On Autobiography & Fiction-Writing: An Evening with Jonathan Franzen
Author Jonathan Franzen investigates the personal dynamics of fiction writing by addressing four perennial questions that novelists are asked: Who are your influences? What time of day do you work and what do you write on? Do your characters “take over” and tell you what to do? And, is your fiction autobiographical?
Jonathan Franzen grew up in Webster Groves, Missouri, afraid of “spiders, insomnia, fish hooks, school dances, hardball, heights, bees, urinals, puberty, music teachers, dogs, the school cafeteria, censure, older teenagers, jellyfish, locker rooms, boomerangs, and popular girls.” Franzen shed his fears as he grew up, and after graduating from Swarthmore College in 1981, he studied in Berlin as a Fulbright scholar and later worked in a seismology lab at Harvard. In his memoir, The Discomfort Zone (2006), Franzen explores the influence of his childhood and adolescence on his creative life. After college, Franzen married a fellow classmate and writer and begin a quiet, isolated domestic life dedicated to reading and writing. They eventually divorced, but the method of isolation remained integral for his writing. Franzen often worked in the dark, with the blinds drawn, wearing earplugs, earmuffs, and a blindfold.
Jonathan Franzen published his first novel The Twenty-Seventh City in 1988; his second, Strong Motion, in 1992. His third novel, The Corrections, received the National Book Award for fiction, was an international bestseller with translations in 35 languages and American hardcover sales of nearly one million copies. Lev Grossman in TIME magazine called the books “a symphony of Midwestern, middle-class mental suffering that conveys depression and anxiety more entertainingly and eloquently than almost any book I’ve ever read…which instantly made Franzen the premier literary novelist in his age bracket.” In response to the attention and acclaim The Corrections received, Franzen responded with his inspiration for the novel: “The most important experience of my life, to date, is the experience of growing up in the Midwest with the particular parents I had. I feel as if they couldn’t fully speak for themselves, and I feel as if their experience—their values, their experiences of being alive—of being born in the beginning of the century and dying towards the end of it…I feel as if I’m part of that and it’s part of me.”
Franzen is also the author of a bestselling collection of essays, How to Be Alone (2002). He recently published a new translation from German of the play Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind. His short stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Best American Essays, The New York Times, and The Guardian. He was a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the PEN/Faulkner Award. His other honors include a Whiting Writers Award and a Guggenheim fellowship. The Times of Londonnamed The Corrections as one of the “100 Best Books of the Decade.” Franzen lives in New York City and Boulder Creek, California. His most recent novel, Freedom, was published August 2010.
The Twenty-Seventh City (1988)
Strong Motion (1992)
The Corrections (2001), recipient of National Book Award for Fiction, New York Times Best Books of the Year, Salon Book Award (Fiction), Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist
Freedom (August 2010)
The Discomfort Zone (2006)
memoirHow to Be Alone (2002), essays
Emily Eakin on The Corrections, and Franzen’s process (New York Times, September 2001)
Short Story: Breakup Stories (The New Yorker, November 2004)
Short Story: Are We There Yet? Countdown (The New Yorker, April 2005)
How Jonathan Franzen Learned To Stop Worrying (Sort Of) (Time, August 2006)
Jonathan Franzen’s National Book Award Acceptance Speech (National Book Foundation, 2001)
Jonathan Franzen interview with Donald Antrim (Bomb Magazine, Fall 2001)
Audio interview with The New Yorker’s Deborah Treisman, “Sound of No Birds Singing”