How I Write: Jonathan Franzen
Published: December 13, 2001
|With his third novel, The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen revitalizes the notion of The Great American Novel. (He lamented its demise in a 1996 Harper's essay.) His rambunctious, darkly humorous and ultimately moving portrayal of the dysfunctional Lambert family in the throes of chaos touches readers with personal and social themes befitting a "big book." The novel's reach extends from the family home in the Midwest to Greenwich Village to Philadelphia to Lithuania, but never loses the thread of family angst that holds it all together. Franzen won the 2001 National Book Award for The Corrections. He is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker. He lives in New York.|
Credits: The Corrections (2001), Strong Motion (1992), The Twenty-Seventh City (1988).
Why: I got the bug bad when I was in high school. I wrote a couple of plays with a friend of mine; one of them was properly published. We actually got paid $50 each. That really set the hook. It was an amazing thing to happen to a 17-year-old. I've had a novel of some sort cooking ever since then. I write fiction because it's what I'm best at. I wouldn't be better at any other profession. Writing is hard, and I love all of it in its hardness. I'm never bored.
When and where: Keep in mind I'm speaking in broad generalities. I write Monday through Friday. If I don't go straight to the desk after breakfast, I'm in trouble and the day is usually shot. The process of sinking into that state of anxious isolation from which the writing comes has to begin in the morning.
It's really hard to concentrate, and I like a dimly lit, cool, quiet room. For the last four years, I've had a small office in East Harlem. I've soundproofed the walls and double-glazed the windows to keep it quiet. I keep it very dark. Sometimes I turn all the lights off. I have two sets of blinds. I hate looking out. The window is a distraction. Two things writers do are unfathomable to me: Some listen to music while they work; some like to look out the window at nature. If I go to an artists' colony and I'm looking out at nature, the first thing I do is pull the curtains, and if there aren't curtains, I tape up newsprint to cover the windows, at least up to the point there is only sky. I don't mind sky.
How: Once I have some clear idea of what the book is about, I get a very rough structure. Then, the work for weeks or months is to come up with a topic sentence--something that captures the plight of the characters. For Chip [in The Corrections], it was: "He's no good at making money, and he thought it was OK to live the life of the mind." For Gary, it was: "He's struggling to persuade himself that he's not mentally ill."
I think the most important thing--it may sound strange--is to get inside the character to the point that there is a lot of anxiety and shame. The real struggle is to find a dramatic setup and a corresponding tone that make it possible to dwell in that anxiety and shame without feeling icky as a reader. That's a big challenge. My approach to that--pretty much with all the characters--was that when it started seeming funny to me, I knew I was there. If it seemed anguished or earnest, I knew I wasn't there.
I have a thick binder with about a year-and-a-half's worth of notes. It's a record of the struggle to figure out what the book was supposed to look like and how it was supposed to be built. If writing could be reduced to a formula or algorithm, everyone would do it.
Challenges: The hardest part of the life is that you have to be in this raw emotional state in order to dare to do the things that need to be done and be fully alive to your sensations and your emotions. That makes it difficult to be in the world. Difficult to sleep. You have to spend a lot of time alone. Generally, it creates a sensation
Advice: I constantly remind myself that there is no hurry. If I work hard and get nowhere, it's still a day well spent. It doesn't have to be done this year or even next. When you live in fast-paced times, that's a hard thing to know. Remember there is plenty of time, and don't accept something if you think you can do better. That's something that took me a long time to figure out.
Photograph by Greg Martin