I dragged my sorry ass to Benaroya Hall tonight for the first event in Seattle Arts and Lectures’ new season. I did not have high hopes. I was a little grumpy and feeling put upon, frankly. My friend Jackie cheered me over dinner with her intelligence and friendship, but as we hustled into our seats I was planning to listen respectfully and sneak out during the Q&A. I hadn’t read any of Jonathan Franzen’s work. I always meant to, but the books were so hefty, such serious going and, well, it was a very long winter, lasting through June. I just hadn’t gotten to it.
Hello! Jonathan Franzen came onstage carrying a schoolboy’s book bag that contained the typewritten pages of his talk, took them out, put the book bag on the stage, removed his coat, placed it on top of the book bag and proceeded to charm the hell out of his audience. On tour for his new novel, Freedom, and asked not to read but to give a talk, he delivered a paper written last year for a German audience. He talked about writing fiction and the third rail of craft: the relationship of one’s life to the task of creating a book. He framed his own story as a writer through commonly asked questions – if you’ve attended a reading you’ve heard at least one of these.
How do you write? Do your characters ever take over the story? What are your influences? Is your work autobiographical? Each answer was funny, wry, pointed and brought the focus back to the responsibility of the writer – to telling the truth, to the characters, to the story, to himself. He apologized for the “craft-y” sections but he needn’t have. He was addressing how to create the authentic soul of a story at the same time as the writer performed the same service for himself.
I stayed for the Q&A, (Franzen is not a Lutheran – though he retains a genetic vestige through his father’s Swedish heritage), and hared it up the stairs to the wine and snack reception my patron ticket gets me into to touch his sleeve and say thanks. It was fun.
I will be reading those books, by the way. Starting with The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History, his memoir.