In “How to Read a Novelist,’’ the award-winning literary critic John Freeman serves up 55 mini-profiles of contemporary writers. Each provides a glimpse into the working methods, early life and career, and literary aims of 39 men and 16 women writers. Some are household names — John Irving, Toni Morrison, and Philip Roth. Others, such as Indonesia’s Ayu Utami, Hungary’s Imre Kertész, and Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o, are likely to be known only to the literary cognoscenti. Most all of Freeman’s subjects, however, can boast of literary kudos: Pulitzers, Nobel Prizes, Booker Prizes, PEN Awards, National Book Critics Circle Awards, National Book Awards.
Freeman usually effaces himself (except in the introductory piece on John Updike, where he reveals that he broke every rule in the book about how to conduct an interview). Occasionally he can’t resist revealing his own biases, as, for example, when he describes Michael Ondaatje’s memoir “Running in the Family’’ as having “the sonic uplift of fiction and the sudden beauty of poetry” or when he bemoans the fact that Vikram Chandra’s novel “Sacred Games’’ didn’t win the 2007 Booker Prize.
He begins each piece with a biographical headnote that details his subject’s claims to fame and literary trajectory. He sets the scene, describing where the interview takes place: in the novelist’s writing space or at a pub or a publishing house. His intention is to “reinstate some atmospheric context into the legend of a writer’s life and work.” The profiles are usually “easily clipped and cinched into an easy nugget,” except Aleksandar Hemon’s (one of the longest at 14 pages, and one of the most recent).
The experience of reading these portraits straight through would be like eating a 10-pound box of chocolates at one sitting: too much of a good thing. But this is the perfect book to take to an appointment where you have a few minutes to wait. Most of the interviews, written for newspapers, are five to seven pages long. The earliest is dated 2000, the latest, this year, with most occurring between 2005 and 2008. They bristle with intriguing factoids.
Though Jonathan Franzen’s run-in with Oprah is common knowledge, I’m betting not many people know that Jeffrey Eugenides decided to become a writer after reading a love poem by Catullus. Or that Haruki Murakami once owned a jazz club, that Richard Ford plays squash in New York, that the late David Foster Wallace was a nationally ranked tennis player, that Mark Danielewski once worked as a short-order cook and a plumber before “House of Leaves’’ became the first book “simultaneously available online . . . and in book form.”
It came as news to me that E.L. Doctorow’s father named him after Edgar Allan Poe, that Kertész, who survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald, wrote musical comedies for three decades. I didn’t know that Updike wanted to be a cartoonist long before he turned to writing, that Morrison and Edmund White and Joyce Carol Oates are colleagues in the English department at Princeton, that Amy Tan contracted Lyme disease in 1999, the year her mother died.
I found it fascinating that William Vollmann writes poetry, that before she became a novelist, Louise Erdrich worked at KFC, that Margaret Atwood invented a robotic pen so that authors can sign books remotely, that Ondaatje loves reggae, and that Salman Rushdie plays table tennis with Jonathan Safran Foer.
All of which is to say that if you’re intrigued by an author’s writerly predilections and peccadilloes, you’ll love John Freeman’s book.Kathryn Lang, former editor of SMU Press, is a freelance reviewer in Arlington, Texas.