Jonathan Lethem’s Undiscovered New York
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.
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.
Recorded on September 25, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
The author writes about neighborhoods in New York with such richness that they become characters unto themselves. Here, he discusses his favorite undiscovered hoods that haven’t yet made it into his novels.
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