WORD: A Literary Life: John Freeman, chaired by Paula Morris

This session began with a poetry reading from each writer. John Freeman chose a poem called ‘Wild’ by Tracey K Smith, from Freeman’s Literary Journal: Family; while Paula Morris read ‘The Curator’ by Selina Tusitala Marsh. Freeman is a very giving guest, and there seemed to be no areas of criticism that he had failed to consider. It was a very satisfying session, despite the occasional rapid pivot in topic which I’ll admit makes it tricky to pin down.

JohnFreeman-no-credit-copyJohn Freeman (above) is the son of two social workers. A defining moment in his life was his move as a 10-year-old , from Pennsylvania to Sacramento CA. In California, the culture is sport – and the only way to blend in as a child was to play a lot of sport – so he did. His father didn’t think much of Californian schools, so Freeman was forced into his father’s own summer reading programme, to keep up with what he would be reading if they’d remained in Pennsylvania. He went mainly to Quaker schools, and admired them for their proud, vehement, anti-war stance. “A lot of wars are underwritten with the approval, tacit or otherwise, of churches. The Quakers don’t silo spiritual and intellectual life.”

The three books Freeman credits with started him reading with volition are Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, 1984 by Orwell, and Wuthering Heights. He went after college from being a reader, to being a writer of genre fiction (a self-describedly terrible NASCAR book), to becoming a critic, writing for multiple magazines and online sources.

freemans_arrivalIs now a golden age of reviewing? Freeman says, “The internet is one of the greatest epistemological changes of recent time. People are drowning in taste. There is a lot of sharing passion for books, but we still need context.” He noted that back in the 1950s, instead of wanting to be writers themselves – going to courses to do this, everybody wanted to be a literary critic. But now “the idea that there is a centre has really collapsed.”

Freeman left America to be the editor of Granta. He was going into something which was already legendary, but which was nonetheless bleeding subscriptions. He worked there for five years, under an extremely eccentric billionaire boss – he said the key to doing this successfully was to pretend money meant the same to him as it did to them. One of his most lasting contributions to Granta was to establish international editions, the first being in Bulgaria.

The challenge of editing a quarterly literary magazine is there is no excuse for getting anything wrong. Everything has to be the best possible thing that it can be. So once he was having to explain what everybody added to the mix at Granta, he had to get out of there. And though he acknowledges that there are 1000s of literary journals in America, he went and started his own: Freeman’s.

freemans_familyFreeman’s is about the world, rather than about writing, as many literary journals are. Freeman says, “Writing has to be within the world, it can’t be separate from it. Narrative is as powerful a way of viewing the world as science is.” The storytelling he is seeking is the type that makes you fizz, that knocks out bad parts of your brain and replaces them. So far he has done two issues of the journal – the first is themed Arriving, the second themed Family. He has deliberately made this journal a venture that needs to break even financially – he doesn’t want to go into the non-profit zone, of trying to be as important as those raising money for crises.

Morris moved on to a talk about the Paris Review. Freeman says “Their interview series is quite important in American literary culture, making writers important.” However he notes that this, and other journals haven’t done very well is recognising the diversity of voices in the US. The editor came to talk to Freeman’s class at (his University) and said he is deliberately only publishing what he is interested in. This is extraordinary, to narrow the world to one man’s zone of interest. Freeman noted on this “If there is a gap between a journal, and what the culture reflects back at them, that is a problem.”

Freeman noted his own freedom to speak in cultural context. A heterosexual white male, he doesn’t get put on a diversity panel. He doesn’t need to explain who he is. He sees those of other cultures wondering why they need to scaffold everything. He is aware of his own perspective, whereas some don’t realise that they are involved in endlessly perpetuating their own views – Morris gave an example of an NZ magazine, that seems only to employ white male writers.

Freeman has a book of poetry coming out soon. He hasn’t always written poetry, he began when his mother passed away. It took him about 6 years of writing after that to gather enough material to consider creating a collection – without it being solely about death. “Death of a loved one forces you to reshape the world”, he said, “to explain it to the person who is absent.” “The sounds we make are defined by the holes inside of us.” Finishing his manuscript gave him huge respect for anyone who has ever published a book of poems.

When he considers the submissions to Freeman’s he doesn’t make a decision right away. He waits to see which story gives him the afterburn – the sparks. He says, “writing is a form of translating energy into the world. Some time capsules burst right away, and some have a slightly slower burn, and just keep burning.”

I’m going to be seeking out Freeman’s, and I think anybody who is interested in writing that reflects the world around us should as well. It was a privilege to hear his thoughts, to begin my time at WORD Christchurch.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

John Freeman was also in Can Books Change the World? last night.

Freeman’s: Arrival
edited by John Freeman
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925240221

Freeman’s: Family
edited by John Freeman
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925355468

Essays about Death: Diana Athill’s Alive Alive Oh! & Oliver Sacks’ Gratitude


Available in bookshops nationwide. 

Recently I made a trip to Tauranga to spend some time with my grandfather, who was born in 1917. Nearing ninety-nine, nonetheless capable in body and mind, he moved about his apartment making cups of tea, talking about the war and the reality of the approaching end of his life. I returned to Dunedin but the theme continued; waiting quietly in the mailbox were two books, both slim, both hardcover, both dealing with memory and death.

cv_alive_alive_ohAlso born in 1917, Diana Athill has in recent years made an art form of the memoir. In 2009, Athill won the Costa Biography Award for Somewhere Toward the End. This gives you some idea of the quality of her writing and subject matter. Alive, Alive Oh! is her seventh such book, but the reader needn’t worry that she might be running out of material. Ninety-eight years of life gives a writer plenty to render, and Athill’s prose is as sharp as her memory and perception; too, she has lived a remarkable life, as an editor alongside Andre Deutsch and as a woman during a century in a society which tried its best to prescribe a woman’s life.

This memoir describes, with humour, clarity and honesty, Athill’s unconventional relationships, the history behind her childlessness and “lack of wifeliness”, and her abhorrence of “romanticism and possessiveness, which can be dangerous, and in conjunction with sexuality even lethal”. It also focuses on the joy and richness to be found in life, even and especially as the end of one’s own time draws near. The book’s final chapter is a poem, entitled ‘What Is’, and it seems to sum up the tenor and quality of Athill’s perspective on life. It concludes with the lines, “Look! / Why want anything more marvellous / than what is.” Dead right.

cv_gratitudeA similar vein of lucid, often joyful reflection runs through the four essays written by Oliver Sacks, which together constitute Gratitude. Described by the New York Times as “the poet laureate of medicine,” Sacks is likely to be well-known to readers for his many books detailing the conditions and predicaments of the patients he encountered in his work as a neurologist, such books as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Awakenings, which was subsequently made into a film.

Like Athill, Sacks had something of an expectation-defying life and career. He came from a Jewish family, but at a young age distanced himself from a religion that would not tolerate his sexual orientation; he experimented prodigiously with hallucinogenic drugs, which he credits with paving the way to insights about the brain and mind that may otherwise have remained obscured from him; and with his capacity for compassionate enquiry, he is said to have captured the medical and human drama of illness more honestly and eloquently than perhaps any other writer.

Oliver Sacks died in August 2015 at the age of eighty-two. During the last few months of his life, he wrote this set of essays in which he explored his feelings about completing a life and about coming to terms with his own death. In his short essays (one could read them all over a pot of English Breakfast) he approaches these themes with a combination of directness and allusion. He writes of the elements of the periodic table, samples of which he had among his possessions, adding to them as his years advanced – gold for 79, mercury for 80, thallium for 81, and as a souvenir of his 82nd and final birthday, lead. By aligning his life and thoughts with these elements, which he describes as “emblems of eternity,” Sacks manages to reconcile himself. And in his final essay, ‘Sabbath,’ completed and published a few weeks before his death, Sacks returns to the paradigm of his boyhood, and while doing so finds the parallels — “the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”

The book ends, a life not long after. So there is a sensation for the reader of loss, but one leavened with a sense that the writer (and the human being inside the writer) lived long and well. In the face of death, which could be described as the central crisis of human life, Oliver Sacks wrote that his predominant feeling was one of gratitude, for having loved and having been loved, for having been “a sentient being, a thinking animal on this beautiful planet.” The same attitude is described by Diana Athill. It is a mature approach to life, to death, and though such sanguinity is easier read than done, readers might lay down these two slim volumes and reflect on their own lives and inevitable deaths.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter
by Diana Athill
Published by Granta
ISBN 9781783782543

by Oliver Sacks
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781509822805