DATE September 6, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Jonathan Franzen discusses his novel, "The Corrections"
and how his relationship with his parents affects his writing
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.
Jonatahn Franzen's novel "The Corrections" is one of those rare books which is
both a literary and a popular success. It won the National Book Award last
year, and was named one of the top five books of 2001 by The New York Times.
It's now out in paperback. The novel was also a Oprah Book Club selection, an
honor about which Franzen publicly expressed some ambivalence, even
misgivings, during this interview and others. Ultimately, he never appeared
on Oprah's show.
"The Corrections'" story revolves around the lives of three adult children who
live far away from their aging parents. The parents' health problems have
made it difficult for them to keep taking care of themselves, and the children
have to decide how much they're willing to change their own lives to care for
their parents. But the novel is also a satire of family dysfunction,
post-modernism and trendy art. Terry spoke with Jonathan Franzen last October
after he wrote a short piece for The New Yorker about his response to
September 11th. She asked him what it was like to be a novelist after 9/11.
Mr. JONATHAN FRANZEN (Author, "The Corrections"): In a larger sense, if
you're talking about what the fiction writer's responsibilities might be, or
chosen responsibility might be, in good times, you know, remind people of
darkness, remind yourself of darkness, remind yourself that there's a world
out there that is unhappy, remind yourself that death exists. And then in
dark times, try to remember, you know, the comedy and the ridiculousness of
things. I do feel as if the way it's read inevitably changes when the tenor
of the times change. And it's of some satisfaction to me that people still
seem to find something in it even though the tenor of the times more or less
Mr. FRANZEN: We had been drifting towards a recession, but it was still
basically a blissful, isolated time for us all here in the country. And now
we're in a very different place. Evidently, you know, this particular book
has managed to bridge those two sides of September 11th.
GROSS: In an earlier essay, you wrote--you wrote that most fiction readers
are women. You said writers like Jane Smiley and Amy Tan are confident of an
attentive audience, whereas all the male novelists that you know of, including
yourself, are clueless as to who could possibly be buying your books. Were
you surprised when Oprah chose your novel, "The Corrections," as her book club
Mr. FRANZEN: It went beyond--yeah, I guess `surprise' is a word. I was
so--it was so unexpected, that I was almost not surprised. It was like, `Oh,
hey, Oprah, thank you for calling. Yeah? Oh, that's nice.' And then I put
down the phone because it literally had never once crossed my mind that this
might be an Oprah pick, partly because she seldom chooses hard covers, partly
because she does choose a lot of female authors and partly because as, you
know, the reviewer in The New York Times said, you know, this is--`This feels
too edgy to ever be an Oprah pick.' And so it had never occurred to me.
I do--it has been a source of pain that there are interesting male novelists
out there--and I'll just leave myself out of the statement for the moment--who
don't find an audience because they don't find a female audience, because that
is--I mean, so much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the
fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or,
you know, playing with their flight simulator or whatever.
GROSS: Well, Jonathan Franzen, I'd like you to read a section from the
beginning of "The Corrections," and maybe you could just introduce this part
Mr. FRANZEN: I hope it needs not very much introduction because it is the
beginning of the first real chapter of the book. But it's about the stress of
a wanna-be hipster who's too old, really, to be a hipster, as his Midwestern
parents arrive in New York City.
(Reading) `Down the long concourse they came unsteadily; Enid favoring her
damaged hip, Alfred paddling at the air with loose-hinged hands and slapping
the airport carpeting with poorly controlled feet, both of them carrying
Nordic Pleasure Lines(ph) shoulder bags and concentrating on the floor in
front of them, measuring out the hazardous distance three paces at a time.
`To anyone who saw them averting their eyes from the dark-haired New Yorkers
careering past them, to anyone who caught a glimpse of Alfred's straw fedora
looming at the height of Iowa corn on Labor Day or the yellow wool of the
slacks stretching over Enid's outslung hip, it was obvious that they were
Midwestern and intimidated. But to Chip Lambert, who was waiting for them
just beyond the security checkpoint, they were killers. Chip had crossed his
arms defensively and raised one hand to pull on the wrought iron rivet in his
ear. He worried that he might tear the rivet right out of his ear lobe, that
the maximum pain his ear's nerves could generate was less pain than he needed
now to steady himself.
`From his position by the metal detector, as he watched an azure-haired girl
overtake his parents, an azure-haired girl of college age, a very wantable
stranger with pierced lips and eyebrows, it struck him that if he could have
sex with this girl for one second, he could face his parents confidently, and
that if we could keep on having sex with this girl once every minute for as
long as his parents were in town, he could survive their entire visit.
`Chip was a tall, gym-built man with crow's feet and sparse, buttery yellow
hair. If the girl had noticed him, she might have thought he was a little too
old for the leather he was wearing. As she hurried past him, he pulled harder
on his rivet to offset the pain of her departure from his life forever and to
focus his attention on his father, whose face was brightening at the discovery
of a son among so many strangers.
`In the lunging manner of a man floundering in water, Alfred fell upon Chip
and grabbed Chip's hand and wrist as if they were a rope he'd been thrown.
"Well," he said. "Well." Enid came limping up behind him. "Chip," she
cried, "what have you done to your ears?" "Dad, Mom," Chip murmured through
his teeth, hoping the azure-haired girl was out of earshot, "good to see
GROSS: You know, the book is, in part, about that moment in an adult's life
when they see their parents go from this kind of almost threatening presence,
a controlling presence, to being people who are very weak and very much in
need of help from their children as opposed to people who are trying to
control their children. What made you focus on that transition, that
realization in your book?
Mr. FRANZEN: Well, part of it grew out of my own experience, and I'm guessing
you'll have a question or two along those lines. It was...
GROSS: He said resentfully.
Mr. FRANZEN: No, no, no, no, no. No. I don't watch Oprah, but I do listen
to your show. So let me leap-frog over that to...
Mr. FRANZEN: ...some of the more thematic reasons why I was attracted to
GROSS: Good. OK.
Mr. FRANZEN: It seems--I grew up feeling like I was a child and adults were
adults. And I seemed to have grown into a time and a place where people don't
really want to be adults in the same way I understood them to be, which was
well-mannered people who dress differently than children and who, you know,
were in some way--put their children's interests before their own and, all
around, just were of a different class. They liked being adults, they got a
satisfaction from that.
And ever since the boomer generation faced the problem of adulthood, with kind
of dubious results. And since so much of commercial culture has come to focus
on the 18-to-34 demographic, it seems as if adulthood itself is, to some
extent, a threatened commodity. And yet, there is this feeling in the back of
one's head, `Well, there are those parents, and I get to be a child even up
into my 40s, 50s and 60s because those parents are there.' And it seemed to
me an interesting question to look at: What happens when you do finally lose
those parents and you're next in line? So that's an interesting question for
me, and it goes to some of the more culturally critical undercurrents in the
GROSS: Could you have written this novel only after the death of your
parents? Would you have feared that the novel would have some way hurt them
or they would have felt betrayed by it thinking that a lot of the
characterizations in them were really about them?
Mr. FRANZEN: Or about them and their friends.
GROSS: Right, right.
Mr. FRANZEN: Their cohorts, certainly, which is what this is drawn from.
It's not, per se, a portrait of my parents. It's more a portrait of a type
that my parents were one instance of that I saw a lot of when I was growing
up in the Midwest.
You know, my father was unhappy with certain things in my second book. He
felt, I think, betrayed by what he perceived as a criticism of religion, when,
in fact, I don't think there is one there. My mother had, by that point, long
since learned how to read my books without reading them and how to skim the
cream off the experience of my being a writer without actually having to, you
know, down the milk underneath it.
And she was alive as various pieces of this book were being published in
magazines, to which she had access, and it was interesting to see how she
responded to that. She, in one instance, asked me to give a
paragraph-by-paragraph synopsis--or accepted my offer to give a
paragraph-by-paragraph synopsis of a chunk of this that was in The New Yorker
just so she didn't have to cast her eyes over it herself. And I think, you
know, my father was a stricter person and I think might have been more prone
to make moral judgments. My mother, at that point in her life, really was
bent on getting along with her kids and would have let nothing stop that. And
I, indeed, wrote much of it when she was still alive and with the hope that
she would be alive to see it published.
BOGAEV: Jonathan Franzen, speaking with Terry Gross last fall. His novel,
"The Corrections," is out in paperback. We're hear more after this break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: Back now to our interview with novelist Jonathan Franzen.
GROSS: Your novel keeps shifting point of view. It's written from the point
of view of each of the three adult children in this family, as well as from
the point of view as the mother and father. What are some of the things you
were trying to do, novelistically, in having the point of view keep changing?
Mr. FRANZEN: Well, that seems to be a fixture of all my books. And I think
it gets--it comes from, oh, the essential blurriness of my own nature. I
don't seem to be able to be the same person on any two consecutive days,
whether in as straightforward a way as the fact that I'm moody and, you know,
kind of fairly elated one day and then anxious and gloomy the next, to the
fact that--you know, I feel like at once a 12-year-old boy and a 78-year-old
man and a 42-year-old man and a 32-year-old woman. I just--it grows out of my
own sense of having a multitude of voices in myself and being unwilling, or
perhaps, unable to settle on any single one of them.
There are really two kinds of writers, I think, in that regard. There are the
ventriloquists, or the empaths, which is what I think I am, and then there are
the people who have a really, really strong native voice, and who will do
everything in their own voice. And probably it's a good idea for me to keep
trying to do that, because I don't know if I will ever be able to settle on a
GROSS: Can you talk about some of the things you were trying with the tone of
your book? Again--you know, some of your narration is from the point of view
of someone who's very ironic. Of course, when the point of view is from the
mother's point of view, she's very sentimental and not ironic at all. So the
actual tone keeps shifting. Some of it is really very funny in a very kind of
dark, cynical way, and other parts aren't like that at all.
Mr. FRANZEN: Well, I like heterogeneity. I like cities. I like walking
down a street and having the scene change from block to block. I'm attracted
to, you know, Stravinsky, who will go from tuneful to assonant and back to
tuneful. And, you know--I mean, it's a taste matter to some extent that
drives me to use all the tones I have at my command. I think, in general,
there is an overarching comic tone to it. At least that's how I read it.
Mr. FRANZEN: And that is an antidote--that is my own antidote to my own
tendency to write in either sort of shame-ridden confessional styles or, worse
yet, in a very, very self-important, earnest style. And when I pick up a book
that has that tone of high earnestness, I will usually not read past about
GROSS: You know, the character, the son, Chip, in your novel writes for a
little journal that's called The Warren Street Journal(ph), and it's a kind of
journal of transgressive culture.
Mr. FRANZEN: Yeah.
GROSS: And he says that at the offices of the Journal, he sometimes felt
insufficiently transgressive, as if his innermost self were still a nice
Midwestern boy. Is that something you felt about yourself, that your
innermost self was a nice Midwestern boy, and that you had to put on these
transgressive clothes to kind of cover that up?
Mr. FRANZEN: Yes and no. I mean, in some senses, that sentence could
describe me. In other respects, though, that would appear to discount the
sincerity or the intensity of the anger I felt about the way our culture was
set up when I was writing my first two books. I think for Chip, it manifests
as a sense of fraudulence. For me, it manifests as attention. I am both a
nice, Midwestern boy and somebody who is thinking hard about the way we live
and the reasons we live that way. Chip is not me, but I certainly sympathize
with that particular moment, that spasm of fraudulent feeling that he has.
GROSS: The mother in your novel is very sentimental, whether it's planning
for Thanksgiving, or the kind of way she'll arrange the house. And it sounds
like your real mother, from the little I've read about her, was a pretty
sentimental person, too. I'm wondering how that affected your taste as a
writer and reader and person to come from somebody who was pretty sentimental
and not ironic.
Mr. FRANZEN: Well, you could certainly draw parallels between the
disastrously bad relations between me and my mother for, oh, about 20 years,
starting at age 13, and the fact that I wrote two kind of harder-edged books
that were at pains to avoid any possible threat or hint of sentimentality, and
the fact that as she and I got closer towards the end of her life, I became
more comfortable with writing about stuff that could be potentially perceived
as sentimental. No contest on that one.
GROSS: The father in the novel is taking medication for Parkinson's disease
that causes him to hallucinate. And your father had hallucinations, too,
first from medicine and then problems because of the Alzheimer's disease. And
both your father and the father in the novel were very straight-laced people.
Mr. FRANZEN: It's safe to say straight-laced, yes.
GROSS: Yeah. So I'm wondering...
Mr. FRANZEN: Very...
GROSS: ...what it was like to see someone very straight-laced losing control,
both physically, but also in terms of their inner life, these hallucinations
Mr. FRANZEN: Well, I think when it was happening to my father, it was awful.
I felt for him terribly, because I knew that he really--again, like a lot of
men of that generation, his manhood, in part, consisted of his self-control
and ability to contain himself. And as he began to lose that, it was really
terrible for him.
At the same time, because he was so distant, I kept hoping that--first of all,
I had a hard time admitting what was really going on, and I kept hoping that
this would lead, perhaps, to a breaking down of the boundaries that had
separated us, and that we really could be close in a way that he had never
been able to be before, and unfortunately, that proved not really to be the
case. By the time the boundaries were down far enough for that to happen,
there wasn't much left on his side of the boundary.
GROSS: You know, in the piece you wrote about your father's Alzheimer's
disease in The New Yorker, you said that watching your father lose his
intelligence, sanity and self-consciousness, you found yourself becoming less
afraid of losing those abilities yourself. You became a little less afraid,
in general. I really wanted to know why, I mean, because so often it's the
other way around. You see somebody you love deteriorate and you really worry
about your own future.
Mr. FRANZEN: Well, again, I was a very old eight-year-old. I really meant it
when I say--well, as Lydia Davis, in a famous very short story of hers says,
you know, I--there was a young woman who considered herself an old woman, and
she would ask herself, `Why are these young men flirting with this old lady?'
You know, I have been--identified so much with my parents that I was always
their age. And the one thing that happened was that when they got sick and
died, I couldn't identify with them anymore. I was actually freed to be my
own real age.
Beyond that, I think, you know that people close to you are going to die and
you live in fear of that, especially if they're as important to you as my
parents were to me, and realizing that I could walk into a room with my
father, you know, raving mad, or walk into a room where he was barely
breathing and near death, that here comes this thing which is unimaginable,
that I'm terrified of and yet I'm going through it. In a way, I projected, or
I translated that, directly onto what he was going through; that is, it had
been--you know, it was unimaginable, obviously, to him, as to all of us, like
`How am I going to get through death?' And to see that this one terrifying,
unimaginable thing that I'd been imagining--or I'd been facing and fearing
indeed could be traversed did make me less afraid of other painful
possibilities in the future, including losing those various things.
BOGAEV: Jonathen Franzen, speaking with Terry Gross last October. His novel
"The Corrections" is now out in paperback. We'll hear more of their
conversation in the second half of our show. I'm Barbara Bogaev, and this is
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: The new music documentary "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" follows
the band Wilco through the troubled recording process of their new album
"Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." Coming up, we hear from Jeff Tweedy, the founder of
And David Edelstein reviews "City by the Sea," starring Robert De Niro and
(Soundbite of music)
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