We very glad to welcome back John Freeman to City Lights this week! He’ll be celebrating, along with Garnette Cadogan, the new issue of his anthology of new writing, Freeman’s, published by Grove Press. This second issue, Family, features never-before-published stories, essays, and poetry by Claire Messud, Aminatta Forna, Marlon James, Alexander Chee, Aleksandar Hemon, Tracy K. Smith, and more.
John took the time to answer our 5 questions. More about him, and his answers, below.
Event: Wednesday, November 30th at 7PM at City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco, CA 94113.
About Freeman’s: Family: Freeman’s: Family is what the series reviewers are calling “bold” (Minneapolis Star-Tribune) and “refreshing” (Chicago Literati). Following a debut issue on the theme of “Arrival,” Freeman circles a new topic whose definition is constantly challenged by the best of our writers: family.
In an essay called “Crossroads,” Aminatta Forna muses on the legacy of slavery as she settles her family in Washington, D.C., where she is constantly accused of cutting in line whenever she stands next to her white husband. Families are hardly stable entities, so many writers discover. Award-winning novelist Claire Vaye Watkins delivers a stunning portrait of a woman in the throes of postpartum depression. Booker Prize winner Marlon James takes the focus off absent fathers to write about his mother, who calls to sing him happy birthday every year. Even in the darkest moments, humor abounds. In Claire Messud’s home there are two four-legged tyrants; Sandra Cisneros writes about her extended family of past lovers; and Aleksandar Hemon tells the story of his uncle’s desperate attempt to remain a communist despite decades in the Soviet gulag.
With outstanding, never-before-published pieces of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from literary heavyweights and up-and-coming writers alike, Freeman’s: Family collects the most amusing, heartbreaking, and probing stories about family life emerging today.
About John Freeman: John Freeman was the editor of Granta until 2013. His books include How to Read a Novelist and Tales of Two Cities: The Best of Times and Worst of Times in Today’s New York. He is an executive editor at Literary Hub and teaches at the New School. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Paris Review.
City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit? If you haven’t been here before, what are you expecting?
John Freeman: I grew up in Sacramento and my brother acted at ACT so my family used to drive in to see his performances, as I mentioned in this interview last year. One thing I didn’t recall though was that my parents used to drop me at the store and would pick me up hours later. There was nothing like it in Sacramento, and I’d go into a kind of trance in the Poetry Room. I didn’t know who the Beats were at the time, nor did I know about Daisy Zamora or Frank O’Hara or Julio Cortázar, and one thing City Lights gave me permission to be was a globe trotter without thinking of it as such. They made it easy with all these Pocket Poet books, and I set out to read them all and one of the happiest stacks I have in my house is a nearly complete set of that series, because it reminds me of the pleasure of accidental reading and the near holy trance of the Poetry Room.
CL: What’s the first book you read & what are you reading right now?
JF: The first book I read that was for adults on my own volition was Nineteen Eighty-Four, a book that gets more prescient with every passing week of this abominable year, in which there’s been an orgiastic celebration of not making sense as a peculiar kind of wisdom. Of cult of personality. Of truth obliteration.
Oddly enough, I’m reading the memoirs of Diana Athill, who for fifty years was a publisher and who worked briefly at a company run by André Deutch when he had the opportunity to publish Orwell’s book but balked. It makes me wonder what book about our own moment is being turned down out of fear.
CL: Which 3 books would you never part with?
JF: God, that’s a hard one. I’d have to say it might be some of the original ones – Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems because it is the book that for me yokes together revelation and nightmare; To the Lighthouse because it makes me happy to be alive; and Hamlet because it reminds me of the pain and pleasure of being in a family.
CL: If your book had a soundtrack, what would it be?
JF: It would be a mixtape for sure because there are twenty-some writers in the latest issue of Freeman’s and part of the pleasure of working in this form is the huge range of sounds and music to people’s voices, so it’d range from Édith Piaf to Chinese opera to Violent Femmes and maybe some early Ice-T. And since Garnette Cadogan is in the issue – he’ll be with me tonight – and he will one day write his great book on the singer, there’d have to be some Bob Marley.”
CL: If you opened a bookstore tomorrow, where would it be located, what would it be called, and what would your bestseller be?
JF: Well it’d be in the ground floor of my building in New York City, obviously, so I could go down in robe and slippers, and right now that storefront is selling socks in bulk. I have no idea how they sell enough to stay open. I suppose books would be an even harder proposition, so the robe, slippers and a flask would be necessary elements of the bath I’d take with NYC rents. I’d call it Freeman’s because I like places named after their owners, and rather than a cafe I’d have a bar adjoining because as much as I realize this is perhaps a bygone-era wish, there’s not really a literary pub in NYC where what unites people are love of books and the strange people who make them. It’s what I like about journals as a form, they’re like a bar with the best regulars that is always open.
Join us on Wednesday, November 30th at 7PM to celebrate the latest issue of John Freeman’s excellent journal of new writing, Freeman’s: Family. You can get Freeman’s: Family direct from Grove Press or at citylights.com. For more from John, follow him on Twitter and for more events in 2016 at City Lights, check out our complete calendar.