I find John Freeman’s profiles of authors both illuminating and encouraging. The 55 profiles collected in “How to Read a Novelist” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 372 pages, $15) cast some of my favorite authors (Richard Powers, Marilynne Robinson, Don DeLillo, more) in a new or amplified light and instilled in me an excitement to dive into the work of many authors (Mark Z. Danielewski, Donna Leon, Peter Carey, more) I haven’t read.
Freeman, who has interviewed literary heavyweight after heavyweight, has a knack for setting the scene while giving immediate insight into his subject. This is the opening sentence of his profile of the late David Foster Wallace: “David Foster Wallace cares deeply about how Americans are using language, but he couldn’t really give two cents about utensils.” And here, the opening of his profile of Iowa Writers’ Workshop grad and best-selling superstar John Irving: “To get to the inner sanctum of John Irving’s huge mountaintop home in Dorset, a visitor must walk past a long row of shelves of the author’s books, seemingly printed in as many languages as there are countries.”
Beyond this gift for framing the pieces, Freeman also clearly possesses the ability to encourage authors to open up about their careers, their artistic (and sometimes political) concerns, and their influences and potential legacies. The brevity of many of the profiles (most were originally written for newspapers) often left me longing for more of the conversation, but time and again Freeman manages to fully conjure these authors on the page.
“How to Read a Novelist” belongs on the shelf — or, better, in easy reach on the bedside table — of any lover of contemporary literary fiction.
Rob Cline is a writer and published author, marketing director for University of Iowa’s Hancher and director of literary events for New Bo Books, a division of Prairie Lights.