A year after the Oprah flap, author Jonathan Franzen is one happy(ish) guy. He even likes book clubs. Honest.
“If I’m still somebody people hate,” says Jonathan Franzen, ”there’s nothing I can do. It’s a struggle. It’s not like you wake up and suddenly you don’t care. But, you know, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I think I don’t care.”
It’s a Monday afternoon and Franzen’s feeling loose. He’s in a T-shirt and jeans. He’s pushing food and drink on the reporter poking around the old walk-up apartment he shares with his girlfriend, writer Kathy Chetkovich, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He’s making small talk — about his Friday night at the Mekons concert, about his gratitude for the 2001 National Book Award (which he won for his novel The Corrections) that sits on top of the hutch. But then a tape recorder is put on the table. Something wrong? ”No,” he says sharply, eyeing the unspooling tape, ”not yet. Go ahead.”
Franzen, 43, got himself into a big mess last fall when he publicly worried about his invitation to join Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, saying he was uncomfortable with her logo and the mainstream approval it implied. He’s determined not to reignite the flamefest, to say anything that could result in more ”ripping, ripping, ripping.” The mistake, he says — and he admits to many — is that he speaks to journalists in ”long, complicated sentences” that begin ”on the one hand” but end on the other. ”I had this sort of napalm behind me as a result of the first half of the sentence getting blown up into headlines.”
Just recently, Franzen made some nasty headlines when it was discovered that he had used a 2002 $20,000 taxpayer-funded grant from the National Endowment for the Arts — a starving artist’s saving grace — not on rent but to buy sculpture from a friend. Indeed, his place is filled with the stuff. When asked about it, he takes off his glasses and methodically rubs his eyes. (This is usually a bad sign.) ”I applied for it nearly a year before The Corrections took off. And you can’t give the money back.”
So on the one hand, he’d love to stick to the safer subject of his new book, How to Be Alone (FSG, $24), a collection of essays that includes the National Magazine Award-winning 2001 piece about his father’s fight with Alzheimer’s and the infamous 1996 Harper’s essay about the novel’s obsolescence. But on the other hand…
What really burns is how little he recognizes the Jonathan Franzen who showed up in so many stories last year. ”I’m telling you, my friends said ‘Great that you had a big piece in the Times! Who was the piece about?!”’ Contrary to reports, he’s not the most ambitious novelist he knows. And his work routine, of concentrated, frustrated, solitary effort, is no different from that of any other writer. He’s even okay with reading groups, enough so to join the Today show’s. ”Remarkably…it comes as news,” he says, ”despite initial suspicion of book clubs, I’ve come to think that they’re actually fine things and that anything within reason that gets books into the public eye is a good thing.”