"My plan," says author Jonathan Lethem, "is to write a different book every time out." That is harder than it sounds in an industry that urges novelists to cultivate their readers. "I suppose," he adds, "that makes me unreliable." And unreliable he is. Note, for instance, that there is no character in his novels named Perkus Tooth, as he would have you believe in his Writing Life essay in Sunday's Book World.
Lethem was online Tuesday, Feb. 8, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss The Writing Life and his books -- "Men and Cartoons," "Fortress of Solitude" and "Motherless Brooklyn."
Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday'sBook Worldsection.
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What is it that draws you toward magic realism (or the fantastical) in your work? What does it allow you to explore or discuss that you couldn't if you remained rooted firmly in "reality?"
Jonathan Lethem: I'll try to be concise on this question which is so large in its implications... bear with me... I've always felt that the writing I responded to most -- the novels and stories that compelled me, that felt like they described the world I live in, with all of its subjectivity, irrationality, and paradox, were those which made free use of myths and symbols, fantastic occurences, florid metaphors, linguistic experiments, etcetera -- to depict the experiences of relatively 'realistic' characters (on the level of their emotions and psychology, rather than in terms of what kinds of lives they led or what kind of events they experience)... I'm thinking of dozens of writers... Kafka, of course... Italo Calvino... Philip K. Dick... Shirley Jackson... but also some who are 'fantastic' in a way that's not quite so obvious -- they exaggerate the symbolic and magical side of life on the level of description or metaphor -- Dickens, for instance. Don Delillo is another one. Iris Murdoch another. And so, when I collide aspects of imagination -- whether on the level of the plot, or characters, or in the language of the book -- with realist elements, I'm just trying to do what I love best in others. For me, literature IS magic. It's born to explore the edge where the irrational meets the everyday. And so I'm just unearthing or making explicit elements which I think are intrinsic to it in the first place...
I thought Fortress was one of the best books I've read in a long time. My question: what has generally been the reaction among minority audiences when you've done readings of the book?
Jonathan Lethem: Okay, I'm going to try for shorter answers, so this can be more conversational. Thanks for the praise. I'm very happy to report that when readers respond to Fortress, whether black or white or other they never seem to respond to it by speaking collectively on behalf of their ethnicity -- rather, the reaction is personal and individual -- i.e. "I love Mingus so much, why did such awful things have to happen to him". Since that's the level that the book is pitched, I hope, I'm very gratified by this kind of response...
I really loved Motherless Brooklyn --
picked it up after I saw it reviewed in
January Magazine, the online book review
site that I edit for, and it was one of those
books that made me blow off doing other
things in order to finish reading it. Much
of it made me laugh out loud -- I often
think of the scene where Lionel is
rearranging the cat food cans in the
convenience store, whenever my slight
OCD tendencies find me doing the same
thing at the supermarket! I gave my
brother a copy for his birthday that year --
he raved about it as well. And you'll be
happy to know that Motherless Brooklyn
apparently has a long "shelf life," as it
were -- earlier this week, it was the topic
for discussion on CBC's "Open Book"
program. While I don't know anyone
personally with Tourette's, I used to live in
Boston and would see this guy in the
subway on my way to work in the
morning. The commuters all pretended
not to notice him shouting obscenities.
From what little I know about it, your
portrayal of Lionel's tics seemed spot-on.
What sort of research did you do in order
to get into his head, so to speak? Did you
model any of his behavior on people you
know with Tourette's?
Jonathan Lethem: Thanks for all the praise. I too have been struck by the shelf life -- or as I call it, the 'legs' -- that this book seems to have. I suspect that Lionel is just such a fundamentally likeable character, loveable, even, that people want to spend time with him and then share him with others... I marvel at having pulled off this trick, and I'm no certain how I did it: to create a person so much more likeable than myself! I'm only partly joking when I say that...
I didn't know anyone with Tourette's when I wrote the book, though, like you, I'd encountered them in public environments, often without understanding what I was witnessing. As I researched the book -- by reading accounts, both personal and medical (especially Oliver Sacks) and by watching a quite wonderful documentary film called "Twitch and Shout", I began to realize that small resemblances to Tourette's were visible in a lot of personalities I was familar with, including my own. So, much of my research was internal -- I cultivated, if you will, my own Tourettic side for a couple of years, and published the results.
Of course, after publication I was drawn very quickly into the Tourette's community -- which is one of great solidarity and strong advocacy. They'd liked the book (lucky me, since I hadn't written it meaning to please anyone knowledgeable), and wanted me to participate in various public benefits and forums... I made some friends who taught me that some of what I thought I'd invented for Lionel was more real than I'd known.
I could tell Motherless Brooklyn stories all day, but I suspect I ought to move on!
Mexico City (D.C. native living abroad):
Jonathan, I just devoured "The Fortress of
Solitude" and was deeply moved by your
writing and the story. Your depiction of
Mingus Rude's life as a crackhead is
brutally vivid, and I was wondering how
much of what happens to him after he
shoots his grandaddy comes from your
imagination or is based on actual time
spent in jails and on the street in the
midst of the 1980s-90s crack epidemic.
Jonathan Lethem: Well, I've never been in jail. But I had the invaluable assistance of several good friends -- and one family member -- who offered me incredibly humble and truthful personal testimony about certain parts of their life, both 'on the streets', and 'inside' -- material that I depended on almost completely in painting the picture of that part of Mingus Rude's life. If it's persuasive, it's entirely due to the generosity of those friends.
Good afternoon. Besides enjoying your novels for the strong stories and writing, the one thing I appreciate is you uncanny ability to recall and recount -- to the most miniscule detail and feeling -- what it was like to grow up in Brooklyn in the 70s. As a contemporary of yours who grew up in East New York back then, I know that when I hear people mention how great and upscale the borough now is, all I can do is smile and say "you have no idea." Now, I just point them to "Fortress" and also "Motherless" for the experience.
How hard do you find it to translate your "ear" of how folks talk or feel from your head to the page and ensure it will ring true to those reading it?
Jonathan Lethem: Thanks again. I'm always thrilled hearing from people who know the turf -- for me one of the pleasures of this book was feeling that I'd put a little portion my own reality into a time capsule that could be reentered by others.
Your question about using my ear is a good one. For me, voice is really the beginning and the end of what makes a novel persuasive, involving -- or really, even worth reading. I'm not sure how to describe my attempts to do justice to voices that are very different from my own, except that I've often wanted to compare it to what I imagine a method actor does in locating a character very different from themselves. It's absolutely a matter of getting inside, of finding versions of yourself and your own emotional landscape that cohere with the external realities of the character in question. If you're able to find that connection, the voice rings true. If you're faking it, no amount of dialect or detail is going to help.
Santa Cruc, Calif.:
Overall I thought "The Fortress of Solitude" was great, but I thought the second section was a little forced -- almost like it was unneccesary -- so I wonder if you ever considered ending the book shortly after Mingus' violent act (don't want to give it away to those who haven't read it)?
Jonathan Lethem: I always sympathize with people who have trouble with the second section. The material is so troubling, and Dylan is so much less pleasant a character to spend time with... it's like the whole book has suffered a loss after Mingus' violent act (I'll help preserve the secrets too), and a golden bubble of childhood has been ruptured.
But -- to end it there would have been radically incomplete, and I doubt you'd have been satisfied. I always knew that however painful and even awkward, I would have to follow the trajectories of those characters out of their magical childhood, into the prosaic and disappointing adult lives that result...
Jonathan -- I am a huge fan of your work. I had the pleasure of hearing you read when you were in town for "Fortress of Solitude." One of the things I love about your work is that you tend to choose a genre, commit to it, and twist it into your own mold. "Gun, With Occasional Music" remains one of my favorite books by you. I've always wondered -- did you one day watch "The Searchers" and think to yourself, that would be a great science fiction book? The themes in that film are so translatable to any genre, since they take in a huge range of human emotion (which is what makes it a great film, of course) -- how did you decide to translate the plot how you did?
Jonathan Lethem: Thanks. I'm very proud of that book too. The funny thing about the relationship to the movie "The Searchers" is that when I decided to try to reply to it in a novel, I'd only seen "The Searchers" once, and then in very problematic circumstances (for more on this I must recommend you check out the first essay in my forthcoming book of essays, "The Disappointment Artist" -- it's called "Defending The Searchers" and it explains this strange relationship in detail). I decided I wanted to try to understand "The Searchers" by writing about it, but this wasn't an easy plan, because the film is so lurid and strange and overwhelming... and of course, I found myself falling back on other sources for "Girl in Landscape" too -- specifically, Philip K. Dick's "Martian Time-Slip," and E.M. Forster's "A Passage to India" (but not the lousy movie of that!).
"My plan is to write a different book every time out." Please define "different." What are your goals when creating something new each time you write?
Jonathan Lethem: Well, of course this is a plan that is doomed to fail... I've discovered that like every writer, I'm helpless MYSELF -- and that means I find myself unconsciously or semi-consciously repeating motifs and themes and even using certain words or images recurrently in my work, no matter how much I think I'm starting fresh. But I've always admired artists who made a specific sport of trying to visit different kinds of genres or mediums or modes -- not just 'western' or 'detective', but comedy/tragedy, epic and miniature, traditional/experimental -- I think of Stanley Kubrick, for instance. The novelist Thomas Berger is a great example. Graham Greene, to a degree. Part of the pleasure is seeing how much of these artists remains the same no matter how much they try to change...
It may be simpler to mention that I'm easily bored, too. I hate feeling too complacent when I write. I like to be solving new problems.
I'm a huge fan.
In "Motherless Brooklyn," "Fortress of Solitude," and "Girl in a Landscape," motherless youth come of age in a difficult environments. Do you agree with the characterization that finds strong parallels between these three novels (the three that I've read so far). If so, to you plan to continue to explore these themes?
Jonathan Lethem: Yes, there's absolutely the strongest possible link between those three novels at exactly the axis you describe -- childhood in a strident and confusing social environment.
As for my next work (and this anticipates another question I see coming in), I'm trying to leave this particular set of issues aside, for at least one book. More on that in a moment.
If you don't mind my asking, are you working on a new book now?
Jonathan Lethem: Yes. I'm about half done with a new novel (I'm assuming you mean novel -- as for a "new book," there's the collection of essays coming next month). It'll probably be ready in time to be published in 2006. It's smaller and sillier than the last couple -- in some ways a throwback to "As She Climbed Across the Table" -- a romantic comedy set in California, among adults. No parents and children this time. My characters are bohemians, mostly musicians in a failing rock band. The lead character is female. In that, it's kind of an antidote to the masculine worlds of "Fortress" and "Motherless."
Kind of a prosaic question, but what books and CDs do you really, really recommend? Thanks.
Jonathan Lethem: Ah, so many... I've mentioned some books, of course (any names I've dropped should be seen as recommendations, strong ones!). As for music, I'm staring at shelves with over a thousand cds, any hundred of which I could endorse heartily in the right context... but maybe I should ask you what YOU like -- and I'll tell you what of my own listening that reminds me of.
Here, so I don't seem too coy -- this morning I've listened to Lou Reed, Camper Van Beethoven's cover of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk album, and Nellie McKay (though I can't decide how much I like her, yet).
Ever thought about screenwriting?
Jonathan Lethem: I've thought about it a lot. I love film, and if the exact right opportunity came along, I'd try it. That is to say, a collaboration with a wonderful director who had a greenlight to make whatever he and I came up with. But those chances are rare -- and in the meantime, I've got these novels I want to write...
Silver Spring, Md.:
I know it's a trite question, but one that always interests me: Who are your favorite authors/books? Who do you feel most influenced your writing, if anyone?
Jonathan Lethem: Some of that I've answered in previous questions. Some other key influences I haven't already mentioned: Lewis Carroll, Dostoyevsky (never feel confident spelling that name), Robert Heinlein, Muriel Spark, Stanley Ellin, Richard Yates, screwball comedy, Marvel comic books...
How did you do the research on Tourette's Syndrome for your book, "Motherless Brooklyn?"
Jonathan Lethem: I think I mostly answered that in the second or third reply here -- the key item in my research was the essays of Oliver Sacks -- "Witty Ticcy Ray" from "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," and "A Surgeon's Life" from "An Anthropologist on Mars." Those were worth any number of more technical books on the subject...
I am about 160 pages into "Motherless Brooklyn" right now and am finding it hard to put down. How long did it take you to write it and can you tell me a little bit about your writing discipline? Do you write for a certain number of hours each day? Do you have any superstitions (like slapping your keyboard six times before sitting down) -- anything like that? Do you think there is a little OCD in all of us?
I am presenting this book to my book club next month and am sure it will spark a lively discussion!
Jonathan Lethem: The level at which my OCD enters my writing process (and I do think that pretty much everyone is prone to a bit of it) isn't that I slap the keyboard -- it's more along the lines of a compulsive need to swap syllables around, rework words and sentences -- I revise for the pleasure and satisfaction of it, rather than out of a sense of duty.
My writing life is pretty simple -- I try to work every day, almost always in the mornings -- and I can only write fiction effectively for about three or at the most four hours. No big mysteries, I just sit down and try to advance the cause a little bit every day.
Hope it goes over well with your book club!
Please outline your training, sir.
Jonathan Lethem: Well, I was mostly schooled as a visual artist, actually. I went to Music and Art High School in New York, and trained as a sculptor and painter. When I went to college I began as an art student and soon switched to writing a novel -- and almost immediately dropped out of college. That's it, I'm afraid.
How did you research Tourette's syndrome for the character of Lionel? I've read varying opinions regarding the realism of Lionel's affliction.
Also, are you planning any PR adventures to Germany in the future -- book signings, speeches, Frankfurt Book Fair or the like?
Jonathan Lethem: I was just in Germany in September -- sorry we missed one another. I don't know how soon I'll be back through, but I like it there very much.
I've described my research into Tourette's a bit already, and it wasn't terribly extensive. Mostly it was a matter of intuition, and poetic license. I didn't think I was likely to get it exactly right, and that wasn't too important to me. I wanted Lionel to be a character who was moving and funny and strange and sad, and if I accomplished that I'd be satisfied.
Tysons Corner, Va.:
Let me chime in here with a rare criticism. Frankly, I didn't care for "The Fortress of Solitude." What put me off was the description of, how should I say it?, homosexual activity between the two main characters, presented in a very matter-of-fact way, as if all teenagers engage in that sort of thing. Was that what I was supposed to think? Am I naive to think that these two kids were intimate in a way that other teenage boys aren't? I guess I may have missed the point of the story.
Jonathan Lethem: Sorry you didn't like it. Of course, a novelist isn't trying to be sociological or scientific in presenting the behavior of their characters, so I wasn't trying to say anything about what 'most' teenage boys get up to -- only what these two characters happened to experience. Their relationship encompassed some homosexual fooling around, yes -- though I'd venture to say it was hardly defined by it (nor were they destined, ultimately, to define themselves as homosexual).
Will you be signing and reading anywhere in this area anytime soon?
Jonathan Lethem: Yes, I'll be in DC to read from the essay collection on March 24th, I think. At Politics and Prose, I'm pretty sure.
Down on my block (Dean St. btwn 3rd and 4th) I've heard
Fortress described as "The Great Dean St. Novel." Quite
Jonathan Lethem: Yes, that makes me very happy!
Comic Books and Literature:
Lately, some popular writers such as Brad Meltzer have written comic book stories for the major comics publishers. He recently wrote a great series of Justice League stories. Which comic book would you like to write?
Jonathan Lethem: I'm currently talking to Marvel Comics about maybe doing something for them. But I don't think I'd like to use one of the famous characters -- as much as I love them, those stories all seem sort of used up to me. So I'd probably pick a minor or forgotten superhero and revive them.
Which question would you ask yourself in this chat if someone had already stolen your pre-prepared question?
And, oh ya, what would your answer be?
Jonathan Lethem: You've stumped me, my friend...
You seem to be the only mainstream, critically-acclaimed author out there that recognizes and embraces the cultural impact that comic book literature has had in this country. Why don't more authors take the time to read and reflect on this stuff?
Jonathan Lethem: Well, there's Michael Chabon too, of course. And I think there are others out there who recognize and reflect the impact, perhaps a little less directly than Michael and I have... but it's partly generational, too -- I'm sure others will be coming along soon!
I just read "Fortress of Solitude" and loved it. Dylan struck me as a solitary child who in many ways withdrew into himself (his "fortress of solitude") as a defense to the loss of his mother, the distance of his father, and his difficulties on the streets of Brooklyn. In the second half of the book, it was apparent to me that his "emotional intelligence" had suffered and he had trouble relating to other people openly and authentically. Having been there myself, I could relate strongly. Is there hope for Dylan, and for those like him, to overcome those childhood experiences?
Jonathan Lethem: Thanks for the very fine question... this may be just about my last... it's been fun, folks.
Yes, I'd certainly like to hope there's every possibility that experiences like Dylan's -- and Mingus's -- can be, if not 'overcome', then incorporated into a balanced, happy, generous, sane life... perhaps even Dylan and Mingus themselves -- though the book ends with them only just beginning to taste redemption -- could have some hope of such a life...
Jonathan Lethem: Friends, thanks for coming and offering me so many challenging and scrupulous questions -- it really was a pleasure. Thanks...
Jonathan Lethem: And thanks to my hosts at the Washington Post, too!