My 1980s and Other Essays
The Isle of Youth

How to Read a Novelist

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Paperback, FSG Originals, 2013
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John Freeman

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The novel is alive and well, thank you very much

For the last fifteen years, whenever a novel was published, John Freeman was there to greet it. As a critic for more than two hundred newspapers worldwide, the onetime president of the National Book Critics Circle, and the former editor of Granta, he has reviewed thousands of books and interviewed scores of writers. In How to Read a Novelist, which pulls together his very best profiles (many of them new or completely rewritten for this volume) of the very best novelists of our time, he shares with us what he's learned.
From such international stars as Doris Lessing, Haruki Murakami, Salman Rushdie, and Mo Yan, to established American lions such as Don DeLillo, Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Philip Roth, John Updike, and David Foster Wallace, to the new guard of Edwidge Danticat, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, and more, Freeman has talked to everyone.
What emerges is an instructive and illuminating, definitive yet still idiosyncratic guide to a diverse and lively literary culture: a vision of the novel as a varied yet vital contemporary form, a portrait of the novelist as a unique and profound figure in our fragmenting global culture, and a book that will be essential reading for every aspiring writer and engaged reader—a perfect companion (or gift!) for anyone who's ever curled up with a novel and wanted to know a bit more about the person who made it possible.

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An excerpt from How to Read a Novelist

U and Me: The Hard Lessons of Idolizing John Updike

My first apartment in New York was in a Brooklyn brownstone owned by a magazine editor and her silent, bookish husband. I spent a lot of time before a long, dusty bookshelf that ran parallel to the staircase in their home. To get a volume from the F section, you had to climb halfway up the stairs and lean out over the banister. One day, the silent, bookish husband caught me craning over the ten-foot drop, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education in my hands. He became talkative. He told of disappearing into Proust over a teenage summer on Fire Island. How Tolstoy was a passionate college-age fling. I came late to reading, and so I envied his library and these summers spent in a book. Mine were spent performing rebound drills at basketball camps. I asked him what I should read. First he pulled down a volume of short stories by John Cheever, then he gave me Rabbit, Run by John Updike. 

The Cheever I put down without finishing: The stories felt whiny and overdetermined, their trick endings too neatly engineered. But Updike was another thing. I blasted through Rabbit, Run in a few days, ferrying it into the city on the A train in a muggy trance. In college, I had fallen for Jack Kerouac’s novels, particularly On the Road. Here was that book’s exquisite opposite—the story of a man who made himself a prison of small-town domestic life, a man whose big countercultural act was not to light out for the open highway but to get in a car and drive across town to sleep with his mistress. 

I felt an instant connection with Updike’s fiction. I had lived in eastern Pennsylvania for six years as a child, and the region’s gentle embrace felt like a third parent to me growing up. Now that I was an adult, I could see how such a life might have become stifling. In Updike’s prose, it was gorgeously so. 

One book led to another, and before long my Updike appreciation had turned to mania. I amassed an almost complete set of first editions of his books—more than fifty in all; I was missing just his tales for children—and my girlfriend, bemused and never smitten by Updike, often accompanied me to bookstores to get them signed. When I decided I, too, wanted to be a writer, I did what Updike had done forty years before me. I quit New York and moved with my girlfriend into a white clapboard house in New En gland. She took a job in technology research, and I began to write. Only I didn’t. Instead, I spent my time reading Updike, aware that at my age he had published a volume of light verse and a short novel, but also increasingly conscious of his work’s magnificent melancholy—of the families broken up and destroyed, the repetitive failure of fleshly desire to relieve his characters’ desire for transcendence. At night, I would occasionally look at the shelves in our bedroom and worry they might collapse from the black weight of their content, smother us in our sleep. 

During the daytime, though, the air would clear and my ever-expanding shelves of Updike titles became, again, a beacon. His industry and mindfulness of every detail of the visible world—so prevalent in even the soggiest of his novels—taught me a lot about the beauty of everyday things. If Updike himself functioned as my model for how to behave as a writer, his characters—whose lives mine was beginning to resemble— were the anti-models of how to behave as a person. Perhaps through the repetition of reading I might avoid the relationship immolation his characters provoked, again and again and again. 

I took a job abridging Tarzan of the Apes for a children’s publisher. It occurred to me that what I had been doing with Updike was similar to this tedious bit of hackery: tracing my life over that of another writer’s. At the end of the workday, as the New England chill settled below the rafters, my girlfriend and I would snip at each other with the rancor of people looking for someone to blame. I was unhappy because I wasn’t writing; she was unhappy for reasons I didn’t quite understand. Even though we were only in our mid- twenties, a sense of opportunities lost began to hover. 

After a year my girlfriend and I had to admit our New England experiment was a failure. We moved back to New York. Away from the predetermined doom of our Updikeian stage set of a life, we felt our sense of possibility recharge. We began cooking and taking dance classes. We trained for a marathon. I decided to propose, which meant I needed a ring. For the last time, I turned to Updike. I had gone through periodic purges of my shelves, attacking my bibliophilia like a cancer that required repeated radical surgeries. But it always came back, often more aggressive and pernicious. This time, however, I performed the most radical operation—my entire Updike collection. It took three cab rides, but in a few hours I’d managed to transport all three shelves to a New York dealer. Traveling down Park Avenue in a cab a week later, a little red leather box nestled in my lap, I felt purged and absolved. All the heartache and the wisdom and the weakness I’d absorbed through those books had been boiled down to something eternal, and pure: a wedding ring. No longer would the spines of those books stare out in judgment and gloom. I was free to become the husband I wanted to be, the writer I was meant to be—whatever that meant. I had swallowed Updike whole and spat out the bones. 

I was surprised by how quickly things fell apart. A year after we were married, my wife moved out. When times were bad with her, I had fantasized about living alone, like a young Updike, writing in my garret. Only Updike had never lived alone. And now I had the place all to myself and I filled it with cigarette butts. As I looked out the window and smoked, I often thought about all the Updike books I had read in the past ten years and how witnessing his fictional marital breakdowns seemed to have done me so little good. 

My wife and I divorced in the autumn. She had moved to California, and the laws of Maine—where we had married—required one of us to be present during the final proceedings. I drove up from New York alone, and spent the night with my soon-to-be ex-in-laws in their house on the beach, eating the saddest lobster dinner I’ve ever had. The next morning I drove to the court with my mother-in-law, who waited outside the empty chambers while I cut the thin legal string that still connected me to her daughter. 

I didn’t drive directly home. That afternoon, by a fluke of scheduling, I had arranged to interview John Updike at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He had just published a collection of essays on art called Still Looking, and the interview conceit was that we’d wander among the paintings so he could riff on art in real time. It was not my first time interviewing him. Four months after my wedding, I’d interviewed him about his twentieth novel, Seek My Face. I’d been dazzled by his gentle but colossal intelligence, relieved to be able to treat him as an interview subject rather than the living embodiment of an abandoned dream. 

I got lost on my way to the museum and arrived late. I found Updike waiting by the foyer, dressed in khaki slacks and a sports coat. Just over seventy years old, he had a full head of hair and the easy physical presence of a man at home in the world. We passed through a few galleries, Updike dispatching prose poems of appreciation with chummy good humor—as if surprised by how easily his mind created felicities with language. At some point I must have begun to flag, however, because he turned to me and asked, “Is this enough? I mean, you look pretty tired. I understand you are coming from Vermont?” 

I told him it was not Vermont but Maine, and in response to his question about what I was doing up there I said I was getting divorced. The museum tour came to a dead halt. Updike faced me with real feeling, his ironic pose collapsing. 

“I’m really sorry,” he said. He would not allow me to make light of my newly minted divorce, and said that he had gone through this once before, too, which I knew, and that it was hell. His advice continued, briefly, but it was so surreal to hear him reference his private life that I can hardly remember what he said. 

Apparently, though, he remembered. When Terrorist, his twenty- second novel, approached publication, a newspaper editor asked me if I could once again speak to John Updike. I called his publisher and was put on a junket schedule, then bumped, and bumped again. Finally I got through to his publicist. He switched from speakerphone to handset. 

“We got some mixed feedback from John on the last conversation,” the publicist explained. My ripped jeans and two-day stubble might have been noted, my mid-interview explosion of personal detail—which I remembered as more of a leak—had possibly made John feel uncomfortable. I had to understand, “John was of the old school.” 

I didn’t know what to say. If I hadn’t known before, I knew now: It was a breach of everyone’s privacy when a reader turns to a writer, or a writer’s books, for vicariously learned solutions to his own life problems. This is the fallacy behind every interview or biographical sketch, to tether a writer’s life too literally to his work, or to insist that a novel function as a substitute for actually living through the mistakes a person must live through in order to learn how to properly, maybe even happily, survive.

I convinced the publicist to let me go ahead with the assignment. We sat in a conference room so high up over midtown Manhattan it felt like riding in a helicopter. In between bites of a turkey sandwich, Updike described what he saw on 9/11. I wore my nicest suit, in fact the one I got married in. I did not mention this detail to Updike, and just once did I interrupt the snowfall of his verbal prose poems: to ask him if he had read the Koran. He had, and then described it with beauty and grace. It was a perfect Updike moment—powerful and contained, only the littlest bit strange. He would have nothing to do with its shaping or its meaning, in either my fiction or my life. That would be up to me. 

I have always felt there is something electrifying about meeting novelists. It isn’t like running into a celebrity, where your eye readjusts to the true physical contours of someone seen primarily on-screen. It has to do with grasping that the creator of a fictional world, a universe that lives inside you as a reader while also feeling strangely disembodied, is not as interior as that world but alive: flesh and blood. 

In this fashion, I wanted the pieces I wrote about novelists to describe an encounter, to show to the reader what the writer revealed to me, at their own choosing, over an hour or two or three, sometimes more, of talk. An interview, though, is not an actual conversation, but rather a form of conversation that has the same relationship to talking as fiction does to life. In order to work, fiction must abide by a set of rules it defines for itself, even if invisibly, and if an interview is to flow like a chat between two people it, too, must follow a set of conventions, some of them quite contradictory to how we are taught to interact naturally. Namely, that the interviewer asks all of the questions, offers pieces of information only for the purpose of stimulating more from the subject, and, primarily, that neither party calls attention to the artificiality of what is happening. My mid-interview explosion with Updike broke all three rules. 

Novelists haven’t always been representatives of their work, it’s important to note. Yes, Charles Dickens bundled himself onto a train to travel across fifty cities in as many days when his books were released. But he was the exception. He was famous. So were Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, and, to a different degree, Ernest Hemingway. And through their fame they extended the power of the nineteenth-century novel into the public sphere, speaking and writing on all manner of things, even as the readership of the literary novel was about to begin its steady decline. 

In the eighties, as bookstore chains expanded and the U.K. festival circuit began to develop, public readings became popular. Around this time Kazuo Ishiguro, whom I interview here, recalled going to an event for his hundredth or so time at the podium. He was reading with William Golding, who had won the Booker and the Nobel Prize but had yet to give a public reading. Ishiguro remembers Golding shaking with anxiety. 

Some novelists, like J. D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon, decided to sit out this expansion in their public role. Others have leapt to it. A great many, Updike included, were or are equivocal about it, even if they enjoy the attention, since the work that has brought them into the light—sitting at home in a room alone—is diametrically opposed to the task of talking about it in public with readers, journalists, or fans. When I started out in these assignments, arriving over-prepared, with twenty questions, often written out, I thought this was at least the most respectful place to begin. I quickly realized, though, that prepared questions lead to prepared answers. Gradually my list of questions decreased until I began arriving at interviews having read the books but without a single question in hand. This forced me to listen to people’s answers, and it meant we could have an actual conversation, with all the unpredictability and freshness of a good one. 

True storytellers write, I believe, not because they can but because they have to. There is something they want to say about the world that can only be said in a story. When it came to selecting the pieces I wanted to include in this book, my immediate preference was for those on subjects who felt that sense of urgency, and necessity, and whose work was important, beautiful, and enjoyable at the same time. In our interview, Robert Pirsig used the word compelled; he was compelled to write Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, partly for his own sanity. It was a way of making the disparate parts of the world, and his experience, whole. 

This theme—the consolations of narrative—kept coming up in interviews. Edwidge Danticat, Aleksandar Hemon, Peter Carey, and several other novelists I talk to here come from two places, and have distinct before and after periods in their lives. They spoke of their books as works of literature but also as a way to fathom the distance between these two worlds. To keep memory alive. An interviewer’s job, I found, was not to close that gap—between here and there, between what was broken and what was whole—but to make it more mysterious. 

For some novelists, like Toni Morrison or Ngugiwa Thiong’o or Louise Erdrich, this task of telling stories about a place has a political dimension; it is about making visible a history, a sensibility, which history has repressed or occluded. For other writers, like David Foster Wallace, the need to write grew from an obsession with language, and further dimensions of their work all developed from that originating fire. Some of these novelists, like Mark Danielewski or Susanna Clarke, were so new to publishing that what haunted them was still developing and they spoke of it warily, revising and thinking aloud. Others were so near the end of their career—such as Philip Roth or Norman Mailer—they had already begun to try to curate how their work was read after they stopped writing or living. 

All of these pieces were written on deadline for newspapers or magazines, with the exception of those I have included from 2013. Even if I hadn’t been writing for newspapers and magazines, which at least in the United States are not terribly interested in the first person, it would have felt grandiose to include much of myself in these pieces. I am there, I suppose, in the questions I ask and in the things I note. I am there in the tack I take through their books, and the quotes I chose to give the narrative of our encounter sail, as all interviewers must do, but the self I live in, the one made by factors accidental and chosen, remains, I hope, discrete. I have done this with the goal of making it easier for readers to step into the frame and imagine themselves there. A handful of these novelists, Aleksandar Hemon, Peter Carey, and Edwidge Danticat, are friends of mine, and to write about them I had to re-estrange myself from them as people. With other novelists, like Robert Pirsig, who hadn’t given an interview in twenty years, or Imre Kertész and Mo Yan, who give so few, to insert myself into the arc of the interview would have been, frankly, preposterous. 

I haven’t focused very much on craft, either. The problem with craft as concept is that it can become, like the idea of a novel itself when it lodges in a writer’s mind, too much of an ideal. Wood carves differently in different environments. So does narrative. And thus my other hope, with these profiles, has been to reinstate some atmospheric context into the legend of a writer’s life and work. A shelf of books has an inevitable feel, being of weight and mass; every writer I’ve ever spoken to, though, has mentioned how provisional their work seemed as they constructed it, how tentative and fearful they recall being about the prospect of achieving it, and especially how terrifying it is when the result of so much solitary thinking and chance and failure enters the world and leaves their hands. 

The only thing an interviewer can do to capture what a novelist truly does is to make them talk and tell stories, and think aloud. These are not meant to be definitive life profiles but rather glimpses spied through a moving window. Writers are always evolving, publishing, and they are also in constant direct or indirect dialogue with one another. Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides, who lived in New York City in the early 1990s, each talked to me about their shared effort to bring back the sweep of the nineteenth-century novel in American fiction. The scale of their achievement in doing so meant both of them have reached the level of visibility Dickens once had in America and England in his time. Eugenides must be the only literary writer ever to be depicted on a Times Square billboard; Franzen was the first novelist since Updike to appear on the cover of Time magazine. 

For the most part the connections that emerged from assembling these interviews were literary rather than personal. Mo Yan was influenced by Günter Grass, and they were both inspired by William Faulkner, who is clearly a beacon to Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates, the latter of whom taught Jonathan Safran Foer, who it is often said borrows from David Foster Wallace—although Foer did not read him until recently—and Wallace himself pointed his compass to Don DeLillo, who on the subject of inspiration keeps his own counsel. And around it goes. 

This fellowship—the deep connection of writer to writer as readers—is a hopeful thing, because it means that it is open to anyone who is a reader and who plans to be a writer. In the thirteen years of writing these profiles, this has been one of the main constants of my discussions: It is a pleasure—sometimes a challenge, but there is plea sure in the challenge—to read, but the best writing is always difficult to do. Whether they have a Nobel or a Pulitzer, or a first novel ten years in the making, all of these novelists are still shocked, each time they finish, that it gets done at all. Perhaps that is why chance remains, aside from sheer effort, the most cited factor in how they discovered their voices. 

In the end, it becomes impossible to separate the two forces from one another, just as it is so difficult, but necessary, to separate writers from their work. Their bodies are their bodies of work, and even the most prolific of them, like Updike, are driven against a dying of the light. As he wrote in his memoirs, Self-Consciousness, “The idea that we sleep for centuries and centuries without a flicker of dream, while our bodies rot and turn to dust and the very stone marking our graves crumbles to nothing, is virtually as terrifying as annihilation.” And as he said to me in 2004: “I’ve written a lot. I must have somewhere touched on almost every aspect of my life and experience. Nevertheless, there’s this haunting fear that the thing you left out isn’t going to be finally captured.” Here then are fifty-five different writers trying to explain what it is they don’t want left out.

  • "If you're an avid follower of contemporary fiction . . . then John Freeman’s How To Read A Novelist is the perfect, and perfectly modest, book . . . A terrific compendium of insights into what contemporary writers are thinking and how they present themselves."

    Los Angeles Review of Books

  • "[Freeman is] exactly the kind of intermediary that contemporary writers need to get the news out to potential readers. There ought to be a hundred more like him."

    Los Angeles Review of Books

  • "[The interviews] bristle with intriguing factoids . . . All of which is to say that if you’re intrigued by an author’s writerly predilections and peccadilloes, you’ll love John Freeman’s book."

    The Boston Globe

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