5 Questions with John Freeman, Editor of Freeman’s Journal

freeman's journal5 Questions, where we peer into the very souls of visiting authors to City Lights Bookstore, continues today with John Freeman who is here tonight celebrating the first issue of his new literary venture, Freeman’s Journal. He’ll be in conversation with our friend and ZYZZYVA managing editor Oscar Villalon.

Event: Monday, October 19 at 7PM at City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco. John Freeman in conversation with Oscar Villalon.

About Freeman’s Journal: A new anthology from renowned literary critic, former Granta editor and NBCC president John Freeman. Freeman’s: Arrival features never before published stories by Haruki Murakami, Louise Erdrich, Dave Eggers, Etgar Keret, Lydia Davis, David Mitchell, and others.

We live today in constant motion, traveling distances rapidly, small ones daily, arriving in new states. In this inaugural edition of Freeman’s, a new biannual of unpublished writing, former Granta editor and NBCC president John Freeman brings together the best new fiction, nonfiction, and poetry about that electrifying moment when we arrive.

Strange encounters abound. David Mitchell meets a ghost in Hiroshima Prefecture; Lydia Davis recounts her travels in the exotic territory of the Norwegian language; and in a Dave Eggers story, an elderly gentleman cannot remember why he brought a fork to a wedding.

End points often turn out to be new beginnings. Louise Erdrich visits a Native American cemetery that celebrates the next journey, and in a Haruki Murakami story, an aging actor arrives back in his true self after performing a role, discovering he has changed, becoming a new person.

Featuring startling new fiction by Laura van den Berg, Helen Simpson, and Tahmima Anam, as well as stirring essays by Aleksandar Hemon, Barry Lopez, and Garnette Cadogan, who relearned how to walk while being black upon arriving in NYC, Freeman’s announces the arrival of an essential map to the best new writing in the world.

About John Freeman: John Freeman is the Executive Editor of Lit Hub and former editor at Granta. He is the editor of Tales of Two Cities: The Best and Worst of Times in Today’s New York and the author of How to Read a Novelist. His new journal is Freeman’s.

john freeman

City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit?

John Freeman: I first went to City Lights as a teenager, when I was growing up in Sacramento, and still partly believed that I’d become a professional basketball player. My idea of poetry had been sculpted by Dylan Thomas alone. I was so determined–to leave Sacramento I think–that I normally spent weekends when my parents visited at home, studying for the SAT. It was on one of these weekends my parents had lunch with Winona Ryder, whose brother was in a play at ACT with my own brother, who had dropped out of high school and was living in San Francisco. After that I started going on the family trips into San Francisco.

The store was like a warm, vested ex-hippy activist telling me to chill out man, stop being such a square, come upstairs and check out the poetry. It’s where–alongside books my older brother gave me–I discovered the Beats, but also so much poetry in translation: Daisy Zamora, Jaques Prevert, Pablo Neruda. I also found the poet I turn to so often now it’s like he’s a brother to that imagined aging hippy: Frank O’Hara.

I read in the store when my first book came out and I still feel that might be the moment I felt most happy to be a writer. I cannot overstate the importance of City Lights in my life. As a place that shows how a bookstore isn’t just part of the community, it can make a community; as a place that shows that literature and activism work together, like the lungs and the heart. It is like a church to me, sacred not because of its entitled place in culture, but by virtue of the act which happens there–and by who has stood beneath its small, noble, beautiful roof.

CL: If your journal had a soundtrack, what would it be?

JF: Oh it’d be pretty eclectic. The pieces range from Iceland to Japan and back, Palestine and Israel, Canada and France, all across America and Jamaica, so I think it’d be a very unusual playlist: probably some Rachid Taha, Joni Mitchell, Abdullah Niazi Qawwal, Bruce Springsteen, a bit of Arcade Fire, some Umm Kulthum and Björk. And of course Johnny Cash because what playlist is complete without him?

CL: What’s the first book you actually finished reading?

JF: Surely it was either Mike Mulligan and His Steamshovel or The Little House, both by Virginia Lee Burton, and both of which feel like fairly unveiled critiques of capitalism. In one, a man nearly works himself & his humanized steam shovel to death trying to keep up with greater and faster forms of new machines. In The Little House, a perfect prairie house on the hill is soon engulfed by gas stations and high rises. And my parents wondered why I grew up so radical?!

CL: If you didn’t have your current job, what might you do?

JF: I think I would be a documentary photographer. I think the world is so vast and beautiful, and the range of human experience so worth witnessing. But sadly the gap between how a large part of the world lives and how the other smaller part lives is so enormous it needs a bridge to connect them–sometimes photographs can do that. I’m also happiest–now, when alone–watching and taking pictures. I wish I had started sooner, but maybe there’s still time to be or do both.

CL: Name a few things you’d require if stranded on a desert island for an undefined period of time (and, yes, no wifi). 

JF: Could I have a dog? He’d be a big square-headed Newfie or St. Bernard. The kind that usually has a drool scarf, and a heavy pant, the sort that makes a low, satisfied sounds when it lays down. I think animals in general and dogs in particular are far more perceptive and like us than we give them credit for being, and in some ways they’re better–aside from food greed–at sharing, at watching out for members of their pack. When I got bored we could play games or go for a jog or hunt for something to eat. And when the sun began to set we could sit by the water silently and be peaceful and lonesome together.


For more about Freeman’s Journal and John, follow him on Twitter and keep your eye out for the new issue at newsstands or at your local independent bookseller. Join us tonight for a conversation between John and ZYZZYVA managing editor Oscar Villalon. For a complete calendar of events at City Lights Bookstore, go here.

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