‘Why Write?’: Jonathan Franzen on reading, writing and lucky breaks

In May, Jonathan Franzen appeared in conversation with Jonathan Green at the Athanaeum Theatre in Melbourne, for a discussion that roamed from Franzen's love of bird-watching to his blundering early adventures in journalism to his abiding passion for literature. Here's a collection of our favourite Franzen quotes and anecdotes from the evening. 

Photo: Jonathan Green and Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Green and Jonathan Franzen in conversation, May 2016 — Photo: Jon Tjhia

Franzen on writing as a questionable career choice:

'I’ve taught a few times, and I had a little lecture I did on the last day of class (the three times I taught), which was essentially, "If you can find anything that you would rather do than write, I would urge you to do it." It's no kind of life. It's basically just a litany of substance abuse, accidental death (that might have been suicide) … and, of course, most people are terribly paid if they write, so I think it would be irresponsible for a writing teacher to do anything but to discourage it as a profession – as my parents vigorously did.'

On why he made that questionable choice:

'The fact was, I had no choice. I’m a competitive guy; I grew up with two brothers who were a lot older, and they were competitive people. It was a very loving family, but a very competitive family. Some people are afraid of competition because it seems like an angry or hostile thing, but, to me, in the context of a loving family, you compete. You’re siblings, after all. It's a fact of nature that siblings compete – just watch chicks in a nest.

So I was competitive and it just it came to my attention pretty early on that I was better at writing than I was at any other subject at school, and so I thought, "Well, why would I not choose the thing I'm best at?"

But also, I just became sad. I'd been damaged the way any person who spends their life reading books was damaged – which is to say, in the best of ways. I had found – during the dark years of junior high school, when I had a few friends, but not many, and was not a social success – a community that welcomed me in books, and quickly reached the point where I couldn't live without reading.

'I'd been damaged the way any person who spends their life reading books was damaged – which is to say, in the best of ways.'

They’re very, very complimentary and similar things, reading and writing. They’re a way of being alone and also connecting, or trying to connect.

[It’s a paradox that] the writer likes spend a lot of time alone, but is hoping to find an audience and hoping to actually make a connection. When I was young, I thought of that audience buying books that would make me a lot of money so that I wouldn't have to do anything else, and I would have lots of free time – that was another attraction of writing, the immense amount of free time … potentially 24 hours a day of free time [laughs]. It was very attractive to me. I chafed against infringements on my free time.'

On his extraordinary big break in 1993 at the New Yorker:

'I was desperate for money. I had negative net worth. I had a Chinese rug that my parents had given me and my then-wife as a wedding present – that brought my net worth closer to zero, owning that Chinese rug, which was worth about $3000. I desperately needed money, so I pitched these ideas for stories to the New Yorker, and they liked one of them.

This is where the luck came in. I had no journalistic experience, and I was assigned this enormous amount of words – 15,000 words – to write a big piece about the United States Postal Service, particularly what was happening in Chicago, where bales of mail were disappearing or ending up burned in alleyways. It was a good story, but I was a bad journalist, and I went to Chicago and I spent three weeks in a hotel room and I couldn't pick up the phone because I wasn't a journalist and I was frightened.

Photo: Green and Franzen

Photo: Jon Tjhia

Meanwhile, I was watching a lot of World Cup on T.V. The World Cup was being played partly in Chicago, which was why I was costing the New Yorker $300 a night – a lot of money in 1994, to be in that hotel room – and I came home with nothing. I came home with some things I'd written down over drinks with some postal workers and … just nothing. I had nothing.

But a disgruntled reporter for the Chicago Sun Times said, "I have a source for you, and I'm irritated with my editors because they won't let me run the stories I could write with the source, and just to show them I'm going to give it to the person who's writing the story for the New Yorker." Little did he know there was no story – if he hadn’t helped me out, there would have been no story. So he gave me the source, who was who was the linchpin of the entire scandal. I waited six weeks, and finally she was able to see me and we spent eight hours in front of my tape recorder, and she gave me everything – everything! – and even though I did manage to use the same tape on three sides and did lose 45 minutes of what I remember is the most interesting thing she said, suddenly I was a reporter.'

On learning to write:

'I didn't do a writing program and I never really took a fiction workshop – we were assigned creative writing in high school, but I never had that experience [of being taught how to write]. The teachers who made me a writer were the ones who were teaching how to read, particularly the ones who made literature exciting.'