We catch up with Connor Franta about 'House Fires' his new book of photography, prose, and poetry.
“When a forest fire occurs naturally, it’s actually a good thing, for the environment,” Connor Franta says, a cup of coffee in his hand while New York City traffic bustles around us. “That’s how land re-grows and it’s a part of a natural cycle. That’s what a forest needs to thrive, in a way.”
Franta had this visual in mind as he looked back at the last few years of his life during which he worked on his latest book, House Fires, a collection of poems, essays, and images. Similar to a forest fire, Franta grew from his past experiences – all the heartbreaks and losses, the successes and gains, and everything in between. Recently, he celebrated his 29th birthday, the last year of his 20’s, a decade which was well documented online. Franta began posting YouTube videos in August of 2010: he was a senior in high school at the time and his viewership grew as he graduated and headed off to college. After a while, he decided to focus full-time on his videos and moved to Los Angeles, but his work wasn’t limited to just YouTube. Over the years, Franta built himself an empire. He developed a clothing line in conjunction with Urban Outfitters called Common Culture, a coffee brand, a record label through which he releases compilation albums featuring undiscovered artists, and became a New York Times bestselling author. This is Franta’s third book, following A Work in Progress (2015) and Note to Self (2017).
“I think that writing the first two books was very much me just getting into the mindset of slowing down and approaching long form since everything I do is so immediate, brief, and quick,” he says. “I film it, edit it, record it, post it all within a few days. With this book, I understood what I was getting myself into. I knew the timeline. I knew the process. I know every piece of what goes into making more of these books. So I could relax in that sense and feel a little bit more organized and grounded within it. But then you still get to the writing portion, and it’s like, okay, that’s just as hard as it always is…to put words to paper and feel like they are significant and timeless.”
If we had to describe House Fires in one word, it would have to be vulnerable, which is a part of Franta’s brand. He’s been opening up to the world and sharing intimate parts of himself, starting with his coming out video in 2014. In House Fires, Franta opens his heart and pours out his innermost thoughts, feelings, and insecurities. What draws you in is how universal so many of his struggles are even if you might not be in the same position as he is, or have the same experiences. The themes of the book range from heartbreak, love, loneliness, sexuality, growing up, nostalgia, and religion, to name a few.
It’s evident that his readers and fans feel a connection with him, and so much of that is due to how willing he is to be vulnerable and open. At his Strand Bookstore signing in New York City, one of his readers approached him and could barely get the words out without tearing up as they told him how much his books have helped them. Franta comforted them the best that he could despite being on the other side of plexiglass for everyone’s safety due to COVID-19.
“I think it’s easy to put words on paper. I think it’s more difficult to give the paper to an audience,” Franta admits. “Writing it down has always been a really therapeutic way for me to be introspective within my experience and kind of finish the puzzle within along the way but when you then open up the world to that conversation, I forget that people don’t know if I’m telling the full story. And I’m always afraid that someone’s going to misunderstand what I wrote down, even though it’s completely accurate. At the end of the day, the difficult thing is that I go back to the editing process, and I think I would have added so much more here. But that’s just because I wrote it so long ago and we’re already at the point where the book has to be out so you can’t change it. Writing is permanent, but the experience is ever-changing.”
One experience that Franta wrote about was an educational and explorative trip to Kenya, which included building a library in one of their villages. On the last night, the group he travelled with decided to go around the room and reveal one thing about themselves that no one else knew. Slowly, this group, who were essentially strangers outside of this trip, began sharing things they were struggling with. When it was Franta’s turn, he said, “I’m terrified I’m wasting years of my life thinking about someone who no longer thinks about me.”
Looking back on that moment now, he says, “I was sobbing when I said it. It was so hard to say, but everyone was participating in that pain cycle at that moment. It was infinitely memorable. It’s one of those chapters where I’m like, I don’t think people will fully understand the depths of what we felt that night. Just what people were willing to share. It’s this search for honesty. I think we spend so much time kind of dancing around the truth that we know to be and I just hope sharing experiences like that reminds someone to stop dancing and just exist. Just live, just be vulnerable…bleed for the whole world to see and then go from there.”
The process of writing his books goes beyond just getting the words to the page. Franta, who is also a professional photographer, includes his own personal images which he captures with his film camera, an item that he brings with him no matter where he goes. “For House Fires, I thought about what photos were evoking the emotion I was trying to capture within the writing,” he explains. In terms of writing, Franta began writing for this book as soon as he finished his last one, Note to Self, something he wasn’t planning on doing.
Note to Self is a much darker book compared to Franta’s others. Dealing with his first heartbreak and falling into a deep depression, Franta was going through a really rough time while writing it. In this latest book, he looks back on a lot of it, like his first love as well as love and relationships in general. “I think even pretty bad relationships can alter your entire experience in a way for better or for worse,” he reflects. “I feel like every relationship whether it was a week, a month, a year, completely shifted how I see myself within all relationships moving forward. And even if it was like a sliver of knowledge it still helped better me as a person. So I see all of them as great experiences with hindsight. People always say, it will get better and it will be okay. Just give it time. And it’s annoying because it’s true, but no one wants to hear that.”
Right now, Franta is in a good place in terms of his relationship status, which is single. With the pandemic, he hasn’t focused on dating, but rather himself, and even if he was dating someone new, he is adamant about keeping that aspect of his life as hush-hush as possible, though he doesn’t fault people for being curious. He’s simply not stressed about finding love and doesn’t feel that he has to race to find it like so many of his peers at this age. In fact, Franta admits that he is quite guarded when it comes to his heart. “I’m hesitant to give myself to someone out of the fear that it will be taken away,” he says. “I have to know before I’m willing to do it. I’m never like, here’s a shot in the dark. I better know that it’s at least going to be a certain amount. It’s a very scary thing to give yourself to another person that way.”
Being single, it’s natural that Franta took the time to reflect on himself and his own personal growth. “Past me wouldn’t even recognize present me,” he laughs. “Because even just from a level of what I care about now, what I spend my free time doing. Even just my gestures, my way of dressing. I think back to the fact that I was so quiet growing up. I didn’t insert myself in conversations because I didn’t really have an opinion. So to see me now, my job is almost to have an opinion.”
Franta was born in Wisconsin before his family moved to a small town in Minnesota where he attended College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, an all-boys private university, for a brief period of time. “I was going through a rough time at that point,” Franta says. “So that’s where my negativity towards the experience comes from. I have a lot of great friends from college. I had a lot of great experiences there. I think that that is a great example of how different I am now compared to how I was then. Now, if I were to go back to school, I would never choose an all-boys private school in the Midwest where 99% of the school attendance is white cis men. That’s just not of interest to me in any possible way. All of those factors feel like the opposite of who I am as a person.”
Throughout the book, Franta sprinkles in memories of his childhood life and hometown, particularly in the chapter titled Super Nostalgia, a theme that pops up periodically. He says, “There’s a line in that chapter that’s something like wars were built and destroyed in the same moment or something. It was like battles with my siblings were created into a war and then demolished in just a second. But today, things linger and they really stick to you.”
As much as Franta looks back on things, he does try to remind himself that dwelling on it too much is a waste of your time. “Tomorrow doesn’t exist, yesterday barely exists,” he explains. “The only thing you really have is right here and right now, so to spend too much time swimming within a moment that isn’t right now, you’re not utilizing your present properly.”
He continues, “Our generation is a social experiment. In a way, no one has had the level of connection, technology integration, or immediacy. It’s so new that anything can be at your fingertips in just a second which I think really changes our chemical makeup. I have a feeling it has something to do with the comfort that nostalgia brings because it’s easier to feel like the past was so much easier and so much more relaxed. Nothing ever seems perfect at the moment. It seems perfect in hindsight for some strange reason. So I think it’s our brain trying to cope with the present, but conveniently taking off all the little details of what the past really was.”
As someone who shares so much of himself to the public, there are some parts of himself that Franta doesn’t always show. The closest Franta has come to sharing his full self has been through the podcast series he recently started called Everything Else, which he posts on a second YouTube channel as well as on podcast streaming platforms.
“It’s hard to be your full authentic self in a YouTube video specifically because you are editing it,” he explains. “You get to choose the narrative you’re trying to tell. It’s like a movie. It’s, in a weird way, manipulative, but that’s how all art is. It’s almost inherently making you feel something. That’s why I like writing. That’s why I like the podcast a little bit more nowadays because it does feel more like me and there’s nothing to hide behind. I don’t hide who I am in an effort to hide who I am. There’s no way to be fully yourself on social media. I had a podcast about parasocial relationships the other day and I find that very interesting. No matter who you’re watching, you feel like you know them a little bit more. And is that inherently a good or a bad thing? I don’t know.”
Looking ahead, he says, “The process of the book now begins where you spend so much time creating the book and for me, it’s more than just writing it. It was the typography, it was the design. It was the layout. So for now, it’s very much just leaning into the book and seeing where that takes me. After that, it’s a lot more long-form content. It’s a lot more behind-the-camera content. It’s writing. It’s, you know, hopefully directing. It’s telling stories other than my own.”
At the moment, YouTube and his podcast continue to be Franta’s main projects, but he makes sure to do them only on his own terms. “I would much rather make the content I want to than make the content I am told to make,” he says. “I stopped focusing so much on what’s going to do well or what’s hot and trending. It’s because I’ve been around the block for so long, frankly, where I’m like, you know, I’ve been doing this for 11 years. I’m just happy to still be doing it. I really am just happy to be here.”
Connor Franta’s House Fires is out now.