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Jonathan Franzen to speak on campus, accept Gardner Book Award
March 4, 2012Tweet
Jonathan Franzen will visit Binghamton University on Wednesday to accept the John Gardner Binghamton Fiction Book Award for his latest novel, Freedom.
Franzen said he was struck by Gardner’s work while he was in college. “He was one of the first contemporary American novelists I found my way to,” said Franzen, who recalls his high school-era reading as consisting primarily of classics and science fiction. “He was very much on my radar just when I was starting out as a novelist myself.”
Gardner, author of novels such as Grendel and The Sunlight Dialogues, was a member of the Harpur College faculty when he died in a motorcycle accident in 1982.
Franzen said he appreciates Gardner’s emphasis on having faith, not in a religious way but as a kind of patience. “Patience is really hard because it seems like the world changes every five minutes,” said Franzen, who famously finds ways to shut out the world while he’s working.
That’s part of the advice he’ll share with Binghamton students. “My advice is don’t believe the hype,” he said. “You don’t actually have to immerse yourself in all of the techno cultural noise. In fact, I would argue that if you close out all of the noise you can hear what’s really important more easily. Beyond that, I would echo Gardner and say have faith and be patient.”
He said the best advice he ever received from a writer came from the legendary novelist Don DeLillo: “The writer leads. He doesn’t follow.”
Franzen recently finished writing scripts for the first season of an HBO series based on his National Book Award-winning novel The Corrections. He’s looking forward to new nonfiction projects, too, including traveling to Albania for National Geographic.
“One benefit of having been chained to the TV show is that I’m hungry to write fiction again,” he said. “I haven’t written a word in 26 months. I’m longing for it. It’s the thing I do best, and it’s also the hardest.”
When he’s not immersed in writing a novel, Franzen enjoys bird watching and has become involved in bird conservation. He said he has also read some exciting new books, including Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Informers, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding and Joshua Cody’s memoir [sic].
What does this writer look for as a reader? “It’s somewhat mysterious,” Franzen said. “I think good writing. I don’t mean pretty writing or lyrical writing. I mean something about the sentences being alive. Usually that’s related to the presence of irony or comedy. And I think most of all it’s related to whether the writer has something to say.”
Franzen, of course, has a lot to say. About relationships, families, politics and more. “I’m always at some level trying to be funny,” he said. “Not on 100 percent of the pages. But it’s really just the relentless search every morning when I’m working on a novel to keep myself interested in the page. I myself tend to get bored reading nice stories about nice people.”
He has said that many readers complain his characters are too unhappy or too mean. Everyone thinks they’re nice, he said, “but most people are no more than 60 percent nice — and it’s the 40 percent that really interests me.”
Franzen’s reading will begin at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday in the UU-Mandela Room. The Binghamton University Book Awards are sponsored by the Binghamton Center for Writers, with support from the Office of the Dean of Harpur College.