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Jonathan Franzen Takes The Long Road To 'Freedom'

Jonathan Franzen's last novel, The Corrections, was published on Sept. 1, 2001.

A few weeks after that, American life was no longer the thing he'd captured so vividly in his book.

It's taken Franzen nine years to write a follow-up. Freedom is set against the backdrop of the Bush era. The book has been hailed as a masterpiece of modern, post-Sept. 11 fiction.

"I need significant chunks of time to pass before I seem to be able to get a novel going," Franzen tells NPR's Guy Raz. "In some respects it was good fortune for me that I wasn't trying to wrestle with 9/11 as it was being so over-wrestled with in the media."

Freedom was written mostly in 2009, Franzen says, after the election of Barack Obama. By then, he says, "we could see the decade in some pretty clear perspective."

The Couple At The Story's Center

Freedom begins with the story of Patty and Walter Berglund, a couple living in St Paul, Minn.

"Walter is a portrait in the displacement of unspeakable rage about what's going on in his family through speakable rage about what's going on in his country," Franzen says.

As he took stock of the way we live in the first decade of the new millennium, Franzen was struck by how angry everybody is.

"And over-the-top angry," he says. "Walter becomes this over-the-top angry person -- that's part of the arc of his character in the book."

His wife, Patty, is not without her problems. Much of the early part of the book is written by Patty in the third-person -- a journaling exercise recommended by her therapist. Franzen says the device was a key to unlock early sympathy for Patty, who struggles for redemption in later pages.

"Like a lot of somewhat depressive people sitting on a lot of dark stuff, Patty doesn't behave very well," he says.  "It seemed important to get her right up front so that one might have some sympathy for why she was so angry and why she was so lost."   

Writing In A Woman's Voice

Franzen says his own exercise of writing in a woman's voice was itself a bit of an exorcism. From the time he was a child, he says, he over-identified with women -- his mother, and later his wife -- to the point where it became difficult to write about himself as a man in a direct way.

Writing from a female perspective, therefore, "came to be second nature and not in a good way," he says. Patty's third-person narration was a way to get the book out of his own hands. "I wanted to leave some room for the narrator to identify with the three main male characters."

Those would be Walter, his friend Richard Katz, and Walter's son, Joey. All play their own roles in the tempestuous Berglund family dynamic.

When it comes to family dynamics, Franzen says that, though he has no children of his own, his childhood offered all the instruction in the world.

"My parents were in their own way so unsatisfied, so angry about so many things, that it was impossible for a sensitive kid not to internalize their view of the world," he says. "It resulted in my being this strangely middle-aged 14- and 15-year-old."

'A Very Dark, Quiet Place'

Writing about something outside your own experience, Franzen says, is also simply what a novelist does.

"You sit in a very dark, quiet place -- either literally or figuratively -- and imagine what it might be like not to be you, but to be somebody else."

Franzen's writing place is both dark and quiet. He describes a studio apartment on East 83rd Street in New York City that has little else but a bare desk. He does his writing on an old laptop he's permanently neutered from Internet access.

"You take any ethernet plug, stick it in the little socket, superglue it in, then take a coping saw and cut off the wire part," he says.  "Then the wireless card is easy to take out."

Digging Out Of Tragedy

While writing Freedom, Franzen had to deal with much more than just online distractions.

On Sept. 12, 2008, one of his closest friends, writer David Foster Wallace, committed suicide.

At the time Franzen was just starting Freedom. After Wallace's death, he set the book aside for nearly half a year.

"But once that was all over," he says, "the book became a way of at once responding to and avoiding responding to the loss of him. I was able to tap into the anger you feel when someone you're very close to commits suicide and use that as a motivator -- while also avoiding the grief."

Only recently, Franzen says, has he come into closer contact with the dimensions of the loss of his friend. "That was blessedly absent. I was just mad during the writing of the book."

Though Franzen's own depression has brought him "to the brink," he says he's never gone over the edge into the sort of massive, clinical condition that afflicted Wallace.

"For me, that's part of work," he says. "The bad feelings that are stirred up when you really, really, really want to write something and you really can't -- and you also feel the stuff that has to be written is the stuff that's unwritable -- the most private, upsetting parts of yourself -- the extreme position you're then in as a writer seems bound to be accompanied by occasional significant darkness."

Characters In The Dark

Franzen acknowledges that darkness -- and the darkness in his characters -- has produced protests from some in his reading audience.

"I had the experience with The Corrections," he says.  "A certain percentage of people who read that book and think the characters are despicable."

"Nothing like them" is the refrain, he says, "And they sort of underline it: 'Nothing like me. These people are horrible, they're loathsome.' I don't know what to say to that."

Franzen doesn't see his own characters as loathsome or outrageous. "They're not selling their children's books to buy crack," he says. "They're simply going through a rough patch."

Franzen admits his fiction may not have the universality with which some critics have credited it. "I think there are plenty of people who are different from any of the characters I might write about," he says. "But at the same time, I do have the suspicion when someone vehemently says, 'No, this is a terrible, terrible person' -- I've read my Freud.  When someone is protesting that vehemently, it makes me wonder, 'Hmm. Why this intense reaction?'"

That reaction, he says, nonetheless satisfies a part of him. "To me it means I'm getting at something. I'm doing something that is real enough to be upsetting."

Measuring The Legacy Of Freedom

Does Jonathan Franzen think Freedom is his best novel?

"I wanted to produce something that really connected with how it feels to be alive now," he says. But when he finished the book, he was struck by the microscopic narration of emotional difficulties and a story underlined by "pools of red-hot material" from his own life.

"I felt uneasy and potentially ashamed by the book," he says. "Needless to say, the last month or six weeks have been -- basically the feeling I keep having over and over again is one of tremendous gratitude."

It's not guilt, Franzen says. Simply the weighty feeling of "brick-like loads" of gratitude.

"How to ever give back in the way I feel I'm receiving?" he asks. "I guess I will be paying for it next time I try to write a book, though."

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