Interview: Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem is the author of the novels Gun, With Occasional Music; Amnesia Moon; As She Climbed Across the Table; Girl in Landscape; Motherless Brooklyn; and The Shape We're In. He is also the author of one collection, The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye. He lives in Brooklyn.

POST ROAD: I read somewhere that you were an art student at Bennington College. What kind of art and what were your years at Bennington like?

JONATHAN LETHEM: I painted because my father painted, and I painted badly because it wasn't really what I wanted to do. But it took a while to work that out. My dad's spent his life an artist of tremendous dedication, worked steadily in a variety of styles and mediums—though primarily oilon-canvas—always exploring, always faithful to his gift. Which he unearthed against certain odds, being raised in the Midwest the son of a traveling salesman of agricultural supplies, in a large, mostly conservative family that doesn't boast another artist (though there was one writer). I inherited a portion of his facility without thinking twice about it—and also the whole legacy of his and my mother's bravely-constructed bohemian, radical, and 'artistic' lifestyle as though it were the only possible way to live. The facility for drawing and painting turned out, once I'd discarded it, to be a tease, or distraction, on the way to something else. The wider background—lifestyle, cultural literacy, home-schooling in dedication, craft, everyday work—made me a writer.

But I painted for a while, using my inherited eye and hand. I went to Music and Art, the great New York high school, which turned out Harvey Kurtzman, Milton Glaser, Erica Jong, Bess Myerson among other mostly Jewish notables. My work was glib, show-offy, usually cartoonish. The most serious attempts were loaded with narrative implications, a struggling against wall art's inability to depict time. By the time I was fifteen I'd already made an animated film and written a 125-page 'novel'—in other words, on the side, I was pushing against painting in forms that better contained my feeling for story. But by following my father as a painter I was telling another story, one I couldn't give up yet. So when I applied to Bennington it was as a prospective art student, with a portfolio.

There I degenerated quickly. Because I'd been an art student for four years already, and lived in my dad's household, I considered myself too good for the introductory classes. A teacher named Guy Goodwin saw through me. He wrote an evaluation which praised the talent I'd exhibited in the tossed-off work, and was nominally a high passing grade—at Bennington there were only written evaluations—but concluded by mentioning. I'd barely even been a participant in the class. He doubted I'd be an artist.

Midway through freshman year I began another novel, called Apes In the Plan, after a line from a Devo song. With that, the painting was finished in any meaningful sense, though since I was still mired in a dilettantish career as a student I took a few more art classes and made some more half-assed art. Shortly after that I dropped out of Bennington. My experience there was overwhelming, mostly having to do with a collision with the realities of class—my parents' bohemian milieu had kept me from understanding, even a little, that we were poor. I've written about this a bit in an essay for Tin House called "Defending The Searchers," and discussed it with Phillip Lopate and Dalton Conley in an interview for Salon. It's an endlessly fascinating subject for me—the oddity of being raised in a hipster fog where intellectualism and cultural access obscured poverty so completely it became a kind of privilege. Partly a New York experience, and partly a sixties-seventies thing. I thought I was one of the chosen ones. But at Bennington that was all demolished by an encounter with the fact of real privilege. I couldn't have articulated this at the time, but within a year there my sunny sense of boho destiny was transformed into surly outsider-underclass resentment, an artist's identity which was simultaneous self-loathing and arrogant. I was shocked, shocked, to discover that a large number of artistic careers are essentially purchased, and Bennington was implicated in this awakening. I spun out, unable to continue there, to make use of what was, in fact, being offered. Even so, the year-and-a-half I spent was hugely influential, and some of my teachers and fellow students made me aware of standards I still measure myself against. Paradoxical, how much influence could be imparted by a place I seemed to be rejecting almost as soon as I set foot in it. Like a family experience, I guess.

PR: You were for a time the fiction editor of Fence. What role do literary magazines play in the national discussion of art and literature?

JL: Tough for me to generalize in any way that doesn't seem completely windy. I was fiction editor of Fence for six issues, and I tried to make the fiction we published there unexpected—because I began by publishing only four stories a year, I had to make it really unexpected to make it anything at all. Under Rebecca Wolff's genius stewardship, the magazine has become an important one in the poetry world, which is what I think it was devised for, really. The fiction existed in a blessed 'free-zone'—by reversing the usual proportion the fiction was turned into the kind of unexpected-and-possibly-irrelevant fugitive stuff that poetry usually is in a magazine full of fiction and articles. I think in those six issues we (there were talented readers helping me) might have made a couple of nice discoveries, or anyway been the second or third publication for some writers who were about to turn heads. I just don't know what to say about a role in the culture. Each story or poem or book gropes for a role or at least a walk-on in the heads of individual readers or listeners. It was fun to be the head doing the choosing, for a while.

PR: Is there a distinction in your mind between literary and commercial fiction? Or have we been trained to think in those terms by the national chains of bookstores?

JL: Hmm. There's a gulf nimbly skipped over in those two questions, in the distance between 'in your mind' and 'trained by national chains'. I've spent a lot of energy arguing to myself and to others that certain books I love are a much more interesting part of the 'literary' conversation for anyone who troubles to read them than they're usually regarded to be (by bookstores, chains, critics, various canon-making entities). On the other hand, if I pick up the sort of book I don't usually bother to pick up and find it unsurprisingly uninteresting, I'm as quick to label it 'commercial' as anyone. It's a useful dismissal.

PR: Is the decision to marry traditional genres of fiction with a more literary bent an external one? Or does the material lend itself one way or the other?

JL: Things get really confusing when you bring in the word genre as if everyone understands what it means. In my view, the words which name bookstore sections (and reviewing and publishing categories) describe clusters of genres—and that includes the bookstore section called 'fiction' or 'literature'. Novels obedient and disobedient to the conventions of various definable and specific genres like 'the campus novel', 'the bildungsroman', the 'hard-boiled detective novel', 'the family romance', 'the epic quest', 'the dystopian social novel', 'the paranoid noir' 'the gothic tale', 'the epistolary romance', 'the ghost story' and many others nestle within those big, broad, and nearly meaningless (meaningless, anyway, within any really interesting critical or 'literary' conversation) categories like mystery or fiction or science fiction or literature or romance.

But I'm pontificating. But your question invited me to pontificate. But I'm not really liking hearing myself pontificate. So I'll take the easy out: I'm personally not much interested in these dissections anymore. Taxonomy thrives on dead subjects. I'm always more thrilled by fiction which is disobedient to the genre conventions with which it engages, and by fiction which engages simultaneously with more than one genre or mode or set of expectations.

And for me the material always dictates form. Ever more so as I've grown as a writer.

PR: Motherless Brooklyn has been described as a literary detective novel. What in your mind separates your novel from the detective novels of Ross Macdonald and Agatha Christie and others who have written books in the detective and mystery genre?

JL: From Agatha Christie, only everything. Ross Macdonald, like Raymond Chandler, was a central influence on Gun, With Occasional Music, and so of course he's humming away underneath my second attack on the hard-boiled conventions in Motherless. But unlike Chandler, I haven't reread MacDonald in fifteen years, so I'd have difficulty isolating his relevance to the more recent book.

As I've crankily suggested in my reply to your earlier question, I'm responding to individual writers always, whole genres never. Why argue with a cloud? The only other hard-boiled writers who matter to me as much as MacDonald and Chandler—and none matter as much as those two—are Crumley, Hammett, and the very early Ellroy. The other stuff that's shelved in mystery sections which I care about isn't the harmless cheery crime-solving Agatha Christie stuff, it's the much more erratic and vivid 'crime novel' (defined by the presence of a criminal protagonist): Goodis, Thompson, Willeford, Cain, McCoy.

PR: In choosing Lionel Essrog, who is afflicted with Tourette's Syndrome, as the narrator of Motherless Brooklyn, you provide an excellent trope for breaking the mold of the traditional detective novel, a trope that allows the novel to also be about language and how language is processed in the human mind. Which came first—the decision to have a Tourettic narrator or the idea of writing a detective story? And how did you go about researching Tourette's? What was the decision process in giving the narrator this affliction over any other kind of affliction?

JL: They came together. I'd been gathering interest in and material about Tourette's half-consciously, reading Oliver Sacks and watching a documentary called "Twitch and Shout" and becoming responsive to the material in ways I couldn't explain. I saw something of myself in Tourette's, particularly in certain verbal inversions and reworkings and free-associatings which I'd manifested in controlled ways in my earlier fiction. Because Tourette's is always about expulsiveness restrained. The attempt to put boundaries or controls or explanations around the irrational, explosive expression. I saw I'd allowed this impulse in my work by a series of Tourettish characters: the babyheads in Gun, the blind guys in As She Climbed, and certainly the Archbuilders in Girl in Landscape. Always these characters were delightful screwballs working the margins of the narrative—I kept them restricted, like a Greek chorus of Shakespearean fools. So learning about Tourette's itself became an incitement to loosen up this part of my work, give it freer play.

But I didn't know I could write about Tourette's until my curiosity about the syndrome floated into range of my long-standing annoyed-admiring feeling for the hard-boiled narrator. Just as I never imagined I'd again have anything to say in the hard-boiled voice (after Gun ) until the idea of the Tourettic detective arrived. The two activated one another, and I knew it was a book. (I should add as an aside that at first I meant Lionel to be a 'real' detective, then realized just how untenable I believe a contemporary hard-boiled detective to be. He had to become a fake, and this question —how really stupid and unworkable the Chandler impulse is in a contemporary setting —invested in the book.)

Of course I found it incredibly funny, snort-milk-through-the-nose funny. I still do. As much as I've invested in Lionel and his Tourette's—and he's obviously the character I've written with whom I most identify —it all starts with wanting to do this funny, stupid, seemingly impossible thing. Subsequently, I layered over the potential affront of how funny I wanted to be with all kinds of intricate sensitivity to the real-world suffering of Touretters and their loved ones. It's an affliction—in the lives of sufferers and their families often a terrible one. And the world is terribly insensitive. I didn't want to add to that even slightly. I hope I haven't. But the book in fact thrived on this struggle to have things both ways—my awkward negotiation translated to the reader, I think, so that it becomes a very emotional book, very emotionally open.

PR: Two of the characters in Motherless Brooklyn, the bookkeeper Ullman, and Gilbert, are off-camera for most of the novel. How did your decision to manage the characters on the page evolve? Was the hierarchy of the four—Essrog, Tony, Danny, and Gilbert—immediately clear to you? You've said previously that Lionel was to be the main character from the start, but how did you build the other characters?

JL: Well, I'm embarrassed by both explanations in different ways. Ullman is a "No Man" or "All Men" (but not Allman Brother) type of thing, and he was never meant to appear. A fucking intentional symbol, that's what I'm confessing. As for Gilbert, I bungled into that problem. I needed a second Minna Man in the car with Lionel at the start, and I'd intended him to be an 'extra' type—one who could be killed off or jailed and forgotten while the other 'important' Minna Men were back at the ranch. I probably should have guessed that after fifty pages of banter, he and Lionel would start to seem inseparable in a Mutt-and-Jeff kind of way. So, managing his absence became one of those damage-control aspects of writing the book. But maybe it worked out okay. The book is intentionally structured around an unbearable breach—Minna's vanishing. And then Gilbert becomes a little bit of an anodyne to that loss, a pothole instead of a bottomless well of grief: "See, some people go away and come back. Rescue isn't completely hopeless," etc.

Tony was essential from the start. Should I say he's based on a kid I knew? Um, several real-life sources, cough, cough. Danny was more filler.

I mean, I knew he had to be somebody fun and interesting (in fact I ended up borrowing from the future, just like George W. Bush does—Danny's white-blackness is a foreshadowing of my current work). I just didn't know how he'd be essential to the book. But when you're lucky, as I was in several ways during this writing, everything has its purpose. I had no inkling Danny was destined to inherit the agency until I got to the last chapter, but it seems obvious now, doesn't it?

PR: In As She Climbed Across the Table, you send up academia, and the absurdities of that small, self-sustaining world. At one point, Georges De Tooth, the resident deconstructionist, pitches his proposal to study Lack, the hole in the universe opened up by Professor Soft, saying "Physics seeks to dismantle the surface, perceive beyond it, to a truth comprised of particles; I argue against depth wherever I find it. Lack's meaning is all on the surface..." Extrapolated, the above could apply to literary criticism. What is your opinion of the business of literary criticism, and further, is there anything writers can learn from literary criticism of their work?

JL: Of course. Defensiveness requires writers (including myself) say otherwise, constantly, but of course. It just has to be very good literary criticism, which is as rare as other kinds of good stuff—writing, cooking, conversation. And what's handy with criticism—academic and 'popular'—is that the bad parodies itself.

PR: Another aspect of As She Climbed Across the Table is an evolution of the Koan about one hand clapping, in the form of the twin blind men, Garth and Evan, who propose a new theory on perception, that true perception comes from within and not from without (an idea another character, Dawn, espouses in Amnesia Moon ). How did the germ of this idea begin, and how did you conceive of Garth and Evan to carry the idea in the novel?

JL: Subjectivity isn't a new theory of perception. You're flattering me by taking it backwards, as though the ideas were profound and the characters mere vehicles. In fact the only thing interesting about that talk is that it carries with it the flavor of the particular invention—Dawn and the two blind guys have charm, so they've persuaded you to feel something about an otherwise banal observation. I think. Anyway, they were hardly conceived as a vehicle. I just saw them one day: two borderline-autistic blind guys, very poetic, one black, one white, with a wonderful pataphysical rap. Then they needed to have something to say, so I pillaged Borges and Rashamon. That's all.

PR: How did the idea of writing a narrative around Lack manifest in your mind? Does Lack have kin in Contemporary American Fiction?

JL: He sure does. His twin is the narrator of John Barth's End of the Road, a novel which obsessed me. Barth's book is told from the point of view of an inert and diffident character who steals away the wife of a dynamic professorial blowhard. The professor is appalled to lose in a romantic triangle to a cipher, a void. So, I made the void literal and shifted the viewpoint. And then made the whole thing cuddly, and more contemporary and Delillo-ish. Though now that I think about it, if you know the Barth, it makes the 'cold steel table' aspect of my book a little bit yucky.

PR: In Amnesia Moon the entire world is not what or where it should be, yet one constant is the presence of televangelists (from all faiths) and the indifferent masses. What were you trying to say about religion in the book?

JL: I have to keep flipping these questions around. The televangelist robots came first, as an image, as a joke, as a Philip K. Dick-ian riff on the mechanization and co-modification of, well, anything passionate, anything native and human. I think—this was a long time ago—that I was mostly just making fun of the word 'televangelist'. It was funny and made me picture these robots with television heads and babbling religious leaders on the screens of the televisions. I wanted my character to meet one of these things.

PR: Toward the end of Amnesia Moon, the residents of Vacaville have their appearance altered to pale in comparison to those of the "government stars," who are more beautiful than the average person (so much so that residents can only buy Playboy according to their body type). What is your opinion of the tyranny of beauty in our culture as perpetuated by the media, etc.?

JL: Much what you'd imagine. It's awful. But it's awful because it preys on and interfaces with all sorts of horrible Darwinianly hardwired body instincts. It just milks them to death. But again, I was only trying to be funny. That scene with the porn is like a rebus. Like a Jenny Holzer billboard, or a Laurie Anderson song. There's an opinion in there, but it's not my own. The scene is built on the foundation of a cultural critique just about every second person in Berkeley in 1987 (which is where I was when I wrote it) was already walking around with, fully formed, in their head. It becomes amusing to see the common understanding gimmicked into a little artistic rebus of that kind—the pleasure is in the recognition. If I claimed to have originated those observations I'd be a madman.

PR: Do you have favorite books that you read over and over?

JL: Sure. There's no sense to them as a grouping, I suspect. Just talismans, singular objects, some or all flawed, which keep me going, like friends. Some novels: James Salter's Light Years. Shirley Jackson's The Road Through the Wall. Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children. Philip K. Dick's Ubik. John Barth's End of the Road. Patricia Highsmith's The Cry of the Owl. James Baldwin's Another Country. Don Delillo's White Noise. Robert Heinlein's Door Into Summer. E.M. Forster's A Passage to India. Parts of Samuel Delany's Dhalgren. And certain stories by Italo Calvino ("All At One Point," "The Dinosaurs," "The Aquatic Uncle"), Frank O'Connor ("My Oedipus Complex," "Man of the House"), James Thurber ("The Catbird Seat," "The Wood Duck," "One Is A Wanderer") and others. But really none of those compares with the small group of children's books I've read many dozens of times: Lewis Carroll's Alice books, Norton Juster's Phantom Tollbooth, Eric Berne's The Happy Valley, Dr. Seuss's Sleep Book, Albert Payson Terhune's His Dog. Or, honestly, certain books of music writing I've read hundreds of times. A collection of essays edited by Greil Marcus called Stranded —I re-read half that book every time I pick it up, I lose whole days to it, I have to hide it from myself in my house, like porn.

PR: What was your experience with publishing your first book, Gun, With Occasional Music ?

JL: That experience was delirious. I was paid six thousand dollars by Harcourt Brace. My editor had worked with Stanislaw Lem and Umberto Eco. And he showed it to another editor in the house, an 'old hand', who said my overtly Chandler-esque prose wasn't an insult to Chandler. I'd pictured my first novels being published as paperback originals and instead a prestigious house was doing the book in cloth. And then they allowed me to art-direct the jacket design, which I arranged to look as much like a paperback original as possible. I was in heaven. This euphoria carried me a certain distance, then I began to want to make a living.

PR: What are some artistic influences on you outside of the world of books?

JL: Shamelessly fun ones. Film—Hawks, Ford, Hitchcock, Welles, Truffaut, Kubrick and Godard above all. Plus Warner Brothers cartoons, so seminal I probably don't even grasp the extent myself. Comic books: '70's Marvel, Steranko, Starlin, Kane, Kirby, Kirby, Kirby. Steve Gerber, too, but really the artists more than the writers—the possibilities implicit in the art, which the stories themselves were always battening down.

Then R. Crumb, hugely. There are more recent loves, like Dan Clowes and Chester Brown, but that's not influence, not the way you mean. Music, too much to list. Dylan and James Brown and everyone else. Anyway, how does the music influence my narrative art? Probably no good way, not directly. It only keeps me alive and working and thrilled at the fact of expressiveness.

And then painting, the whole idea of painting, which was the 'artistic paradigm' I grew up inside, because of my father's career. I was a painter until I was twenty. The totality more than any one artist. But especially Georgione, Breugel, Ernst, De Chirico, Rothko, Guston, Samaras, Oldenberg, and my father.

PR: If you were to make a list of your books in terms of how successful you were in completing what you set out to do, what would that list look like?

JL: Girl In Landscape is the one that's just right and all mine. I can't really look at the books before that, not closely. I suspect Gun is a righteous device, ticking along nicely, and Amnesia Moon a homely animal I loved too much and abandoned. As She Climbed —cute. Then in Motherless Brooklyn I maybe put it all together—but that stands outside myself, so I just feel grateful to have been involved. It sort of fell on my head. It's the only one which doesn't need me, never did. It would have found someone to write it, by necessity.

PR: Some writers, younger writers in particular, have the dream of moving to New York as part of their maturation as a writer. What's your view on the advantages/disadvantages of being a writer living in New York?

JL: I'm helpless on this, because growing up in Brooklyn I was too close and still as far away as you can be. As a kid I once tailed Norman Mailer down Montague Street. And once went to a store in Manhattan and had Anthony Burgess sign a book. Otherwise I could have been in Indiana. I threw over the (remotely possible) advantage of access when I dropped out of college and fled to California, just as I threw over the chance of help at college by dropping out, and then never going to grad school. By the time I returned to New York I'd published four books. I can't speak for maturation, but I had the books. Now I enjoy the parties, except when I don't. Not a clue how I'd have dealt with them as an aspiring writer hoping for a break—likely that would have been torment. I was better off oblivious in my garret.

PR: What were some of the practical realities of your early life as a writer? It's a rare exception that a writer has the act of writing as his or her only daily responsibility. What was daily life like for you then, and what is it like now that you have had success?

JL: I worked in bookstores. That's the only job I've held outside this authoring business. I was lucky in that, because the people I worked with all understood what I was doing and didn't hold it against me. I was allowed to keep my health insurance even after I began slimming down my hours, working four days a week, then three, then two. That's unusual. And books were cheap. I worked a combination of dayshifts and nightshifts, and so learned to write at different hours, any hours I could find.

Every moment's stolen.

Now? I write these words from the backseat of a solid milk-chocolate Cadillac, which somehow says it all.

PR: What sort of cautionary advice would you give to young writers?

JL: Never put a fountain pen in your shirt pocket—that's just asking for it. And don't bother the older writers while they're thinking, or appear to be.