The line to get into the book store, two hours early
The Great American Novelist kicked off his speaking tour for his newly released novel Freedom at an unlikely location: a strip mall in Santa Cruz, California. Actually, not even Santa Cruz proper — but the outlying surfer town of Capitola.
Me with my friend Susannah, Franzen fan-girls
As I write this, I am kicking myself for actually following the book store lady's request that we not take photos of Jonathan Franzen, although I did see a few flashes pop as literature's answer to Hugh Grant stepped up to the podium in the packed Capitola Book Cafe.
Dressed in a rumpled white shirt and black jeans, Franzen raked his fingers through his famously tousled hair, which is now more gray than not.
"I have not hitherto been nervous about a bookstore reading," he stammered, calling Tuesday night's appearance a pre-season game. "Hometown crowds are always the hardest," he added.
Perhaps the sporting analogies were an introduction to the passage he was about to read from Freedom, introducing us to high school basketball star Patty Berglund. Perhaps the awkwardness is part of Franzen's authorial persona, more comfortable in front a computer (with the Internet ports disabled) than in front of a overheated room full of fans.
I had arrived early enough to score a good seat, not directly in front (those were reserved for the book store's club members), but to his left, where he turned often to address the standing room only crowd. And I like to think — me.
Lit Boy did not disappoint, with a surprisingly emotive reading of the dialogue-heavy backstory of Patty, her bleeding-heart politician mother, and attorney father. He charmed the crowd by attempting to evade the Q&A session, "No questions? Alright! Let's sign books!" then graciously introducing his girlfriend, Kathryn, and several friends from New York.
In response to one question, Franzen even offered advice for struggling young writers:
- Be prepared for the struggle.
- Read lots and lots of books (he recommends early 20th century Russians) — good writing becomes internalized.
- Find somebody who will be really, really hard on your prose.
I raised my hand, but didn't get picked. But as I made my way to the podium to get my book signed, Jonathan looked at me. In the eye. Here was my chance to pop my question.
"What do you think about Freedom being picked for the Salon book club?"
He batted his Bambi lashes in that flustered way of his, "I wasn't aware that it was picked. I mainly read the New York Times. But Salon does fine work. I think it's a good thing."
Text and images © 2010 Grace Hwang Lynch