NEW YORK – Writing has become no easier for Jonathan Franzen, whose fifth novel comes out this fall.
And neither, apparently, have interviews.
“I hope never to become glib,” the prize-winning and private author of Freedom and The Corrections said this week as he spoke before hundreds at BookExpo America at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, where he made his first promotional appearance for his novel Purity.
Franzen appears more than capable of keeping that promise, often spending as much time critiquing the questions he was asked Wednesday as he did actually answering them. For longtime followers of the 55-year-old author, the hourlong discussion was vintage Franzen – witty and self-deprecating, digressive and self-conscious, the conversation ranging from basketball to Russian literary theory to the difficulties of talking about his work.
“Wheels are turning desperately in my head,” Franzen said when asked at the start of the discussion by interviewer Laura Miller of Salon.com whether Purity was more “playful” and “adventurous” than his recent books. The author, wearing jeans and a blazer and his familiar dark-rimmed glasses, explained that he had recently returned from East Africa and was struggling to figure out “cogent ways” to talk about Purity.
“I beg everyone’s indulgence because I haven’t figured it out,” he said.
Not everyone stayed with him. The crowd was standing-room only at the start, but numerous seats were empty by the time the conversation was opened to questions from the audience. Those who left early missed a highlight of the event, a self-described “rising sophomore at the University of Connecticut” telling Franzen that The Corrections was the basis for her project on the “depressed male protagonist in post-9/11 literature.”
“Say no more,” answered a surprised, but amused Franzen.
Expectations are understandably high for Purity, a 500-plus page novel set everywhere from East Germany to South America to a community of anarchists in Northern California. Freedom and The Corrections were critically acclaimed best-sellers, both endorsed by Oprah Winfrey, that made Franzen a grateful and reluctant success.
He has written about his desire for literary fiction to be accessible to a broad audience and also expressed skepticism whether he wants his own books to be read by a broad audience. He began a promotional video for Freedom by stating his “profound discomfort” with making videos “like this.” He often has criticized Internet culture, dismissing Twitter as “the ultimate irresponsible medium.” He even questioned the title of his new book, saying he was reluctant to tell people he had written a novel called Purity.
“You can sometimes present yourself as somewhat misanthropic,” Miller said. “Do you agree with that, a little bit?”
“No,” said Franzen, smiling nervously, the audience laughing “No. Not at all. What makes you even say that?”
The title character of Purity is a young woman of uncertain parenthood known to most people as “Pip,” her name and background an apparent reference to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. The novel also features an East German refugee who runs a Wikileaks-like news organization out of South America and flashbacks to Germany during the Cold War. Purity is often bleak, its plot including murder, suicide and numerous betrayals, but also leaves open the chance for love and family reconciliation.
“I see tension between your sometimes curmudgeonly-ness and your love for your characters,” Miller said to Franzen.
“The thing is dead in the water if I don’t find characters I can love,” he responded. “That’s what I’ve got, as a writer, is these characters that I love. To me, that’s what defines my work, is characters that I love.”
With a tone both friendly and hurt, he asked Miller, “Really, misanthropic?”