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