By WALLACE BAINE
Thanks mostly to his popular 2001 novel “The Corrections,” writer Jonathan Franzen was already safely ensconced among the elite of contemporary American literature. But in August, on the eve of the release of his new book “Freedom” — his first novel since “The Corrections” — Franzen was afforded the chance to grace the cover of Time magazine accompanied by the majestic headline “Great American Novelist,” an honor that put him alongside such august names as Salinger, Nabakov, Joyce and Updike.
The Time piece also, at least indirectly, vaulted into prominence Santa Cruz, where Franzen and his long-time partner Kathryn Chetkovich make their home part of the year.
Franzen appeared earlier this month at the Capitola Book Cafe to read from and talk about “Freedom.” We had the chance to speak to Franzen about Santa Cruz, the writer’s life and his love of birding, a key element in the new novel.
How did you come to live in Santa Cruz?
It’s not my full-time home. I got involved with a Santa Cruz girl back in 1998. She had taught at the university for a while and was living up in Boulder Creek for about 10 years. So, a tug-of-war between New York and Santa Cruz ensued and was amicably settled by our decision to spend part of the year out here, which in practice turns out to be summer and a good chunk of the winter.
Up until two years ago, we were in her cabin up in Boulder Creek, and, just exactly two years ago, moved into a place in town where we are for all of July and August and a good chunk of December and January.
Did you develop an interest in birding from living in Santa Cruz?
Yeah, it definitely took off here. Kathy’s sister and brother-in-law are big bird watchers and they turned me on to it in Central Park in New York which is a wonderful place in the spring and the fall.
But it was really out here where everything is so close by. Just a three-minute detour and you’re in Natural Bridges surrounded by birds. Or a 25-minute drive, you’re in the Elkhorn Slough/Moss Landing area. A little bit further drive takes you to Panoche Valley, and if you’re willing to make a day of it, you can go to the Central Valley in the winter where there are millions of wintering waterfowl there.
California has a lot of problems, but it is the birthplace of American environmentalism. And there is still a lot of well-protected open spaces where other species can make their homes, and in the case of shore birds, just stop over on their way from their breeding grounds.
Do you write in Santa Cruz?
Absolutely, yes. I’ve been very fortunate. Partly because we’re out here during the times we are, we’ve been able to borrow offices on the UCSC campus. Things open up during the summer and during mid-winter break. A good part of my new book was written in an office very kindly provided by Cowell College. I’d say nearly half of it was written in Santa Cruz.
Is your writing influenced by being in Santa Cruz in any direct way?
Maybe not in a direct way. Indirectly, I had a prejudice against California until I met Kathy. I finally came out to visit her, somewhat suspiciously. But it felt like I was coming home in some way. All my prejudices about Californians — they just like the sun and the pretty scenery — turned out to be completely belied by Santa Cruz which is a very book-oriented town. The literary community here is very supportive. There’s a lot going on and people take care of each other. In a way, the experience of the kindness of people in Santa Cruz has helped bring out potential kindness in myself that I had not been aware of until I came out here.
I’m proud to be associated with Santa Cruz and ironically, now, I’d be happy to spend more time out here but Kathy is involved in the theater in New York, so she needs to be there more.
What has the experience of being on the cover of Time been like for you?
Well, I’m buffered from many experiences like that by being in Santa Cruz. People are very cool here and it’s really easy to have a private life. So, I don’t even know what the experience is like yet, because I haven’t been back in New York.
I will say that, obviously it’s a great honor, but it doesn’t really compare with even a medium-sized breakthrough in the work. It made me miss my dad, who read Time magazine for 50 years. He’s no longer around, so I didn’t have any reason to particularly want it, except to the extent that it might help get the book into the hands of people who might enjoy it.
Perhaps the most interesting thing that Time said about your new book was that it is a page-turner. It talked about the long-time practice in the 20th century of serious literacy novels asking for their readers’ indulgence for a hundred pages before the story gained traction. Time claimed your book was more like a 19th century novel in that it grips you from the beginning. Is that reader-friendly approach a matter of philosophy for you as a writer in the Internet age?
Yes, I think I might have made that point myself in the article. I do think we have a responsibility as novelists to provide an experience that is compelling enough to resist all those other kinds of media.
I grew up enjoying reading. I learned what hard-core literature was in college and I absorbed many of those values. But I always have had this Midwestern wish to bring the reader along rather than try to impress the reader. I write for myself. I’m somebody if the book is good enough, I’ll wade through many dozens of difficult pages. But given a chance not to, I’ll take it.
You seem to consider the distractions of being plugged in as one of the greatest barriers to writing.
Distraction presents itself whether you seek it or not. I was gratified by the study of multi-taskers that came out a year ago and got a lot of press attention. People think they’re being more efficient when they multi-task. But often they’re being less efficient and the jobs are not being done as well.
I’m in awe of people who can have music playing while they’re writing. If music’s playing, I want to listen to it.
In order to create a reading experience that will really envelope you and transport you, you have to be enveloped and transported yourself. And that’s very hard to do when you’re checking your iPhone every five minutes.
The title of your new book “Freedom” represents a very big concept. Did you start with the theme of the consequences of freedom and built a story around it? Or did it gradually emerge from the narrative?
It emerged. I don’t get anywhere if I don’t start with characters. And that’s why it takes years and years to write a book because creating the right kind of character in the right kind of story is not something you can do overnight and seems only to get harder the longer I work. I was embarrassed by the title for a while and couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone what it was until I finished the book. But did have it for a while.
I do think the word freedom has been trivialized by the American right wing in the last 10 years. I would hope it would carry some connotation of irony at this point.