Big Think Interview With Jonathan Lethem
Jonathan Lethem is a novelist and essayist known for his genre-bending work that draws on science fiction and detective fiction. He was born in 1964 to an artist father and an activist mother, who moved their family into Brooklyn before it was fashionable. His mother, Judith Lethem, died of cancer when he was 13, an experience which Letham says has haunted him and his writing ever since. In high school, Jonathan followed in his father's footsteps, attending the alternative High School of Music & Art in New York. He matriculated at Bennington College in Vermont before dropping out in his sophomore year to move to California and pursue writing.
Lethem's first novel "Gun, With Occasional Music," a sci-fi/hard-boiled detective hybrid met with enthusiastic reviews and was a finalist for the 1994 Nebula Award. His fifth novel, "Motherless Brooklyn," won a National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1999, and 2003's "The Fortress of Solitude" was listed as one of The New York Times's editor's choice books from that year. His most recent novel is "Chronic City," which is set in a surreal version of Manhattan's Upper East Side.
In 2010, Lethem was hired as the Roy Edward Disney '51 Chair of Creative Writing at Pomona College, a position formerly held by the late novelist David Foster Wallace.
Jonathan Lethem: I’m Jonathan Lethem. I’m a novelist, short story writer, essayist and writing teacher.
Question: Do you find nostalgia misleading?
Jonathan Lethem: Yeah, there is a hugely bogus script that things fall into in American culture life that there was always just the moment before we began to you know just before we arrived it was all perfect. Things were great. It was a golden time and we have to fight to get back to that perfect simple place. And this it just purveyed so many different realms, high, low, in the middle, the arts, politics. It’s this really strange dream that people insist on dreaming that it was just good a minute ago and now we’ve ruined it.
And I mean there is a lot of things that we’re ruining all the time, but that’s not to say that there was this sanctuary, this moment in the past that we should be so self-reproachingly trying to reconstruct. That seems like a lot of nonsense and I try to puncture it wherever I can, even though I’m an American. I’m susceptible. I probably indulge it in all sorts of ways. I’m you know I mean in a book like "The Fortress of Solitude," I’m both complicit with a nostalgia for imaginary perfect Brooklyns that just preceded my own, and I’m trying to examine that impulse and expose that impulse. And I think if I wasn’t exemplifying it, if I wasn’t susceptible to it, I wouldn’t have the same insights I do into how treacherous it is, so sometimes the best testimony comes from inside these perplexities.
Question: Society often paints change as either sweepingly utopian or dystopian. Do you buy it?
Jonathan Letham: You know I began making fun of this tendency in my first novel, in "Gun, with Occasional Music." On the second or third page I think the main character opens up a package that has been sent to his office and there is an anti-gravity pen. It’s a ballpoint pen that floats out of the package when he opens it up and he realizes well they’ve finally done it. They’ve gone and created anti-gravity and what do they use it for? It’s like a promotional pen for a stationery company or something and then he tries to use it and the ballpoint, you know the ink is very bad. It’s a bulky, crappy little ballpoint pen that just happens to float, and he throws it away except it won’t stay in his wastebasket.
That is how change comes. And it’s never as sweepingly utopian or dystopian as we hope or fear. It’s usually much more kind of neutral verging on dull than that, and it’s all about what use it gets put to and you know I mean if you look back at when radio was invented there was a kind of beautiful hysteria about what this meant for human civilization that voices would travel now through the air. And, yeah, I mean it was transformative, but it was also like Pepsident commercials and really back crooners night and day. And then television comes along and among the claims that are made that are very similarly, you know, or you know film is introduced and again and again you see the rhetoric of crisis, moral panic at what these technologies will produce and futuristic exaltation at how they’re going to destroy all previous modes of discourse and communication. You know they do and they don’t.
It’s like the e-book. You know we’re now going to have like e-books and paper books probably for a good long time. And it’s very exciting that the market share may have crept in one year from 2% to 12%. It’s revolutionary in one sense, but, lo and behold, 20 years after the first inkling that publishing was going to be transformed we still do buy books in paper and glue and cloth boards and people really like them and they’re probably going to like them for awhile yet. There is just this weird persistence to the human use of these delivery systems.
Question: What are your favorite neighborhoods in New York?
Jonathan Lethem: Well of course I’ve written about my leading favorites and it’s something to… It may be obvious. It may not be obvious, but even if I seem prickly or satirical or suspicious most of what I select to write about I may seem to be dissecting or examining or exposing it, but to be writing about it at all must mean that I care for it. I don’t really write about anything I don’t love even if that love sometimes gets all screwed up and tormented.
So obviously I mean you can go to the books to know which neighborhoods matter the most to me. It’s terribly obvious, but there are others that I respond to that I’m really interested in that sneak up on me sometimes; places I take for granted or didn’t discover until lately. I mean right now I’m having a romance with my grandmother’s neighborhood of Sunnyside, Queens, which growing up it was associated... it was circumscribed by her very difficult personality, her very difficult sensibility and her own love/hate relationship to it, which verged too much on hate sometimes. But there it is, this place I knew in this very particular way that I never let myself possess before, but I’m suddenly going there. I’ve decided to write about it, and I’m realizing how much it means to me and it’s just there where it was taken for granted.
I also, kind of, you know... it’s incredible how long you can live in a place and not go somewhere and I only very lately figured out how amazing Inwood, the upper, the last mile of Manhattan, the park, the neighborhoods, the terrain, just the geography, the topography I should say of that part of the city is mind-blowing. It’s another place entirely and one of those that is a little bit frozen in time. It holds an essence of the city as I knew it when I was growing up in the '70s, that perfect time that’s gone forever.
Question: Are hipsters ruining Brooklyn?
Jonathan Lethem: Well you know I’m really strangely tone-deaf about certain things, just as I think in the '50s the word "beatnik" was made up to try to put something obnoxious or pretentious in its place and then there were people who came along, the Maynard G. Krebses of the world who were like "Hey I’m a beatnik" and they, just almost in a kind of idiot savant way they made it a good thing to be a beatnik because they liked to be one. It took me a little while to understand how much nastiness people generally intended when they used the word hipster. It just sounds sort of attractive to me, a hipster. I thought yeah, I guess that is sort of my culture. Those are my people and I was just about able to go on thinking that it was a perfectly nice thing to be until someone pointed out to me or it finally sank in that it was meant contemptuously and I really I’m not sure I accept the premise that I think it’s a self-loathing term and I’ve come to be very alert to this self-loathing propensity that surrounds certain kinds of cultures of what are essentially connoisseurship, generational affiliation.
Question: Do you see yourself as a champion of pop culture?
Jonathan Letham: People often ask me to kind of weigh in on pop culture or they sort of throw me questions that dare me to defend a love of pop culture and I realized... I stopped wanting to because the premises of the question contain so much self-loathing. It was generally being asked by people who loved a lot of those things that they thought fit under the container of that name, fit inside the container of that name, but didn’t feel good about loving those things. So they were sort of simultaneously hoping I would make them feel better about what they liked and daring me to make an ass of myself defending things that at some other level of their being they thought were indefensible. You know, bad, ephemeral, crappy commercial culture and I started to say I don’t want to defend pop culture. I don’t even want to talk about thing according to that... the implications of that term, the assumptions that nest in that taken-for-granted term. I’m not sure I know what it is or that I like it. What I am responsive to are two different things that nest inside there that don’t bring with them so many automatic associations.
I’m really, really interested in what I would call vernacular culture. And this covers things like the hip-hop culture that I documented in part in "Fortress of Solitude." The indigenous, essentially indigenous urban scrawlings on the wall and chanting rhymes over records in schoolyards that became—once they became commodifiable and self-conscious art forms—became whatever you know. Well both Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jay-Z and everything in between.
But the actual vernacular moment when things are not even bothering to think of themselves as art forms. They’re just expressivity, but not expressivity in some pure raw you know Thoreau-at-Walden sense of like pre-cultural, you know. They’re deep within culture. They’re responsive to culture. They acknowledge urban life, contemporary life, the consumer culture and they just make something of it. And of course you see a lot of what I would now call vernacular culture on the Internet; people sort of slamming together something in a weird way on YouTube. You know, it’s... sure there are people who are calculating about it already and trying to create either a reputation or a career for themselves in some way. But there are a lot of people just sort of making stuff because it’s like a way to almost just blurt something back at this world that’s so loud and full of stuff; noise, art and commercials and junk and argument and they’re sort of like making some argument back, here is something. I like that.
That’s vernacular culture to me. I’ll talk about that. I’ll defend that and on the other hand I also will discuss and describe and defend some parts of what I would call commercial culture, things that arise and are made, the first and founding impulse behind their making is to have something that will like blow up and fill a theater or hit the pop charts. That’s anything constructed sort of by committee or where you sort of have to wonder who is the auteur here, why is it good, like The Monkees or a lot of Hollywood film, a lot of what we new revere as film noir was made by people who were not thinking about art principally or sometimes at all, right. That is commercial culture and I do think greatness and extraordinary expressivity kind of rise there too.
Question: Are art and entertainment mutually exclusive in literature?
Jonathan Lethem: I think there is so much anxiety about the cultural capital attached to capital-L literature and it just doesn’t actually have to do with how we got here and how I spend my days, either one of those two things. I think most of what forms the cannon that is so nervously clung to was written in an exuberant indifference to the idea of a kind of elite, sanctified, cultural authority. The novel for most of its life was a dubious form. It was itself not pop culture, but entertainment. You know 90% of the syllabus in a history of the novel course up to a very definite moment in the 20th century was written by people who are either eccentrically pleasing themselves and their friends, or were trying to be as loveable and irresistible and entertaining as Dickens and Defoe. And, you know, this idea that it’s really, really specially sacred, the practice just doesn’t... help. It doesn’t help anything. And I think that the novel’s greatness comes precisely from its weird durable openness. It’s constantly engulfing all sorts of other cultural matter.
It’s a permeable form that draws a lot of energy from different kinds of… well from vernacular culture and also from the energy of other kinds of storytelling. I mean I think the 20th Century history of the novel... is among other things a history of an argument with... a very excited, nervous argument with cinema. You know oh gosh, this rival form can do so many things that the novel can do and what can we steal from it? How can we fend it off? How can we beat it at its own game or invent new games for the novel that the cinema couldn’t reach in to like the unreliable narration, et cetera?
Question: Why is the detective motif so pervasive in film and literature?
Jonathan Letham: The detective motif, well, it’s a number of things all at once. It’s a really, really flexible, vital, fluent metaphor for the alienated observer who is nevertheless compelled to act that we all frequently feel ourselves to be in the teeth of the 20th and now the 21st Centuries. We’re all sort of wanting to hide in our office and drink the whiskey bottle in the drawer and then... you know, and savor the solace of our own dry contemptuous wit, but then are somehow startled again and again to find ourselves both complicit with the action before us and falling in love with the character that comes and asks us, begs for our involvement and suddenly we’re inside the story. The detective is always trying to be outside the story... and always ends up inside.
Well this is a metaphor for life in the 20th century. It’s also you know I mean this... One of the things that, when I began to study the hardboiled detectives that I was so attracted to when I first wanted to write that kind of story, I was reading the Ross McDonald novels and rereading all the Chandler books and going deeper into the origin myths of this image. You know it’s so easy to overlook really, really crucial parts of this image. The detective wears a trench coat. A trench coat is an explicit reference to trench warfare. Trench warfare was World War I. The hardboiled detective was, to begin with, a veteran of World War I who had come back traumatized from a kind of violence, brutality, a despair at what mankind was capable of... that transformed philosophy, politics, literature, everything. And this man in a trench coat is, among other things, a traumatized veteran unable to confront this material directly in civilian life because it seems irretrievably distant from the surface reality of peacetime.
So it’s an urgent historical question that is being enunciated. The answer isn’t there, but the question is formed, how do we live after what we saw in World War I? And well when was the great second flowering of this image, especially in cinema? Right after World War II. We have another shock to absorb. Even worse, we could do that a second time. We could set up camps and film noir is a translation of the nightmare of the 20th century into the suburban optimistic manifest destiny American dream of the peacetime '50s, the prosperity and it is a shattering conflation of one part of the middle of the century with another, so we needed film noir to say how irreconcilable these two stories were.
Question: Do you have the whole plot arc sketched out before you begin a novel?
Jonathan Lethem: Yeah, I wait until I have enough to conduct my improvisation or my experiment. I need to have a lot in mind. I don’t work it out on the page. I don’t like notes and outlines. I need to have characters I’m fascinated with, confused by, attracted to, want to spend years with and in a setting that is equally attractive and confusing to me, familiar and strange and I need a voice. I need a kind of a language path into the work. I also need along with those kind of three pieces of equipment for the opening I usually need an image of an ending. I need some kind of set piece or mood or situation or strange moment that while I may not now, in fact, I’m certain not to know how I’m really going to get there, how I’m going to attain it, how I’m going to bring it into being, I know I want to.
And so using those other things I described, the equipment for the beginning of a journey it’s like being loaded up for a mountain climb and you see this kind of slightly cloud-covered top that you’re driven to reach. What lies between you and that top is unknown and that’s excitement. That’s not only fear. It’s a great discovery. It’s a great journey, once you feel the confidence in those things that I’ve just described, to go into unknown territory; to write day after day thinking "I have to figure this out, how do these characters end up where I’m imagining they’ll be and how do I explore this material?" you know. I love that feeling. That’s what I live for now, is to be in the grip of it.
Question: Are there common traps into which inexperienced writers often fall?
Jonathan Lethem: I’m not sure I like to think that there are traps, common or uncommon. There are mostly opportunities and the things that might seem most perplexing or the largest, most immoveable obstacles are also usually areas of potential fascination and obsession.
And writing is not a... you’re not on a journey that has been charted for you, externally. There's no map. There is only you and your own set of impulses. The only directive is to care immensely about stuff that no one else could possibly understand—let alone care about as deeply as you do—and probably wouldn’t even be able to grasp except if you accomplish the task of making yourself into the writer who can bring it forth. I mean when I wanted to write at the outset I was full of these turbulent, impossible-to-paraphrase images of what kind of writing I was going to do. Some of them were nonsense, never to be realized. But the one thing that was certain was that I had to cherish them because there is nothing else except you, in the void, imagining what kind of books you might be able to make people see and understand and enjoy and you’re making...
Thomas Berger was asked why he writes. I’ve already used mountaintop imagery in this conversation and he turned the little famous mountain climbers you know... the Zen reply that the mountain climber gives, “Why do you ascend Everest, because it’s there.” And Berger asked why he wrote said, “Because it isn’t there.” So that doesn’t describe a situation full of traps because traps are laid on a path that someone else has gone. For similar reasons I don’t really think that the image of a writer’s block is a very... is a necessary one. Being blocked, if that it's called, is my job. I sit everyday not knowing.
I mean in a technical sense people will say, “How long did that book take you to write?” Well it took me four years, but it doesn’t mean that I sat typing words for four years of hours. The great majority of that time I spent not even at my desk, but even at my desk, if you had a film of me there, I’d be sitting doing nothing occasionally with little bursts of activity—or sometimes with a cancelled burst of activity. I look like I mean about to... He didn’t do it. It would be like play by play, oh, he, woops, he almost wrote a sentence there.
So being blocked, being uncertain, sitting there not knowing, waiting, abiding with it: this is the work. If you don’t have the tolerance for that you’re in great trouble. If you want to call it a writer’s block... that doesn’t seem a very useful name for that kind of abiding that I think is the essence of the work.
Recorded on September 25, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
A conversation with the novelist.
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