For most of us, there’s a clear line between a novel and an author. The most we ever experience of the person behind the book is the bio on the back cover and maybe a carefully posed headshot. Not so for John Freeman. He makes his living interviewing writers the world over, from Nobel laureates to New York Times Best Sellers. For his new book, How to Read a Novelist, he pulls together several dozen of his most interesting and illuminating interviews, ranging from Salman Rushdie to Margaret Atwood to David Foster Wallace. The book reveals that there is no one definition of the writer’s life. Each author seems to have a focus and a process as unique as the works they create.
Savannah Magazine: I’m a little intimidated talking to someone who interviews authors for a living. I wonder if I should have you interview yourself for this.John Freeman: If that happens you’d have to charge me, and I’d just keep talking until we run out of time.
Savannah Magazine: Have you been to Savannah before?John Freeman: I’ve never been to Savannah. I’ve been to other parts of the state. You know, I think I drove through Savannah once, but I’m looking forward to going. I think I stopped in a Denny’s, which is probably not the best way to experience it an hour.
Savannah Magazine: I hope that’s not the best we have to offer. Your new book is a collection of interviews you’ve had with an astounding list of authors. How long have you been doing this type of interview?John Freeman: I guess I would say about 15 years. Out of college, I worked in publishing for two years, and then I quit my job and moved to New England and started cobbling together a life as a freelance book reviewer. After maybe a year or two of doing it, I just hit on the idea of interviewing an author I knew well enough that talking to her wasn’t terribly terrifying. Her name was Allegra Goodman. She had four books out and had about four kids. A real prodigy of sorts. She had published her first book when she was a student at Harvard. I went and sat and talked with her about this new book she had coming out, which was full of scientific information and Jane Austen-like representations of the inner life of her characters. And it was so beautiful, and I thought there was a strange dissonance between sitting down with this person who was very straightforward and funny and kind of light and the intense seriousness and intellectual rigor of her book. I got such a hit of excitement talking to her. Not because I was meeting a celebrity or something, but because I felt for the first time that miraculous gap between who an author is and what they create, and how in the course of a conversation that gap can be slightly shrunk to some degree, and at the same time made more mysterious. From that moment on, if someone asked, I would do it again, but no one asked so I started asking if I could talk to authors. Within a year or two, I was starting to talk to the authors I really admired like John Updike, who I interviewed for the first time in about 2000. At that point I had moved back to New York, and writers come through New York often because a lot of their publishers are there and it’s sometimes the start of their book tour. I was also writing for overseas newspapers, so suddenly, I went from occasionally interviewing an author to what felt like interviewing one a week. For about ten years there, I was meeting all kinds of people who I never expected to meet. And I was constantly traveling in a kind of comet trail of surreal appreciation for what a great job I had kind of meandered into.
Savannah Magazine: You talk about the task of telling stories and what compels authors to tell those stories. You felt something the first time you talked to an author. What made it compelling for you? Is it sort of your telling the story of the author’s story?John Freeman: I always felt, as a reviewer, one of the hardest tasks is describing what it felt like to be inside a book. I think a reviewer doesn’t describe a book, they describe their experience with it. That has a second layer when it comes to describing a person, because you have to describe them, what it feels like to meet them, and then you also have to, if you’re a good journalist, compress and make the story dramatic. The story a writer tells when they explain how it is and what it is they do. For me, that seems really important, especially when it’s an author whose life or work or both are kind of a form of bearing witness to the world and to history, to the way that literature, fiction in particular, can take large moments of history, whether it’s America’s past with slavery in Toni Morrison’s book or Japan’s kind of post-World War II world in the work of Haruki Murakami, and bring it down to a human level and make it specific, make it into a human narrative instead of a cultural or community narrative, which is what I think history is. As a journalist, to take that doubling moment and make it intense and coherent and as compelling as it is when the author describes it to you is a challenge, but it’s a lot of fun, and it feels important.
Savannah Magazine: This is more of a personal question. Haruki Murakami is one of my big influences. How was it to interview him?John Freeman: He seemed really great. I was interviewing him when he had a book called What We Talk About When We Talk About Running, and it was about him leaving his jazz club, giving up smoking, and starting to become a runner at the same time. I was also a runner. I met him at a hotel, and he seemed monkish in the sense that every day he does the same thing. He gets up, goes for a run, writes for a couple hours, takes a break, has lunch, translates , spends his afternoons going over what he wrote and reading a bit. That’s his day, every day, wherever he is. To find that all those books and their crazy flights of fancy and their spooky imagination—why making spaghetti seems so ominous—has come out of something so simple as a daily routine. It was kind of inspiring because as a guy from the suburbs, occasionally as a writer I was worried: what do I have to write about? It turns out you can write about anything if you go into the dark corners of your imagination, which is Murakami’s way of approaching it. He talks about it like he’s some kind of miner. He’s just going into a dark space and excavating until something glints in the dark and then he keeps hammering away until he finds a vein, something precious and special. One of the reason I put the book together is that there are just so many different ways to be a writer, so many different approaches, so many different interactions between the writer’s life and their work. Some write away from their life, but it’s coded in their work, maybe unconsciously. And then some people like Updike write so autobiographically that if you read a biography of him, then you can see very clearly why he was writing certain books at the time he wrote them.
Savannah Magazine: That leads me to another question I had. How does interviewing an author change your experience of reading their work?John Freeman: I worried about this because I love reading more than meeting writers, but in all the best cases, all the interviews collected in this book, it really improved it. And also, when I sat down to read a new book by Murakami or Günter Grass, I wouldn’t think about having met them. It was almost like it took place in a separate universe. My feeling is that reading is kind of like a controlled dream state. The author is the person who you interact with in waking life, but they don’t come with you into the dream. They’re the ones kind of creating the dream, but they’re not there. They’re not a voice-over, they’re not a presence in the dream. Even like with Jonathan Safran Foer and Philip Roth, they write themselves as characters into the dream, but having met them, they don’t come into that space. I was glad for that. I think there is something to be said for not treating writers like celebrities. They’re not meant to be frontmen or frontwomen of their own work. They’re there to write, and they have this job of sitting alone in a room or wherever it is they do their work, in solitary confinement of sorts, doing it. So to be out there and explaining it is an extra benefit, but it’s not what they’re there for. I worried sometimes that this culture of celebrity would carry over to the reading life but for me it never did, and this is after having interviewed hundreds of novelists.
If You Go:See John Freeman at the 7th Annual 2014 Savannah Book Festival, 10:15 a.m., Feb. 15, at the Telfair Academy.
From the EditorIf marriage is the consummation of love, we townies are the ultimate tourists. After all, what is a love affair that lasts a week compared to one that endures for a lifetime? To riff on the old chastity saw, our 12 million annual visitors may drink the milk—but we Savannahians bought the sacred cow. Sure, we’re attracted by the Hostess City’s public image—lush gardens, living history and colorful characters—but we treasure her candid expressions more. We love her unexpected awkwardness (37th Street, anyone?) and her sleepy morning face (a bewilderment of birds and walking hangovers). Because we’re in a relationship, we’re not content to admire Savannah. We want to know her. That’s why we don’t just tour; we explore. Our storied city has not one but more than 139,180 faces (U.S. Census 2011), and we at Savannah magazine enjoy the privilege of meeting many of them. In this issue, we took apart the icons that put our city on the map and sought out the individuals who give life here meaning. Behind the ubiquitous smiling face of Paula Deen, for example, we found chicken “golden-alizer” Michael McCollough and kitchen muse “Jelly Roll” Jones. In the shadow of Supreme Court Justice and Savannah son Clarence Thomas, we found his cousin, the “Mayor of Pin Point,” and his whole historic community of delightful, disarming neighbors. Beneath the glitzy, bawdy stage face of The Lady Chablis, we discovered a sensitive and nurturing friend. We hunted ghosts but found an even eerier entourage. We peeled away the sweet layers of the Vidalia onion and met the locals who live for its brief spring harvest. We had cocktails with a comedic concierge and took a Slow Ride with a seriously silly pirate. We discovered and debriefed 21 rising stars who hold the city’s future in their talented hands. We dug up Savannah founder Gen. James Oglethorpe’s experimental garden, alive and well miles away at the Historic Bamboo Farm. In short, we’re discovering Savannah, again and again. Whether you drink the milk or buy the cow, we invite you to explore with us. Warmly, Annabelle Carr, Editor
Slider Credits:>> Photography by Tim Willoughby >> Styling by Lynn Serulla
Lyn Gregory and Susanna Sonnenberg, author of She Matters, discuss the importance of female friendships.Susanna Sonnenberg has written two memoirs--the first about the fraught relationship with her mother. Her latest book tackles the nuances and complexities of women’s friendship with an honest, raw look at the ones she's enjoyed, survived and endured since childhood. The stories of these friendships paint portraits full of passion, inspiration, love and betrayal and are a testament to the importance of female friendships in shaping the lives of women. Susanna was born in London but grew up in New York and now lives in Montana with her husband and two sons. Savannah Magazine: This is your second memoir. What about this genre inspires your writing? Susanna Sonnenberg: In my first book, Her Last Death, about my pathological mother, I needed rigorous honesty as a counterpoint to all the lying I was raised with. The form demands honesty and authenticity. It’s what makes for good writing for me. SM: You focused on your relationships with women, not men, in this book. What made you decide to restrict yourself to female relationships? Susanna: When we tell the story of our lives, we discuss jobs, college boyfriends and other elements as the events in our lives, but our female friendships aren’t billed as prominent markers in telling our stories. I was interested in what was not getting said, the underlying bones of our lives, those dramatic relationships that don’t get talked about. SM: Some of the friendships you recount in your memoir are short lived and others extend over long periods of time. Are these “bursts” of friendship as important in shaping our lives as the long term ones? Susanna: I do. I write memoir listening to the nagging, little voices, memories that never leave you. If you are still thinking about that person years later, something happened. There’s a reason they come back to you. I was trying to look as the ways every experience makes us who we are; in the development of self, I wanted to use friendship as the lens. SM: Some of the most painful and honest sections of your book, recount fractured friendships such as Nina and Claire. These must have been hard to write about so openly. Susanna: It did help me understand these relationships at a deeper level and the process brought me a lot of compassion for the women involved and also for myself. There is a myth that all women’s friendships are happy and supportive but they are always more complex and challenging than that simple description. SM: Did you lose any friendships over the publication of your book? Susanna: Either I cleared it with a friend before I included specific information or I changed some details to obscure the identity of the relationship. SM: As a result of analyzing your friendships, can you share with us what are the most important characteristics of enduring relationships? Susanna: Forgiveness and the ability to repair damage done. We all mess up; we all disappoint. Most often it happens in ways that have nothing to do with the friendship but one’s own history. We have to be brave enough, strong enough to find ways through. And sometimes, in spite of great love, it just isn’t possible to make it work. SM: Have you ever been to the South before? What do you imagine Savannah to be like? Susann: I’ve spent time in Virginia and New Orleans but not Georgia, even though one of the important friendships in the book is with a woman from Georgia. I picture it as very proper and beautiful. It does take three planes to get there though!
John Krasinski's Peter is charming and witty, but his one-liners can’t save him from the devastatingly difficult realities of marriage, commitment and family life. Allison Brooks offers advice.Peter (John Krasinski) heads a seemingly nuclear Silver Lake family in this predictable boy-meets-girl, boy-likes-girl, things-don’t-work-out film—although there is a bit of a twist from the age-old story. When Martine (Olivia Thirlby), a 23-year-old film student working on her thesis, moves to California to finish the sound direction for her project, Peter agrees to help her as a favor to his wife, Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt). Slowly—and I mean slowly—director Russo-Young reveals that nobody’s perfect in this film: Peter can’t fight his attraction to Martine, Julie invites her ex-husband (Dylan McDermott) over for family dinner, and Martine can’t seem to ever say no to sex. The most refreshing part of the film comes unexpectedly: a side story focusing on Kolt (India Ennenga), Julie’s daughter from her first marriage. Kolt so effortlessly portrays how it feels to be a teenage girl in love with a man she can’t have. Poetically delusional, she tells her friends she and David (Rhys Wakefield), Peter’s assistant, have a complicated relationship due to their age difference. When she sees David making out with Martine in his car, we feel her heart break. While Russo-Young fails to grip her audience with a strong plot and general character formation, she does capture the complications of sexuality quite well. Apart from Peter and Martine, she explores Julie’s relationship with one of her patients (Justin Kirk) who describes his fantasies about her in detail, and Kolt’s much older Italian tutor (Emanuele Secci) suggests uncomfortable sexual undertones throughout the story. With no solid conclusion, the film doesn't earn the audience's devotion. Nobody Walks has less staying power than the characters intwined in the film's relationships. As I left Trustees Theater, I heard a group of 20-somethings discussing the film: “I understood the point but none of the characters were likable enough for me to care about them.”
Nobody WalksStarring: John Krasinski, Olivia Thirlby, Rosemarie DeWitt Director: Ry Russo-Young
Jonathan Able parties with the VIPs for night four of the Savannah Film Festival.Is it just me, or does the film festival keep getting bigger and bigger? For Wednesday’s 7 p.m. showing of Hyde Park on Hudson, all seats were filled in the spacious Trustees Theater. Audiences had flocked to the theater well in advance, some arriving as early as 4:30 p.m. to secure slots in both the pass-holder and ticketed lines. Thanks to the film’s modest run time of about 1.5 hours, the Hyde Park audience still had a small sliver of time to catch the evening’s second screening, Dracula, for a Halloween fright at the Lucas Theatre. Film industry luminaries and big-ticket donors made their way to City Market for their nightly reception—hosted this time by the upscale Southern eatery, Belford’s. The welcoming space, with warm wooden floors and ample dining rooms, was filled to capacity with moviegoers eager for a good time. Whether it was the excuse to frolic on Halloween or just a much-needed hump-day fix, the crowd had the size and energy of Opening Night. Belford’s attendees passed around trays of savory quiches, miniature roast-beef-and-gouda sandwiches and bacon-wrapped scallops, all of which were devoured by hungry guests within minutes of being served. VIP vixen Gabourey Sidibe (Precious) was dressed in a crimson pirate costume in honor of the haunted holiday, and Ty Pennington (Extreme Makeover: Home Edition) appeared as a ninja turtle (or was it a Geico gecko?) to join in the evening’s festivities.