I first met Jonathan Franzen nine days after September 11, 2001. Downtown New York City was still smoking. I was invited to dinner at Franzen’s Upper East Side apartment by his partner, the writer Kathryn Chetkovich, who has been a friend of my mom’s since I was a teenager and a friend of mine since I became an adult. Before dinner, the three of us drank and listened to the radio while George W. Bush’s voice struggled to pronounce a phrase new to all of us: al Qaeda. It was an indelible experience.
Of the rest of the evening, I recall a birthday candle—for my twenty-fifth, which was the next day—and discussions on topics ranging from my new tattoo to the history of the American tobacco economy. As I remember it, throughout dinner, both Chetkovich and Franzen had a tendency to jump up from the table, run to a bookshelf, and dig out a relevant book passage in order to further the conversation at hand. This was shortly after Franzen’s third novel, The Corrections, had been published to critical and commercial success, but his book was only mentioned peripherally, the way anyone’s job would be.
The evening was memorable for obvious historical reasons; I’m also relating it here in order to disclose the social connections that helped me convince such a famous writer to grant a lengthy interview to a new indie publication. But now, upon approaching Franzen as a journalistic subject, I’m struck by how vividly I still hold in mind the image of him and Chetkovich looking stuff up in books like they were eager kids, as if they were so excited about what they might discover next inside that small apartment, as if there wasn’t a falling sky outside.