By Dylan Foley
In August 2013, the writer John Freeman left London and returned to New York after four years of editing Granta, the venerable British literary magazine. Freeman had restored the magazine’s great literature and reportage after two previous lackluster editors, and expanded Granta’s reach through 12 international editions from Bulgaria to Norway, China and Japan.
Freeman swore off journals and said he was going back to his writing and fulfilling two book contracts. Then this October, he launched Freeman’s, a wonderful literary journal including new fiction from the reclusive Haruki Murakami and Helen Simpson, and nonfiction from Aleksandar Hemon and Lydia Davis.
Publishing Perspectives met with Freeman at the loft in Manhattan, near the Flower District, where he lives and works with his partner of 12 years, literary agent Nicole Aragi. Aragi represents such young literary lions as Junot Diaz, Nathan Englander and Rebecca Makkai.
Dressed casually in a t-shirt and jeans, Freeman was tired. Hours before, he’d flown in from London, where he was launching the British edition of Freeman’s. The American edition has been a resounding success, burning through its initial print run of 10,000 copies and its publisher Grove Press sending the journal back for a second printing of 2,000. These numbers already surpass the American edition of Granta’s circulation of 9,700.
“Freeman’s is now a big small journal,” said the 41-year-old Freeman. “I thought this could happen if everything went well, but it succeeded in ways I didn’t expect.
“One of my philosophies in publishing Freeman’s is to publish writers I believe in holistically, as in what they are, what they represent and what they do,” he said. “There are lots of writers in the world, wonderful writers, with a great level of proficiency, but the ones that you can stand next to and behind and say, ‘I believe in you, I believe that the world is a better place because of what you do,’ are far fewer in number, but enough to give an editor a lifetime of publishing assignments. To me, that is a wonderful task and calling.”
In a wide-ranging interview that lasted almost three hours, Freeman discussed his accidental winding road to becoming America’s most prolific book reviewer to being the president of the National Book Critics Circle and editing Granta. Finally, there is John Freeman’s most ambitious project, a new literary magazine that promotes great storytelling and narrative work from international writers.
First, I must admit that I have a long affiliation with Freeman. In 1999, during the Silicon Alley dot-com explosion, I was working at iUniverse.com, a print-on-demand bookseller that was famous for publishing bad memoirs, Wiccan handbooks and novels that were in desperate need of copy editing. The caustic Hong Kong entrepreneur who owned the company had been convinced to set up a content section, so myself and several other New York book journalists were hired to assign interviews and features.
The Daily Section at iUniverse was a case of the inmates running the asylum. Like kids in a candy store with a seemingly endless budget, we hired talented young writers to interview big names in publishing like Edmund White and Joyce Carol Oates, and up-and-coming writers like Mark Danielewski and Nathan Englander.
We hired Freeman to work for us. He had no credentials in his bio, except for being a recent graduate of Swarthmore College. His prose was clean and beautiful, and his interviews referenced intense research and a nuanced knowledge of an author’s whole body of work.
When I finally met a 25-year-old Freeman, he had an earnestness that one finds in book reviewers who come from the provinces. He had these killer cheekbones and broad shoulders, and would go read his review galleys in bars so he could smoke. Young publicists named Phoebe, Sophie or Megan at the big houses like Random House and Penguin would coo when they found out I knew Freeman.
With the dot com bust in October 2000, all the editors at the iUniverse content section were summarily fired. I didn’t see much of Freeman after that, but his byline was everywhere, with his book review empire growing to dozens of newspapers.
Freeman’s rise to editor of Granta and now his own journal Freeman’s was not a preordained path. “My parents were socialworkers, with my father running several small social service agencies,” said Freeman. The family moved around, following the father’s different jobs, so Freeman was raised on Long Island and in small-town Pennsylvania. The family finally moved to Sacramento when he was 10.
Freeman’s late mother formed the cultural center of the household. “My mother was a reader and my father was a hardass,” said Freeman, with a laugh. “His job was being active in the world and searching for forms of social justice. My mother was a listener. In some ways, those two combined influences made me.”
Serendipitious Start in Publishing
When Freeman got to Swarthmore in 1992, his initial plan was to be a political science major. “I wanted to be a Washington policy wonk,” said Freeman. “I wanted to change the world through public policy.” After washing out in his statistics course, he changed his major to English.
Freeman had no plans as graduation approached. “It was pretty random,” he said. “I hadn’t interned at any magazines. I applied to teach at several prep schools but nobody interviewed me. I got lucky that Bantam, Doubleday and Dell had an internship program and decided to recruit at Swarthmore.”
Freeman was hired by Dell, a Random House imprint. His girlfriend had an internship at Rolling Stone. They moved up to New York. “I drove to Fort Greene, Brooklyn, in my rental truck,” said Freeman. “It was still a time when you were advised to carry ‘mugging money’ on you,” extra money to give out when robbed.
Freeman’s career in Big House publishing was not stellar. “I was a crappy assistant,” he said. “I didn’t know how to answer phones. I didn’t know what assistants did. I thought I was supposed to read The New Yorker and be interesting.”
After similarly dismal stints as an assistant at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Hyperion, Freeman’s girlfriend sat him down and asked him why he was taking these dead-end publishing jobs, what did he really want to do? “I told her I wanted to write,” said Freeman. The couple moved up to Rhode Island, then Concord, Massachusetts, and Freeman temped in Boston.
Becoming America’s Most Prolific Book Reviewer
Freeman started reviewing for Publishers Weekly and the Boston Phoenix. “I reviewed Lorrie Moore’s The Birds of America for the Phoenix,” said Freeman. “I was relentless. When my reviews would come out, I’d make 30 to 40 copies, and send them out to other book review editors. Every week, I’d spend $20 on postage.”
Thus began Freeman’s career as America’s most prolific book reviewer. He moved back to New York and got a job editing a children’s literature guide for Barnes and Noble. “It was a job that required four hours of work a day,” he said. “The editor, who is now deceased, came up to me and said ‘I know this job is a cushy job and I want it to stay that way. Do the work you have to do for me, then do your own writing.’”
By 1999, Freeman’s review career exploded. “I started syndicating my reviews,” he said. “Every St. Patrick’s Day, the newspapers needed an Irish book. Pat McCabe had a new novel. I sold it to 12 newspapers. Suddenly, a $75 review would be worth as much as $600. I was doing five reviews a week and living in an apartment in Nolita (an upscale neighborhood in Manhattan) on book reviews.”
It was also a time of personal intellectual growth. “It was a great period of reading and writing constantly,” said Freeman. “I changed as a person, being exposed to new ways of seeing the world. It was a massive period of deprovincialization.”
By the mid-aughts, Freeman was reviewing books and doing author interviews for more than 200 papers in America and Europe.
Around 2000, with the writer Jonathan Lethem and others, Freeman also started a reading series at the Housing Works Bookstore in lower Manhattan that raised his profile. He would hold events like a panel on race and literature with the critic Stanley Crouch and the novelist Whitney Terrell.
Freeman’s personal life was also in tumult during this period. In quick succession in 2003, Freeman became engaged to his college girlfriend, got married, then divorced. Several weeks later, he met the agent Nicole Aragi and they have been together ever since. Part of the legend of their relationship is in 2001, before she met Freeman, Aragi rejected a manuscript of his still-unpublished novel.
Transforming the National Book Critics Circle
Freeman’s book editor at Newsday recruited him to run for the board of the National Book Critics Circle, where he eventually served as president for two years. Working with Rebecca Skloot, Rebecca Miller and others, Freeman helped bring the NBCC into the 21st century. “The NBCC is a great venerable organization, but as an institution, it had to change,” said Freeman. “The membership had fallen to 180, and some of the members on the rolls were dead. They didn’t have a website or a blog. We had to overhaul everything. It was fun.” Freeman stumped around the country for the NBCC, and even got Salman Rushdie to plug the group on “The Colbert Report.”
Freeman’s own writing career was going well. Besides the 200 publications like the Denver Post and the London Telegraph he was reviewing for, Freeman was developing his reputation interviewing the great American writers, like Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, David Foster Wallace and Norman Mailer.
During the financial crisis of 2008, many newspaper book pages and stand-alone book reviews started folding and other newspapers replaced their commissioned reviews and interviews with wire services. The death rattle of book reviews was getting louder. “Freelancing was dying off, “said Freeman. “I thought that because I wrote for 200 papers, I was less exposed, but it turned out I was extremely exposed. I watched regional papers run wire reviews. I knew I needed to get a job.”
The Granta Years
At a Granta party, Edmund White introduced Freeman to Sigrid Rausing, an heiress to a Swedish packaging fortune, who was the owner of the journal. Impressed by Freeman, Rausing had him interview for the editor’s job. He didn’t get it, but was eventually hired to be the American editor, because Rausing thought Granta had lost touch with American publishing. The new Granta editor Alex Clark and her deputies in London proceeded to ignore all of Freeman’s submissions. A firestorm ensued when a submission orchestrated by Freeman from Salman Rushdie was rejected, with a deputy editor telling Rushdie’s agent, the powerful Andrew Wylie, “Thanks for this, but it doesn’t feel like a piece of writing, per se.”
Freeman received an email from Rushdie that said, “What the fuck, John?” Rausing was alerted to the Granta’s London editors’ almost complete refusal to engage with American publishing. She fired Alex Clark and the two other top editors, and brought Freeman in as acting editor of Granta. He moved to London and wound up living there for seven months out of the year.
In four years, Freeman orchestrated a renaissance for magazine, which had stagnated after the legendary editor Bill Buford left in 1995 to become the fiction editor of The New Yorker. “When I first got there, I felt that Granta had to update itself,” said Freeman. “They had Kapuscinski in the past,” he said of the Polish war journalist. “They had their Doris Lessings, their Edmund Whites. They weren’t finding new international writers and reporters like they were in the past.”
To expand readership, Freeman undertook a campaign to set up foreign editions of Granta, starting with a Bulgarian edition, then Norwegian and Swedish ones. In the end, there were 12 foreign editions, which bumped up the cumulative Granta circulation to 100,000.
Granta was also awash in red ink when Freeman took over, losing 1.2 million pounds a year. Working with a talented finance director, Freeman was able to cut losses to 600,000 pounds a year by trimming a bloated marketing budget and by hiring an on-staff designer.
“I made the mistake of asking for a raise,” said Freeman. “Sigrid didn’t give me the raise and she said she wanted to do more cost cutting,” meaning staff cuts. “I said, ‘If this is how you feel about the level of my work, and the people who work here, I shouldn’t be here.’”
Freeman tried to quit in December 2012. Rausing convinced him to stay and he put together the influential 2013 “Best of Young British Novelists” issue. The original 1983 list anointed a new generation of British novelists, including Kazuo Ishiguro and Martin Amis, propelling their careers upward. Granta’s “Best of British” issue is the most important issue of every decade.
Freeman finally quit in April 2013, before the issue came out. “The issue was a raging success,” said Freeman. ”It was the biggest print run we’d ever had. We had 100 events on five continents. I loved the list.” Among the 20 authors on the list were the British-Ghanian writer Taiye Selasi, Sarah Hall, Tahmina Anam, Adam Thirlwell and Sunjeev Sahota.
“I urged Sigrid not to let it get out that I’d quit, for it would be seen as a commentary on the list,” he said. “She was afraid that she wouldn’t find another editor.”
Freeman and Rausing issued a joint statement on his resignation, but he objected to any suggestion that he’d left for personal reasons. “I was still on the road, promoting the new issue,” he said.
Finally, The Guardian newspaper called Freeman at Granta’s London office. “They’d smelled a rat,” said Freeman. “I told them it was a real cluster fuck. That’s when things got nasty.” At this point, most of Granta’s London staff quit their jobs. The Guardian published an extensive piece on the staff exodus.
“A magazine is not a company,” said Freeman. “It is living thing, just like books. You can’t cut and paste people so equally. If you look at the magazines that are great now, like Tin House and The New Yorker, they don’t have a lot of staff turnover. One of the mantras echoed in the office, coming from Sigrid’s family corporate background, is that everyone is replaceable. You know what? They are not.”
Despite the acrimonious end, Freeman looks back with pride at his editorial finds. “The discoveries I feel the keenest about were the writers who seemed to emerge with me as an editor. I’m very happy to have published one of Claire Vaye Watkins’ first ever pieces of nonfiction, one of her first stories, when she was a long ways off her debut collection, Battleborn. I also published Phil Klay’s first two stories, before he had a collection or a National Book Award. They were two unknown writers.
“There’s also Daniel Galera, the Brazilian novelist who had an American debut this year withBlood Drenched Beard; the Argentine novelist Pola Oloxoirac, whose debut novel is finally coming out in February; the Chinese writer A Yi, who to me is a kind of mainland Elmore Leonard; the late Pakistani writer Jamil Ahmad, who published one fabulous book of stories, and the American writer Maria Venegas, who wrote a tremendous memoir of her father and violence, Bulletproof Vest. The list is long but this group is at the top.
In the continuation of the interview tomorrow, Freeman talks about his return to New York, debut as an author, and the launch of Freeman’s.
Dylan Foley is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.