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February 23, 2011

Jonathan Franzen on cats, character and Freedom

jonathan franzen freedom

The Baltimore Sun's Mary Carole McCauley, who often writes about books, attended a weekend reading by Jonathan Franzen, and kindly provided this guest post. Here's her dispatch -- accompanied by a photo of her cats Caliban (L) and Grendel (R): In his acclaimed novel, “Freedom,” Franzen persuasively – and it must be admitted, hilariously – describes the escalating war between Walter, a dedicated bird-watcher, and Bobby the cat. The battle of wills ends when Walter cat-naps Bobby and drives him to an animal shelter in a distant city. So, when Franzen stopped by Washington’s National Cathedral, I asked the writer, who has spoken out many times on the plight of native songbirds, if he had anything he wished to confess.

Franzen grimaced, but was game.

“Let’s say that I was peripherally involved with some conspirators,” he said. “Never mind where. There was a problematic neighbor with a problematic cat. I like cats – indoors. Some, like this particular cat, are killing machines.

“Over time, I was gradually becoming less than peripherally involved. It occurred to me that maybe we should stop, because if we got caught, it would be pretty bad press. Also, my partner, Kathy – the Californian—feels strongly about people’s connection to their pets. So I thought, ‘Why don’t I write about this instead?”

Luckily, the writer has a sense of humor about his own obsessions. After the book-signing, when I asked Franzen to make out a copy of “Freedom” to Caliban and Grendel, my two cats, he complied without a murmur.

Franzen was in town on behalf of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. After reading for about 30 minutes from his new novel, he took questions from the audience . Refreshingly, and though he must have answered the same questions many times before, the author avoided the temptation to be glib. Though Franzen sometimes began an answer with a quip, he would almost visibly stop himself. Standing with his legs wide apart and his brow furrowed, he made the effort to engage. Here’s what he had to say:

On his visit earlier Friday to a prison book club, where he met with teen-aged boys: “It was the most intense, and best experience. There were a couple of kids kept in solitary confinement, who looked out through this narrow slot, and I was able to talk to them. One slipped some poems out through the slot that were incredibly moving and heart-stoppingly good. I left feeling terribly sad, but not hopeless.”

On his writing process: “I go through fits of agony, basically. The short answer is that character comes first, and character is dramatically defined -- what they want, what they’re aiming for.

“After a while, I’ll have stacks of failed attempts of one or five or twenty pages each. But, when you’ve got a thousand pages of false starts, you start to see patterns in your failures. Character magically starts to coalesce. You keep coming back to Walter’s blush or his giggle.”

On calling his book, “Freedom”: “I slapped the title on a book proposal because I thought it was going to be a short, comic novel about a love triangle, and I didn’t want them to think that it was all fluff. I thought if I put a grandiose title on it, they’d bid accordingly.”

[Then the author got serious.]

“But, the title has to do with my own attempt to free myself. One has this kind of oppressive shame about certain memories. You kind of walk around burdened. I kept imagining that I could somewhat liberate myself if I managed to write about certain things.”

On the relationship in “Freedom” between longtime best friends Walter and Richard: “I really wanted to write about competition. I knew from having been in a long marriage [to the writer Valerie Cornell] what it’s like to be in a long term relationship that’s very loving but also very competitive. In our society, we have this unbridled joy in winning, and that doesn’t take into account that in competitions, people lose.

“So much of literature stems from the sense of failure. Writers are interested in limits, we’re interested in failure and we’re interested in loss.”

On whether the old-fashioned medium of books will survive the electronic age: “Your guess is as good as mine. But, there is research that confirms that the permanence of print, the ireradicability of words on the page, is part of the transaction of reading. There’s a need for substance that books can provide.”

Posted by Dave Rosenthal at 4:15 PM | | Comments (0)

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About the blogger
Dave Rosenthal came to The Baltimore Sun as a business reporter in 1987 and now is the Maryland Editor. He reads a wide range of books (but never as many as he'd like), usually alternating between non-fiction and fiction. Some all-time favorites: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole; Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery; and anything by Calvin Trillin or John McPhee. He belongs to a book club with a Jewish theme.
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