“I kind of look for stealth ways to write about writers”



From Work in Progress:


Thank you all for coming. I think Purity is a bit of a departure from at least the past two books because it’s less of a sort of picture of ordinary American family life, and a little bit more deliberately playful? I mean the main character is a girl whose given name is Purity but she goes by the name Pip, like a certain famous character in British literature, and she’s got a mysterious parentage. And then you’ve got another character who compares himself to Hamlet a lot. Don’t look confused, you know what I’m talking about.


I’m searching your words for implicit criticism (laughter).


I’m just curious if that was something that just kind of happened in the process of writing the book or if you decided to do something that is a little bit more adventurous, or playful, or maybe even a little postmodern, dare I say it?


I just got back from a trip I took to reward myself for finishing the book. I went to Africa for the first time, I was bird watching there in East Africa and it’s a very strange contrast between Nairobi and suddenly being reminded that I’m going to have to figure out cogent ways to talk about the book. So I beg everyone’s indulgence right now because I haven’t figured it out. I hope never to become glib but I’m not even going to be able to approximate glibness here.
Casting my mind back over how the thing came back the way it did, I have no idea where the story came from. I think the situation for the writer is that it gets harder to write novels, not easier, as time goes by, and that has to do with using up the easy stuff, the stuff that is fairly close to the surface, and then going back for the mid-level stuff, and then suddenly all you’re left with is this very deep stuff and there is a good reason why you haven’t written about it before, because you don’t know how to or you really don’t want to talk about it.

And I don’t think I would put this to myself consciously, but when going for the really deep stuff, a certain kind of relatively low-key realism isn’t going to generate enough energies to kind of blow the thing open. So I think maybe there was a wish to go for these stronger story formulations, more extreme situations to try to get the energy up, to blow the lid off.

And I had a couple of ideas batting around in my head for years. I spent a lot of time in Germany when I was a student for accidental reasons, and I’ve long had this idea of a young, East German dissident. I could picture him, I felt I knew him, but I never did anything with it, and I actually had some pages about a young woman who flees East Germany in the ‘50s and becomes an American. So that’s kind of where I started and honestly I don’t remember where the girl came from—


Your main character?


Yeah. Well she’s one of four, I see her as one of four or five main characters; she’s one of four point of view characters. Her name is on the cover but I would find it a little creepy if I had written an entire book about a young woman, so I’m at pains to stress half the book is from male point of views and most of it is from grownup point of views.


That was something I wanted to ask you about because there’s a long history of people wondering how easy or plausible or persuasive it is to write from the point of view of someone from a different gender. But it seems like now more than ever we have the idea that people who are younger have a radically different sensibility than people who are in their fifties, which is what most of your other characters are—the three other characters, two men and one of the other women, are old enough to be the parents of Pip.
Were there particular challenges to writing from the point of view of someone who is just in her early twenties, given that it’s supposed to be so different now from what it was like when you and I were in our twenties?


You know, another thing that gets harder for the writer going forward as a novelist is that after a while most of your friends are writers or artists, and you live in a world of writers and readers, and I don’t want to write a book about a writer. It seems to exclude anyone who is not a writer to take writers that seriously, so I kind of look for stealth ways to write about writers and I think actually in some way all the main characters in the book are writers, but only one of them is called a writer and he’s a minor character.

And here’s the thing, I don’t think any novelist, even Stephen King or James Patterson, is writing for all Americans. They’re writing for the segment of Americans that reads books. And then within that large but not 100 percent segment, there’s a smaller audience that reads trade paperback fiction as opposed to mass market paperback fiction, which is no longer a distinction. I realize that it doesn’t hold up so well, but you know what I mean (laughter). And they are, readers are, to some extent, ipso facto estranged from American culture because reading is slow and requires a long attention span, and requires you to sort of check all of the electronic distractions while you’re engaged with it. And characters kind of are the same thing. You can write, and people are writing, interesting fiction about people who are just incredibly plugged in, electronically engaged, incredibly distracted, but I think there’s a whole world of emotional possibilities that is excluded if you focus on characters in that position.

So there’s this other artificial thing you do, I do, like in the case of one of the main characters, young Pip. I just have her growing up in a cabin in northern California with a mother who doesn’t approve of television. So she becomes atypical in that way, broadly speaking, but I think for the audience of people who might find their way to the book, she’s not so atypical, she’s more recognizable. So there are all these kind of artificial things you’re doing and hoping to get away with. I don’t know if she’s a typical young person but it’s not like she doesn’t have a handheld device. People are not generally as funny or as well spoken in the real world as they are on the page.

“Jonathan Franzen & Laura Miller in Conversation at BEA”, Work in Progress