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Saturday, October 22, 2011

I Had Dinner with Jonathan Franzen--remain excited!

When last we left our intrepid college crusader, he was precariously poised at the cusp of facing the one man who could single-handedly save his academic aspirations!

So let me fill you in as I was pretty unclear as to what exactly I had been winging myself into last week; some kind of charity benefit or something—I wasn’t really listening.  In actuality, Jonathan  Franzen was a speaker in a literay series hosted by my hometown’s natural history museaum and sponsored by my dad’s company.  As such my dad had tickets to not only the lecture, but to the meet and greet beforehand and the dinner with Franzen afterwards.  My dastardly simple plan was to introduce myself to Franzen, strike up a conversation with him about his hometown where I live now, sprinkle in a few jokes, and then as the conversation naturally gravitated towards MFA programs, ask him for the goods: agreement to look at my writing and then maybe, maybe, if the mood was right, a letter of recommendation.  The greatest challenge would be talking with him long enough to build this report while shutting up before he realizes that I’m actually an idiot.

Object of my graduate desire.
At the meet and greet there were loads of donors and big muckity mucks; museum patrons, friends and clients of my dad’s company, and anyone generous enough to pay for the honor of meeting Jonathan Franzen.  Face time with Jonny would surely be competitive.  I got in one good handshake here.

“Very nice to meet you, Mr. Franzen.  I’m really looking forward to your talk tonight,” I said.  And first contact had been made.

The lecture went well.  Though he initially appeared nervous and detached at the meet and greet, on stage Franzen was personable and charismatic with great comic timing.  Maybe we could strike up some kind of friendship after all.  However, the questions that followed in the Q&A were all well thought-out and researched, with keen understandings of Franzen’s works and literature as a whole—so in other words, they were from college students: ambitious, ruin it for everyone else, college students.  Again, I was intimidated, and again I’d have to forget about it and prepare myself for the main event.

Dude sitting next to me at dinner, exactly.
Franzen didn’t appear at the dinner table until about an hour into the meal.  His book signing line was that long.  This gave me the opportunity to mentally review our future conversation, re-editing my responses and reactions based on how I thought he might respond and react.  This was frequently interrupted by the other guests at the table, who for some reason believed that this was actually a social event—the nerve!

Finally, like an apparation in thick-framed glasses, Franzen appeared, taking his seat directly across the table from me.  Thanks PR lady, wherever you are.  And then it began.  We did the conversation tango for a while where others interjected our conversation with questions about his books and characters’ true intentions.  But Franzen kept coming back to me, which gave me some confidence.  I started off talking about his hometown, but it turns out he hates it.  Typical writer, right?  But then somehow, miraculously, someone mentioned that one of his books was being turned into a mini series on HBO, which brought up television—tada! 

TV I can talk about.  And about TV we did talk.  You all should/ might/ are probably not interested to know that Jonathan loves him some Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire.  But the conversation was not naturally flowing towards MFA programs as I had hoped it would, so with time running out in both the evening and my imaginary clock of how long I could speak before he realized I’m an idiot, I made my move;

“So I have to ask, what advice would you give someone applying to MFA programs in Creative Writing?”

“Don’t go into debt.”

“Haha,” I too forcibly laughed, “Check.  So I know that you have a lot on your plate right now, but would you consider taking a look at some of my writing?  It would be incredible to get any critique from you.”

“Well, you know,” Franzen was already looking towards the door, but I wasn’t breaking eye contact, “Are you applying for this coming term, 2012- 2013?”

Time was running out on my idiot clock, and my future...
“I am.”

“Listen, I know this going to sound like a bold-faced lie, but I am loaded with work at the moment.  I wouldn’t have time to do anything for you by your deadlines.”

My banker friend had said not to take ‘no’ for an answer and to be aggressive.  So I was aggressive, in my own way.

“Hey, I understand. But I’m probably going to get rejected anyway, so you can just write me a letter for the next time.”

Franzen laughed a little at this and put down his briefcase. He asked me if I had a card, which I did at the tips of my fingers ready for the giving.  He told me that he was “easily found” on the Internet—meaning his e-mail address, I guessed—and wished me good luck before he left.

Since then, I’ve posted something on his publisher-run Facebooks page and have requested his e-mail address from The New Yorker and MacMillian, but I think it’s safe to say that the ball is on his court now.  A letter of rec from Jonathan Franzen would have been without exaggeration a golden ticket into any MFA program.  But where’s the flavor in that?  My current recommenders are amazing, not only because of their respective writing, but because they know me well as a writer and a person.  And I guess now that I’ve taken my crazy moon shot at glory, it’s time to get to work and do it the old fashioned way.  At least I can say I've had a conversation with one of the greatest writers of our generation, and he didn't think I was an idiot, because I watch TV, damn it.


  1. Go Jeremy!!!! I would have totally wussed out, but you handled the situation like a pro.

  2. Thanks Ann, and if by pro, you mean trying to track down his e-mail address like a bad one night stand the day afterward, then i'm as pro as it gets, baby