A Literary Life: John Freeman – WORD Christchurch

This event got off to a good start – interviewer Paula Morris dropped all her notes on the floor but said it didn’t matter anyway as she had managed to flush her specs down the loo of the Air New Zealand flight from Auckland the night before. John Freeman guffawed. And we were off!

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John Freeman and Roberta.

It’s National Poetry Day  and they both read a favourite poem. Freeman’s was one that he had first seen on a train in the New York subway. It is by Tracy Kay Smith who is a young writer and a Pulitzer Prize winner. Freeman (former Granta Editor and currently owner of his own literary journal Freeman’s) says of her writing: ‘when you read her work, you start to think that this is the only way those words could be arranged’. He loves poetry and writes it himself. It started as a way to get dates, but the poems were bad and he suffered the simultaneous rejection of his poetry and himself!

Here are three things you might not know about John Freeman:

  • He is a middle child – ‘the overlooked one’.
  • He went to Quaker schools and a Quaker campus. He holds their ideals in high esteem – especially their anti-war stance.
  • When he can’t sleep he watches drag racing videos on YouTube!

He calls himself ‘a professional child athlete’ who really only started reading in earnest in his late teens. And what did he read? Three hugely formative novels were: Neville Shute’s On the Beach; George Orwell’s 1984 and Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.

As for what he wants for his new venture Freeman’s, he is very clear that he wants it to be about the stories that we tell each other, as opposed to being yet another journal about the act of writing. He is constantly astounded by the number of young writers (many of whom he lectures) who want to write and earn money from writing but won’t subscribe to a journal – arguably the best starting point for any aspiring writer. ‘For the price of a few beers …’ he says wistfully ‘they could invest in their own future’.

It was a great session, relaxed and densely packed with new ideas and lovely words. Time to get my copies of Freeman’s signed. And let the truth be known, this was not the first time I had met John Freeman. Six years ago at Auckland Writers Festival in 2010 when he was the editor of the prestigious Granta literary magazine, I bought a Granta as a gift for a friend. He’d just been berated by a festival goer for using bad language, so without hesitation, when he signed my copy he wrote: ‘To Allison, All the best (insert rude word) morons love this book, hope you do too.’

Till next time John Freeman!

Read books by John Freeman in our collection.

More WORD Christchurch

Can books change the world? – WORD Christchurch

Among the first few events at this year’s epic WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival was “CAN BOOKS CHANGE THE WORLD?” This serious question arouses all manner of responses: Books ARE powerful! They HAVE changed the world! We cry. With fists in the air!

However, this intimate evening explored what drives writers to write in the first place – an important question – given that what we write can ripple out across earth. So, to traverse the topic of world-changing written thought, we were treated to a panel of clever literary people – children’s and short story writer Kate De Goldi, journalist and playwright Victor Rodger, and academic, writer and literary critic John Freeman – all of whom have won various awards and accolades.

The featured writers were probed with questions about “why they write”.  John Freeman began by stating that you have to keep yourself in check :

If you start thinking you can change the world, then you will have a rough time”. You’ll prime yourself for disappointment.

Therefore, you “write in the hope that people will be able to identity with you”. Hopefully, you can tap into something that touches them by seeking to appreciate their worldview.

BUT, he went on to warn “there is no such thing as apolitical writing”, you either have to take a position on certain issues, or you take positions by default. There is no middle ground.

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John Freeman. Image supplied.

Kate De Goldi seemed to concur with these sentiments, stating that New Zealand citizens tend to have a problem “speaking truth to power” and taking provocative (and sometimes) unpopular positions and entering into heated discourse! She emphasized that writing is about “being a responsible citizen”, and that “if people dont read there is no democracy”. Therefore, we need to back ourselves.

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Kat De Goldi. Image supplied.

Victor added to the discussion by revealing his own impressions of life growing up as part of a minority group – as a young Samoan New Zealander, most Kiwi books, plays and shows did not embody his point of view as a young man wrestling with his identity. So, “he really wanted to get his own impressions of life out there”, “to challenge cultural and racial stereotypes”. Which is critical, as his work has added important dimensions to New Zealand’s artistic scene and prompted Kiwis think about who we are as a society.

Victor Rodger. Image supplied.
Victor Rodger. Image supplied.

It was an edifying evening, I found myself taking in this good advice from those who have hacked their way through the literary jungle. Its good to be reminded that with the privilege of free literary thought comes responsibility. And sometimes, we wind up writing something world changing!

WORD Christchurch