Take-outs from Jonathan Franzen’s Cape Town talk, or: How NOT to interview a world-famous author

“For the first time in six months, she shaves her legs. Well, of course, Jonathan Franzen is in town.”

My friend’s Facebook status summed up how big a deal it was that Franzen would be in Cape Town to talk about his last book, Purity, at the city’s favourite indie bookshop on 3 November 2017.

It’s not that that nothing bookish happens in the Mother City. Lots does.

Each year, the Book Lounge (the bookshop in question) hosts the Open Book Festival, which has seen the likes of Patrick Gale, Earl Lovelace, Alan Hollinghurst, Lionel Shriver and Joanne Harris pass through. Nearby, in the Cape Winelands, the annual Franschhoek Literary Festival also draws a notable international line-up.

But we’re talking Franzen. He alone, at a talk in the bookshop down the road, for no festival, on an arbitrary date on the literary calendar.

Jonathan Franzen on Time magazine

Turns out he wasn’t here just to bless us with the biggest non-festival-related book event of the year. He was on assignment, doing a report on sea birds for National Geographic. (Apparently, “If everyone would do what South Africa has done [for sea birds], they’d be in less trouble,” Franzen says.)

The talk got so many RSVPs, the hosts had to book a nearby school hall for the crowd. Afterwards, the friend-who-shaved-her-legs updated her post, saying while the convo was “a cringe a minute” (more on that a little later), she “liked” Franzen.

I did too.

He came across far warmer than general impressions suggest (that he’s “a weird, reclusive dick”), despite having spent the whole day doing interviews. From his opening joke at the size of the crowd (“I expected maybe 20 people. Speaking very personally, it speaks well of Cape Town”), to his closing thanks, in which he said he thought the school venue was “great” (despite its child-like crudeness possibly making the organisers blush), he was open, gracious − even cheery.

Below are some take-outs from the talk, followed by some tips on what NOT to do when interviewing a literary heavyweight on stage.

ON HIS LAST BOOK, PURITY

“Purity is essentially about the search for a missing parent, which is a totally nineteenth-century trope … Today, secrets still exist, but I thought it would be interesting to set a story in a regime in which secrets are no longer possible.”

“Purity started from something that wasn’t working for Freedom. I felt it was too shameful, which was the narrative of a marriage deep in the book – I piled up as many easier-to-take pages before it, so there’s a lot of padding – or should I say, ‘muscular storytelling’ [laughter]. I wanted to find a story to place that psychological narrative in, to offset its hard-to-takeness.”

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

ON WRITING

“I don’t write books that argue anything. I’m really just trying to tell a good story. I’m writing for people like myself who want to read someone writing about the world in an interesting way.”

“It does start with things kept in a drawer. My advice for someone wanting to write a novel: It’s good to try join point A with point B … and if point B is rather distant from A. And in general, as a reader, I enjoy the experience of not knowing where a story is going. You want a sense of: Oh my God, where is this going?”

“Process wise, one way of doing that is not knowing yourself. Have a destination, but how you’re going to get there … if it’s a stretch, it’s more enjoyable. There’s this mystical faith I have that things that are fun to write – fun in a real way, not a masturbatory way – translate into a sense readerly fun. With my books, I’ve tried to write the book I’d like to read.”

“It’s not socially useless to do the entertainment [as well as confront social issues in non-fiction] … I do think there’s an arguable social utility in continuing to write literary fiction and personal essays. The parts of being human I appreciate – our capacity for self-doubt, self-reflection, empathy – find a home in literature.”

ON THE DIGITAL AGE

“I think some of my worst fears of social media have been richly borne out by political events in my country. I’m still a bit of a techno sceptic, because it represents the hyper-capitalist, hyper-consumerist model.”

“There’s a lot of good writing by young writers out there [online], and I’m not worried about it. I’m more worried about the pressure to promote. The internet is the latest guise of consumerism. The persona/e itself becomes the thing to be marketed. I’m that rare person, my pulse rate lowers when I see an audience – as long as I get to be alone in my hotel room afterwards … but it’s hard for other authors. Having to bend your personality into something that’s likeable, that’s where I hear the cries of young writers. The production [side of writing] has changed. I think social media is bad for fiction writers. My criticism of social media is in defense of the novel.”

ON JOURNALISM

“Post Trump, people suddenly seem to appreciate journalists. Turning journalists into heroes takes some doing, but I believe in journalism. It’s an expertise, to separate signal from noise … there’s no algorithm for that; that’s a human skill.”

[Doing long-form journalism is] “a real job as opposed to being like a sick child in a bedroom … I got to save my receipts, and was forced to pick up the phone.”

“When you’re writing a novel, the facts are in the way. It’s completely the reverse with journalism. There’s also a sense of patience that comes with it.” [When gathering information for a story]. “You float through, then the thing happens. The waiting part of journalism is really the fun part.”

[The above was in relation to his experience of writing this New Yorker story, the journalism piece he is most proud of, “from a process point of view”.]

ON THE TOPIC OF SHAME

“Shame has become a verb in social media and online discourse … For some writers, it’s THE problem. We have these carefully crafted online personae, but there’s still something behind that façade that’s potentially full of shame. The argument I have regarding real writing is that it’s done by the writer who goes to the shameful places and then tries to make something of them that isn’t unbearable to read … Even if it resonates with just one other person who feels the same, the writer has succeeded.”

ON HIS BIRD OBSESSION

“People think I write too much on birds. My agent says they do, she says readers flinch when I mention birds, and I feel like saying, ‘You mean wince?’”

ON ‘THE NEXT BIG THING’ IN BOOKS

“Bill Finnegan’s book on surfing, Barbarian Days. He went around the world chasing waves.”

Book Barbarian Days A Surfing Life

And … HOW NOT TO INTERVIEW AN UBER AUTHOR

While the overall impression of Franzen was warm, the overall impression of the event was less about Franzen, and more about the awkwardness of the interview itself. It was all I heard from people after, and in conversations overheard from the departing crowd.

As another friend put it so succinctly, also on Facebook:

“This was supposed to be an author interview between a great American writer and young local literary mind. But it turned into a dick duel between two dudes. Franzen, of course, sliced [the interviewer] into tiny neat pieces. #awkward”

Jonathan Franzen on stage

Franzen being introduced to the crowd, 3 November 2017 in Cape Town.

Apart from Franzen’s response to the interviewer’s first convoluted question (“I’m trying to find the question … give me something to work with here…”), the awkwardness didn’t make me squirm as much as it clearly did others. Part of why I like going to book talks are the moments of chemistry and little frissons of tension between whoever’s on stage. But also – empathy.

I’ve been up there before − admittedly NOT to interview a name as big as Franzen. But I’ve had one-on-ones with bestselling authors in front of many sets of eyes. Fortunately, they went well. But as an introvert, I’ll admit the build-up … wasn’t fun.

The up-and-coming poet/author/publisher interviewing Franzen was likely both star-struck and intimidated. Who wouldn’t be? This is the man who famously snubbed Oprah (more on the truth behind that, from Franzen, here).

Oprah Winfrey and Jonathan Franzen

That time they kissed and made up (oprah.com).

Still, there are lessons to be learnt from the failure of others. Below, as both a ‘note to self’ and advice for anyone who may need it, are some tips for interviewing authors, based on what NOT to do.

DON’T make it a battle of egos

Sure, from a psychological viewpoint, putting your ego aside is easier said than done. We need that pesky thing so many self-help columns diss.

But to stop it from tripping you up, remember the event isn’t about you − it’s about the person the audience came to see. This guide-on-the-side approach actually helps by taking any sage-on-the-stage pressure off of you.

Don’t show off. Don’t overcompensate for feeling insecure by boasting of your own travels/writing. Don’t resort to snorting cocaine in a panic. Just focus on bringing out the best in the author, for the audience’s sake.

DON’T ask long, layered ‘questions’

The process of prepping for an interview is a bit like the process of writing itself. You research, generating information; then you distil all the info, reducing it right down into direct yet nuanced questions. This takes time, some of which must be spent AWAY from the research, so you can gather your thoughts on the themes it has generated.

Allowing time for digestion/incubation can be hard when there’s an event deadline and you’re so worried about stuffing up, you’ve way over-prepared. Your head is buzzing, and all the little threads you’ve gathered have turned into a ball of energising yet confusing half-formed thoughts.

But the layering of such thoughts in a philosophical soliloquy, rather than a direct question, can aggravate an author, especially when they’ve been talking all day.

As Aussie commissioning editor and professional reader Angela Meyer says: “It’s OK to lead in with a little bit of info that will help to place the question, but if you analyse an aspect of the book and then just ask: ‘what do you think about that?’ you often don’t give the author much room to move …”.

So leave the bits and bobs ‘on the cutting room floor’, and go in with some key, clear questions. Don’t fear: the research won’t have been in vain. As SA author of The Seed Thief, Jacqui L’Ange, said on research at #OpenBookFest2015: “The ghost of what you cut from your novel remains there – it adds authenticity”. The research helps give you go ‘off script’ confidently, whether to follow an interesting tangent the author’s answer has raised, or to push further on what seems to be an insight.

DON’T reveal what really went on behind the scenes

In what was possibly an effort to be self-deprecating, or anecdotal, the interviewer spoke of his friend shoving one more thing about Franzen at him, which he read that morning in bed.

Avoid doing something similar − no matter how late you were up reading your notes, how close you came to unravelling, how last-minute your arrival may have been, etc. Keep the messy details to yourself.

And use cue cards, rather than concertina-like folds of A4 paper that will distract both the author and audience when you read from them. (When Franzen grabbed the interviewer’s notes to see the quote he was reading out for himself, the interviewer must’ve died a little. Who knows what hot mess of scribbles were set down there?)

DON’T forget your place in the pecking order

As authoritarian as that sounds, there are times in life when you need to graciously defer a little. As one book reviewer was overheard saying after the talk: “You don’t speak to someone of that level as if they’re your equal!”

This is not to say you shouldn’t hold your own beside someone higher up in the hierarchy. Or to suggest that you suck arse the whole way through (“don’t ‘verbal hug’ the author/s too much,” as Meyer says).

But do listen, more than talk; and acknowledge your place, to yourself.

In the words of Maya Angelou: “You don’t want modesty, you want humility. Humility comes from inside out. It says someone was here before me and I’m here because I’ve been paid for. I have something to do and I will do that because I’m paying for someone else who has yet to come.”

I suspect women, long raised to be more aware of social pleasantries and what not, may have been socialised to be better at this. While I can see why the organisers chose an up-and-coming male literary author to interview Franzen – and just before the interviewer’s own book release, effectively killing two publicity birds with one stone − a more mature woman book reviewer, perhaps someone with the broadcast experience to steady any wayward nerves, would’ve been a better choice here. (It would’ve eliminated the ‘dick duelling’ aspect, in any event.)

DON’T beat yourself for any ‘oopsies’

So you’ve made a gaffe or generally stuffed up the interview.

Get over it. Don’t nurse that ‘loser’ wound.

This can be hard to do, especially if you’re an introvert and the failure has been publically witnessed. But while your error may loom large in your mind, it’s likely quickly forgotten by others. And if not, at least the lesson you learnt may also have allowed some vicarious learning in others.

Just do better next time. Or wait until it’s your turn to be the star in the spotlight.

(I have no doubt that the interviewer in question here will one day command the same size crowd. He’s done brilliantly onstage at literary events before, and is a great writer. This just wasn’t his best effort at showmanship.)

*BONUS MATERIAL:

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