Finding New Voices: An interview with John Freeman
Photo: Deborah TreismanJohn Freeman’s writing and criticism have appeared in many publications across the world. He served as Editor-in-Chief at Granta and was president of the National Book Critics Circle. His most recent project is Freeman’s, a themed biannual literary anthology-meets-journal. The second issue, Freeman’s: Family, is available now.
Freeman’s main aim is bringing in voices not usually heard. He says we all can help: “The obstacles that are faced in life by writers of color and by women are so big they require massive movements of social change. But we can do a lot of good with very little effort as editors and writers, just by asking questions. If you have a friend who lives somewhere else, ask, ‘Who should I be reading?’”
This interview took place in Berkeley, California on Sunday, June 5th.
SH: You’ve written poetry for the New Yorker, criticism for the New York Times, and interviewed writers like Salman Rushdie for Granta. Have you found that, over the course of your writing life, the lens through which you judge what makes a work useful or enduring has changed?
Grove Press, 2016JF: Yeah, of course it changes. I think that every time you read something new that expands your idea of what a form is, or what the world is and contains, or what’s exciting, it makes other pleasures possible. One of the great things about reading is that it’s an inexhaustible pleasure because it leads you to other ones. I’m so grateful for working at Granta because of the types of writers they published in the past. It gave me a sense of what a certain kind of essay feels like. Also, because it doesn’t emerge directly out of new journalism in the way that Joan Didion gave birth to writers like Leslie Jameson. There’s a different tonal vibration to the use of the first person. The first person is not a subject, but an optic, and that was a revelation to me. It has changed the way I write. We live in — in North America — a culture of self-disclosure and self-exploration, and those things aren’t necessarily of value always. But the tools that you can bring with your point of view can be of great value if you use them to crack open a public event, space, or story, the way that, say, Rebecca Solnit does. All that has come to me through work that I’ve done in the past or through writers that I’ve been reading in the last five years, and I’m 41, so I love the idea that I don’t know what I’ll know in 20 years.
SH: Could you speak about a few writers with whom you’ve recently enjoyed collaborating? The process isn’t always easy.
JF: I never hope for easiness, actually. I want the writers to challenge themselves and to challenge me. If it was as easy as saying, ‘go write this,’ that’s basically like ordering wallpaper. Wallpaper is meant to be a background, but writing is meant to be in the foreground, so there has to be some kind of collision of sense and sensibility, and I always try, when I work with writers, to find out what they’re interested in, what they’re obsessed by.
Rebecca Solnit — I’ve edited a few of her pieces at LitHub — is an amazing writer to work with because she works so hard on getting the sentences right, and more broadly the argument and the ideas. And because she’s dealing with big ideas, it’s like an intellectual workout. It’s like I’m spotting her as she’s bench-pressing; it’s hard for me, too. I love that feeling because I feel like, intellectually, I get to grow along with her.
There’s this conception of the editor, that the editor knows language best and that the editor is the arbiter of ideas and the writer is the servant of ideas, and I think that — maybe I’m creating a straw man in that description — but I think that that approach to editing leads to stories you’ve already heard. And the stories I think people want to read are the ones they haven’t heard. Even if it’s something as simple as David Sedaris becoming obsessed with his FitBit and making a comic essay about it, his attempt to walk 60,000 steps a day — it’s so funny!
Grove Press, 2015Another writer that I’ve worked with in the last two issues of Freeman’s and the anthology Tales of Two Cities is Garnette Cadogan. He’s probably the most collaborative writer I’ve ever worked with. The first piece I worked with him on emerged from a series of stories he’d told me in conversation. We both came to the conclusion that maybe these were not discrete separate stories but one story. Getting him to tell those in a narrative arc involved lots of discussions beforehand and more as he was crafting it. Because he’s a writer of color I think people often ask him to write a certain kind of story that validates the stories that we read about people of color, and what he was writing was broader than that. It was about walking in dignity in public space, and who feels entitled to belong to a city. We probably worked on 5-10 drafts before he got it right. He takes a lot of care with the rhythm of his sound. He’s Jamaican so the rhythm of his English is different from someone who grew up in California. I had to learn how his sound should sound to him, and then how to edit him, so he sounds like himself. That’s a deeply collaborative process because as an editor you try to impose a sound, and often you can take away the best of what someone sounds like.
Garnette is an extremely natural writer, but his editing style, if you let him loose on himself, would be to edit himself down to nothing. He has a lot of powerful-minded friends who read him, and he collects their advice and uses the accelerant of his own self-doubt, and he often edits his pieces to the point where he just decides not to publish them. In this case [Freeman’s: Family — Cadogan’s piece is entitled “A Family Name”] he sent me what you read, almost in the form that you read it in and I said ‘This is great, I just have one or two things,’ I flew to London for Thanksgiving, ten days went by and he said, ‘You know, I have a few things I want to change,’ and I made the mistake of saying, ‘Take it back, and give it back to me when you think it’s ready.’ I had to pry it out of his hands. By the time I got the piece back, it sounded nothing like him because he had edited it down to where it sounded like something that ought to be published in Newsweek. So I said we should go back to what he originally sent. He said he wrote it very quickly, that it didn’t matter, but I said maybe that’s how he should be writing. Maybe he’s been thinking about these things for such a long time that they’ve already taken a shape and form in his mind, and really what [he] needs to do is give [his] mind a keyboard and get it down quickly. That’s become his working mode now. That probably wouldn’t work for most people, but for Garnette, that’s probably the way he should write.
One of the difficulties of being an editor is that everyone works differently and it’s as much learning how to edit in a way that best serves how the writer composes. So it means that I have to be a shape-shifter, quite plastic, in how I approach people. Everyone is motivated by different things, and works differently. Believing in the potential of the writer is the fun of it. It’s knowing that both of us don’t know what it will be like in the end, but believing that what it could be will be beautiful. That’s the greatest thing in the world.
The kinds of pieces I would like to publish are the ones that give people the opportunity to take risks. Everyone has that opportunity constantly — if you have a computer or a piece of paper you do — but sometimes having an editor saying ‘I’m here’ is enough. To me, that’s the main job of an editor: to be the person who’s there waiting.
SH: When do you think writing has the most power to affect change?
FSG, 2013JF: When there’s something at stake. When the writer is thinking in front of you. The essay as a form is supposed to be about making a narrative of thought, out of not knowing. Glossy magazines — not for all of them, but for many of them — the form of the essay is like the form of a romcom. The fact that you know what to expect is part of the comfort and pleasure of reading or watching it. But, in literary terms, you want something that is dangerous and risky and will ask the reader to take a leap of faith the writer is taking in front of them at the same time. You become fellow travelers on this experiment. To come back to Rebecca Solnit, for example, her essays have this meandering associative logic that takes a lot of risks, but that’s the enormous pleasure of reading her. When something can have an impact on social change it does so by finding new ways to approach something that’s been analyzed to death in predictable ways. A great writer can say, well, what if we look at it this way? And sometimes that’s as simple as putting themselves in the equation. If you go back to someone like George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London was one of the original examples of embedded journalism, like what we see more recently with Barbara Ehrenreich. Nickel and Dimed is a book that asks, what is it like to live on minimum wage, and can you do it? Orwell was asking a very similar question: Can I live in Paris on the wages that a restaurant would pay? He went into this experiment saying, how little can I make and still get by and feel like a human or a person, and still be me? In some ways it’s like this Norwegian novel by Knut Hamsun called Hunger, which is more of an existential approach to not eating. His is a sort of more practical approach to, how much degradation can a person take in their job before they say ‘This is enough’?
SH: Do you find that reading and working with writers you weren’t familiar with changes your perception of the norm and your expectations for what literature should do?
JF: I don’t think there necessarily is a norm. What’s wonderful about literature is that it’s constantly creating new possibilities through style and language and storytelling and by connecting unlike things. The sprawling, imaginary town at the edge of a reservation that Louise Erdrich has been writing about for thirty-five years is an outgrowth of Yaknapatawpha County that William Faulkner invented in Mississippi. He was writing about a population that felt marginalized by the collapse of the South post-reconstruction, and Louise Erdrich is writing about a population that’s been marginalized by the theft of the North American continent and the hardships that have been faced by Native Americans living on the small parts of reservations they can call their own. Writers create possibilities that they don’t necessarily have the capacity to think about. When Mo Yan accepted the Nobel Prize in Stockholm for his work, he spoke about the very soil he came from but he also spoke about William Faulkner, and to think that this guy in Mississippi in the 20s, 30s, and 40s could one day create an equally rich mythology in literature from mainland China was probably the last thing on [Faulkner’s] mind. He wasn’t thinking ‘This is my audience, this is what I’m making possible;’ he was writing what he needed to write, telling stories he needed to tell.
For that reason, what becomes normal is what people believe to be beautiful, which is often considered ugly at first, and important, and that is constantly being yoked from the margins into the center. Jazz music, hip hop — baseball was once a strange sport. This landscape that we’re sitting in was once a colony of a foreign country, and before that it was not considered to be the property of anyone; there were native populations living here. Bringing things into the center doesn’t devalue them; it creates bigger space in the margins for new things to be created. As long as we realize that and continually look to the margins for what’s next — that’s the editor’s job — then we’re in pretty good shape. The problem is, when something sits in the center for so long, it pushes out the margins.
Penguin Books, 2015That existed in this country. We had a generation of novelists born in the late 20s, early 30s — Norman Mailer, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth — who became a kind of Mount Rushmore for the critical establishment. They were all great novelists but they were also prolific, so their books were being reviewed constantly and even as the gender politics and the things that I think those book were not enlightened about changed, as they should have been changed a long time ago, [the authors] continued to sit in the center and take up a lot of space. I found, when those writers finally died, as we all sadly must, there was a great influx of oxygen in the room, and finally the critical organism in this country looked around to see, well, who was next. At first, I could see this in some of the writing about Jonathan Lethem and others, who are not to blame at all; it is more a reflection of the critical establishment. [The critics] were looking for the next Updike, the next Mailer, and really the question is bigger than that. It’s how has the world changed and who are the writers living in it in the most engaged way.
SH: Which is what you’re trying to give to readers with Freeman’s?
JF: Yeah, it’s easy at the start to come out swinging. Over time as magazines develop a readership and a following, I think there’s a temptation to give people what they’ve had before and I don’t have a problem — Garnette [Cadogan] is in the first two issues, as is Aleksandar Hemon, but these are two writers that are really in their stride, and I’ll publish them until I feel otherwise, really, or until they have other opportunities and don’t have time to write for me. But generally magazines over time can become a little bit calcified and my hope is that, by doing this every six months, and by trying as hard as I can to keep looking and changing, that I won’t fall into that, if I can stay around that long.
SH: You first began to envision Freeman’s when you left Granta and you missed that atmosphere, right?
JF: Yeah, but it’s different because there were ten people working at Granta. There were several editors — and people in promotion, sales, and marketing who are often perceived as lesser than participants of the magazine, but they all contribute to the atmosphere and the culture of a place, which in turn affects the editorial staff. But in this case it’s basically me, with an editor helping me at Grove, which publishes it. For the first issue it was this great editor, Peter Blackstock, who was the editor for The Sympathizer, the novel that just won the Pulitzer Prize. Now it’s an editor named Allison Malecha. I don’t think I could do it alone, without someone to bounce things off of. I’m still going to make my own choices, but one thing I loved at Granta was that interaction. As the editor, I could make the final choice on everything, but I loved having to defend my choices to people. When I started I was a young editor. Not necessarily in age, but I didn’t have a lot of experience running a publication. I basically had helped edit the National Book Critics website and reviewed lots of books, but I wasn’t coming out of a magazine background, I was coming out of being a writer and a critic, and that’s very different. It helped me to have strong-minded people around me that I had to convince, including for some time the publisher. The first couple of years I was there, she had a veto on what I published. Eventually, I asked her to take off the training wheels because, I thought, surely we both agree that this is going ok. She’d put them on for reasons I completely understand — she had gone through two editors in a year at a magazine that had had two editors over 35 years. But it worked out quite well because we worked very well together. She used the veto, in three years, two, maybe three times. In retrospect, there was a lot of reason to what she decided not to run. I probably would have run it, but having those conversations — everyone [from Granta’s staff] has gone on to do really fabulous things — I was just really lucky to be able to convince this particular group of people to be part of the band.
SH: You select writers from all over the world, with different histories and styles, and unite them thematically; how do you come across their work? What most interests you when reading a new writer?
JF: I’ll answer the second question first. What excites me is having a new sound or new voice. I don’t know how you think about Tame Impala, but I don’t think anyone would think that almost falsetto voice against an acid rock backdrop of sound, with ballads, would necessarily work, until you hear their sound and it makes a certain kind of sense. I think writers are similar in that the sonic qualities of the writing open up spaces of emotion and thought that exist within us but that need to be triggered. That, to me, is what makes searching so fun.
Argos Books, 2015How they come has a huge variety. For example, in the second issue [of Freeman’s], there’s an author named Athena Farrokhzad, who’s a Swedish-Iranian poet, who lives in Stockholm. Granta had a Swedish issue, and I used to talk a lot with the editor of that issue because we had similar-ish tastes, so I was always asking her who I should read, who wasn’t translated yet, or who should be translated, and she mentioned [Farrokhzad’s] name once. I was in Romania last fall, because I had a book come out in Romanian and there was a Freeman’s event, too. A journalist who came to that was talking about this Iranian poet. She said the name and I thought, I’ve heard that name before. So I searched my email and found the email with the Swedish editor in which I’d been discussing her work. Then, a third person mentioned her to me, separately, and I thought: that’s a sign.
So I tracked down her translator and it turned out [Farrokhzad] had a book that was being translated and was about to come out, but that she had other work that was un-translated. I read the manuscript of her poems and I thought: She’s really good. She’s like a kind of Sandra Cisneros; she has that sort of declarative, rolling, long-line style of poetry. I asked the translator to translate what was available. [Farrokhzad] had written a letter to her unborn child in poetic format that she read on Swedish radio. That sounds both potentially brilliant and terrible. It turned out to be brilliant. Jennifer Hayashida, who’s a Japanese American translator, brought it into English and I loved it. That’s the happy story. For every one of those, there’s usually three or four, which come out not quite being what you thought they’d be.
SH: What do you do in that case?
JF: Turn it down. Or, if it’s something I think is good, but doesn’t fit my theme, I’m a contributing editor to Zyzzyva, which is here in California, and I send it to Oscar [Villalon], or I’m a contributing editor to Iowa Review. Magazines are, I think, auditoriums, and some of them have better acoustics for different kinds of writing, so if something’s good, I rarely turn it down; I often pass it to someone else.
SH: Where should readers go, if they want to submit to Freeman’s?
JF: It’s not the most professional way, but I’m on Facebook and Twitter; they can find me there. Write to me. I write back to people. Not always as speedily as I should, but I don’t ignore people. I need things to happen. My hope is to publish something that draws people to it that I don’t know about. With the first and second issue, there were two unpublished writers, at least, and I want to keep doing that.
I want people submitting who have at least looked at the journal. I don’t have a website for that reason. I want people to actually read some of the writing in [the journal] because I think the writing actually has a great deal of value. It will, at the very least, tell the writers who want to submit, the level of writing I’m looking for. Not necessarily the names, because names can be deceptive, but the intensity, the shapeliness, and the vibration of necessity. That doesn’t necessarily mean trauma or loss; necessity can take many forms. Lydia Davis feeling like she needs to learn Norwegian in order to write the novel that she’s writing, so she reads the most difficult novel by a very difficult-to-translate Norwegian, in Norwegian, with nothing but her childhood German to give her a guide. Everyone’s necessity takes a different form.
SH: You said in a piece (“Driving in Lahore”) that you wrote for Granta that it was hard for you to get started out in writing. Did you mean it was hard for you as a writer — to find a voice, rework pieces, etc. — or to get published, and find an audience?
JF: It was easier, in the sense that I found an audience quickly as a book reviewer, but it was hard for me to figure out what I had to offer or what the things were that I would become obsessed with, other than literature itself. For me, that meant having life experience. I struggle with this with students who are young because you need an experience to force your voice into a form. For example, I wrote poetry until I was about 19, and stopped, and started again when I was in my early thirties, not because I wanted to write poems, but because I had something that was pushing language into that form. That’s difficult, because it requires patience. I thought I wanted to write novels when I was young, so I wrote a manuscript of a novel and went through everything that everyone does — you submit it to agents, wait around, and start spending your advance check. That failure was absolutely essential to me, as a writer and as an editor. It made me realize that you can’t choose form all the time. It sometimes chooses you, in the sense that you have to bang your head against a wall in one way for a while until you realize that sometimes the thing that can rescue your voice and get you going again is right in front of you.
SH: Which are your favorite publications?
ZyzzyvaJF: That’s a really good question. It varies. Some days the New York Times is, because it covers so much, even though I disagree sometimes with their editorials and the presumptions behind some of their overseas reporting, they do such an incredible array of journalism, from science writing, to domestic reporting, to investigative reporting, to reporting about human stories in New York. Almost every day that I read it I find something that enlarges my life. It’s my hometown paper, basically, because I’ve lived in New York on and off for 20 years. I’m always learning things from it. I read the Guardian every day for the same reason. They have an approach to writing journalism that’s different than the Times. I think the notion of the objective journalist is probably in general a good one because it helps us separate opinion from fact, but the fiction of utter objectivity is sometimes very transparently a fiction, when you read certain types of reporting. The Guardian, by allowing a little bit more voice than the New York Times, and a little bit of a news analysis slant into some of their reporting, shows where it’s coming from. It’s not pulling the wool over your eyes. It’s an equally valuable source of information, to me.
I’m trying to think which literary journals I’ve read lately. I basically have two things I do. One is, every year I subscribe to one or two different journals. Last year, or the year before, it was Zyzzyva, which I think had a great year last year. There’s an openness to West Coast writing that might have something to do with landscape, or the makeup of people here, the texture of light — I don’t know what it is, but it definitely transmutes into prose, into what they choose. Getting that in New York City is often like a really cheap trip to San Francisco. I occasionally write for Zyzzyva, so I’m really happy when it arrives.
Another way that publications come into my house is because I have a poem in them. I could never subscribe to the number of publications I submit to because I would have 60 subscriptions. I do read them on and off. The Harvard Review came into the house the other week, because I had a poem in there, and I was really impressed with the poetry that they had — not my own — but the people I was fellow traveling with.
The CommonAnother one that I think is taking a lot of risks and doing it with a lot of style is The Common. It’s a magazine out of Amherst. They tend to have themed issues. They did an issue recently entirely on writing from Arabic. It was all Arabic fiction, from about 20 different countries. I didn’t like all of it, but all of it was different, except for Hassan Blasim, who’s an Iraqi writer who is in exile — either in Finland or Sweden — [Blasim resides in Finland]. He won the Barnes and Noble discover prize for a short story collection. All the other writers were new to me. I read a lot of literature in translation, so I was really interested to see who they were. But, by and large, even those of us who read a lot in translation, we’re drilled down into certain [areas] like Norwegian or Arabic or Swedish — we’re still only getting a very small fraction of what that literary culture is, which I’ve learned by going places, I think. I was in Norway about a week ago for a festival, and we were talking about Knausgaard and Dag Solstad and a couple writers who’ve been translated. A guy sitting next to me said, ‘What about women? Why are we only talking about guys?’ I said that was a good question. He named a writer, and I asked who she was. The guy sitting next to him said, ‘She’s like the Dorothy Parker of Norway.’ How could you deny us that pleasure? Who knows how these decisions get made. They’re reflections of the industry, to some degree. For the longest time, when I went to Brazil, everyone talked about Clarice Lispector, but until Benjamin Moser really got his translation project going with Katrina Dodson, a lot of her work was just not translated.
SH: How do you find time to read?
JF: I spend a lot of time on planes. I also don’t have kids. It’s just a habit. I do watch TV, but I review books at least once a week, and it’s just what I’m interested in. I don’t have a day job. I teach, I edit for LitHub, I edit Freeman’s, I write. My schedule is built around the things I care about. For that reason, every day, I definitely read 150 pages a day, usually more.