An Interview With Fiction Writer Jonathan Franzen

Kevin Canfield

Less than a year after his third novel, The Corrections, was awarded the National Book Award for fiction, Jonathan Franzen is back with a new collection of nonfiction.

Earlier this month Farrar, Straus and Giroux published How To Be Alone, a collection of thirteen essays spanning nearly a decade, on topics as varied as Alzheimer's disease to the inauguration of a new president. Also included is the so-called "Harper's Essay," the author's 1996 lament about the state of the American novel (originally published in Harper's magazine) and Franzen's account of what it's like to be an Oprah-approved author.

Poets & Writers Magazine asked Franzen why he chose to call the new book How To Be Alone.

JF: I didn't want to take any of the titles of the essays for the title of the book because I had seen it for some time as an ensemble kind of book. To me the essays kind of all hang together. They were written in the same period and they all point in the same sort of direction. So I was flipping through [the essays] and I found, first of all, that the word "alone" just keeps appearing. And then one of the essays ended with the phrase "How to be alone." The sentence is: "The first lesson reading teaches is how to be alone." In general I feel like I'm engaged in these essays with the problem of individuality and just a sort of existential loneliness in a time of mass culture, the massively mediated experience, and somehow the solitude of both the writer and necessarily the reader is tied into my sense of how we get out of that mess.

P&W: In the the introduction to How To Be Alone you describe yourself as formerly "a very angry and theory-minded person." How are you different now?

JF: Less angry, less theory-minded. [Laughs.] How am I now? Well, it would not really be appropriate for me to be so angry. I still find theory entertaining, but in my thirties I feel like I lost so much—both my parents, a marriage—that theory no longer seems of the essence when I think about my own life. The anger has over the years been replaced by a sense of gratitude and good fortune, and, of course, the last year has been so amazing with The Corrections that it would simply be inappropriate to be angry anymore. But even before that there was this moment of realization when I found that I was writing these really tricky pieces for The New Yorker and working on my novel and doing it exactly the way I wanted to, and I noticed that I had a perfectly nice apartment and made a living and was in good health and, like, what was I so angry at the country for? So [it was a function of] just getting older.

P&W: These essays reveal more of you as a person, your beliefs, your political views. How do you feel about that, revealing more of yourself to the public—your person?

JF: Well, I was trying for a long time to write my third novel in the first person voice, and felt a sense of artistic duty having written two third person novels to show that I could do a voice novel, a first person novel. I wasted a lot of time, more than a year all together trying to get that voice to work. As I was doing that I was starting to write these essays and many of them are written with the first person persona. And again, at a certain point I realized that I know how to do first person; I'm doing it in these essays. The mistake I think is to say, Oh, that's me speaking straight from the heart—that "I" there [in first person] is a rhetorical construction. It's a version of me. The novels are versions of me. The real private self is a much blurrier and messier and multivalent thing, and I don't think anyone who doesn't live with me really has any sense of who that might be. So it's a constructed self—perhaps in purely factual way a little bit more intimately exposed, but only in that narrow sense.