Jonathan Franzen at the National Library

15 Sep

I’d apparently lived under a rock for the past decade, because it wasn’t until late 2010 that I noticed a significant amount of worldwide media frothing with news of Jonathan Franzen’s latest work that my intrigue began.  Curiosity securely in place, I purchased an exorbitantly priced copy of Freedom at the 2010 Christmas sales and, after falling deeply in love with each exquisite page, I’d since devoured every other piece of his work I could get my hands on, including his 2001 work The Corrections and numerous articles at The New Yorker, growing ever more adoring.   It’s fair to say Jonathan Franzen has safely secured the title of ‘T1’s favourite author’: it’s not surprising that my excitement on hearing from the Riot Act that Jonathan Franzen was coming to the National Library on 14 September was palpable for weeks.

I had to sign up to attend online despite it being free, and the National Library’s system promptly e-mailed the pdf of my ticket to bring along to the event—I later realised that this was because the National Library was expecting so many people and only had limited space in their theatre.  With my copy of Freedom that I’d loaned a friend safely back in my arms, I took a few hours out of the work day to mosey on down to the National Library where people were swarming. It was a simple matter of showing the ticket and getting a tiny red dot sticker to put on my shirt, and I was shuffling into the downstairs theatre.

I would hardly describe me as an obsessive fan of much these days (though I was no less than an ardent follower of Xena in my tweens!), but my heart was racing as I made my way down to the second row. Franzen arrived promptly with the Canberra Times’ literary editor Gia Wetherell in tow and, after already quite serious applause for the author and his acknowledgement of this with a bow of his head, they settled in casually on leather arm chairs.

Despite attending all the east coast’s Writers Festivals these past few months, Franzen was alert and engaging, his insights and humour no less remarkable than those gained from reading his books.  In describing him, Wetherell pointed out that despite only being released in 2010, The Guardian had described Freedom as the ‘novel of the century’, to which Franzen replied with a coy grin, “No one else need apply.” From anyone else this would have been mistaken as arrogance, but Franzen – a far cry from what appeared to be earlier struggles with fame, like what happened with Oprah in 2001 – deftly navigates embarrassment and humble acceptance of such praise (which this blogger ashamedly threw at him later, too).

Wetherell didn’t allow him an opening statement before launching into questions, but he made one anyway before answering – thanking the crowd for welcoming him to Canberra, and appearing bewildered that it was still so wintery. Wetherell’s questions appeared well researched, but I felt they were incredibly academic. I wanted to hear Franzen tell us something emotional – but perhaps that wasn’t an option. Instead, they discussed why it was nigh on impossible to write a political novel: because what happens in Washington alone is a chapter every week, and in campaign season it’s a new chapter every day, if not every hour, so there was no scope to fictionalise any of it.  Compounding this was that the Democrat-supporting Franzen wanted to write sympathetic Republican characters, but found he simply couldn’t because he was so angry with what many Republican politicians were doing, particularly during the Bush administration.

Franzen also explained in another of his lengthy (but coherent – a contradiction for most people!) answers that he’d spent years trying to write plot driven novels – because this is what his favourite authors wrote – and realised later that his calling was to write stories, the difference being that stories are about the people, the characters.

I’m hardly an expert on his work, but I’d argue that while Freedom is unmistakeably character-driven, its political themes are almost molasses-like in their richness and thickness, are what guides the direction of the characters. Franzen’s way of developing characters is, as he put it, to get them into trouble, to find trouble for them, and troubles seem to me to arise out of the many political situations the characters find themselves in.

Despite acknowledging that the concept of ‘freedom’ is developed throughout the book and appears with many faces, Wetherell still bizarrely asked Franzen what his notion of it was, to which he gently insisted that he couldn’t respond to the question because the answer was the book. He remarked that so many people had asked him what ‘freedom’ meant to him that he was starting to regret titling the book that!  Unfazed, Wetherell suggested that perhaps ‘Rage’ would have been a more appropriate title, but Franzen said his marketing team would have thought it might have trouble selling…

After 45 minutes, Franzen took questions from the audience which was a little mismanaged: there was confusion about who was choosing the next person to ask a question, and at the end of 15 minutes there was a realisation that only men had been picked to ask questions, which Franzen tried to rectify.

It’s putting it lightly to describe Franzen as merely an avid bird watcher, and he casually responded to one question that he’d identified more than 300 birds during his time in Australia, easily spending more time watching birds than talking about books, but missing out on the ‘big ones’, like the cassowary.  He simply agreed, “Yes, it was” when asked if he thought the United States’ response to the events of September 11 was shameful.  But he also agreed with US Republican Michele Bachmann’s crusade against a US bill to ban some lightbulbs, noting that this was the government overreaching by reducing choice.

He appeared most impressed with a question about his relationship with editors as time has progressed and he has become more revered. He responded that in many cases it’s about building up trust – his work in The New Yorker now doesn’t really fit with the style of that magazine, but he’s allowed to write that way because of the relationship he’s built – and that his reliance on and appreciation of editors had increased. He said he was now able to write teenage characters much more freely, because he knew if he got something wrong that editor Lorin Stein (of The Paris Review) – famed for not liking anything – would pick up on it in the draft stages.

Perhaps my favourite insight was his response when asked about what it’s like to live with his characters for so long and then have a book wrap up: while his dead mother and his dead close friend haunt his thoughts and he thinks of them all the time, argues with them, it’s not the case for his characters. When a book is sent off to the publishers, the door to his characters’ lives doesn’t swing shut, it slams.

The hour finished with resounding applause before he appeared in front of a snaking line of people at the Library’s entrance for book signings, with many of his books on sale for 20 per cent off.  I joined the line with my nerves building by the minute – my focus solely on them – so that when it was finally my turn I could merely say, “I’m so nervous” to which he replied, “Oh, don’t be” but in doing so took my hand to shake it, compounding how overwhelmed I was to be in his presence. It’s fair to say I’ve never had a reaction to a person like this in my life – celebrity or otherwise – and I was mortified that I could barely speak as he penned, “For Tara”, checking “One r? And are you Tara?” and signed it with his lavish signature.

Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen sneaky photo

After I’d gathered myself together, I was tempted by the 20 per cent off to buy two books of his I hadn’t read (I know, shame on me!), and was quite impressed by the spread that the Library put on for the patrons.  For a free event, this was quite something – not just because of the guest. Having previously ignored the Library’s ‘what’s on’ page, I’ll now be clicking on it regularly. While to my mind they’re not going to get any bigger star than Franzen, I can still live in hope that maybe one day he’ll be back…

Date: Wednesday, 14 September (11am-12.30pm)
Attendees: T1 and mostly retirees / diehard Jonathan Franzen fans
Cost: Free
Location: National Library of Australia
Worthwhile factor: Best. day. of. my. life.
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3 Responses to “Jonathan Franzen at the National Library”


  1. Dylan Moran at the Canberra Theatre « In The Taratory - September 19, 2011

    […] In The Taratory T1 and T2 review everything – and anything – the ACT has to offer HomeAbout T in the Territory RSS ← Jonathan Franzen at the National Library […]

  2. Treasures Gallery and Bookplate | In The Taratory - July 21, 2013

    […] The closest I’ve been to the National Library in recent times – I’m ashamed to say – was at the Enlighten Festival in March. The National Library has the perfect facade to highlight the projections, and was one of my favourite visual experiences during those March evenings. Before then, my first memorable experience had been fawning over crying about meeting Jonathan Franzen (one of my very first posts on this blog). […]

  3. Muse, Kingston* | In The Taratory - September 17, 2015

    […] winner – not only does the entry table have Jonathan Franzen’s Purity front and centre (one of my first ever blog posts was about my experience meeting Franzen at the National Library of A…), but an entire shelf looks exactly like a bookshelf in my […]

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