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The California Questionnaire: Jonathan Franzen

The California Questionnaire: Jonathan Franzen

The National Book Award winner and Santa Cruz resident explains his love for the Golden State

Love may have inspired Jonathan Franzen to move to California, but it was the birds that sealed the deal. The world-renowned author (The Corrections, Freedom, Purity) is an avid birder who has written extensively on the subject. And since California is home to more recorded species (660-plus) than any other state, including two that are found only here—the Yellow-billed Magpie and Island Scrub-Jay—the Golden State is the ultimate ornithological playground.

Franzen, who grew up outside St. Louis and lived in New York City for almost 15 years, never envisioned living in California. “I had all the usual East Coast prejudices,” he says. “I had actual culture shock on my visits in the late 1980s.” Favorable impressions of Death Valley and the Owens Valley notwithstanding, Franzen didn’t return for a long time. That all changed in October 1998, when he started spending time here with his girlfriend, writer Kathy Chetkovich. “It was pretty much love at first sight when Kathy picked me up at the San Jose airport and took me up to her cabin among the redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains,” he recalls. “We went to Big Sur. We saw lines of pelicans swooping low over Santa Cruz Harbor. It rained. On my next visit, it rained for three weeks straight. I see now that I was already a goner by then.” In February 2015, Franzen, who is also a prominent conservationist, made Santa Cruz his full-time residence, where he lives with Chetkovich.

Why did he agree to take this survey? “I did it because I love California,” he says. Here, the writer shares his thoughts on his adopted home and how it enriches his life.

1. Where do you live? In Santa Cruz, on Monterey Bay, fairly close to San Francisco but protected from its influence by rugged, mudslide-prone mountains. 

2. Why there? I fell for a woman from Santa Cruz. For many years, it seemed that I’d succeeded in luring her to New York, but she was playing the long game, and now here I am.

3. Who or what is your greatest California love? The big storms that blow in from the Pacific in the winter. Especially up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where the redwoods catch the clouds, it can rain nonstop for days at a time. It makes a mess, but it’s very soothing to a parched soul.

4. What is the biggest misperception about Californians? That they’re wine-drinking, sun-loving, pleasure-seekers who don’t read a lot of books. In fact, the state is full of readers. L.A. is a great book city. 

5. What is the stereotype that most holds true? Surfing truly is important here.

6. What is your favorite Golden State splurge? I don’t really do splurges, but most years I do splurge with time and go down to some desert springs in the northern Mojave to enjoy the spring bird migration.

7. Time for a road tripwhere are you going? Most of my road trips involve birdwatching—to arid and unpopulated places like the Panoche Valley and the Carrizo Plain, where Mountain Bluebirds and Prairie Falcons hang out, or up into the mountains (I particularly love Sequoia NP) for Mountain Quail and Calliope Hummingbirds, or along the coast for an amazing diversity of shorebirds and seabirds.

8. If you could decree an official state culinary experience, what would it be? A crab sandwich at Bodega Bay.

9. Best California song? The lyrics of Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” are fairly incomprehensible, but I don’t know of a song that better captures the weird melancholy of the “good life” here. And then there’s John Doe’s “The Golden State,” a beautifully made song that gets everything right about the state: its grandeur, the hopes it crushes, the hopes it keeps reviving.

10. How would your California dream day unfold? Wake to dense morning fog, drive through the fog to my office, get some good work done while the redwoods outside the window drip with moisture and the fog slowly lifts, emerge in the afternoon to see Monterey Bay gleaming under a cloudless sky, play some doubles tennis with good Santa Cruz friends, stop at the New Leaf Community Market for locally sourced food, do some grilling behind my house while Wrentits sing in the ravine below it, read a good book while the temperature falls and the fog rolls back in, and fall asleep to the hooting of Great Horned Owls in the eucalyptus.

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