fast becoming the Jack Kerouac of his time, Wallace tells you over sushi that “the basic engine of narrative arts is how it punctures those membranes [separating us] a little.” What do you think he means by that, and what did you mean by the Kerouac reference?

JF: Wallace is like Kerouac because he found, through his own peculiar alchemy, a voice for himself that also felt like the voice of a generation: a voice of a man saturated in the toxic waste of American life, entertained to a state of almost networked intensity, like an emotion can’t be expressed without its pop culture reference. And yet alone, deeply lonely. His books never got awards because he didn’t write the way the world used to be; he wrote it as it felt now, and where he feared it was going. Few awards have the bravery to look forward. They are inherently conservative. So of course people love and steal and cultishly read his books. They’re like life rafts to people who feel as he did, and there are a lot of us out there. At the heart of Wallace’s books, there’s a yawning fear that somehow language won’t be enough, that time is running out. That for all the words in the world we’re not going to connect, that somehow language is as much the problem as the solution. He was an ambitious writer, so giving in to this fear Wallace made his task as a novelist harder. But he believed that if anything could do it—make it possible to connect, from one person to the next—it was the novel. Kerouac was the same way.

Z: Your conversation with the late Doris Lessing was striking. We see her almost at sea, puzzled by all the vast changes in her lifetime and anticipating an all-encompassing reckoning (another ice age) on the horizon. Then she says to you, nobody believes anything anymore. What did you make of her pessimism? Did it resonate with you?

JF: Lessing, it’s easy to forget, was a communist. It’s part of why she left South African and moved to England, left a child behind, a life. She left to pursue a life of ideals. She eventually gave up on communism and explored other belief systems, even invented her own in those Shikasta books. She joked to me that people used to write to her with real questions about it. The tremendous will and curiosity (and cheek) in that gesture is not something I think we see in most of our novelists today. Our culture, at least in the U.S., has become so argumentative, so religious rather than interested in faith—the thornier questions of faith, like doubt and forgiveness, and God’s rage—that I, as a reader, feel starved for metaphysics. When you find a writer who tips through the veil to the other side, like Lessing, like Louise Erdrich, Edwidge Danticat or Barry Lopez, or our best young American poets— Matthew Dickman and Arcelis Girmay—it’s incredibly refreshing. I read for pleasure, but also to know how to live, and I don’t know how to live without thinking about these.

Z: Another theme that comes up in these interviews is that of “writing through an experience.” What does that mean exactly? How is that different from writing about an experience?

JF: It all comes down to levels of refraction. A novel is propelled by language and narrative, while a work of memoir or autobiography by the author’s engagement with his or her own experience. Memoir which pretends to have a camera eye, as if decades’ old events are simply retrievable, always seems somehow false to me. There’s a shaping at work all the time with our pasts. We’re taking shards and making a new mosaic, each time, because as the years pass we’re working with different bits of glass. The past is always broken. It’s why it’s past. Narrative is what puts it back together. The best memoirs—like Edmund White’s My Lives, or Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, or WS Merwin’s Unframed Originals—honor this process and show you the writer’s hand wavering before each piece is put down and a new portrait is made. A novelist doesn’t have this fealty to the nature of experience and how we make a story. Experience perhaps compels them, it shapes them, but, ultimately, they can be far more mercenary with discarding the bits of it that are not useful.

Z: In our globalized world, are there still distinctions to be made among the writing communities in different urban places? Do you think the writers in, say, San Francisco are characteristically different from the one in London from the one in New York?

JF: Yes, there’s a huge difference. First of all, the writers in San Francisco have far better coffee. I joke, but have you tried to get a decent cup of black coffee in London? It’s impossible. But more to the point, even if we chose our news sources from the global reach of the Internet, populate our table with foods from round the world, and correspond with friends in Juneau and Seoul, we live where our bodies live, and our senses are thus tuned. In some mysterious way this has to affect writing. This extends to ways of being, of getting along as well. Nothing penetrates a good mood like English irony and cynicism. Or, on the right days, nothing cheers you up quite like it. If you finish your day with six pints of lager chugged before closing time at 10 p.m. that, too, will affect writing. This idea that somehow our literature will be planed down to a blandly globalized brand shows a deep lack of faith in literature’s connection to the real body politic. The body and mind are both involved in writing, and as long as our bodies are scattered across the globe, this recent worry that the novel will become globalized, like a brand, is—what do the English call it?—oh yeah. Rubbish.

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