My Dinner with Jonathan Franzen



I got the news a couple weeks ago. It started like any other day. I was bored after classes, and there was no way in hell I was going to start my homework— it was naptime. As is customary, I logged onto my laptop so I could check my email to ensure that I wasn’t missing out on some super-important club meeting that I wasn’t going to attend anyway. My inbox was full of the usual junk: the school newspaper, emails from professors about my classes, porn advertisements, (kidding) the works, until I stumbled upon an email with the subject header that read: You’re Invited to Have Dinner With Writers From the Visiting Writers Series, RSVP. I was ecstatic.

For those of you who don’t know, I attend Butler University in Indianapolis. Each year, they run a program called the Visiting Writers Series, where famous authors from around the country come and speak to the people on campus. The next morning, the author hosts a student-only Q&A in the creative writing center. In past years, Butler has had some pretty big names come to town: Tim O’ Brien, Margaret Atwood, and Jennifer Egan, to name a few. This year, there were some people I’d never heard of before, and one name I had: Jonathan Franzen was scheduled to come on October 28th.

As I read the email, I slowly got more and more excited. Basically, since I am an English major, I had the opportunity to go to a dinner with any writer on the list. Since I am enrolled in a certain class, I got special preference over people who might have deserved it more. I didn’t care about anyone on the list but Franzen. I shot back a response email within 10 minutes of receiving the initial one, and I probably made myself sound like a fool in the process. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I remember thinking to myself “Don’t sound like an overeager dumbass.”

I waited forever for a response. I checked my email multiple times a day for a week straight. I was about to give up hope, when a classmate of mine, who had chosen a different writer to eat with, got his confirmation email just shy of a week before the scheduled dinner. If he got his wish, I figured, so would I.

I waited some more. And some more. And some more. And then I saw it. Confirmation– Dinner with Jonathan Franzen 10/28. I sat there and let it sink in. I was going to eat dinner with a fucking genius. I’m not gonna lie, I texted my mom about it out of excitement. She teaches English so I thought she’d appreciate it. She responded by telling me she didn’t know who that was, but that’s beside the point. I was on cloud nine.

At about this time, my First Year Seminar class on Contemporary Writers began to read essays out of Franzen’s book, The Discomfort Zone.  It’s made up of five personal memoirs that reveal quite a bit about Franzen himself and how he was as a child. I was pretty excited to read the work of such a critically acclaimed author, but there was just one problem: I hated it. I thought it was dry, stuffy, pretentious, left-wing, pointless…. I wanted to throw the damn book out the window. There were some bright spots, but they were far overshadowed by stuff I just didn’t want to read. Looking back on it, (because I can afford to be insightful about my opinion from two weeks ago) the essays were not written badly. I just didn’t care about them. Give me fiction or give me… well, anything but essays!

My dislike of The Discomfort Zone began to weigh on me. Why am I going to dinner with a man whose book I didn’t like? Was my spot better reserved for a Franzen fan? I became worried that Franzen would be just as arrogant and pretentious as I thought his prose was. I was scared that I’d say something and he’d think I was a complete idiot. I was in a discomfort zone of my own: I was flipping out.

Anyway, time came and went, and I eventually found myself sitting alone at a pizza place on 49th St. called Napolese. I had been the first one to arrive, but that was really only because I wanted to make sure I got a parking spot; I hate driving in big cities. I couldn’t judge just how nice of an eatery this place was; it was in a nice part of the city, but the prices didn’t seem too outrageous. I was beginning to think I was in my element, until the waiter asked me the first question.

“Would you like anything to drink while you wait?” he asked.

“Yes sir; water’s fine, thanks.”

“Okay, do you want sparkling or flat water?” Lolwut. I STILL don’t know what the hell sparkling water is. I started to realize that this was, indeed, a much fancier place than I was used to. This made me feel even worse about the situation. Here I was, a small kid from a country town with primarily conservative views, about to eat dinner with a very left-wing author in a restaurant where I’d most likely make a fool of myself. I started to sweat.

It wasn’t long before I was joined by a couple other people from Butler. Our table included three graduate students, a senior biology major, a sophmore from the English department, and myself, a lowly freshman. This didn’t help my stress.

I began to force conversation with my tablemates. It’s rough for me to meet new people, especially in a situation like that, so I just did my best not to appear rude. I probably did an okay job; everyone there was pretty cool. I slowly began to relax.

About five minutes after the last student had sat down, we were alerted that the guest of honor was about to walk in the building. Any relaxing I had managed to do was instantly undone, and I found myself wound tight as a coil.

As I said before, I was the first one there, so I got to pick my seat. The table was in the shape of a rectangle and had 4 seats on each side, with an additional one at the head of the table. I sat in one of the two middle seats with my back to the sun, assuming Franzen would sit at the head, and I would still be able to see him. As it turned out, there were less people at the dinner than were expected, so we did some rearranging, Mr. Franzen himself engineering the change.

“Well, if we only have 8, we can all just squeeze together at this one table. There’s no need for that extra seat. We can all fit,” These were some of the first words I heard the man speak.

We did some moving around, and we watched as the special guest chose his seat. Care to take a guess where he sat? Right. Next. To. Me. One of the most famous authors of this generation was sitting right. next. to. me. Pressure on.

I watched him like a hawk as he put his bag behind his chair and exchanged pleasantries with us all. After the initial “Hi, how are you’s, and my name is’s,” he sat down. I was still focused on not looking like an idiot. I don’t think I said a word for the first 10 minutes of conversation.

My first impression of Franzen as a man was pretty accurate. He was definitely an introvert. His speech seemed forced and bits of it were very choppy; there were times throughout the dinner where it almost seemed like a struggle for him to be there; like he wanted to be left alone in his own brilliant mind. I don’t blame him. I wanted to be left alone, too, in my own cowardly one.

After a while, Mr. Franzen addressed me directly.

“So where are you from?”

“I’m from a small town called Tipton, Indiana. It’s about an hour north of here,” I said, trying not to stammer my way through the conversation.

“Did you play sports in high school?” This question surprised me. My good buddy Jonathan did not look like the person who would be interested in sports.

I briefly went on to explain my involvement on the high school sports teams, and we discussed sports for a little longer. I was beginning to relax and realize that he was just a normal guy. I was wrong about the pretentious part; and, even if I wasn’t, he sure wasn’t showing us that side. He was a normal, everyday human being who happened to be able to write exceptionally well. He was chill. 

When it came time to order, the professor who set the dinner up ordered a few appetizers that we passed family-style around the table. Some things I didn’t indulge in, and others I took very little of because I didn’t know what I would be stuffing my face with. The first thing I put on my plate was this red, cheesy looking gunk that I thought went on the inside of pasta shells.

“Oh, that’s a shame,” I heard the voice to my left say. Franzen again.

I looked up at him, ready to be put in my place for something I didn’t know I did.

“You should have gotten more of that. It’s delicious.”

“Honestly, I’m not even sure what it is,” I chuckled nervously. “That’s why I didn’t take much.”

I was told that it was some sort of dip, but I don’t remember the specifics. I was too preoccupied about the fact that I dodged a bullet. The dinner continued.

Franzen was hilarious. He continually cut up the whole table with stories from his past and witty one-liners to certain questions. My favorite came when we were discussing alcohol.

“…I knew a guy that would finish a fifth of hard liquor every day,” Franzen was saying.

“Is that characteristic of a lot of writers?” someone asked.

“It’s characteristic of a lot of alcoholics!” His reply sent us all into a frenzy of laughter. He went on to discuss the time he found out his novel The Corrections was used as a prop in a porn movie. He told the story of how he gained possession of a copy of said movie, then lent it out and never saw it again. I believe the title was something to the tone of “Busty Sluts 13.”** It was quite honestly one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard. I was really enjoying myself. And then the pizza came.

I wasn’t sure what to order, but I got something called Clifford’s Ball, which had kale, goose meat, Italian sausage, and something else that I can’t quite recall. It came to me on a large plate, and it had been pre-cut. I reached for it, eager to see what all the hype was about. As I worked my fingers around the crust to ensure that I didn’t make a mess everywhere, I failed to notice that the majority of the cheese was still stuck to the center of the plate. I pulled anyway, and it all came sliding off. So much for not looking like a dumbass. I couldn’t even grab a piece of pizza correctly. From then on, I was self-conscious about the way I ate.

I looked at everyone else, Franzen in particular, to see if I should attack this with a fork, or just eat it normally. I noticed that he was folding his, so I assumed that this must be the fancy way to eat pizza. I did my best to emulate it. It was just my luck that someone else at the table should also notice the way our guest was eating.

“Mr. Franzen, is there a particular reason you fold your pizza like a hamburger and not a hot dog?” Fuck, I thought. That was a unique thing to Franzen, and I had just copied it. I prayed he didn’t notice. I unfolded my pizza and ate like normal again. We were halfway through dinner, and I already had two dumbass strikes.

We talked for a solid hour or so before it became clear that Jonathan Franzen would rather listen to us speak than speak himself. He was tired, and on top of that, he was scheduled to speak at Clowes Hall at the top of the next hour. We sat there and continued to eat, but the conversation had shifted to the person sitting to my right. All eyes were on him, which meant all eyes were close to me as well. As I was listening, I went to take a bite of my pizza. With my great luck being an ever-reoccurring theme at this dinner, does anyone care to guess what happened? I bit into that pizza, and the sausage came with me. It fell right off the cheese and down my shirt. With everyone looking. My face went red as I tried to hide my embarrassment, but that was dumbass strike number 3, and I was outta the ballgame. I pretty much sat in silence for the remainder of the meal, which to my luck was only about another three minutes.

At roughly 6:45, Jonathan Franzen stood up to bid us adieu. “I need my half hour of alone time.” He was reassured by the professor that he would get it. Franzen then said goodbye to us all, and we went our separate ways.

As I was driving back to campus, I thought a lot about the man I’d just met. He was, as I expected, introverted. He was funny, he was intelligent, he was kind. He did and still does what I want to do for a living, and he does it well. I wish I could’ve seen into his head during the dinner, so I could know what he was thinking and how he felt. It’s largely a mystery to me. While I didn’t get my picture taken with him or get anything signed, I did have one major takeaway from this whole thing: I got one helluva story, and that’s all I can really ask for.

**That title is not not 100% accurate, but I do know it had the word “sluts” in it, and the number was either 11 or 13. It was produced by Hustler. 

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