Interview: John Freeman


John Freeman spends a lot of time on the road. The globetrotting editor has logged countless miles promoting his new literary journal, but always returns home—to New York City. The debut edition of Freeman’s, published in partnership with Grove/Atlantic and the New School, features diverse and international writers, including Laura Van Den Berg, Haruki Murakami and Michael Salu. Freeman knew many of them as editor of Granta, and as a prolific book critic writing for the New York Times, the Guardian, the Boston Globe and many others. A former president of the National Book Critics Circle, Freeman has taught in The Writers’ Institute and the MFA program at NYU. The author of two books, most recently How to Read a Novelist, a collection of his interviews with renowned writers, he also edited Tales of Two Cities, a collection of essays and stories about the human costs of economic disparity in NYC. In addition, he’s a New Yorker published poet whose debut collection is forthcoming. As if all this weren’t enough, he maintains one of the most robust social media presences in publishing (follow his travels on Instagram; watch his Facebook for provocative posts on issues of the day). We sat down with him to discuss the analogues between teaching and editing, whether New York’s literary legacy is in danger, and how a good metaphor can save your life.

Jonathan Durbin: You’re an editor, a writer. You review books. Why teach? What does teaching give you that you don’t get elsewhere?

John Freeman: I come from a family of social workers and social activists. I don’t have an outlet for political or social generosity. But I do feel like I’ve learned some things—expensively, through failure—that I can impart through teaching. Also, students are interesting. Young people, or people that are starting out, are learning things that you have to constantly re-learn as a writer, as an editor, to stay fresh. So it’s not simply a place to dump my jewels. [Laughs] It’s a way to stay engaged.

JD: Can you point to a lesson that you need to re-learn?

JF: Some of it has to do with sound and syntax, the components of voice. The example that jumps out at me is in the work of Judy Chicurel, who I taught at the CUNY program. We get used to hearing certain sounds, and assume there’s a finite number. But then all it takes is to find a really good new sound to realize voice is infinite. There just has to be integrity to the voice and what it’s telling you. To me that was clear in Judy’s work. Before I read her short stories in workshop, I don’t know that I’d made that connection.

JD: And she was a student at The Writers’ Institute.

JF: She was, yeah. That’s what I love about The Writers’ Institute, and I’m not sitting here stroking André Aciman’s face, although I would like to do that.

JD: It’s very soft.

JF: He shaves a lot! [Laughs] No, it’s about people coming to their breakthroughs at different times. Because MFA programs are getting so expensive, and people who are ambitious are often young, there’s this drive to try to have a breakthrough and a revelation all at the same time. For some people, it might take them until they’re 50.

JD: Voice is a concern of mine. I’ve been thinking lately that clarity arises out of voice. Have you found that to be true?

JF: Clarity is the hardest thing to pull off because there’s nowhere to hide. What’s often mistaken about clarity is that it’s a) easy or b) simplistic. Clarity is difficult because you can’t be willfully obscure, or pretend to be smarter than you are. Intelligence is highly overrated when it comes to storytelling. Real intelligence comes through emotional complexity and in the relationships of characters on the page—not through attempts to reconceive what a novel is. That can very quickly become a kind of narrative mathematics, which is great and all, but I think people read to understand what it feels like to be alive.

JD: Funny. Every time I play around with radical simplicity, it never turns out to be that simple. I think you’re right—the idea that you need to obscure your intentions for some sort of intellectual payoff is an instinct you have to get over.

 JF: Yeah, many effects can be made with clarity. I think of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. To me, clarity creates interesting acoustics. Maybe you start to play with the sound of regret, the sound of someone following a thought. It also tends to draw you toward brevity. Personally, I feel like most fiction is too long. This has been a great year [2015] for the short book. Not just all the great short stories by Joy Williams and Clarice Lispector, but Patrick Modiano, who’s a master of clarity, even though he’s writing about memory. César Aira, who writes with great lucidity about slightly unbelievable things.

JD: Talk about narrative mathematics. That guy’s an acrobat.

JF: He makes it look fun and easy. Maybe it is for him. He’s written, what, 90 books? They’re all about 27 pages.

JD: And those Lispector stories are brutal, punches in the gut.

JF: They’re hard to treat as entertainment. If I had a time machine, I would go to Switzerland in the 1970s and pick up Patricia Highsmith, and then take another time machine to Brazil in the 1950s and pick up Clarice Lispector. Then I’d sit them down together. That would be fascinating.

JD: What about today? Do you think we’re living through a kind of golden age for the short story?

JF: Absolutely. There’s a lot of cynicism about writing programs and how they’re churning out a bunch of Autobot sentence writers, but in truth, there are more very good short-story writers working right now than there have been in a very long time. And obviously not all in one language. Haruki Murakami has been writing truly great short stories for decades. Mo Yan has written many great stories in Chinese, and we’re just starting to get them translated into English. Colm Tóibín is such a genius—seven books into his career he decides, “You know what? I’m going to go write some short stories,” and he goes and does it. Claire Vaye Watkins, Junot Díaz, Aleksandar Hemon….

JD: These are your people. You’ve published all of them.

JF: I’ve published all of them except Junot. Well, I republished a piece of his in an anthology. I just think it’s a great time for short stories. For that reason, it’s also a great time to be working on a journal. Because when there’s that much talent in a form, it raises the game for everyone.

JD: Do you find similarities between editing and teaching? Do you think one influences the other?

JF: There’s less instruction in editing. As a teacher, you can’t entirely separate the person from the work, even if universities want us to. You have to be sensitive to a whole range of things that are outside of the craft. I think of teaching as a very, very intense form of editing. You’re often not just looking at a piece that a student has turned in, but their work as a whole. They’re emerging in front of you. Instead of looking at the obstacles within a particular piece, as a teacher you need to be aware of the obstacles within that person’s entire life that could prevent them from writing. Especially if they’re life writing, or writing memoir.

JD: So you have to be attuned to what’s going on inside the student.

JF: While being respectful of their privacy. A good teacher has to be aware that it would be very easy to make someone at that age stop. Some people feel like it’s a kindness to certain students to make them stop, to tell them it’s okay to stop, because it’s clear that they don’t have talent. I’m more optimistic. I think back on the things I was writing when I was 20 or 21. I stopped writing because I didn’t get into workshops. But I looked at the stuff I was turning into those workshops and it was terrible! Really terrible! I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know why I was writing. I didn’t have anything to say. All the things that you look for as a teacher, I had none of it. That’s not to say I’m a big, giant, shining success, but I don’t know that I would have predicted my life at age 21, looking to 41, if someone had given me a crystal ball.

JD: What kept you going? Did you have any teachers who influenced you?

JF: I didn’t study writing at Swarthmore. I didn’t get an MFA. It wasn’t until later that I had any kind of mentor relationship. The first was as a poet with another poet. It started when I was in my early to mid thirties. I guess what kept me writing in the interim was book reviewing. And curiosity—a sense that if I didn’t follow my curiosity, I could quite possibly have a very mundane life. My dad was a great purveyor of fear. [Laughs]

JD: That’s what fathers specialize in.

JF: Yeah. [Laughs] He’d always come up with worst-case scenarios. Like, “Fine, don’t study for this test. You can go to community college. You’ll drop out and become a veterinarian’s assistant and drive a Subaru and have two kids. It’ll be great! You can live in Sacramento, just like your mom and me.” He would free-associate these things. He’d be driving me to school and come up with all sorts of not-terrible fantasies for my life. Not fighting in a war zone, not being impoverished, just a storyboarded sequence of mundane lives that he painted so well. I’ve never asked him why. He must have had the sense that I was vain or status-conscious enough to find those things appalling. [Laughs] He didn’t use them on my brothers. It was this constant lurking thing in my head growing up, that I was basically one or two bad decisions away from a life in suburbia with a Subaru.

JD: There’s the plot to your indie horror movie.

 JF: Exactly. [Laughs] But I’ve had a much different life than I ever expected. The circle of what I care about is unrecognizably larger than the one I grew up in. You know, my girlfriend [the agent Nicole Aragi] is from Lebanon. I could not have placed Lebanon on a map until I was at least 25. I didn’t know what language was spoken in Pakistan until I was 30. The provincial hole I was digging myself out of was enormous. I still feel like I’m learning things that many of my friends who have had—by virtue of force or necessity—more globalized lives already know. I have a lot learning to do about the world. Maybe that’s why I read the way I do. The end result is that I find it very hard to shut anyone down who looks or sounds like I did when I was in my twenties.

JD: Let’s talk about you going places. You travel quite a lot. When you were at Granta, you launched a number of international editions of the magazine. Do you have the same plans for Freeman’s?

JF: I hope so. Right now we’re talking about doing a Romanian edition, and there’s interest in a French edition. It’s a little different, because Granta has such a strong brand. It invented, or nurtured, certain genres that are now widely accepted—reportage, travel writing and memoir. Also, it was the magazine most attentive to the post-colonial world and the Anglo-American need to observe it. True, perhaps, the editors were often sending a white writer to a brown continent to bring back news or stories, but they were at least aware of some of the political vibrations of that interaction. Freeman’s is something brand new, so it really is a completely different proposition to international publishers. But I feel the need is similar. The provincialism of our literary culture here—it’s hard to overstate, even in a year where among the stars were people like Marlon James, Elena Ferrante, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Clarice Lispector. But those are outliers. All editors need people telling them about what’s happening elsewhere.

JD: How do you go about finding those writers?

JF: At FSG Jonathan Galassi works with scouts, and has these deep relationships with publishers in many countries around the world. They’re among the world’s best publishers of writing in translation. I don’t have that apparatus built into my company because it’s just, you know, me. But I’m heavily reliant on relationships. Where I don’t have them, I can formalize them by creating a kind of offshoot of Freeman’s. My book How to Read a Novelist came out in Romanian, so I went there to a conference. Freeman’s was just coming out, and they sold it there, and it sold out very quickly. My publishers got interested in doing it in Romanian. At a certain point, it becomes like a reflex: why not have a German edition? Why not have an Italian edition? Eventually at Granta there were somewhere between 13 and 15 international editions. We had a meeting right at the very end of my time working there; it was exciting that, for instance, the Norwegians were talking to the Chinese and bypassing the English editions.

JD: So your role was to foster cultural exchange?

JF: Sometimes it already exists. You just have to give it a space. I think any publication, any journal, any magazine, is basically a cultural space. You build a community around that space. Granta has had a very large space, but they weren’t using all of it. That’s what I felt like I could do: invite people in.

JD: Sort of like the British Empire, in a way.

JF: Yeah. [Laughs] I just didn’t have to murder anyone along the way, or sell them opium.

JD: What’s your feeling about American fiction? Is it in some ways myopic?

JF: Not at all. But the categories—and I seem them eroding—that the critical apparatus labors under are myopic. In the largest venues, there is still, unfortunately, all kinds of racism and sexism. It was a great year in the sense that instead of a two-million dollar, thousand-page novel about New York in the ’70s being the book of the year, it was a novel by a gay guy writing about the breakdown of civil society in Kingston, Jamaica, as a result of colonial meddling and all sorts of other things. Yet it’s still hard for someone of color to not be defined by race. Publishers [help reinforce] this. They keep buying big fat books largely by white guys that explain a culture back to itself. They re-inscribe the problems they worry about.

JD: Do you think the Internet has helped level the playing field? The response is so immediate. I’m thinking of your Facebook post* about Esquire’s list of books every man should read.

JF: In a way. People are getting better at using the Internet, and it skews more heavily female—58 percent of social media users are women. In mainstream media only one in four stories is about a woman, and only one in ten has a woman as a central interest. By contrast, social media [has created a] space for a different narrative. As we get more and more of our news about books through social media, lists like Esquire’s 80 books you should read—where 79 of the books are by men—are going to be ripped to shreds. What was really exciting for me was that the result of that Facebook discussion wasn’t just bitterness. Rebecca [Solnit] wrote that great piece about how women often have to continuously examine educational antecedents.**

JD: Did you read Claire Vaye Watkins’ “On Pandering” essay in Tin House?***

JF: Yeah, it’s tremendous. She’s writing specifically about how you can internalize the very enemy you externally oppose—what James Baldwin called the little white man inside you. I don’t think this means we have to completely reject Caucasian writers or the canon. We’d be in terrible shape if we threw out the canon based on a notion of what writing should sound like now, because the canon created what we are now. That said, there are probably some writers who are simply too toxic today, writers who shouldn’t be worshipped the way they are.

JD: Like who?

JF: T.S. Eliot, for example. His anti-Semitism is one of the reasons why he’s going to wear less well than other writers over time. While we have to be careful not to assassinate artists based on outdated beliefs that seem intolerable today, we also have to continuously push toward a definition of humanity that is all-inclusive. Literature is a great space to do that. Statistically, men tend to read books by men. Women read books by women and men. As an editor, you’re missing out on a lot if you don’t patrol your editing and reading decisions. I make it a point to read equally between men and women. It’s fascinating when you start to really read work by people who haven’t necessarily gotten the recognition they’re due. You’re encouraged. If you’re surrounded by discussions of the value of female writing—the need for writing by women to not be considered “female writing” but just good writing—eventually it’ll become [second nature] to pick up a book by a woman.

JD: As an editor, how do you encourage exposure to traditionally marginalized voices?

JF: By publishing with curiosity and integrity. By finding good writers and publishing them, and being open-minded in the broadest sense. To find and publish good writing by people of color and women is the best defense possible against reinforcing the skewed optics of racism and sexism. Claire Vaye Watkins’ piece has prompted a discussion that we’ve heard all this before—the notion that the culture dealt with this in the ’70s. Well, you know what? It has to be written about every generation. That doesn’t mean the writer is unaware that the battles she’s describing have been fought before. Look at where we are politically right now. Who in 1965 would have believed The Voting Rights Act of 1965 would be overturned? Fifty years after the battle for voting equality appeared to be won, states all over the country are creating new barriers to prevent people of color from voting. We have to fight that fight all over again.

JD: Sure. We’ve got a candidate for the Republican nomination right now who’s out there openly saying things that echo mid-twentieth century fascists. It’s upsetting.

JF: It is. If we have to constantly reiterate the values of decency and human dignity and diversity and mindfulness in civic life, then of course we have to re-reiterate them within the space of writing, and how we talk about writing, too! I get impatient that people treat these discussions as being born of special interests, as if they are extracurricular to value. For me, literary value is created by the intensity and coherence of [a work’s] moral and aesthetic engagement. We live in a world where these questions have to be asked and answered and re-posed all the time.

JD: So you’d say that literature is a political act.

JF: Of course. It’s about power. It’s about someone speaking to someone else, an unknown. What they say, the way that they say it, it all has the valences of politics. You know: what language is considered literary, how a character acts within an imagined space. It’s absolutely a political act. The desire to say that it’s an apolitical act, that writing is only about writing, is itself a form of politics. To not acknowledge that is kind of dishonest.

JD: Right, the politics of abnegation. Is that instinct for activism what led you to compile Tales of Two Cities, to make those issues tactile?

JF: To some degree. Public space in general is not well described in contemporary literature in America. These days we spend a lot of time in virtual spaces. The ease of movement within that virtual space distracts us from the fact that movement for a great number of people is impossible. We don’t see and write about the poor anymore. Instead of talking about poverty, violence or dignity, we talk about gentrification because that’s a conversation that the people who make and discuss and masticate and sell literature can participate in. Tales of Two Cities was a way to open up the space for writers who are concerned about what’s happening to New York City. To take a phrase from Ben Lerner—I don’t know if he actually used this in 10:04, but he used it in an interview with me—the term would be “spaces of care.” This whole last year, [we’ve seen] Claudia Rankine, Ta-Nehisi Coates—writers who are writing incredible literature but are also commenting on the rampant abuses of police departments nationwide—talking about the black body. That discussion is incredibly important, and we should think about it in terms of the larger sphere of American life. New research shows that the life expectancy gap between African-Americans and middle-class whites is shrinking. Our economy is literally killing us. It’s an urgent conversation that we have to have. Again, I think literature restores narrative to human scale in a way that nothing else can.

JD: So given the prevailing economics, do you think New York’s literary legacy is at risk?

JF: No. People will always read and tell stories. New York will always be a city of words. But one area where it’s slightly at risk is bookstores. We have less of them now. Yes, we have an amazing array of independents, like Three Lives and McNally Jackson and The Corner Bookstore and BookCourt and Greenlight and Word. But when I moved here in 1996, bookstores were as common as pizza parlors. You couldn’t go more than 10 blocks without running into a bookstore. That’s no longer the case today. The city’s literary legacy will continue, but for the people who live here, the book, the physical book culture, is a smaller part of living in New York. But it’s probably true across many other art forms. This area [the Meatpacking District] used to be kind of dumpy and a lot cheaper to rent in, and if you walked over one block you’d have transvestite prostitutes, and we wouldn’t be looking out this window at a seven-story glass tower with a Starbucks on the ground floor. It’s nice to have good coffee shops. But it’s nicer to have bookstores.

JD: I know what you’re saying about that glass tower over here, but don’t you think the Internet has helped take New York’s literary sensibilities global?

JF: Yeah. I mean, the reason I put together Tales of Two Cities is to work against the export of a finite number of things about New York. Obviously we don’t export our inequality problem because it doesn’t reflect well on the city. The city has to run all night in order to look the way it does during the day, and the people who help it run all night are not part of the narrative. I’m concerned that people come to New York and they see all the things that are exported in movies and music, but they don’t see the rest of the city, which is almost everything. Books are very powerful instruments in helping people see.

JD: Okay. Let’s talk about poetry.

JF: [Laughs] Let’s talk about poetry!

JD: Do you have plans for a collection?

JF: Funny you should ask—Copper Canyon recently decided to publish my first collection.

JD: Congratulations. What do you get out of writing poetry that your critical writing doesn’t satisfy?

It’s given me a different kind of way to be in the world. For me, as a writer, that’s what a lot of writing is—a way of being in the world. I don’t think we’re technicians or craftspeople; I don’t think we’re sentence nerds. I think we’re all struggling to be in the world, and for some people, the way to do that is to work with language. I have a lot of deadlines, and I’ve never felt thwarted in any way about expressing myself. I can come up with think pieces, but there was some other part of who I am and what I’m meant to do that needed poetry as a form to do it in.

JD: The writing and editing instincts—are those in conflict for you?

 JF: If you have a developed critical mind, you have to figure out ways to turn it off. Some are more destructive than others. Like, I write really well with a hangover because there’s so much you’re trying to block out that you create this cone of attention. Writing in the morning always works better for me—before critical parts of the mind have booted up. You can use your subconscious and actually get things down before the critical mind tackles you.

JD: Yeah. [Laughs] I fully agree with that.

JF: You have to find ways to trick that muscle sometimes, to turn it off. That’s why I try to work on many different projects at once. Because I can hide from one in another rather than procrastinate and spend eight hours watching, you know, YouTube videos of Honda Civics racing Corvettes. [Laughs]

JD: There ought to be a course on defraying anxiety.

JF: Yeah. When you’re young, you’ve got brain cells to spare and energy to spare. Now that I’m getting into my forties, I’m beginning to understand why Nolan Ryan used to reach into a barrel of sawdust to strengthen the muscles in his wrist. As a writer, it helps to think of yourself as a kind of athlete. You need to cross-train. You need to train in the off-season. You need to take care of yourself and sleep.

JD: I’ve heard the athlete analogy a lot.

JF: You have to protect your talent as a writer. There are ways you can dissipate your talent—through bitterness, frustration. You can dissipate it on simple dissipation. You can run yourself into the ground by trying to do something you’re not meant to do. There’s this sense that there’s an aesthetic hierarchy. The novel’s at the top, and poetry’s next, or poetry’s at the top, and then the novel, and non-fiction’s at the bottom, and genre writing’s below all of that. Those hierarchies can fool you into thinking you need to do whatever has the most prestige. But maybe you’re better at genre writing. Maybe you’re better at non-fiction. Maybe you’re better at poetry. You have to allow yourself freedom.

JD: Finding a way to be who you are.

JF: As we’re socialized, we’re taught to keep our hands off the table, and [to hold open doors], all sorts of things. Manners exist to make the world a nicer place, but as a writer, you need to value all the things that are strange and unusual in your work. They may be your greatest strength. Eventually what’s quirky and strange about your writing will catch up to an editor or a reader who will appreciate them.

JD: What have you been reading lately that you’ve loved?

JF: The scale of the Ferrante books has come clear this year. And after reading this piece on nostalgia and the ’70s I finally read—I’m two-thirds of the way through—And the Band Played On, journalist Randy Shilts’ 1987 expose of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, which is just a tremendous work of narrative non-fiction. I really liked the Robin Coste Lewis book [Voyage of the Sable Venus] that won the National Book Award. The Joy Williams stories, I knew those were coming. The Lispector stories were a revelation. So I just feel like 2015 was full of more new and wonderful things than there had been in a while. Well, they weren’t new because all those writers are either dead or in their sixties. But still, it was a good year. I wonder where we’ll be at the end of next year. Two writers I’m reading a lot of, because I’m writing profiles of them, are Barry Lopez and Annie Dillard. Lopez has given me a whole new set of metaphors for living in the world. I think a metaphor can save your life, you know?

JD: The theme for the first issue of Freeman’s was “arrivals,” but in reading many of the pieces, I sensed a lot of homecomings. Was that intentional?

 JF: I wasn’t surprised that happened. Life is a series of arrivals. You have to constantly revisit; to come back to where you’re from. There’s joy that can be found in that. I realize a lot of what we’ve talked about today has been serious. We live in serious times. So be it. But retaining the capacity for joy is one of the most important tasks of living, and of writing. Style is an enactment of joy.

* Freeman’s Facebook post
**”80 Books No Woman Should Read” by Rebecca Solnit
***
On Pandering” by Claire Vaye Watkins
Editor’s note: In response to criticism,
Esquire has since published another piece online titled “80 Books Every Person Should Read,” with texts chosen by prominent female writers, including Roxane Gay and Lauren Groff.

 

◊◊◊

Jonathan Durbin is a New York City–based writer. His fiction has appeared in One StoryNew England Review, Electric Literature’s Recommended ReadingCatapult and elsewhere. He is currently working on a novel and a collection of short stories.

Back to Top