Judith Freeman discusses new novel at the Community Library

By JOEY THYNE Express Staff Writer – October 9, 2021

‘MacArthur Park’ navigates the rocky road of friendship

In the 70s, Judith Freeman, an aspiring writer at the time, moved with her young son Todd to Ketchum.  

“I wanted to bring him to a place where we could just have a wonderful life, and he could be free,” Freeman said. “Ketchum was that place.”

She taught skiing, worked as a stringer for the local paper and wrote her first short stories. 

Roughly 50 years later, she returns to the Wood River Valley to launch her latest novel, MacArthur Park.” Her first reading at the Community Library took place in the late 80s. She has visited for each of her previous seven book releases since. 

“There’s a very intimate connection with the library,” Freeman said. “There’s a very intimate connection with this landscape.”

On Tuesday, Oct. 12, at 6 p.m., she will discuss “MacArthur Park” with Executive Director Jenny Emery-Davidson. 

“Judith Freeman’s novel ‘The Chinchilla Farm’ was one of the first novels I read, thirty years ago, that felt authentic to the American West I know and love,” Emery-Davidson said.

After living in Ketchum, Freeman moved to Los Angeles. Eventually, she bought a small farm on the Camas prairie. She splits her time between Idaho and California. Her new book features a road trip across the Great Basin.  

“This book is certainly a product of those two worlds: Los Angeles and the rural west,” Freeman said. 

Freeman looks forward to discussing “MacArthur Park” since the novel centers around a conversation between two life-long friends: Jolene, a provocative artist, and Verna, an L.A. writer. When Verna marries Jolene’s ex-husband, it seems they may part ways forever. However, when Jolene proposes they travel to their small hometown, they embark on a journey that forces them to confront their pasts.  

“I really wanted to explore the complexity of female friendship, which often involves a much more confessional level than male friendship,” Freeman said. “We reveal so much about ourselves.”

The idea of the character Jolene started with a girl Freeman knew growing up in Ogden, Utah, an artist of tremendous talent. Although they lost touch, she never forgot about her. Jolene is also an amalgam of early feminist performance artists from the 70s and 80s. 

“She’s a fabrication, but she also contains large parts of me,” Freeman said. 

Freeman’s real life seeps into her work. Someone once told her writers reveal more in their fiction than their nonfiction. At the time she was unsure, but after the process of writing this book, she believes it to be true. 

“We have that scrim of fiction to protect us, so we dig deeper.” Freeman said. “I dug very deep to get this book.”

During the process of writing this book, her son Todd, a schoolteacher in Mountain Home, passed away from a heart attack at the age of 53. After his death, Freeman retreated back to their farm on the prairie. She experienced a brutal, hard winter. Overwhelmed with grief, she was not able to read or write. 

“The days were just very empty,” Freeman said. 

After some months passed, working on the novel again gave her purpose. 

“It saved me … by letting me escape into this world I created,” Freeman said. “I really finished it for Todd.” 

The title of the book comes from a real place Freeman lived with her husband in a “hardcore, urban” area of Los Angeles. When a new landlord took over, they were forced out of their apartment. This caused her to examine themes of homelessness. 

Although the story focuses on a friendship, Jolene’s “prickliness” allows for social commentary: climate change, warmongering and the American West being used as a dumping ground for toxic materials. Freeman remembers seeing radioactive clouds drift over the schoolyard as a child from above-ground nuclear testing. 

Now eight books into her career, Freeman has moved past the nerves of baring her soul to the public. Now, she’s excited to see the response. 

“I’m curious … to see how readers engage with the story I’ve told,” Freeman said. “It does feel like having the wind at my back.”

Early reviews call “MacArthur Park” intelligent and erudite.

“I think that’s a compliment,” Freeman said, amused. “Is it a high selling point? I don’t care … I think only about how I can write the best possible story.”

Freeman takes pride in her work being described as “challenging.”

“I think [fiction] should ask us to look at some of the deepest issues we have as human beings: friendship, love, marriage, death, grief,” Freeman said. “All of those things are in this book.”

The event is free to the public. You can RSVP on the Community Library website.

“Novels can tell us so much about what it means to be human,” Freeman said. “But in this case, it took me much deeper into the issues of love, grief and what friends and family mean to you.”

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