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Turning the tables

  • Blog Post by: Laurie Hertzel
  • October 31, 2013 - 12:34 PM
Novelist Louise Erdrich asked John Freeman about his book dedication--"For my father, who asked the right questions"--Wednesday night at Magers & Quinn.

Novelist Louise Erdrich asked John Freeman about his book dedication--"For my father, who asked the right questions"--Wednesday night at Magers & Quinn.

How does it go when the tables are turned and the interviewer becomes the interviewee? Judging by Wednesday night's conversation at Magers & Quinn Bookstore in Minneapolis, a little shy, a little sweet, and very interesting.

Book critic, editor and author John Freeman was in town promoting his new book, "How to Read a Novelist," a collection of author interviews he conducted for The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Star Tribune, and elsewhere. (In his interview with Erdrich, he calls her "quiet and self-effacing," words that could have been used to describe Freeman himself last night.)

So during his book tour, novelists have been seizing the opportunity to query him ("It's an obscure form of therapy," Freeman joked)--in Seattle, Nicola Griffith; in Brooklyn, Geoff Dyer; and in Minneapolis, Erdrich, who was respectful and admiring. "This book is absolutely wonderful," she said. "I read some of the pieces over and over." 

But she had plenty of questions. For instance: Was there any author Freeman interviewed that he didn't like?

He didn't allow that there was ("I like most people, because I'm from California," he said), but then he went on to talk about John Irving's pugnaciousness and ego, the wrestling ring built right into his house, his hallway of books, "and they're all John Irving books, in various languages."

The evening was a festival of names of authors Freeman has reviewed and interviewed--Irving, Geraldine Brooks, Edmund White, Richard Russo: "I never understood the anger in [Russo's] work. When he does it with humor you almost forget you're swallowing a bitter pill." 

Throughout the conversation, Freeman almost reflexively tried to turn the questions back on Erdrich, who was having none of it. Each time, she'd smile a serene Mona Lisa smile and remind Freeman that she wasn't the one being interviewed this time.

In interviewing, "There is this performance anxiety," Freeman said. "And you want to be liked. But as an interviewer, you can't do that." He doesn't see the interviewer and subject as having an adversarial relationship. "As an interviewer, your job is not to try to catch someone with food in their teeth. Your job is to catch them as they really are. In the best interviews, you never see the questions, only the answers. Critics and novelists are often put at odds with each other, but we both use the same tools."

Freeman was not a reader as a child. "Some time at 8, or 7 I stopped reading on my own," he said. But later, when he was reintroduced to literature, "It just cracked my head open," he said. After college and after a few failed jobs in finance, he began reviewing books--first for Publishers Weekly, and then for newspapers and magazines around the country.He became American editor of Granta, a British literary magazine, and then editor, dividing his time between London and New York and expanding the journal's presence around the globe, highlighting writers from Spain, South America, Pakistan and elsewhere.

Though his life is now books he must read--keeping up with what's new, reviewing what's about to come out--are there books he re-reads, Erdrich asked. "Mostly poetry," Freeman said. "Because poetry is meant to be read over and over. Adrienne Rich--I just don't know how she makes those shifts in voice. James Wright--there's a bare-knuckled sadness to his poems."

And what about the dedication, Erdrich asked. "For my father, who asked the right questions." What questions did he ask?

"He just kept asking me from a very early age what I wanted to do with myself," Freeman said. "I took from him that life was extremely serious, at a young age."

Freeman's parents were social workers, "and they looked at weakness not as weakness, but as the human condition, and that's the job of a novelist."

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