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John Freeman, at Skylight Tuesday, on 'How to Read a Novelist'

October 22, 2013|By Carolyn Kellogg

On his book tour, the tables have been turning on John Freeman: A parade of luminous authors are interviewing him. He's already sat down for public conversations with Teju Cole, Geoff Dyer, Aleksandar Hemon, and Marilynne Robinson, and on Tuesday night, it'll be Mark Z. Danielewski. That's at Skylight Books in Los Feliz at 7:30 p.m.

Freeman's new book, "How to Read a Novelist," compiles his interviews with and profiles of 55 authors. It includes seven Nobel Laureates -- Toni Morrison, Gunter Grass, Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing, Imre Kertesz, Mo Yan, and Orhan Pamuk. There are bestselling authors (John Irving, Tom Wolfe), Man Booker Prize winners (including Salman Rushdie, Peter Carey, Ian McEwan), National Book Award winners (Philip Roth, Charles Frazier, Don Delillo, Jonathan Franzen, William T. Vollman and more), and Pulitzer prize-winners (including Marilynne Robinson, Jennifer Egan), as well as authors who are not well known, like Hisham Matar and Ayu Utami.

Freeman recently left his post as editor of Granta, where he was a tireless advocate for great literature from across the globe. "How to Read a Novelist," his second book, includes interviews dating back 15 years, when he was a widely published book critic and president of the National Book Critics Circle. he answered my questions about "How to Read a Novelist" by email.

You'll be talking to Mark Z. Danielewski at Skylight. Where did your piece on him appear, and was it one of the earlier stories to capture the scope and ambition of "House of Leaves"? Do stories like that affect your relationship with writers?

The piece on Danielewski appeared in TimeOut New York and it was, I think, his first interview. I don't think I got all the book's complexity, you'd need a dissertation for that, but I put the profile in the book because I did feel on rereading it that the sense of Mark being on the precipice of something great was there, and he was. I'm rereading the book right now, as I am teaching it in a writing class at Columbia University, and the narrative complexity and heart it shows is just extraordinary. It'll be a classic. And I feel lucky to have been one if its early readers, which is what you are as an interviewer. You have an immense amount of power in that; you can squash something great very easily if the venue is big enough. So it forces the writer, if they agree to these things, into a position of trust that can lend itself an incredible intimacy. It can make it hard to review their work later, but that's the breaks.

There are 55 author profiles in "How to Read a Novelist," and they're not organized in an obvious way, alphabetically or chronologically -- can you talk about their order, the arc of the book?

I thought about this a lot at Granta, how to create an arc, or at least a pleasing progression, from disparate material. I always tried to put the piece with the deepest, widest arrays of notes first, and a big noisy conclusion at the end, with an order within that never jarred, or at least so I hope. It's a bit like music. Here, with this book, I started with [Toni] Morrison for all these reasons. Her story, of starting out from a little town in Ohio, of writing the great books she has by wrestling with Faulkner and America's complex and often shameful past, was and is still inspiring to me. She did this work by rising at 4 and writing before daybreak, upon which point she had to get her kids ready for school, after which she would spend all day as an editor championing books by black writers who had been overlooked. For me, her life and her work define essential writing: writing that only that author can do, which they have to do, and which becomes essential to knowing what it means to be human. I ended with Jennifer Egan because her work is my most recent passion. Also, the thing Morrison talks about in our interview, what she calls deep structure, I found excitingly updated and carried into the 21st century in Egan's work, especially that recent story "Black Box."

You spoke to some writers -- Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen -- in their homes. Others you catch on book tour (Gunter Grass in his hotel room). When talking to an author, what effect does it have on the interview to catch them in transit versus their natural habitat?

Obviously the home is best, because you get to look at their stuff, as Julian Barnes once put it. Sometimes, though, the transient scene winds up being very apt, as with, say, Robert M. Pirsig [Author of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"], who I interviewed at a hotel on the Charles River. It was his first interview in almost 20 years, and we were talking about "Lila," his second book, which takes place on a river. The room was spartan, too, and he had laid down a tatami mat so we could chat. In the end it felt perfect, like an unlikely Zen temple, where we sat and discussed ideas.

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