Despite the huge success of "The Corrections" in 2001, Jonathan Franzen struggled mightily to write his big new novel about a St. Paul family's highs and heartbreaks.
This Northern California ocean town, where shops have names like Love Me Two Times, Coffeetopia, Bunny's Shoes and the Tat Shack, is the last place you'd expect to find Jonathan Franzen.
Wetsuit-wearing surfers, yes. And partying college students, and weekenders down from San Francisco, about 90 minutes north. But the cerebral, non-sunburned, glasses-wearing 51-year-old recently hailed on the cover of Time magazine as a "Great American Novelist"? Not so much.
Franzen, who has an apartment in Manhattan, has spent 12 summers in Santa Cruz with his girlfriend, Kathryn Chetkovich, who grew up in the area. Two years ago they bought a pretty two-story house astride a dramatic ravine on the city's west side.
This summer, the Santa Cruz house has been Franzen's refuge before the coming literary storm. His big new novel, "Freedom" -- his first since "The Corrections" went huge in 2001 -- hit stores nationwide in late August. This week, Franzen begins a 20-city, three-month U.S. book tour that includes a Talking Volumes appearance in the Twin Cities on Sept. 21.
Based on early raves by leading critics, "Freedom" is likely to be Franzen's second book to combine two things that rarely go together: serious literature and mega sales.
"The Corrections," his third novel, sold nearly 3 million copies worldwide and was optioned by producer Scott Rudin for a movie (not yet made). Oprah chose it for her book club, but uninvited Franzen as a guest on her show after he went public with his misgivings about the selection. Sales rose.
That was a decade ago. "Freedom," which the New York Times hailed as "a masterpiece of American fiction" even "richer and deeper" than "The Corrections," is like its predecessor a maximal saga of a family at war with itself. It bumps against cultural and political flashpoints of the past three decades, including environmentalism, population growth, urban gentrification, sprawl, the rise of the Internet, the Bush presidencies, war in Iraq and the music industry.
Much of "Freedom" takes place not in the St. Louis that anchored earlier Franzen books, but in St. Paul.
At the outset, Patty and Walter Berglund buy a fixer-upper Victorian on the fictional Barrier Street in the city's Ramsey Hill neighborhood.
The young couple (Walter grew up in Hibbing and attended Macalester College, Patty grew up in New York City and came to the University of Minnesota on a basketball scholarship) set out to renovate the old house and raise their children, Jessica and Joey, in it.
The opening chapters are full of Twin Cities specifics, from W.A. Frost to the "green-wrappered Star Tribune," from Summit Avenue, on which the eco-conscious Walter rides his bike, to then-mayor Norm Coleman.
Walter inherits a cabin on Nameless Lake, a location that looms large in several key parts of the story.
"I always wanted to set the book in Minnesota," Franzen said. We sat on the small patio behind his house on a day when fog had given way to brilliant sunshine. Franzen, a birder with more than 400 species on his life list, paused occasionally to identify a bird by its song: a Bewick's wren, a bushtit.
Franzen's mother was born and grew up in Columbia Heights. His father is from tiny Palisade in Aitkin County. Both his parents went to the University of Minnesota. His two older brothers were born in Columbia Heights. Franzen might have been, too, but the family moved briefly to Chicago, where he was born, then to St. Louis, where he grew up.
Franzen looked forward to summer trips to visit Minnesota relatives. While he never lived in the Twin Cities, he has paddled in the Boundary Waters and bird-watched in northern Minnesota. He said he is intrigued by the state's liberal past and its more recent shift to the political right.
"I do like the particularity of place," he said, "and because I spent so much time over the years in and around the Twin Cities, I felt I wasn't going to go too wrong in writing about it. The Minnesotan accent and the ice fishing and the hockey playing are all in there, but I tried to keep them to a minimum."
That's because, Franzen said, he was less concerned with questions of "Midwesternness" than he was in trying to write about his parents and his own 14-year marriage, refracted in the story of the Berglunds.
It's tempting to see Franzen in the character of Walter Berglund. The two share a zeal for conservation and the environment, liberal politics, a feminist outlook and a love of birds, among other things. Acknowledging that "Walter is not entirely foreign to me," Franzen lists ways in which his protagonist is not similar: "He did not pursue a creative career, he stayed close to home, he was very dedicated to his house and his kids, deeply devoted to his wife in spite of troubles, and worked for 3M for 20 years."
Imagining the characters that are so crucial to his books is a laborious, even psychologically painful process for Franzen. "The project is to create a set of characters who clearly are not me so that I can start to tell my own story," he said. "I have to put layer after layer of definition down on them to make sure that they're strong enough that they don't flip over and turn into me, at which point I could no longer write about them."
Franzen seems to have taken to heart a college professor's insistence (recalled in "The Discomfort Zone," his 2006 memoir) that great works of fiction are about "actual living human beings trying to make sense of death and the modern world and the mess of their lives."
Getting there, for Franzen, can be harrowing. To complete sections of "The Corrections," he reportedly went into extreme isolation, sometimes wearing not only earplugs but a blindfold as he typed in a windowless rented room.
In "Freedom," Franzen said, he had terrible problems developing and writing Joey, the son whose sudden teenaged rejection of his mother sends Patty into a tailspin of sarcasm, infidelity and depression. By the time he's in college, Joey has become a neo-conservative and budding capitalist who gets involved in a war-profiteering scheme with a Halliburton-like company, enraging his father.
Then there's Richard Katz, the womanizing punk rocker who later becomes a famed alt-rocker and who is both Walter's best friend and Patty's longtime temptation.
Developing sympathy for Richard and Joey took years, Franzen said. Only when he unlocked a way to connect with those two of his four main characters did his novel speedily take final form, with Franzen completing more than half of the 560-page book in the second half of 2009.
An evolving story
"It seems to be a fixture of my process that, continually and up until a week before I finish the book, I am shouting out loud, 'I don't know what the story is, I don't know what the book is about,'" Franzen said. He spent years thinking that "Freedom" would be a novel told in documents and in the first person, for example; the final book is neither.
Franzen's writing process also seems to require what sounds like a painful marathon of self-analysis: "I would say that I can't write the novel if something isn't transformed inside me in the process. If I'm not experiencing resistance, if I'm not going through months or years of frustration, if I'm not feeling high levels of anxiety, I know the book's not there yet and is not in writable condition."
A moral sense, directed both inward and outward, also motivates this writer, who uses the words "shame" and "anger" frequently. Which might seem dreadfully serious were it not for Franzen's ability to use humor, satire (less so here than in "The Corrections") and forward-rushing narrative to guide his readers through crisis, change and catharsis.
His own marriage, which ended in the mid-1990s, is deep background for "Freedom."
"I had a very singular-feeling marriage for 14 years," Franzen said, "and there are all sorts of reasons not to write about it in any direct way, chief among them my desire to leave my ex-wife alone, but also the intense shame you can feel about being in something that doesn't feel like everybody else's marriage.
"There's a presumption that there must be some way to redeem this past experience," he continued, "there must be some way not to be so filled with shame about it, but simply setting down what happened, autobiographically, or in thinly veiled autobiographical form, doesn't do it. It has to be radically re-dreamed, and that kind of thing doesn't happen overnight."
To some, this may amount to neurotic self-laceration. To many others, Franzen's human stories succeed in transforming deeply personal hurts, movingly, into art.