When I meet with John Freeman to discuss his new book, How to Read a Novelist, he is in the middle of moving. The wood-planked floors groan under the weight of books, thousands of them stowed in boxes stacked nearly to the ceiling. He offers coffee—the coffee maker isn't packed yet—and I see at once that he's the sort of bibliophile whose immersion in the world of fictional people hasn't hampered his ability to communicate with real, breathing ones. The coffee is good and strong; I haven't had a cup in almost two years, an experiment in caffeine deprivation that has somehow become habitual. Two sips and I'm dizzy, though I don't mention it; instead, I pepper him with questions about the interviews compiled in How to Read a Novelist—fifty-five in all, which he conducted between 2000 and 2013. The interview takes on the contours of metafiction as we discuss what can and cannot be observed, and the perils of subjectivity. As for what is observable, John is amiable and erudite, just as engaging an interviewee as interviewer.
Bookforum: I wanted to interview you because I thought it would be interesting for a writer to interview a writer about interviewing writers.
Freeman: We're crawling inside the wormhole here...
Bookforum: We're like that MC Escher lithograph, the hand drawing the hand drawing...
Freeman: When you're conducting an interview with a writer, you're thinking all these things while the writer is talking, but you have to keep your thoughts at bay long enough so you can hear the germ of what the writer is saying and ask another question.
Bookforum: Hey, that's exactly what's happening to me right now. Do you think the commentary that's going on in your head is apparent to the writer who's talking?
Freeman: Not unless they're really good at reading your face.
Bookforum: I'd better hide my face.
Freeman: Interviews are funny because the purpose of a novel is to get us inside someone else's head in a really basic sense, and yet the exercise of talking about it reinserts us in the thing that imprisons us, which is our subjective selves. So it's a contradictory exercise.
Bookforum: There are two lovely pieces on Updike in your book, one that's at the beginning and one that appears about midway through. Did you ever think when structuring the book about putting the second piece at the end, to make a kind of bookend?
Bookforum: Why did you decide against it?
Freeman: I wanted to begin with an old passion and then end with a new one—Jennifer Egan. Lately when I talk about a writer's work I end up talking about hers, which I think is right at the cutting edge these days. In narrative terms she's out there trying to figure out what a story can do now, especially that story published in the New Yorker.
Bookforum: Oh you mean the Twitter story. "Black Box."
Freeman: It was incredible. If you read her first collection, you never would have seen that coming.
Bookforum: No, you wouldn't have.
Freeman: There were writers I interviewed for the book who were thrust into experience by the forces of history, like Gunter Grass and Doris Lessing, and then there were writers like Jennifer Egan and Dave Eggers and William T. Vollmann who pushed themselves into experience. Dave and Jenny were born in suburban Chicago in upper-middle-class families, Vollmann's father was a professor, and all three could have had conventional lives, but instead, the force of their curiosity put them out in the world. I find them inspiring because I didn't have a risky childhood at all, I had a very conventional childhood.
Bookforum: In your interview with Vollmann he told you he smoked crack with the prostitutes he was interviewing for his novel Whores for Gloria, and showed you a bookmark he made from a prostitute's hair. I'm trying to picture this. Was it laminated?
Freeman: It was a sort of clump of hair, bound together with string.
Bookforum: You have a novelistic way of revealing character in some of these pieces, like how you describe Kazuo Ishiguro's rather fastidious way of spreading cream and preserves on a scone. I think of the laconic precision of Ishiguro's prose, and they seem perfectly matched—Ishiguro's presentation of himself and his writing. Were there any writers you interviewed who presented themselves in a way that didn't accord with their writing?
Freeman: I found a lot of correspondence, actually.
Bookforum: Several of the writers you interviewed for this book are friends of yours, and you point out in the introduction that you had to re-estrange yourself from them as people in order to interview them. How did you do this?
Freeman: With Peter Carey I had to remember what it would be like for somebody to meet him who didn't know him. There's a profoundly deep sense of authority to his novels. I know that at some point Peter must have had to tack through the dark, but he never seems to question himself. Peter sees novel writing as a problem-solving exercise; there's an argument each book has, and he's trying to find it. Too much is made of the romanticism of novel writing, I think. Novelists still have the crumbling glamour authority among all the genres.
Bookforum: More so than poets?
Freeman: You don't see that many young, successful poets. But there is a significant number of novelists in their twenties, and you think, wow, in my twenties I was still learning how to, I don't know—
Bookforum: Tie my sneakers—
Freeman: Yeah. I think one of the things the American novel struggles with is the collision between narrative tools and ideas of selfhood. And I think sometimes they collide in interesting ways. Philip Roth has produced an amazing body of work that explores the twenty-two mile terrain encircling the GPS location of Philip Roth. But then there's a novelist like Peter Carey, who writes a book about an illiterate bank robber in Australia, and as far as I know Peter hasn't robbed any banks. Writers have different capacities and bandwidths, of course. This is not to say that one approach to novel writing is better than the other, but I do think that a novelistic exploration of the self should do more.
Bookforum: Should transcend the confines of the self...
Freeman: Yeah, tap into something that's universal. I don't know, maybe you feel this way, but the moment I realized I could go through most of my life without looking in the mirror was a really wonderful experience. I love the feeling that comes over me when I'm working a lot, really busy, also when I'm reading, when I have that Emersonian invisible eye experience and I'm just this permeable intelligence that's absorbing and seeing. And I think the self—at least our modern version of it—is so souped up on social media. So much of what we do now is connected to ourselves, to our individual identities, to our purchasing power, which I think gets in the way of certain kinds of thoughts.
Bookforum: What do you say to all those Cassandras who predict that the novel will soon be dead?
Freeman: I don't think that the novel is going anywhere. If you look outside Anglo-American literary circles—if you look around the world—the novel is always developing, just in different ways.
Bookforum: What do you think about the influence of the American narrative on other cultures? I'm thinking now about your interview with Moshin Hamid, when he said we don't understand the impact of our exported American narratives on jihadists, we don't see how our storytelling influences their storytelling.
Freeman: It's a hero narrative, and it's everywhere in our mass entertainment. So many of our films are about vengeance, about justice that's delivered by one person who's above the law. There's not a lot of metaphorical unpacking that you need to do to figure out what that means in the global sense.
Bookforum: Was there a setting that you preferred, or didn't prefer, for an interview? Did you like to be in someone's home, like I am in yours, or in a more anonymous setting, like a restaurant?
Freeman: Houses. You can get so much information. Sometimes a writer would be talking to me and I'd be nodding, but instead of writing down what he's saying I'd be taking notes about what the house looks like, what the writer looks like. The writer thinks you're taking notes about what he's saying, but you're really writing, "His head looks like a lion's head."
Freeman: One time I interviewed this ultra-marathoner, and I couldn't take notes. We ran together during the interview, so all I could do was hold a tape recorder. There was something Beckett-like about the distances he ran, which I figured had to provoke some existential questions for him like, "Why am I doing this?"
Bookforum: "Is there an ending?"
Freeman: "Is there a point to life?" When he was training he would do weird shit like go for a thirty-mile run at night. He'd put his kids to bed and start running at midnight, and around three in the morning he'd order a pizza from Dominos to be delivered to an intersection, and after paying the guy he'd fold half the pizza in half, and fold the other half in half. So he'd have these two pizza mitts that he'd eat while he ran.
Bookforum: Oh my god.
Freeman: That was definitely one of the most memorable interviews I've done.
Bookforum: You write poignantly about your marriage and its disintegration in the first piece on Updike, and describe how you sold your whole set of Updike first-editions to buy an engagement ring. Did you ever re-assemble this collection?
Freeman: Most of it, yeah. But it's all packed up in boxes right now.
Bookforum: Do they seem like different books, even though they're the same titles?
Freeman: Definitely. When I first got them, they were like a part of my body, like another limb. I really loved them. Now I'm happy to have them, but I think my life would be okay without them.
Bookforum: Would you ever sell them again?
Freeman: If I had to, I would.
Bookforum: Would selling them a second time have a different emotional resonance?
Freeman: Selling them would have no emotional resonance. Or if it had any it would be an echo, rather than the actual thing. The knowledge that I thought I would acquire through those books about the fragility of relationships and the manufactured but essential narrative about family life was something I had to learn in real life in order for the books themselves to matter the way they do.
Bookforum: The knowledge is no longer a kind of hearsay. It's felt knowledge. Experiential knowledge.
Freeman: But there's an added sting now, because I can't have the memory of once having the knowledge without having the knowledge.
Bookforum: We're back in the wormhole again...
Freeman: I know, right? What's compelling to me about interviewing novelists is that some of what they're writing about happened to them. Getting the story right, whatever that means to them, is so critical.
Rebecca Donner is the author of the novel Sunset Terrace and the graphic novel Burnout. Her reviews have appeared in Bookforum, The New York Times, and the Believer. Visit her online atrebeccadonner.com.