A capacity crowd of approximately 1,000 people turned out to watch BEA's curtain-raising event, a highly anticipated conversation between bestselling novelist Jonathan Franzen and Laura Miller of Salon.com. The discussion centered on Purity, Franzen's fifth novel and his first since 2010's Freedom, which will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in September.
Miller began by asking Franzen where the idea for the novel came from, as it's a bit of a departure from his previous books that have centered on family life in America: Purity is about a young woman in Oakland, burdened by student debt, who follows a German peace activist to South America to intern for his WikiLeaks-like organization. "I have no idea where this story came from," Franzen said. He said the kernel of the novel came from an idea he'd always had: the image of a girl fleeing East Germany in the 1950s. "It gets harder to write novels, not easier." Over a writer's career, he said, "you use up the easy and surface stuff" first, and then dig deeper and deeper on each subsequent project.
Continuing the discussion on process, Franzen said that it "helps to start with people in an unstable, untenable position." He added, "You have to wing it. If you don't, it seems like it's coming from an outline." Franzen wrote the first chapter of Purity "very quickly, then I was stuck for nearly a year." But once he figured out the direction the book would take, "It was done a year later."
Miller and Franzen touched on a number of different subjects, including journalism, privacy in the modern age, free speech, writing from the perspective of young people ("They know what the world is like better than I did at their age"), and science fiction's early influence on him ("I've read more books by Asimov than any other writer").
Toward the end, Miller brought up Franzen's public reputation, which she phrased as his "sometime-curmudgeonliness." Franzen took it in stride, saying, "No! What makes you say that?" Miller drew out a comparison to the warmth he has for his characters as evidenced in his fiction, and wondered if he actually liked his characters "better than real people." Franzen responded, "I don't like them better. But I like them almost as much."
Galleys of Purity will be at the Macmillan booth, 3056.