Jonathan Franzen: First Words on Purity

Jonathan Franzen & Laura Miller in Conversation at BEA

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

This year’s Book Expo America launched with a marquee conversation between Jonathan Franzen and critic Laura Miller. The two sat down in front of a packed crowd to discuss the writing of Franzen’s latest novel, Purity (coming September 1st). Their conversation ranged from the story of the book’s name to its eponymous protagonist, and to the importance of climbing one’s own mountains as a writer. The following transcription of the conversation has been edited for length.


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LAURA MILLER: Thank you all for coming. I think Purity is a bit of a departure from at least the past two books because it’s less of a sort of picture of ordinary American family life, and a little bit more deliberately playful? I mean the main character is a girl whose given name is Purity but she goes by the name Pip, like a certain famous character in British literature, and she’s got a mysterious parentage. And then you’ve got another character who compares himself to Hamlet a lot. Don’t look confused, you know what I’m talking about.

JONATHAN FRANZEN: I’m searching your words for implicit criticism (laughter).

MILLER: I’m just curious if that was something that just kind of happened in the process of writing the book or if you decided to do something that is a little bit more adventurous, or playful, or maybe even a little postmodern, dare I say it?

FRANZEN: I just got back from a trip I took to reward myself for finishing the book. I went to Africa for the first time, I was bird watching there in East Africa and it’s a very strange contrast between Nairobi and suddenly being reminded that I’m going to have to figure out cogent ways to talk about the book. So I beg everyone’s indulgence right now because I haven’t figured it out. I hope never to become glib but I’m not even going to be able to approximate glibness here.

Casting my mind back over how the thing came back the way it did, I have no idea where the story came from. I think the situation for the writer is that it gets harder to write novels, not easier, as time goes by, and that has to do with using up the easy stuff, the stuff that is fairly close to the surface, and then going back for the mid-level stuff, and then suddenly all you’re left with is this very deep stuff and there is a good reason why you haven’t written about it before, because you don’t know how to or you really don’t want to talk about it.

And I don’t think I would put this to myself consciously, but when going for the really deep stuff, a certain kind of relatively low-key realism isn’t going to generate enough energies to kind of blow the thing open. So I think maybe there was a wish to go for these stronger story formulations, more extreme situations to try to get the energy up, to blow the lid off.

And I had a couple of ideas batting around in my head for years. I spent a lot of time in Germany when I was a student for accidental reasons, and I’ve long had this idea of a young, East German dissident. I could picture him, I felt I knew him, but I never did anything with it, and I actually had some pages about a young woman who flees East Germany in the ‘50s and becomes an American. So that’s kind of where I started and honestly I don’t remember where the girl came from—

MILLER: Your main character?

FRANZEN: Yeah. Well she’s one of four, I see her as one of four or five main characters; she’s one of four point of view characters. Her name is on the cover but I would find it a little creepy if I had written an entire book about a young woman, so I’m at pains to stress half the book is from male point of views and most of it is from grownup point of views.

MILLER: That was something I wanted to ask you about because there’s a long history of people wondering how easy or plausible or persuasive it is to write from the point of view of someone from a different gender. But it seems like now more than ever we have the idea that people who are younger have a radically different sensibility than people who are in their fifties, which is what most of your other characters are—the three other characters, two men and one of the other women, are old enough to be the parents of Pip.

Were there particular challenges to writing from the point of view of someone who is just in her early twenties, given that it’s supposed to be so different now from what it was like when you and I were in our twenties?

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FRANZEN: You know, another thing that gets harder for the writer going forward as a novelist is that after a while most of your friends are writers or artists, and you live in a world of writers and readers, and I don’t want to write a book about a writer. It seems to exclude anyone who is not a writer to take writers that seriously, so I kind of look for stealth ways to write about writers and I think actually in some way all the main characters in the book are writers, but only one of them is called a writer and he’s a minor character.

And here’s the thing, I don’t think any novelist, even Stephen King or James Patterson, is writing for all Americans. They’re writing for the segment of Americans that reads books. And then within that large but not 100 percent segment, there’s a smaller audience that reads trade paperback fiction as opposed to mass market paperback fiction, which is no longer a distinction. I realize that it doesn’t hold up so well, but you know what I mean (laughter). And they are, readers are, to some extent, ipso facto estranged from American culture because reading is slow and requires a long attention span, and requires you to sort of check all of the electronic distractions while you’re engaged with it. And characters kind of are the same thing. You can write, and people are writing, interesting fiction about people who are just incredibly plugged in, electronically engaged, incredibly distracted, but I think there’s a whole world of emotional possibilities that is excluded if you focus on characters in that position.

So there’s this other artificial thing you do, I do, like in the case of one of the main characters, young Pip. I just have her growing up in a cabin in northern California with a mother who doesn’t approve of television. So she becomes atypical in that way, broadly speaking, but I think for the audience of people who might find their way to the book, she’s not so atypical, she’s more recognizable. So there are all these kind of artificial things you’re doing and hoping to get away with. I don’t know if she’s a typical young person but it’s not like she doesn’t have a handheld device. People are not generally as funny or as well spoken in the real world as they are on the page.

MILLER: But you do have her think at a certain point that, you know, her parent’s generation felt very differently about sex than she does.

FRANZEN: Right.

MILLER: There are ways that she operates in the world, that she thinks about her life, that seem very particular to coming of age.

FRANZEN: Are you asking me if I know young people (laughter)?

MILLER: I’m just asking if you thought that was a challenge.

FRANZEN: I think, in general, you don’t have to know that entire generation, you just need to know people from it, and the young person then may not be representative particularly, but the young person is plausible to me because I know some kids like that. I know some incredibly smart, well read, emotionally sophisticated people in their twenties and I love them, and that’s all you need.

MILLER: Were there any particular challenges in the process of writing this book? I mean there are some things about it that remind me a little of your second book, there’s this kind of slightly conspiratorial plot.

FRANZEN: The Twenty-Seventh City, too.

MILLER: Yeah, that’s true. And it’s a more, I don’t want to say conventional plot, but it feels more plotty. What were the particular challenges of making that change?

FRANZEN: I’m at pains not to repudiate my first two novels. There are things to enjoy in them and I’m proud of having written them, particularly at the age I wrote them, but I was not fully in control of what I was doing. I was just kind of desperately doing what I could do and hoping it was adequate. I guess that’s actually what I’m still doing (laughter), but you know what I mean.

So I had actually turned against plot very consciously and deliberately in the course of getting The Corrections written. Plotting is easy. I grew up reading heavily plotted, sci-fi/fantasy kind of stuff, and that was my natural mode, and that mode was very evident in the first two novels. Somewhere in the course of overplotting The Corrections I just decided plot is wrong, what I need is story, and story is not the same as plot. Story is really simple, story is situational, and character driven, and the plot began to seem like a contrivance that was in the way. But wishing not to repeat myself or to repeat myself in a better way, I kind of went back and thought, let’s try doing that kind of conspiracy plotting again.

MILLER: How did that feel?

FRANZEN: It’s a tricky thing, plot. I sketched it out and of course when I actually tried to do it, it didn’t work.

MILLER: I thought you said it was easy.

FRANZEN: Well it’s easy to sketch it out, but then, you know, you discover that that makes no sense, and none of the people you’ve been talking about it with—I have some friends I talk story with, Elizabeth Robinson in particular—it all made sense when we were talking, but when it actually came to doing it, it didn’t makes sense. So it’s a little risky, but I think knowing what I now know now about the book, it has to be character driven, it was fun, I liked it. And I thought maybe readers won’t be disturbed by it but I found it sort of disturbing and anxiety-making and to some extent terribly shameful, and I thought all I want is to make sure the reader keeps reading and gives it a chance and gets to the end of it and they can then decide. I don’t know what I just read and I’m not sure I like it, but at least they’ll have read the whole thing and they’ll have had that sensation of looking forward to turning the pages. Well, frankly, I took money from people for the book (laughter), and because there was some strange stuff in it I thought I at least don’t want the publishers to be mad at me for writing a readable, page-turning book.

MILLER: I think you can rest assured about that.

FRANZEN: Thank you. I’m now at the weird place that what has been this subjective project is suddenly objective in the world, and people are telling me they do want to keep reading.

MILLER: It’s great.

FRANZEN: Okay, good.

MILLER: So you obviously have some kind of plan when you start out to write a novel, and then you tried to follow the plan and suddenly you realized it doesn’t work. Are you the type of writer who discovers what you want to do in the process of doing it, or do you have to have it mapped out in advance?

FRANZEN: I think it helps to start with people who are in an unstable, untenable position, an anxious making or a stressful position, because then you know that something has to change. There’s a problem, and people under stress tend to be funny, I find them funny, so you’re trying to build in a little guarantee that there is going to be something funny. I find that very important. And then you make a plan and as soon as you try to write it you realize this is a bad plan. So I wrote the first chapter very easily and then I was stuck for nearly a year.

MILLER: You still wrote it pretty fast though for you.

FRANZEN: After I figured it out it was another year and it was done. But that was because I had I created a proposal and sold it. And just like any sales document it had a certain persuasion, it seemed like, Oh, yeah, this sounds like an interesting book. Even I believed it until I realized that the fact that you have no idea what these two main characters do or where they live, or what their situation is—that’s going to be a real problem. So I reached for the ready-made stuff, like I said. I had the East German character for a long time but the others needed some working out. This is a very process-y conversation, Laura.

MILLER: I think people are interested in your process.

FRANZEN: I wasn’t uncomfortable when we walked onstage but I’m getting increasingly so (laughter).

MILLER: It’s only going to get worse.

FRANZEN: Okay, good. How about those Warriors?

MILLER: So, surprises. Surprises in this thing, things that you wound up doing that you didn’t expect, places you wound up going, subjects you wound up dealing with? There’s some violence in this book.

FRANZEN: Yeah, there is a murder in the book.

MILLER: Spoiler.

FRANZEN: No, it’s not really a spoiler, it’s going to be in a New Yorker excerpt next week (laughter). I am a self-spoiler. And it comes fairly early in the book. Yes, there’s a murder, I think it’s on the flap copy that there’s a murder, so I’m not giving anything away.

MILLER: So there’s a murder.

FRANZEN: Yeah, the back of the ARC I believe there’s reference to a murder. I don’t remember when I decided on that but I didn’t know who he killed. Or I had the wrong idea. Or I didn’t know who he was killing for, and so in the second section there is an extreme person, kind of a narcissist, appealing and funny but kind of an icky guy in certain ways, and what I discovered from the plan I had started with was that a long chapter of an icky guy is icky (laughter). No matter how effulgently it’s written, it’s still kind of icky. And that set me back a couple of months and I realized that if he actually loves somebody, it might redeem him enough to take the edge off the ickiness. And I had come up with this character in the first chapter from nowhere, an annoying German, and at some point I realized, Oh, well, I can just make her the person he loves. And then the whole thing started suddenly feeling tight and good. So yeah, there’s a lot of discovery.

MILLER: Yeah, you really were winging it.

FRANZEN: You have to wing it. If you don’t then it seems like it’s written from an outline. And the idea is to start to set yourself some impossible kind of place to get to, then it becomes an adventure. It’s like there’s the mountaintop but no one has climbed it, and no one has used a compressor to drive pitons in for you so you have to find your way up, and that kind of makes it fun to do. And I have almost a cult belief that if it’s fun for the writer, and kind of an adventure for the writer, some of that will rub off and feel that way to the reader.

MILLER: You have a way of talking about your characters that is really extraordinary, they’re like people that you know and I’m curious as to how you get into creating characters. Do you look at people that you know? Do they all come out of you? Do you like them better than real people?

FRANZEN: Oh, I don’t like them better, but I like them almost as much. The thing is dead in the water until I find characters I can love, and even the minor characters I have to find some way to love. And often it’s a matter of making a connection to one or more people I have met or know. Often the best situation is somebody who I had an immediate feeling of love for but didn’t really know very well and never saw again. Then the imagination is free to go with that little glimpse you had. I feel that’s what I’ve got as a writer is these characters I love, to me that’s kind of what defines my work.

I think the tension is between two imperatives. There is the imperative to make a book that really can matter to someone, and it has to have love in it. At the same time, the writer’s job is to really try to tell the truth, and we live in a world of cant, of received opinion, and widely shared ideologies, and the writer who is not satisfied with those sometimes simplistic ideologies is going to end up seeming to be in opposition to the vast majority of people who happen to hold those opinions. So that you say, Oh, well, most people believe this, he attacks this, he must not like people—something is being elided there.

MILLER: You know, when you talk about the writer’s responsibility to tell the truth, that is a particular characteristic of Pip—she’s one of those people that says what she thinks.

FRANZEN: Yes.

MILLER: A lot. I mean that, what she regards as kind of a mental illness or something, she calls them outbursts.

FRANZEN: She does have outbursts and people think she’s a hostile person.

MILLER: Yeah, so.

FRANZEN: I have a lot of sympathy with hostile people, and they’re quite funny often.

MILLER: And obviously there’s this theme of cleanliness and purity. I mean, that’s the title of the novel. Are those two things related, those two ideas for you?

FRANZEN: I don’t think so actually. I don’t know why I chose to put that title on the book and I kept wishing I could come up with a better one because there is something vaguely icky about purity. It shouldn’t be that way, it should be: “Purity, what could be more lovely than that?” But just the letters P-U-R, there’s something about them that doesn’t—it’s like I consider it an act of courage to say the name of my novel is Purity. I couldn’t have done it a year ago, I merely referred to it as the book.

The word turned out to have a different meaning in the context of the novel. Purity was on my mind, partly because I had just finished The Kraus Project, which is about Karl Kraus, this Austrian satirist who has these notions of linguistic purity, particularly the purity of the German language. And purity is an extremely loaded word in German, so much so that they can’t call the book Purity in Germany, they have to call it something else. But I was really struck looking at Kraus’ fanatical followers and how attracted these young people were to this notion, this purity that he promised them, and I just had this strong sense of connection to the people who were following radical militarized Islam and the kind of notion of purity that informs fanatics of all kinds, seeing it in certain areas of American politics, too. Purity is a word, ideological purity is something you hear a lot about these days—the Tea Party is kind of checking on the purity of the candidates. So it was a thing in my mind and to me that actually doesn’t have a lot to do with truth telling, because truth is more nuanced and frankly more unknowable than people who think, Oh, all I have to do is be pure this way and I will be righteous. I think truth is sort of in opposition to that.

MILLER: Well one of the reasons why I asked that is that one of your characters is a journalist and I feel like journalists come across pretty well in this book. You’ve got some characters who run a nonprofit, investigative—

FRANZEN: A CIR, ProPublica-like place—

MILLER: Yeah. So you’ve done some journalism yourself, how do you see journalism and fiction relating to each other?

FRANZEN: Well they’re nice complements for me. It’s nice to be the interviewer rather than the interviewee for one thing. It’s nice to shut up and let someone else talk. But also it gets you out into the world. I mean the problem with fiction writing is it really shuts you in, you have to shut almost everything out in order to get the dream going. So it’s nice to get out into the world, but also certain kinds of essayistic and polemical argumentation are much better done in nonfiction form and I think the fiction is healthier for getting that out. I think it’s a place where some of post-war, American postmodern writing went wrong was trying to have all of that political content imbedded in the work rather than letting the work breathe on its own terms as fiction. So it was liberating for me to be able to do the nonfiction.

In terms of my sympathy for journalists, I’m aware that I’m privileged because I actually get paid and although it’s not a major crisis in terms of what’s going on in the world generally, I think it is a significant crisis for journalists that it’s gotten so hard to get paid. There is a nonprofit model developing, but I have tremendous regard for the profession of journalism and I have various agons with the internet, and one of the chief ones is that it’s really tough to actually get paid as a freelancer, even if you’re doing real serious journalistic work. And it’s all kind of vulturine: someone somewhere gathered those facts but those facts are immediately picked up and linked, and relinked, and retweeted, and the person who took the trouble to gather the facts isn’t being properly compensated for the number of times in which those facts are being consumed by somebody else.

So I wanted to remind people that there is something exciting about the project of journalism, and something worthy. That was the public service aspect of the book maybe.

MILLER: Well sort of in opposition to that you have this character who is like a—

FRANZEN: A leaker.

MILLER: A leaker, yeah. He’s not Julian Assange but he’s got some similarities to him, and some differences as well. And that brings up a lot of interesting questions about secrecy and privacy which the characters discuss at one point. The guy says secrecy is oppression or power, and transparency is freedom or something like that. I mean they’re very Orwellesque sort of formulations. The leaker figure is sort of a protagonist, but he’s also kind of creepy. He’s the icky guy.

FRANZEN: Well, yeah, he was dealt a bad hand in life I think, and let me dodge the question just by going back to purity and say that one of the things I was trying to do is write about youthful idealism, and we see pretty much all the characters not only as adults but also as young people who are idealistic. And interestingly, the one character who remains young throughout the book is the one who doesn’t have particularly idealistic notions. Which is consonant with many of the twenty-year-olds I know—they know that the world is better than I did for sure, and so I had a feeling that when you’re young you can see things in very black and white terms, and purity seems like something to aspire to—the pure artist, or pure writer, or purely serving the oppressed or whatever. And I wanted to write a book that was capacious enough to both encompass that youthful idealism and also see how it plays out for better or worse, usually for worse. And yeah, supposedly if you Google this character and the word “purity,” you come up with some million hits. So that’s his thing—

MILLER: You mean in the fictional universe?

FRANZEN: In the fictional universe, yes, yes. And, well what’s a novel without some irony.

MILLER: Are you troubled by this obsession with leaking or exposing secrets?

FRANZEN: I’m troubled by people who take it to an extreme and say we don’t need journalists because we have leakers and we have crowd sourcing, and we have citizen journalists and citizen photographers. I think that’s just wrong. And it is a path to an uniformed and oppressed electorate because if there is nobody who is trying to responsibly report on what’s going on in Washington, if it’s all just undigested leaks and one person saying this, one person saying the opposite, where whoever shouts loudest and has more followers has the truth—I think that’s a very bad situation. So I think leaking taken to extreme as a model of how information is disseminated nowadays, is, yeah, there are real problems with that. If only because it’s such an injustice to serious journalism.

MILLER: There’s a fascinating element of this book where you’re looking at people who are charismatic—there are several characters who are charismatic—in an attempt to find out what makes a person charismatic. Do you feel like it’s a single quality or it’s a particular type of personality?

FRANZEN: I’m not sure how much light I end up shedding but it’s certainly a category I keep invoking. It’s funny, in Africa I was on this route which is kind of a classic East African birding route, and there was another group led by this young South African guy of East German heritage. Although he was bearded and wearing khakis, I just felt like I was looking at Andreas Wolfe from this novel, and you just wanted to keep looking. And he was very funny—talked too much, good looking, and there was just this light in his eyes. You just kept wanting to look at him. It’s nice to be reminded that charisma really exists. I mean there are people who just naturally command attention like that and who your heart opens up to even though you don’t know the person.

Jonathan Franzen is the author of four other novels, most recently Freedom and The Corrections, and five works of nonfiction and translation, including The Kraus Project and Farther Away, all published by FSG. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the German Akademie der Künste, and the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Laura Miller helped to found Salon.com in 1995 and is currently a staff writer at that publication. She is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and many other publications.

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  • icky (laughter).

  • Jeremy Kitchen

    let the hating and franzen trolls commence!!!

  • planojoe

    Tried to fill in the blanks to get on the mail list– didn’t matter what birth year I put it, said it was invalid– so you don’t want to have anyone on the email list?

    • sven coolkayaker

      Why unnecessarily flippant, planojoe?

  • Steve Suskin

    Fascinating…can’t wait to read it!

  • bjg

    Why are you giving Franzen SO MUCH PRESS? He is on your website every day. He is a good writer, not great. Some of us are suspecting politics at play.

  • Epictetus

    A fine informative interview on both sides–on the significance of political and religious purity, on construction of fictional characters and on journalism, among other things.

  • Epictetus

    bjg–Note that this is a “paid post.” So what, it’s a great interview and it helps keep the lights on at The New Yorker. (Admittedly, the word “icky” could have been omitted with beneficial effect.) Planojoe–I had no trouble entering my birth year. Try again, selecting the year from the list presented.