The son of artists and activists, Jonathan Lethem has always been surrounded by art and archetypes. His father, avant-garde painter Richard Brown Lethem, ensured that the household was always bustling with fellow artists, live nude models, and a creative spirit. Despite the nurturing, artistic setting, Lethem's teen years were demanding -- his mother died of cancer when he was 14, and the streets of his Brooklyn neighborhood forced him to toughen up at a young age.
Lethem's Brooklyn is rich with history and stories. Much of the world knows Brooklyn through the movies and television -- as an urban maze just outside the glitter of Manhattan. But Lethem's novels deliver a more emotional and brutal reality of the streets he called home (and still does). The Brooklyn culture of his childhood became the sidewalk on which he built his critically acclaimed Motherless Brooklyn, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award.
Lethem attended the High School for Music and Art in NYC, where he studied painting but began to hone his love of literature. An insatiable reader, he read the classic and the contemporary, including Kerouac, Mailer, Vonnegut, Chandler, Dostoevsky, Orwell, and Kafka. While still in high school, he finished a 125-page novel called Heroes. It was never published but is rumored to be the earliest form of what became The Fortress of Solitude.
After high school, Lethem attended Bennington College in Vermont but dropped out after the first semester to work on his writing. He returned to Bennington briefly, but eventually made the move to California, hitchhiking his way across the country to arrive in Berkeley in 1984. This experience, and the years he spent in San Francisco, provided the inspiration for his first three novels, Amnesia Moon(1995), As She Climbed Across the Table (1997), and Girl in Landscape (1998).
In late 1996, Lethem moved back to Brooklyn and began writing the book that would put him on the lips of every publisher and reader in the country. When Motherless Brooklyn was released in 1999, readers fell in love with its fascinating lead characters, relentless plot, and detailed setting. It was an instant success and won many awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Lethem's long-awaited next novel, The Fortress of Solitude, hit the shelves four years later, in 2003. He conducted a lot of research for the book, gaining yet another perspective on his beloved hometown. The novel is again set in Brooklyn, on Dean Street, where Lethem grew up. Over three decades, the two lead characters -- Dylan and Mingus -- experience the world through the prisms of race relations, music, and pop culture in a disturbing and compelling story of loyalty and loss, vulnerability and superhero powers.
Outside of novels, Lethem has published short fiction and lent his editing talents to a number of projects. Odd and shocking, This Shape We're In (an extended short story) is about an unforgettable trip to the hospital. The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye is a collection of seven short stories about everything from clones to professional basketball. Lethem and coauthor Carter Scholz have fun with the master of the bizarre in Kafka Americana: Fiction, a book of short stories with Kafka as the main character navigating absurd situations. Lethem edited The Vintage Book of Amnesia, short stories about the art of forgetting by such authors as Philip K. Dick, Martin Amis, and Shirley Jackson. He was guest editor of The Year's Best Music Writing 2002, essays by writers on music.
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Good to Know
Lethem's original artistic impulse was to be a painter. While he remains a talented graphic artist, he first acknowledged his deep desire to write while at Bennington, where fellow classmates included Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt.
Before he was a published writer, Lethem's only other jobs were in bookstores. His first bookstore job was at age 13, and he supported himself this way up to 1994 when his first novel was published. In San Francisco, he worked at the well-known Moe's Books, home of rare and antique tomes.
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From the Publisher:
In February 2007, a few weeks before publication, Jonathan Lethem sat down to answer a few of our questions about his new novel You Don't Love Me Yet with our specially selected interviewer -- Lucinda Hoekke, the book's main character.
Lucinda Hoekke: Surprised to see me here?
Jonathan Lethem: (laughs) Yes, I'd say so.
Hoekke: This is our first chance to discuss what you've done in the book, the way you've represented certain facts about my life. I hope you don't mind going on the record.
Lethem: (laughs) No, that's fine, fine. Are you, er, working as a journalist these days?
Hoekke: Actually, I'm playing bass again, in a band called Biscuits In The Glare. And working on a memoir. This Barnes & Noble gig is just a one-time thing. But I'm the one who should be asking the questions.
Lethem: (laughs) Fire away.
Hoekke: What makes you feel qualified to write about the lives of musicians? You have a tin ear. I remember once at Falmouth's birthday party when the cake came out you just mouthed the words to "Happy Birthday" while everybody else sang.
Lethem: (laughs) I suppose... in a way... that's not really fair, but -- I guess the truth is I think that my love of music is what qualifies me. I mean, pop music is all about yearning. About wanting to be something other than you are. In a way, a fan knows more about pop than a musician does. And that's what a writer does: he wishes or dreams himself into lives he could never lead himself. He explores wishfulness. Besides, if you'll pardon my saying so, Monster Eyes was never really that, uh, professional a band. Not really all that polished. You were sort of fans yourselves -- dreamers, I mean. Wishful thinkers, wanna-bes. So, maybe it's not that bad that a wanna-be like me wrote your story.
Hoekke: Sure, right. I'm supposed to be flattered that you called me a ‘wanna-be' because, in your tautological thinking, a wanna-be is the same thing as a humble genius like you. I still say you can't sing.
Lethem: (laughs) Is that a question? You're right, I can't.
Hoekke: No, this is a question: I know you've said you like to listen to music while you write. Did you listen to our band while you wrote? Or something else?
Lethem: (laughs) I only have a couple of your songs on an old cassette. Not that they aren't great. While I was writing I mostly listened to the kind of music that's now called ‘indie pop', or ‘college' rock... I don't know what it was called then. The kind of bands that seem like they should have top ten hits but they never even seem to get played on the radio -- the dBs, The Feelies, Big Star... and also a lot of the even less-well-known bands I was fond of briefly during the period the book takes place (there's a big clue, if you're still wondering when it's set): Big Dipper, Christmas, Glass Eye... bands that sort of never quite had their moment, or if they did, it was brief, and I wasn't there for it – so instead I discovered them in a kind of vacuum -- it was like they belonged to me alone. I wanted to write about a band that barely existed, in a way.
Hoekke: You are the Lorax, you speak for the bands, is that it?
Lethem: (laughs) I guess I have a fondness for lost causes. No offense.
Hoekke: Let's change the subject. Is Hugo's restaurant really a mile from the 101? I don't think it is.
Lethem: (laughs) What? Sorry?
Hoekke: I'm wondering about your poor understanding of Los Angeles geography and commercial. Hugo's restaurant, smart guy. It's off the 405, not the 101, where you have it in the book.
Lethem: (laughs) Oh, I think I meant the other Hugo's -- the one in the Valley.
Hoekke: Have you ever even been to Los Angeles? Nobody would ever say Hugo's and mean the one in the valley.
Lethem: (laughs) Listen, let me try to tell you what I had in mind with Los Angeles... after all that material about Brooklyn I was beginning to feel like some kind of bogus expert, always claiming this deep ‘provenance' in everything I wrote... it seemed like a good idea to put myself out on a limb, to write about a place I was merely curious about – even confused by. Los Angeles is very mysterious to me.
Hoekke: Yes, I can see that. It will remain so to your readers. So, setting the book there was another opportunity to claim your status as a ‘wanna-be', is that what you're saying? Another piece of exalted fakery – excuse me, of course I meant to say ‘yearning'.
Lethem: (laughs) Sure, I guess that's right. I mean, look, this book isn't a historical novel or a sociological study. The characters -- you guys, I mean -- are the kind of twenty-somethings who just sort of float. You never read the newspapers, you're not exactly debating the gentrification of Silver Lake or Echo Park. You're just sort of living there – plopped down there, just like an author could plop characters like you down anywhere. If I'd wanted to flout my Brooklyn credentials I could have set the book in, say, Greenpoint.
Hoekke: So now we're so blurry and indistinct we could have been anywhere?
Lethem: (laughs) I didn't say that --
Hoekke: Next question. Speaking of historical novels, when is the book actually set? Because it doesn't seem to say anywhere.
Lethem: (laughs) I'd rather not come out and say it... There are internal clues....
Hoekke: Now you're avoiding a really easy question!
Lethem: (laughs) I just... this interview is so hostile, Lucinda. I think... maybe we should stop now....
Hoekke: I've got a few more questions. You wouldn't want to disappoint Barnes & Noble, would you?
Lethem: (laughs) I just -- listen, I'll continue on one condition.
Hoekke: What's that?
Lethem: (laughs) I want you to put the word "laughs" in parenthesis before every one of my replies. Because I've noticed that anytime you read an interview where the subject (laughs) a lot, it never comes off as defensive, no matter what they say.
Hoekke: It's a deal. So, why are you so defensive about this book?
Lethem: (laughs) I'm not defensive! I'm proud of the book! I even let my publisher put my photograph on the front jacket!
Hoekke: Oh, yeah, that was one of my questions: what's that about? Are you trying to pretend you were in our band? Is that even your guitar? How many chords do you know? Are you wearing your pajamas?
Lethem: (laughs) Stop, okay? Just stop. The whole point of the photograph is to admit that I'm not superior to anything or anyone... that I once picked up a guitar and learned to play G, C and D and tried to melt a camera's lens with my youthful gaze... but I'm obviously not going to convince you of anything.
Hoekke: We would never have let you into our band looking that way, I'm convinced of that
Lethem: (laughs) (long pause)
Hoekke: You really don't know what to say.
Lethem: (laughs) Is there, uh, anything else you want to ask about?
Hoekke: Last question: This makes two novels in a row. Will you promise not to write about me anymore?
Lethem: (laughs) What do you mean, two novels in a row?
Hoekke: I'm in The Fortress of Solitude too, remember? Me and Dylan Ebdus got mugged on a bus in Berkeley.
Lethem: (laughs) Okay, I promise.
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