Interview: Jonathan Franzen on New York City

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This conversation took place in a New School classroom an hour or so before Jonathan Franzen was scheduled to help act out his own New York-centric State By State essay in an auditorium somewhere downstairs. When I mentioned the geologist from his piece, Franzen picked up a Sharpie laying on a nearby bench and wrote NYSG on his hand, so as to remind himself to send the man a copy. This admittedly freewheeling interview was done for this month's Lit Seen: hence the focus on New York, since after all, the idea was to chart a certain kind of literary end of an era.

Your New York, in State By State, is already a somewhat prelapsarian one--pre-budget shortfalls, economic collapse, etc.

Yes...Governor Spitzer was still Governor--of course, he'd already lapsed. We just didn't know it. And of course the economy had already crumbled. We just hadn't realized it.

I guess. There is a stretch in the essay where we harken back to the anarchy and decay of the '60s and '70s in the city, which was a time of financial crisis. And I hope we're not headed that way again. I wonder what particularly you had in mind--it's not like people don't still have publicists. Or personal attorneys.

Geologists.

There really is a New York State Geologist. He has an office in Albany.

I guess the joke that goes around these days is that you really can buy crack on the corner of 98th and Columbus.

I don't think much has changed quickly in the crime rate, or in the loss of services in the city. Obviously you can expect that in the next year or two. Maybe even in the coming months, post-Christmas. But it hasn't happened yet. So I think we're still living in prelapsarian times. The cord has snapped, but the elevator hasn't hit the ground yet.

I don't know what to say. "The owl of Minerva flies at dusk"--the one quotable thing Hegel ever said. You tend to be moved to write about things just as they're ending. And there's lots of that going around, because we live in such modern and fast changing times. So things are ending every five minutes. It's a great time to be a writer.

Except for the employment issue.

Yes, well we were talking about that WNYC this morning--Sean [Wilsey] and Ricky Moody and I were on the Brian Lehrer show, I believe it's called?

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