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.”

Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
    Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

    They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

    A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
    David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

    Hanging with the Hoff

    Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
    Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

    Hipsters of Arabia

    Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
    The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

    The cult of Roger Federer

    What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?
    Kuala Lumpur's street food: Not a 'scene', more a way of life

    Malaysian munchies

    With new flights, the amazing street food of Kuala Lumpur just got more accessible
    10 best festival beauty

    Mud guards: 10 best festival beauty

    Whether you're off to the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury or a local music event, we've found the products to help you
    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe

    A Different League

    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe, says Pete Jenson
    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey - Steve Bunce

    Steve Bunce on Boxing

    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey
    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf