An Interview With Jonathan Lethem, Author of Dissident Gardens

photo by Fred Beneson

photo by Fred Beneson

Jonathan Lethem’s novels, particularly Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, have established him as one of the most important American authors writing today. Lethem is also terrifyingly brilliant in person—the kind of guy who speaks in complete paragraphs, and casually tosses off vivid, wise observations it would take mere mortals hours to dream up. At BEA, I asked him about his new novel (Dissident Gardensout on September 10), his writing routines, and his reading habits. Here’s what I learned:

People assume he’ll have a meltdown if he leaves Brooklyn.I lived in CA in my twenties and actually began writing while I was living in Oakland, in Berkley. And so I’m not as unfamiliar with it as people, for very understandable reasons, often project that I should be. It’s charming, that as such a product of the Brooklyn streets that I’m going to be in some sort of distress if I don’t have one foot on the pavement. But I lived in CA pretty happily in my twenties, and it was a very good place for my writing. It was where I wrote my first three novels.”

But it’s true that he has a special relationship with BK. “I think I could probably live in LA for the rest of my life and not write about it the same way that I write about New York. It just doesn’t seem to me very likely, because that has to do somehow with the formation of my person, my way of looking at everything, that I’m from Brooklyn, and bring that tone and that temperament to things.”

He didn’t want to become The Brooklyn Writer. “Publishing [Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude] were two of the greatest experiences I’ll ever have, getting to live the life of the author of those two books in succession. But I kind of knew that I had to fuck it up and not write about Brooklyn next. . . or I was going to be doomed. I’d be like Clive Cussler, who has to write about ships crashing. I couldn’t be that person.”

Childless people don’t appreciate their freedom. “Before you have kids you think you’re busy, you think that the day is short. You don’t have any idea. You have oceans of time. Your time is your own. Once there are small children, you have to as a writer become so on point. I write every chance I get. I don’t waste any time anymore. I get up very early in the morning so I can write before they are even awake. . . I’ve cut out a lot of other inessential things in favor of my family and the books.”

Music wasn’t too important to Dissident Gardens. “Textual sources were much more nourishing [than music]. Reading novels set in that time, reading memoirs about that time. It’s the voices of writers like Philip Lopade, and Vivian Gornick, and Leonard Michaels, and lots of others, including some who are less well-remembered, who aren’t even in print anymore and maybe deserve their neglect, but they wrote things about that time in that time that made me able to feel what it was like to be alive then, what that culture felt like from the inside. Anatole Broyard memoir of his cult, Kafka was the Rage, about Greenwich Village in the forties and fifties, was essential. It’s only about a 100 pages long, but it is a beautiful little book. These things were touchstones for me, almost in the same way that music was the touchstone for me in some other projects. There’s a Leonard Michaels short story, barely three pages long, called In the Fifties, and it just takes the form of a list. It’s a list of the things that he did in the 1950s. Very minimalist story, very absurd little piece, but in some way it was like a holy relic for me. So much energy flowed through those three pages that I could keep drawing from that source.”

He escapes writing by…writing. “I like to get some time to wander away from a book before I revise, if I can possibly forget about it. And sometimes I’ll structure some transitive tasks—some small but very definitely unrelated job, like writing a liner note for an album. Just something that will occupy my writing brain away from the book, so I can sort of pretend to forget it, and come back to it with new eyes.

He doesn’t always revise. “People say to me, ‘Well, how many drafts do you do?’ and there’s no real answer. There are passages that may have been rewritten a dozen times, and others, honestly, that if I got the thought in the right order and I was writing sentences that still look right to me, I won’t touch. Part of the benefit of having done this so many times is that sometimes I do get it right.”

The writers he loves reinvent themselves with every book. “Mostly the fact of having connected with earlier work and knowing that it’s secured my writing a guaranteed level of interest is energizing. It doesn’t make me feel either shy or self-conscious so much as it makes me really feel this incredibly gratifying urgency. I connected once and people are waiting to know what I think now. But shrugging off expectations, on the other hand, is a constant necessity. And in some ways I find that itself, the necessity, is another form of energy, because I like surprise in my life as a reader. I like writers who do very different things each time out and provide surprises at any number of levels: on the level of a sentence, on the level of the story, but also what kind of projects they carve out for themselves. A lot of writers I cherish the most have this almost dodgy quality, where they seem to be trying to be a different writer each time. I guess I promised myself at some point ‘I will be one of those. I will seem like I’m starting over each time.’. . . Every time I choose to do something different or defiant or strange, I can think, “Yes! I am keeping the higher promise, which is to not repeat myself.” It’s definitely part of the job. . . . there’s almost a grain of perversity or nihilism where you say. “No one is going to like this, and who cares?” Where you just free yourself from expectation or the burden of conforming to any idea of an expectation where that you’re supposed to deliver a reliable product by thinking, ‘I’m going to fuck that all up.'”

Being in the classroom is energizing. “The most replenishing thing is the direct contact, especially really in the classroom, in a dynamic with the younger writers, puzzling over this infinitely mysterious practice that we’re all working on of trying to make fiction not stupid. To make it really, really great instead. That’s exciting.”

You can’t write for 14 hours a day. “It’s a zero-sum game. Your days are getting filled up with one thing or another, whether it’s parenting or traveling or teaching or writing. If you don’t make sure enough of it is writing, then you feel bad about it, but you also can’t write for 12 or 14 hours a day. You need a life, you need other things, and many of those things must be with other humans, because writing is so solitary. So you’ve got to have ways to pull yourself out into the world. We’re social creatures. We’re tribal creatures. Teaching is a very nice version of being in the world and being part of the tribe, of being connected to the species I’m in. And it flows back into the writing.”

He was a dreadful student. “I only knew Bennington only as a student, and as a failing one. I was a terrible student. I mean, I was a disaster.”

Young writers shouldn’t be in a rush to publish. “Even the most talented undergraduate writing students are still in that polymorphous phase. They’re not really trying to become professional writers. They’re 18, 19, 20 years old, they’re still discovering and exploring and screwing up for fun. Whereas when you’re in a MFA program, especially a very good one and especially a very good one in New York City, you’ve got a lot of people who, whether they’re young or a little less young, who are really bearing down. They’re trying to have a career. They’re trying to have it right away. So, often there I’m in the position there of saying ‘Slow down. Explore your writing. Publishing will happen, if it’s going to happen.‘ You don’t have to think about that so quickly.'”

He doesn’t seek out reviews. “Sometimes I bump into them. I wouldn’t say that I try to avoid them, but I wouldn’t say that I scour the internet for lots of examples, because it just becomes an enormous chorus of voices in your head, whether published reviews in newspapers or online or are by people who are defining themselves as readers or by people who are defining themselves as critics—if you just constantly have this chorus in your head, it’s really distracting, at best. I bump into insightful, arresting things said about my writing in different places, and sometimes it’s a critic and sometimes it’s a reader who makes themselves known to me by a letter or just in a conversation, and sometimes it’s a reader who is on one of these kind of forums or frameworks . . . like Goodreads. And it matters equally much to me to hear somebody respond in a way that makes me say ‘Oh! They really are seeing something in the book.’ Even if sometimes they’re pushing back against it or disappointed in it, I still find myself excited or interested to the same degree.”

He still loves physical books. “I’m a very late adopter. . . I wrote several novels on a manual typewriter. And then I had an electric typewriter. I always kind of wanting to just circle around the machine and watch other people use the machine before I took it aboard. I didn’t have an iPod for the longest time. And now of course I love my iPod. So the fact that I don’t have a lot of experience with e-readers is only really typical for me, the way that I have dealt with technology. . . As a book collector, and a guy who worked in used bookstores for the longest time, I am most definitely a fetishist for the objects. It’s just personal. It’s not a principle thing, it’s not like I would ever demand this of other people or that I see that it has any kind of moral or ethical dimension, but personally, in the same way that I can never be without bagels and cream cheese, I can never be without rooms full of musty, physical, paper books. I’m much too old to give up something that has been so sustaining in an almost bodily way for me. So that’ll always be a part of my life, but I’m interested to see if I could start reading fiction on a screen. I don’t know yet.”

He doesn’t fear for the future of physical books. “It’s really important to notice that books are a technology themselves. . . It’s not like books are rocks, or pears that were plucked from a tree. They’re not some organic form. They’re a really intricate and specific technology. They’re also very deeply rooted in human culture, and I always want to mention it’s not just the individual physical book, but the shelf, the room full of books, the library, the study, these brain spaces that are being modeled by entering a room full of texts that can be touched, this goes very deep into the origins of so much of what is our recognizable human culture. It’s not like an LP. As nice as they are, they came very recently. They were a very new-fangled thing, even though I grew up in an age when it seemed like every family had lots of old, really crapped-out records. Those were only thirty or forty years old by the time I came along. Books are something else. Books are really just nested inside culture in a way that they can’t be dislodged so readily. People will keep wanting to make contact with them and propagate them.”

His house is filled with books. “Getting rid of sufficient books to make the collection functional is a lifetime pursuit. I used to solve this problem partly by working at bookstores, where I could think that a lot of books in the shop secretly belonged to me, and so I didn’t need to have them in my house. It was sort of like that was my other house. Now I don’t have that luck, really, but there’s no system, there’s no general solution. There are only interventions. . . I had one moment, I think it was about fifteen years ago now, where every book I had was on a shelf. It took me a long time to get there, and then it fell apart very quickly, and now I’ve got books in attics and basements. I think it’s part of the life. The life I’ve chosen is just to be coping with this.”

He read Dostoyevsky when he was twelve. “I was a very impatient reader as a child. I had a brief period of reading, obviously, picture books, and then reading some things that were written for children, like Nancy Drew and couple of other series. The minute someone put something into my hands that was exciting to me in a different way, and that was Ray Bradbury, I started reading from my parents’ bookshelves instead, which led to a lot of absurd too-early things. Like, I read Dostoyevsky when I was like twelve, which was stupid. Total waste of Dostoyevsky. But anyway, for whatever reason, that was what I wanted to do. And so I skipped over a lot. When I talk to other people who are voracious readers the way I was and am, they often have lots of favorites in this advanced-reader-but-written-for-kids category. You know, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, or you know, they’ll name like twelve different great, really great writers for kids and I’ll sort of feel like oh, I missed that chapter, because I went straight to grown-up books even if I wasn’t understanding them. So, having these kids to read to has given me a chance to double back and look into some stuff that I didn’t really pay any attention to.”

It comes down to this: “I don’t feel good when I’m not writing.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.


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