How to Read a Novelist by John Freeman can be read as a self-help book, chock full of inspirational quotes, for a young writer. Freeman, the former editor-in-chief of Granta, has also served as the president of the National Book Critics Circle. He teaches creative writing at Columbia University and the City University of New York. He is the perfect person to put together this collection of conversations with over fifty novelists, including John Updike, Toni Morrison, Mo Yan, Michael Ondaatje, Amy Tan, Jonathan Franzen and many, many more global novelists.
Freeman has collected these conversations with writers since 2004, and he offers a brief biographical introduction to each piece for this book. Although the conversations are a result of interviews, they read more like essays. In his introduction Freeman says, “These are not meant to be definitive life profiles but rather glimpses spied through a moving window.”
I attended an event for How to Read a Novelist at The POWERHOUSE Arena in Brooklyn. Freeman was in conversation with Geoff Dyer, one of the writers profiled in his book. That evening, the tables were turned on the interviewer: Dyer did most of the questioning. Freeman has easy conversational style. It is no surprise that he managed to interview such impressive writers.
The conversation with Jonathan Safran Foer, for instance, starts with Foer giving a guest lecture on a Friday morning at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. With these casual entries into conversation, the writers seem more at ease and the pieces do not generally read as straightforward question-and-answer sessions. Similarly, in the conversation with Rushdie, amid talk of communism and Europe, Khomeini and the fatwa, Freeman also manages to tell us about Rushdie’s then-wife, Padma Lakshmi. He writes:
Lakshmi recently added fuel to the New York City gossip cauldron when she revealed that she often likens her shoes to her husband’s books, and explained, “When he says, ‘Why do you need more shoes?’ I say, ‘Why do you need more books? My shoes are the same as your books; they are a part of who you are.’”
The conversation with Jennifer Egan tells us that until the age of thirty-five, she fantasized about becoming a police officer. And she writes her novels in long hand. John Updike wanted to be a cartoonist. Vikram Chandra had originally considered film school. Kazuo Ishiguro did not appreciate Freeman spilling crumbs from his scone during their interview. We also discover that many writers are unexpectedly short.
The collection opens with Toni Morrison, and Freeman is clearly a fan. Several “chapters” later, in conversation with James Wood, the formidable critic, we learn that Wood is definitely not a fan. Freeman writes:
Toni Morrison, Wood wrote, “loves her language more than she loves her own characters.”
If you read this book in order (which you shouldn’t — it is for reading forwards and backwards and inside and out), when you reach the conversation with Wood, you smile and think back to the section on Morrison. Through Freeman, the reader becomes part of the literary community. Did you know that Rushdie and Foer play ping-pong together?
These conversations are lively, quick and inspiring. For a young, aspiring writer, this is a very useful book to keep near your desk. And for a lover of books, it is for a source of pleasure. To read a few of the pieces before bed at night is to go to sleep in the company of friends.
– Diksha Basu is a writer and actor who divides her time between NYC and Bombay. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. You can find her on twitter@dikshabasu.