The inception of Freedom was curiously bound up with the death of my friend David Foster Wallace. In June 2008, after struggling for six years to get a new novel off the ground, I went to Berlin and barricaded myself in a room at the American Academy. There’s something about Germany – maybe its distance from America, or the seriousness of its literature, or my immersion in a language that I understand but don’t write in – that seems to help me start writing a novel. I wrote the first pages of my first book in Berlin, early chapters of my second novel in Bavaria. In 2007, I went back to Berlin to try to get Freedom moving. I ended up with nothing usable, and I became so discouraged that I set aside the project for a full year.
At the academy, I continued to be discouraged. But then suddenly, one morning, I found the right prose tone and wrote what became the opening pages of the book. I knew right away that I had it, and I spent two happy days writing. Late on the second afternoon, it occurred to me that Dave Wallace hadn’t answered a time-sensitive email I’d sent him the week before. This was unlike him, and so I called his home phone number and learned from his wife, Karen, that he’d tried to take his life the day before, and had very nearly succeeded. The exact coincidence of his attempt and my breakthrough seemed uncanny. It still seems uncanny. Dave and I had been very close for many years, and sometimes I feel as if he and I were a single unit that split in two in 2008: as if the force of his downward movement, into severe depression and death, were matched on my side by an upward surge of liberation and renewed life. The day after his second memorial service, in Manhattan, I started writing Freedom in earnest. A year later, it was finished.
Each succeeding novel of mine has felt like the hardest to write. This partly has to do with my expectation that the work ought to become easier as I become more practised. But every time I try to start a novel I feel like I’ve never written one before – the whole process has to be rediscovered, reinvented. It’s similar to tennis: there are days when I go out on the court and the racquet feels like some Neanderthal club that I’ve never touched in my life. I take a certain amount of pride in my inability to become a professional novelist. But it can be excruciating from day to day.
The task is always to develop a set of characters whom I can love enough to put them through torments which, without love, would simply be cruel. There seems to be no way to perform this task but through trial and error: lots of fragmentary beginnings; lots of notes which, almost as soon as I’ve written them, become so boring that I can’t even read them. It’s hideously frustrating, but I haven’t figured out a faster way to work. My characters are symbolic “objects” (in the psychoanalytic sense) that correspond to important objects in my psyche. I’m trying to dream deliberately, and in order to do this I need objects that feel real enough to be dreamed about in the same way I might, while sleeping, dream about my father or my ex-wife.
One of the characteristics of dreams is that, as long as they last, they feel like they’re taking place in a complete world. And this is very substantially paradoxical, because the dreamer tends to be focused on a small number of intensely meaningful objects, rather than on the world around them. If there’s a trick to recreating this paradox in a novel, it’s one I learned from reading and rereading Paula Fox’s novel Desperate Characters: if you pay careful enough attention to a character’s inner life, it turns out to be a marvellously detailed mirror of the character’s outer world.
Any novel, even a fairly long one, represents an infinitesimal fraction of what’s knowable about the world. What I know in Freedom is mainly the inner lives of its four main characters, who themselves grew out of the tiny bit that their creator knows about the world. Rendering a world is a matter of permitting oneself to feel small things intensely, not of knowing lots of information. And so, when I’m working, I need to isolate myself at the office, because I’m easily distracted and modern life has become extremely distracting. Distraction pours through every portal, especially through the internet. And most of what pours through is meaningless noise. To be able to hear what’s really happening in the world, you have to block out 99% of the noise. The remaining 1% is still a lot of information, but it’s not so much that don’t you have some hope of fashioning a meaningful narrative out of it.
• Jonathan Franzen will join John Mullan for a discussion of Freedom at a Guardian Live event, Kings Place, London, N1, on 6 October at 7pm. Tickets £15. Tel 0330 333 6898.
Article — From the April 1996 issue
Perchance to dream
In the age of images, a reason to write novels
By Jonathan Franzen
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Fiction — From the April 2000 issue
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