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John Freeman: High priest at the altar of literature

The critic John Freeman explains his love for writing, and writers, to Christian House

This is an interview with an author who has written a book of interviews with authors. As such I’m writing about a writer who has written about writers writing. And, as he sits sipping coffee in the fire-lit library of London’s Covent Garden Hotel, John Freeman happily acknowledges the peculiar origami nature of that folding equation.

“When I went to talk to writers the last thing I really wanted to do was to get them to explain their work or to even put it under a critical umbrella,” says Freeman. “Because most of them I found, when I asked those kind of questions, shut down.” Instead, what he was after was “to try to get them to talk about what they most want to talk about. Which is difficult because people come with their prepared spiels.”  

For more than 15 years Freeman challenged that patter as he rode an Anglo-American literary train. Now resident in New York, after four years editing the literary magazine Granta in London (a role from which he resigned this spring) he has been one of the most prolific book critics in the English-speaking world. In How to Read a Novelist, he has compiled a broad selection of his author interviews. The result is a fascinating survey of the landscape ploughed by the leading lights of literary fiction: from the old guard, including Toni Morrison, Gunter Grass and Norman Mailer, to contemporary stylists such as Dave Eggers, Jennifer Egan and David Foster Wallace.

The majority of the pieces were written prior to Freeman’s Granta appointment in 2009, with most pre-dating the financial crisis, the Obama administration and the UK’s coalition, which, I suggest, might make the book a time capsule. “I hope not. There are a lot of comments about Bush I noticed. Especially through the Americans,” he says. However, he acknowledges that the novelistic terrain has changed over the time range of these writers.

“With Mailer and Morrison the energy comes from the deep structure and from the narrative design,” says Freeman. “The predilection now, at least in the US, is towards style and sentence structure, that’s what they teach in the writing programmes because you can’t teach experience.”

It’s easy to understand his appeal to renowned authors. In person, Freeman is erudite, curious and has a just-hanging-at-the-diner ease to his manner. It’s a disarming combination. Born in Ohio to social worker parents, he graduated from Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, where he was already under the spell of international authors. “We’d go and sit at the café and smoke and read Amis and Barnes”.

His book opens with an essay entitled “U and Me”: the “U” being John Updike, Freeman’s idol. In it, he recounts his interview with the author at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts where he tells his hero all about his current divorce proceedings. When he tried for a second interview Freeman was faced with an awkward truth. “We got some mixed feedback from John on the last conversation,” said Updike’s publicist. It seems the rules, such as they are, had been broken. These are not normal dialogues, he posits, but rather “a form of conversation that has the same relationship to talking as fiction does to life”.

“The trick that we try to do,” he says, drawing me into this shared conspiracy, “is that you try to get someone talking to where they forget it’s an interview even though you’re still following the rules. And then you just start moving the goal posts and then, at some point, they realise what you’re doing and they say ‘wait a second’.” Such was the case with Don DeLillo. “I asked him, have you ever been in a situation where you’ve had to pull the plug on someone. You know, one of those long pauses, and he says, ‘No, but if I did I wouldn’t talk of it publicly...’”

Shock revelation, he explains, was not his aim. “I never wanted to get into that instinct for a kind of gotcha moment,” he says, although he found some novelists surprisingly open. “I interviewed Edna O’Brien once and she was extremely forthcoming. I felt like I could have just asked her anything. Edmund White too. He would have said anything. But he’s also said everything in his work, so it made it slightly tricky to figure out what to ask him.” 

Some of his subjects have since passed away including, most recently, Doris Lessing. Lessing left a mark on Freeman. Her piece is the only one that is in a question and answer format. “I kind of want to hear her voice only. Part of what I liked so much about interviewing her was that she was  flirtatious... In the best sense where you thought your intelligence is physical, I can feel it sort of vibrating next to me. It wasn’t sort of ‘what are you doing later on?’ it was quick, back and forth repartee.”

He began his Granta tenure with a lunch with Salman Rushdie. “He said, the first thing you need to know is that England and America are two countries divided by a common language.” Freeman attempted to bridge that divide. “The best working relationship of my life,” he says. “Magazines have to constantly update themselves. The way they look and how they’re published. A lot of people, especially the Ishigurus, Rushdies and Amises, they get to a point when they only really want to write their novels. With writers of that age and calibre, and at that point in their career, it becomes very hard to convince them to write something new or to give you something. A lot of those people were tied up to first-look deals with the New Yorker so everything they wrote, from their doggerel to their shopping list to the right to excerpt their next novel was tied up. So my job was that much harder. I wanted to figure out where the new writing was coming from.”

His departure from Granta, along with his deputy and others, caused consternation in literary circles. He explains that he left over proposed staff cuts. “The ultimate divide was just about how to approach the future,” he says. “I hired all those people not just because I like them, and spent a lot of time with them, but because I thought they were good.”

While teaching in New York, Freeman is now considering his next role. “I do believe in literature,” he says, smiling. “It’s my secular religion and I do love working with writers and I love discoveries, and so I want to find something other than book reviewing which will allow me to do that. I just haven’t figured out what that is.”