I’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.