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.”

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone