As Jonathan Franzen walked purposefully toward me at LAX, I realized that eight years had passed since I'd last been his author escort. At that time he was still the object of controversy because he had tangled with Oprah Winfrey, who uninvited him to be on her show after Franzen questioned her decision to make The Corrections one of her "Picks." The author who I presumed would be a sullen client turned out to be an engaging presence in the passenger seat of my car, and Franzen quickly won me over that day in 2002 when I drove him to book signings and events in Los Angeles. I hoped, when I dropped him back at his hotel that night, to eventually have the opportunity to escort him again.
Despite a career change in the intervening years, I never gave up escorting, even when I began to hate driving in Los Angeles, because the jobs avail me of such brilliant experiences. They've become scarce, though, so when I get a call from a publisher, it's likely to bring breathtaking news.
Such was the case when FSG asked me to escort Franzen in L.A. during his Freedom book tour. I knew it was going to be a more significant visit than the last one, but nothing could have prepared me for the velocity of interest surrounding Freedom. The night before I was to meet Franzen's plane, his publicist phoned to say that Oprah's next book club announcement was "imminent" and I was to stay mum on the matter in the meantime. Life was about to come full circle, with me in the driver's seat when it happened.
Franzen hates driving in L.A. nearly as much as I do, and this was the only tour city he had requested an author escort for. It took us more than an hour to get downtown, time enough to discuss his speed at signing books (1,500 copies in two hours at Powell's the day before, which I considered inhumane, but according to him is "better than working in a chicken factory"); debate the finer points of interviewing (while with the New York Times he eventually eschewed tape recorders for handwritten notes); and a harmonious phone conversation he'd had with Oprah that afternoon.
We entered the Aratani/Japan America Theatre through the rear door and the event hosts greeted Franzen enthusiastically. After a sound check, photos, and coffee, Franzen retreated to the greenroom for a few solitary moments. Six hundred people cheered when he strode, a little embarrassed, across the stage to the podium. He read a mesmerizing passage from Freedom, his delivery natural and confident, and during the q&a with the L.A. Times interviewer—who approached Franzen as a celebrity rather than a man of letters—the audience was rapt as Franzen deflected the awkward moments.
It wasn't until I was seated with Franzen at the book-signing table in the lobby that I realized the true impact of his tour. Of the hundreds of people in line, most carried more than one copy of Freedom, some half a dozen, and as each person reached the table where Franzen greeted his fans warmly—dashing off signatures and inscriptions, and offering warm handshakes—it was evident that these people were happy to have spent the money to buy the book. In this room there was an economic recovery, on the heels of a report that day about record numbers of Americans now living below the poverty line.
I imagined copies of Freedom moving swiftly through independent bookstores all over the country, even more so after Oprah's announcement the next morning, and how this novel might be the saving grace of many struggling booksellers who wonder how and if they will survive beyond this holiday season.
Back in the car after two exhilarating hours of watching Franzen interact with his fans, we sat quietly at a red light near Skid Row. Exhausted to the point of punchiness, I said, "So, that nice young man who introduced himself to you as Slippy?" Franzen stared straight ahead. "Well, the woman immediately after him was named Noolie. Remember?"
Suddenly Franzen and I were bent over laughing, hysterical, breathless, and as the light turned green and tears streamed down my face, it occurred to me how lucky I was to be having this extraordinary moment with the most famous writer in America. Thanks, Franzen. Let Freedom ring.
Wendy Werris is the West Coast correspondent for Publishers Weekly.