Franzen on fame, Oprah and Minnesota

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Jonathan Franzen talks with Kerri Miller on the “storied boards” of Fitzgerald Theater.

Attending Jonathan Franzen’s talk at the Fitzgerald Theater Tuesday night was surprisingly delightful. But then I didn’t go with much more information in my head than “he writes really big books that the critics love, and he dissed Oprah.”

So imagine my surprise when Franzen, author of The Corrections, and more recently Freedom took the stage, and what unfolded was a conversation of great honesty, humor and warmth.

If you weren’t able to get a ticket to the event (it was sold out quite early on), it was rebroadcast on Midmorning today, and the audio link is above. But for those who don’t have an hour to spare, here are a few choice quotes:

1. On Minnesota, that “convivial planet” where his family hails from, where he spent many summers visiting relatives, and where much of Freedom is set:

It’s a refreshing thing to come to the Twin Cities because there’s… it really is a great cultural center and people take things like books and theater and music and good radio seriously in a way they don’t everywhere in the country.

I was thinking about the fact that my parents were not particularly good at culture – they weren’t readers, and the Nutcrackers was almost the extreme end of their classical taste – and that’s no diss to the nutcracker – but I was thinking that what they had in common was some notion of at least acknowledging the authority of important ideas and of serious, well-made things.

They expressed that in different ways but I think that’s money in the bank for somebody growing up who’s going to be a writer or actor or something to come from a place were people still at least notionally take things a little seriously.

2. On writing – Franzen said some of the most formative books of his youth were Gone with the Wind and Watership Down, and that he had no desire to write a novel set in Washington D.C. because how could you top the great political drama that is reality?

You really don’t have to know that much to write novels – that was the great attraction to me. It’s more about creating a vivid and persuasive simulacrum – it’s not about having the facts.

3. On fame, and how it inspired him to write a memoir at a relatively young age.

I’d been so exposed; I’d lived in blissful obscurity without realizing it was blissful. It didn’t seem very good to me and I was desperately trying to get out of it, but once I was out of it there were some bumps along the way. and just the sensation of being explosed – some in very direct obvious ways – being on tv, being on the radio, seeing my picture in the paper, things like that – especially seeing a particularly bad AP picture over and over… and in a more general way, people say nasty things when you’re getting a lot of attention, so I wanted to try to expose myself in a way that would paradoxically restore a bit of privacy – put on a mask, try to make the mask as life like as possible, but knowing it’s a mask, would enable me to go on having my life behind it. That was the impulse behind it.

4. Lastly, on Oprah, and how Franzen went from being “uninvited” from her book club back in 2001, to invited once again just last week:

People have been coming up to me at book signings and writing me letters saying “I’m so glad you didn’t do that show- I hate that woman!” How many times do I have to say “I don’t hate that woman?”She’s done wonderful things for books. And her project – which is daring – to try to expand the audience for not-so-easy reading is a noble one.

I actually don’t think I was the first writer to be uncomfortable with the special [Oprah] covers that interrupted the design of the jacket, and the B-roll footage of you walking around, looking contemplative in your home town. I was just the first person to talk about how phony it was… I think others writers had been uncomfortable with this and at least one other author got in touch with me to say that she, too, hated it. And Oprah honestly didn’t know – and I think she was genuinely apalled.

It will be interesting to see if Oprah gets as interesting and honest a conversation with Franzen when he appears on her show in November.

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