Entertainment Weekly magazine gave these interview questions to Jonathan Franzen in the 10/25/13-11/1/13 issue. I thought I’d pretend I was a famous author and answer these questions here on my blog, and I’d love to hear your answers too. Post an answer or two in the comments, or copy the whole interview and post your answers on your blog and link back here in the comments. Let’s have some fun!
My favorite childhood book
Do I have to pick just one? I returned to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series so often I can still quote from it, revisited “Charlotte’s Web” many times, lived for years in Narnia, and delighted in Maurice Sendak (rather subversive for my conservative mother). There is no question, however, that the most impactful book of my youth was Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle In Time.” I wanted to live in that world, in that family; I wanted to — still wish I could — write like her; I wanted to change myself as a result of that book. Nothing is more powerful than that.
The book I enjoyed most in school
It would be easier to list the books I hated. Why do schools include so many awful books in their curricula, or, worse, why are so many amazing books demolished through horrible teaching approaches like shoving symbolism down our throats until we choke (why does Holden wear his hat backwards? Maybe because he likes it!)? Though I discovered the beauty and power of Conrad and Faulkner in school, I have to say the assigned book I enjoyed most has to be “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. There are few books that speak so eloquently of real life and real people, and my heart still swells when I think of that extraordinary ordinary man, Atticus Finch, and the way he stood up for what was right.
The classic I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read
There are lots of them! I haven’t read almost any modern classics – no “Catch-22”, no “Brave New World”, no “Lolita” – and very few American classics at all. I am embarrassed and feel slightly guilty about my failings in this category. If I had to pick only one, though, I’d say “The Scarlet Letter” because really, how hard would it be for me to read it? I’d probably even enjoy it.
The classic I’ve pretended to have read
I would never pretend to have read a book I hadn’t read. I fully acknowledge all my shortcomings.
The novel people might be surprised to learn that I love
I think people think that I don’t like anything that’s popular (which is generally true). So you might be surprised to know that I loved Stephen King at the height of his powers in the 1970s and 80s, and “The Stand” is one of my favorite books ever. I even bought the super-duper re-edited (or one might say, unedited version) in which King put back all the stuff he had taken out to bring the book down to a manageable size — 400 pages worth. This extended version is over 1,100 pages. I have to admit, I haven’t tackled it yet. I’m too intimidated.
The books I consider to be grossly overrated
Okay, I am not one to point fingers here. I know I have some highfalutin’ ideas about what constitutes good writing and good storytelling, and most of what is popular — or even reviewed well — does not fit my definition of those things. I’ll offer an example. “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” was a bestseller, in part because Oprah chose it for her book club. Everywhere I turned, there were rave reviews for this book. When I bought it for my book club — because there were so many holds on the library copies I couldn’t get it in time — the guy at the register couldn’t resist telling me how much he loved it. So I dove in. And I didn’t get the hype. When the best thing about a novel is the part told from a dog’s point of view, I would think that would be a dead giveaway that you’ve got a serious problem. Further, no one in my book club besides me realized that it was a retelling of Hamlet, so they experienced varying emotions from lost to frustrated at the seemingly pointless meanderings of the plot which were driven not by the characters but by the structure of the source material – another clear problem. Did it have its moments? Absolutely. Did it deserve the raptures of millions? No. I think people said they loved it because they were told they should love it: by the publisher, by Oprah, by reviewers. This kind of “emperor’s new clothes” thing happens all the time, and it makes me crazy.
My favorite movie versions of great novels
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is one, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy (extended versions) — which I view as one really long film — is another, the recent “Jane Eyre” with Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska, is a third.
The thing that happens when I buy my own books in bookstores
Well, okay, hasn’t happened yet. I’d like to think it will be awesome. I’m sure no one but me will even notice.
The last book that made me cry — and the last one that made me laugh.
Actually, I can think of three books that made me cry recently. My daughter Becca has been insisting that I read “Mockingbird” by Kathryn Erskine (which, ironically, has “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a central theme), and I finally did. It brought me to tears at the very end. She’s a very wise person, my daughter. (She also shared with me the book that made me laugh out loud: “Hyperbole and a Half” by Allie Brosh. I can’t even. You just have to.) About a year ago, I wept during “Flying the Dragon” by Natalie Dias Lorenzi, which I have reviewed here on this blog. Beautiful prose, beautiful story. And before that, I cried over “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel, not just because there were moments of pure emotion that broke my heart, but because her writing was so exquisite, so miraculous, so powerful, so beyond what I can even express to you, that I was moved not only as a reader experiencing the story but also as a writer flattened to the floor by my inability to even imagine putting such words on paper. I did not want that book to end. Ever.
The eternal question: Do I read my own books after they come out?
I don’t know if I will. I know I’ll seek them out in stores and look them up on line. I know I’ll touch them and carry them around with me. I may even keep one under my pillow. But I may never read them again because I know how critical I am. I’ll probably hate them once they’re in print and I can’t play with them any more.
There. That’s my go at it. Now it’s your turn. Bloggers, I hope you’ll take the questions to heart and put your answers on your own blog; if you do, don’t forget to link back here in the comments so I can read and comment on yours. Readers, give me your answers in the comments. GO!