Jonathan Franzen is a great American novelist in large part because he has written a great American novel -- two, in fact. Last night's Pen & Podium lecture at the Newman Center found the charming and occasionally awkward author of Freedom touching on bird watching (an enthusiastic hobby), The Moody Blues (his favorite band at age fifteen), his mother's last words to him ("Well, you're an eccentric"), Twitter (he doesn't use it), his early sexual inexperience (shame), and the realities of turning one of those great American books into a great American HBO series. In the spaces between anecdotes, he talked about writing, plain but never quite simple.
In thirty years, Franzen has published only twenty to thirty pages inspired by his own life, he says, which makes the forty to fifty minutes he's contractually obligated to speak to an audience that much more significant. (By the end of the final Q&A section, he had run his hands through his hair with such frequency that it stood on end.)
Here are his ten best quips:
10. "You have to become a different person to write the next book. The person you are already wrote the last book."
9. "My ex-wife once accused me of stealing from her soul to write (my second book). She also asked me why my main female characters kept being killed."
8. "In my mid thirties, I was ashamed of almost everything I had done in the past fifteen years."
7. "The writer's primary job is to create meaning, and if you could somehow leave this to your characters, you'd necessarily be ignoring it yourself."
6. "There's a statement in the United States that everyone has one novel in them. That is, one autobiographical novel." 5. "At this point in my life, I'm mostly influenced by my own past writing ... Direct influence makes most sense only for very young writers."
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4. "You get a certain number of cliches in the first twenty pages (of your book), and I'm not going to read it after that. For me, it's a small number. It's like three. Maybe."
3. "This is why writing fiction is almost never easy. The point at which it becomes easy to write is the point at which it becomes easy to stop reading that writer."
2. On whether he has another great American novel left inside of him: "I'm putting some faith in the seemingly inexhaustible font of weirdness I seem to carry around with me."
1. In response to one audience member asking him if he's worried his success will turn him into Michael Jackson: "Why I do these book talks is unclear to me (laughs) ... The challenge in writing is how not to turn into Michael Jackson while doing it. And I feel like writing has its advantages."