Not so long ago, John Freeman, the former president of the National Book Critics Circle and until recently the editor of Granta, was very likely the most prolific writer about books on the planet. By his estimate, he would file as many as six articles per week—reviews or author profiles—and had a “220-spoke universe of newspapers” that he would syndicate his articles to, a pre-recession ubiquity that he admits would be impossible to maintain now.
“I was just working nonstop,” he said in an interview at his apartment in Manhattan. He gave off an air of fastidiousness, even in a T-shirt and jeans. “It was great, because I felt like a book factory. Books arrived at my door, I sat down and read them, I’d write about them, I’d get them out to people. It was just like this conveyer belt, which sounds really unromantic. But everything I did was somehow related to what I was reading or what I was writing about. I felt like this head attached to a machine.”
“He often pulls all-nighters,” said Nicole Aragi, the literary agent and Mr. Freeman’s longtime girlfriend. (They met when Mr. Freeman sent her a manuscript of a novel he had written about the 1970s NASCAR circuit called The Mystery Ride of Bobby Ledew. She rejected him as a client.)
This month, Mr. Freeman will release How to Read a Novelist, a collection of his author interviews, though not nearly all of them. It reads like a fairly complete dictionary of the most important writers of the last decade. He has smart insights about the interviewing process, particularly in a piece about bungling a talk with John Updike: “An interview…is not an actual conversation, but rather a form of conversation that has the same relationship to talking as fiction does to life.”
The book is Mr. Freeman’s first project since leaving the quarterly literary journal Granta suddenly last spring. His departure led to conflicting explanations: He said he left to preemptively avoid having to fire any of his employees as a means of cost-cutting; the publisher of Granta, which is located in London, said Mr. Freeman wanted to move back to New York. During his four years as editor of Granta, whose themed issues have jumpstarted the careers of Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith, Karen Russell and countless others, Mr. Freeman took a financially strapped publication and brought it into the 21st century.
“It’s not just that John’s left big shoes to fill,” the novelist and Granta contributor Aleksandar Hemon said. “He took the shoes with him.”
Mr. Freeman worked briefly (and quite poorly, he says) as an editor’s assistant in book publishing, but his rate of productivity as a critic soon made him a household name. In 2002, he joined the board of the National Book Critics Circle, and was named the president of the organization in 2007, at a time when the bottom was beginning to fall out of the media industry. Book review sections were being steadily phased out of newsrooms. With the NBCC, he started the Campaign to Save Book Reviews. That the NBCC, which for its entire history was an award-giving organization whose main goal was to support good writing, was now taking on an advocacy role was not exactly uncontroversial to its members. The board saw the necessity of Mr. Freeman’s campaign but, according to one board member at the time, participated somewhat grudgingly. He gained a reputation for doing things his way.
In 2007, he attended the New York party for Granta’s second edition of their “Best of Young American Novelists” issue. (The first, published 10 years earlier, included up-and-coming authors Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen and Lorrie Moore, among others, and acted as a kind of guide for Mr. Freeman in his post-college years.) In attendance was Edmund White, whom Mr. Freeman had recently interviewed leading up to the publication of the author’s memoir, My Lives. Mr. White had been one of the judges for selecting the issue’s featured authors, and he introduced Mr. Freeman to the magazine’s publisher, Sigrid Rausing. Ms. Rausing, the heiress of the Tetra Pak packaging fortune, became Granta’s publisher in 2005. Far from the gala-chairing, start-up-investing socialite of Thursday Styles stories, Ms. Rausing was private and largely unknown before purchasing Granta. She holds a Ph.D. in social anthropology. Months before buying the magazine, she started a publishing house with her husband called Portobello Books, which would merge with Granta’s own book publishing imprint, Granta Books, in 2006.
By the time Mr. Freeman met her, the magazine was looking to replace Ian Jack, Granta’s editor of 12 years. Mr. Freeman’s name was in the running, but the owners chose Jason Cowley. He left after three issues to edit The New Statesman and was replaced by the magazine’s first female editor, Alex Clark. Her first issue, themed “Fathers,” was released in January 2009. Mr. Freeman was offered the job of American editor of the magazine. His role was to keep in touch with New York agents and publishers, but the position was so disconnected from the rest of the magazine that the owners did not even realize Mr. Freeman’s work overlapped with that of an associate editor, Adelaide Docx. She would dig up stories—like the first excerpt of Tea Obreht’s popular The Tiger’s Wife (which eventually appeared in The New Yorker)—that were almost unanimously turned down by the London office.
“That’s pretty much what happened with me as soon as I started,” Mr. Freeman said. “They hired me as American editor, but it wasn’t clear where that would be on the masthead. Because I knew people, I was able to get a few things that they wanted. I got an excerpt of Kenzaburo Oe, Paul Auster and other stuff. Everything else that they didn’t already decide they wanted, they turned down. That situation wasn’t exactly good for either of us.”
Ms. Rausing began second-guessing Ms. Clark. She asked Mr. Freeman to send her everything he had submitted to the editor that had been rejected. Her frustrations culminated in the spring of 2009, when Salman Rushdie’s agent submitted a story to the magazine that was swiftly shot down through a curt email from Granta’s senior editor, Rosalind Porter. The reason given was that the piece had been previously published in pamphlet form at Le Conversazioni literary festival in Capri, which technically contradicted Granta’s editorial policy. The message was forwarded to Mr. Rushdie, whom Mr. Freeman said he had been courting for a piece, and Mr. Rushdie asked to be removed from the publication’s list of contributors. Shortly after, Ms. Clark resigned. She’d been on the job for only nine months. Mr. Freeman was appointed acting editor.
“And I thought, ‘Oh, shit,’” Mr. Freeman said. “Because that was going to make me the fourth editor in three years.”
When Mr. Freeman took over, it was three weeks to press time, and there were only six pieces in the hopper with nothing planned for future issues. (Granta typically runs around 15 pieces each issue.) He was not sure if they were looking for his replacement, or if the “acting” in his title was a precaution, “like if things went tits up,” he said, “they could say, ‘Oh, he was just acting commissioner,’ like on The Wire.” The magazine had no accounts on any social media and a redesigned but threadbare Web site. There was a mailing list from 1974. Granta had changed distributors several times in the previous three years and was hemorrhaging subscribers. They were down to a print run of around 35,000, Mr. Freeman said. (By the time he left, the overall circulation of Granta, including international editions, was 100,000 copies.) They were losing around 1 million pounds per year—a loss that, considering this was a quarterly with tens of thousands of built-in subscribers, Mr. Freeman could only characterize as “creative.”
“It felt like starting something almost from scratch,” Ellah Allfrey, who Mr. Freeman hired as his deputy, said. “I think the fact that he was an American meant that all the restrictions that English publishing puts on itself were not a factor. I had a sense that we could do whatever we wanted, if we worked hard.”
Mr. Freeman set up Granta’s Facebook page and Twitter account from his hotel room in London. (“I thought, ‘Jesus Christ, how do they get anybody to know about it?’” he said.) He hired the magazine’s first-ever art director, Michael Salu, the former senior designer for the literary division of Random House UK (he had worked with Ms. Allfrey, a former editor at Random House’s Jonathan Cape imprint). Mr. Salu began making short videos of Mr. Freeman introducing a new issue or interviewing a featured writer. Author Patrick Ryan replaced Mr. Freeman in New York. Mr. Freeman also hired a publicist and started throwing multiple events in London and eventually most major cities in Britain, as well as New York, continental Europe and South Asia.
Crucially, Mr. Freeman began showing Ms. Rausing every piece he wanted to buy for the magazine and asked for her opinion. She requested a formal right of veto on stories, to which Mr. Freeman agreed. “I mean, it’s her magazine,” he said. “She owns it.”
“When I appointed John editor, after the departure of Alex Clark, he was still quite young, without much editorial experience,” Ms. Rausing said in an email. (He was 34.) “In reality, we worked very closely together and agreed on most things. I don’t remember ever having to use the veto, though perhaps I did.”
Mr. Freeman said that in 17 issues Ms. Rausing used her veto only three times.
“She would read things incredibly fast,” he said. “And I could also talk her into things, just by waiting and saying, ‘Read it again.’ In that sense, I was very lucky.”
Mr. Freeman’s pet project as American editor was trying to get an issue about Chicago off the ground. Granta’s British owners and staff didn’t quite understand the concept. They compared it to “doing an issue on Birmingham.” He was persistent, and issue 108, “Chicago,” was published in the summer of 2009. It was a massive success, making the magazine as popular as ever in North America. It looked from afar like Granta’s second wind, with work by Sandra Cisneros, Don DeLillo, Aleksandar Hemon, Dinaw Mengestu and others. Mr. Freeman had traveled to the city before putting together the issue and stayed with Mr. Hemon. (He’s the godfather of Mr. Hemon’s children.) He asked the novelist and his wife to throw a party and invite all the Chicago writers they knew. It was research.
“People in Chicago often suffer from this feeling that we are on the fringes of important things,” Mr. Hemon said. “And here was Granta saying we were the most important city in the United States. Readers looked at the city and saw it differently after that.”
Mr. Freeman’s title was quickly changed from acting editor to just plain editor.
They racked up achievements. Michael Salu, whose debut as artistic director was issue 110, “Sex,” with its cover of a suggestively cracked open pink change purse, had made Britain’s most prestigious literary journal look hip for arguably the first time ever. Mr. Freeman and Ms. Allfrey had streamlined the production process, commissioning up to six issues at once and accumulating content far enough in advance that they could switch themes and shuffle around stories easily. Subscribers were up, and the financial losses were down to under £700,000 per year. The magazine was being published in 12 different languages, Mr. Freeman said, up from two.
Of course, the publishing world was shocked when he announced last April that he was stepping down from his post.
“We lost a lot less money,” Mr. Freeman said. “We cut our losses in half. But I knew that even still Sigrid’s patience for that loss had a time limit and that the only solution to it would be to cut staff. And I thought I’m not gonna do it if it comes to that, because the staff that I hired were the whole reason that the magazine turned around, and I wasn’t gonna say, ‘Work 70 hours a week, and then in four years I’ll fire you.’”
He was soon followed by Ms. Allfrey and Mr. Salu, along with Philip Gwyn Jones, the publisher of Granta Books; Ted Hodgkinson, the online editor; and members of the sales staff. The New York office was closed, and Patrick Ryan, the American editor, was let go. He is now, according to Ms. Rausing, editing on a “freelance basis.” (Mr. Ryan said in an e-mail that he is not freelancing for the magazine and is “not with Granta anymore in any capacity.”) Ms. Rausing said the New York office “really was just one room and one person” and that Granta’s increased visibility in the U.S. had “more to do with John himself” but that the magazine will continue its “U.S./U.K. reach.”
“The restructure I had been working on was on the book side not the magazine,” Ms. Rausing wrote in an email. “I had agreed [on] an extended sales agreement with [the British publisher] Faber in the spring, which meant that two sales staff were made redundant, along with Philip Gwyn Jones, our executive publisher.
“I know that the rumor is that people left, including John, because I was planning a massive magazine staff reduction, but that’s simply not true.”
Mr. Freeman said specific layoffs were discussed, though he wouldn’t say which positions. When he left, he had assigned the next two issues nearly in their entirety and had filled out about 60 percent of a third. But Granta, once again, finds itself having to start from scratch.
“I reckon we had another two years before we achieved everything we had set out to achieve,” said Ms. Allfrey, who is now writing more and, she says, catching up on years of lost sleep. “I actually think it’s a model for how a small literary magazine can achieve—I was going to say world dominance, but that’s not the right phrase. But you have to understand: I could go to Nigeria and do a Granta event. That’s a really big deal. I truly believe the magazine will be fine. In the end, as an editor, and a deputy editor, we are background staff. We are not the talent, and the talent is not going to disappear.”
Ms. Rausing is now the acting editor and publisher of the magazine and books. She has hired a new managing editor and an online editor. She is looking for a new editorial assistant. The new editor, whoever that may be, will have a new title, editor in chief, and will be responsible for running both the magazine and Granta Books. She said she’s in no hurry to fill the position.
“We have not yet started our search for the new editor,” Ms. Rausing wrote in an email. “And won’t do so for some time.”
Several sources, including Mr. Freeman, were under the impression that Granta has been interviewing for a new editor but has not had any luck in hiring someone. Mr. Freeman was not necessarily the obvious choice for the job in the first place—it was his first time running a publication—but the question is: In a shrinking publishing industry, who will not only continue what Mr. Freeman started but also work in two jobs condensed into one? “I think someone is going to have to work like a crazy person to do that,” Mr. Freeman said.
“As far as wealthy owners go, Sigrid was pretty darn good in a lot of respects,” he continued. “But it still creates a problem, because you have someone who owns something—they own it; it’s theirs. And unless they have spent their career in that industry—as a book publisher or in magazines—they’re gonna have to learn to respect the decisions of the people they’ve hired. And I think one of the characteristics of great wealth is the desire to have your will. And that creates problems. It didn’t so much with Sigrid and I throughout our relationship, but I could see there’s a gap in knowledge. And that’s where proprietorship is complicated.”
For now, Mr. Freeman is teaching a class at Columbia called “Building Stories,” about the structure of the novel. He’ll tour extensively behind How to Read a Novelist throughout the fall, doing interviews with several of the authors written about in the book at different cities across the country, at all the obvious places in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, but also in Portland, Maine; Coral Gables, Fla.; and Vineyard Haven, Mass. It’s an old school author tour, the kind that fewer publishers pay for these days. Mr. Freeman would have gotten at least 10 assignments out of it during his busiest time as a critic. That job is harder than it used to be.
UPDATE 10/02/2013, 1:30 p.m.: Patrick Ryan, Granta’s former American editor under John Freeman, got in touch with us to say he is not freelancing for the magazine, as Sigrid Rausing had suggested. The article has been updated to reflect this.