For over fifteen years, John Freeman has been having a passionate love affair with literature. He’s reviewed over a thousand books for the most respected publications of the English speaking world, served as president of the National Book Critics Circle, and has interviewed hundreds of the most well-known authors—fifty-five of these interviews have been collected into his new book, How to Read a Novelist.
In addition to being a poet, Freeman is also the author of The Tyranny of Email, a history of correspondence and a manifesto for a slow communication movement. He has just finished a five-year stint as the editor of the global literary empire known as Granta.
Tweed’s recently met with Freeman at his apartment in Chelsea to discuss his new book and what he’s learned from his vast experience as an editor, author, journalist, and critic. Below is a part of our conversation. The full interview will be available in the first issue of Tweed’s.
Tweed’s: In How To Read a Novelist, you take a few sentences from what an author has said over the course of an interview, and turn it into a short profile. Can you talk a bit about the style of these pieces?
John Freeman: I think Q & A’s are very interesting—if the writer is a very good talker and they speak in complete paragraphs. But most people don’t, even the very good writers. Most of these profiles were written for newspapers and magazines, and they prefer a narrative. And the profiles that are in this book are a narrative. I’m taking pieces of what the author has given me and I’m turning it into a story—things are left out, selected, and there still has to be an arc.
Tweed’s: Did these profiles stem from the book reviews you were already doing at the time?
John Freeman: I wrote a lot of reviews, and I thought of these as something separate—a glimpse of a writer, and in some ways an introduction to them. Because I could never assume that, in whichever publications these pieces were running, the readers knew who the writer was. That’s a much more interesting place to write from, rather than speaking to a smaller group of people who have read the writer and are looking for finer observations about them, things they don’t already know. When you go to that level of specificity, the bigger questions recede. Like, Why is this person telling a story? What are they motivated by? What drew them to writing and why do they keep doing it? For me, it’s always returns to questions of meaning. I think that’s the only point of telling stories. Stories are vessels for meaning, where meaning can’t be contained otherwise, in information. That’s why religion is a narrative. Political life is a narrative. And I think fiction is a secular version of that. It’s a narrative which helps us understand things that don’t have a coherence in daily life.
Tweed’s: You were very good at digging out the authors’ motivations, about how they started writing, or why they wrote a particular book, or why they changed to something else.
John Freeman: I don’t know if you feel this way about your life, but motivations are often discovered in retrospect. And that’s what I found really cheering about talking to all these different writers, especially as a writer myself. It wasn’t apparent to them all the time, what they were doing—they were finding and making something in the dark, and once they finally got to the end of it, they realized what they were doing, and their motivations became clear.
In some cases the impulse for story-telling is very evident, whether it’s Louise Erdrich coming from the family that she does, on part of the Indian reservation where she lived, or Toni Morrison making visible this African-American history that was slightly occluded, to Haruki Murakami exploring his strange imagination. The big thing that drives people is always very obvious. But I think what’s cool is finding, in specific books, what they were trying to build.