Writers & Company

In his new novel, Crossroads, Jonathan Franzen explores crises of faith and family in 1970s America

The bestselling American novelist and essayist spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about religion, belief and personal history.
Jonathan Franzen is the author of Crossroads. (Submitted by Eleanor Wachtel)

As a teenager, Jonathan Franzen was part of a church youth group in suburban St. Louis. With its focus on relationship building, sensitivity training and brutally honest confrontations, he's described it as closer to a California commune than anything resembling a Christian organization.

That experience, which he wrote about in his 2006 memoir The Discomfort Zone, is the inspiration for his blockbuster new novel, Crossroads. Set in greater Chicago in the early 1970s, the story revolves around a pastor and his family of six, each one at their own personal crossroad. Published to rave reviews, it's Franzen's sixth novel and the first in a proposed trilogy that will follow the family over generations. 

Best known for big, ambitious novels — such as The Corrections, from 2001, and Freedom, from 2010 — Franzen is also an essayist. His latest collection, The End of the End of the Earth, brings together pieces on a range of subjects, from personal history, to Edith Wharton, to the climate crisis. 

Franzen talked to Eleanor Wachtel from his home in Santa Cruz, Calif.  

Memories of weather

"I don't remember very much from the second half of the 1960s. But starting in 1970, I was experiencing everything for the first time: the end of childhood, the beginning of adolescence, and through three years of college. Those are the memories that are the deepest. 

"I think it was Faulkner who said that a person is a collection of their memories of weather, or something like that. Childhood memories of weather — a thunderstorm, a snowy day in the Midwest — are incredibly redolent for me. To be experiencing all of that for the first time, fresh, those are indelible memories. 

Childhood memories of weather — a thunderstorm, a snowy day in the Midwest — are incredibly redolent for me.

"The same goes for the people and the feel of a town in the 1970s — all of that. It was the world I came into. That only happens once and that happened to me in the 1970s." 

How to forgive yourself 

"I recalled much of my teenage years with great shame for many years. I was persuaded, about 15 years ago, to start writing about my memories from that time for The New Yorker. 

"I wrote some essays, and they eventually turned into a memoir, The Discomfort Zone, in which I made fun of myself. I laughed at the things that I had been ashamed of. I laughed at my self-consciousness, my pompousness, my poor social skills. I'm not a fan of the idea that writing is therapeutic. But somehow, in the writing of The Discomfort Zone, I stopped being ashamed of that time. I no longer remembered it as awful. 

You're forgiving another person when you laugh with them — and you forgive yourself when you can laugh at yourself.

"Returning to that time 15 years later, I didn't have to deal with any of that stuff. I'd already done it. I could access a much broader and deeper range of memories that were happy or at least interesting. I didn't have to deal with those moments, which were burned into my memory, of when I'd made a fool of myself.

"It was a trick I'd learned in The Corrections, which is when you start laughing, you are forgiving. You're forgiving another person when you laugh with them — and you forgive yourself when you can laugh at yourself." 

Belief systems

"My parents believed in the church as a foundation of civilization. That was my father's line. They also felt that Christian ethics were very positive ethics because it was about loving your neighbour. It's about forgiveness. It was about being kind and about a certain rejection of worldly things. 

"My mother was quite worldly and socially ambitious. Not that she had much that she could do to advance her ambition, but she nonetheless had ambitions. For her, the church was almost purely a social thing. For my father, it was a place where he could go for an hour a week and be alone with his thoughts.

My parents believed in the church as a foundation of civilization.

"But this was all done without any sense of, 'there is a heaven.' It was fundamentally the thing you did if you were a middle-class family in the Midwest in the '50s, '60s and into the '70s. That was the extent of it. They felt that they owed the children a certain amount of religious upbringing. Kids could always come to their own conclusions, as my parents themselves had, but it was unfair not to expose them to the possibility of religious faith."

Closer to God

"It's broadly true that people who are well-fed, happy, mostly free of anxiety, not enduring any pain — they might still go to church, but they don't really need religion. People need religion when they're in trouble. You turn to God when you're in trouble.

"That's true from my own life. The times I've tried to see if I might be able to be a believer have been the worst times in my life. And Rev. Russ Hildebrandt in Crossroads feels he should believe in God and should be in daily communication with Him: 'I ought to be praying. That's my responsibility. As a minister, how can I get in the pulpit and preach if I don't do the thing I'm telling people they should be doing?'

People need religion when they're in trouble. You turn to God when you're in trouble.

"Nevertheless, it's hard to connect when things are going well. Things like shame, humiliation, anguish, anxiety — those are the times he feels the need to pray, the times he does feel close to God and so he welcomes them."

Dying light

"I would say that the white liberal church has atrophied, to the point of almost disappearing. There are still very powerful Black churches that are aligned with progressive politics. But in the white world, it's pretty much become the province of the conservatives. 

"In a funny way, [Christian youth] groups such as Crossroads were a harbinger of that: you could have these intense experiences, you could have this focus on personal growth and on recovery.

"All of that presaged what we now have, which is these kinds of experiences, these ways to work on your relationships, to try to actually become a better person or a healthier person — all of those can be done without invocation of the metaphysical. You'd also have to say that by and large, the liberal half of America is the more prosperous half. Yes, we're aligned with people who are in poverty, but mostly it's wealthy urban centres that are the focus of progressive politics. 

I don't think it's accidental that Christianity is going strongest in parts of the country that have been left behind.

"Prosperity has a way of reducing the need for a religious experience because you're not desperate. You don't need consolation. You've got this great entertainment and you've got your Tesla and you've got your neat apartment and lots of friends. You don't need it in that same way. 

"I don't think it's accidental that Christianity is going strongest in parts of the country that have been left behind. You drive through Iowa in the winter and the people who are still farming out there, who are working in the meatpacking plants — that's a hard life. 

"It's obvious why they might seek something larger, something consoling, in organized religion."

Jonathan Franzen's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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