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"I Was Thinking of Dickens A Lot": An Interview With Jonathan Lethem 

Q: How is it to live back in Brooklyn now, after having grown up there?

I love it here. It's been eight years since I came back here. The neighborhood I live in is pretty much the one I grew up in, and it has a tremendous amount of meaning for me. I care about this place and respond to a lot of secrets -- things I can see, ghosts that are floating around or traces of the old neighborhood that are visible pretty much just to me. It's the kind of place that if I wasn't from here, I'd move here. It's very congenial.

Parts of it that are less developed are like Brooklyn in the '70s, and the streets right where I did grow up and where I'm living now are cozier and swanker, I guess, but they still have a quality of a juxtaposition here of different classes, different races -- a very mongrel place to live.

Very few people end up living so close to their original home as I have, but I was away for a long time. I lived in California for a decade, and I did have a little jaunt in Toronto. It's a very specific combination of elements that's drawn me back here, being so involved with it as a writer, but also it's the nature of this place; it's full of writers. It's very attractive to people living just as I want to live.

Q: I'd imagine that now, as similar as it is, there's a whole lot different.

The revolution in market values -- the way these buildings are cherished now -- the idea was afloat when I was a kid and I write about it in the book [Fortress of Solitude] in a way. It was a ghost of an idea that these were landmark buildings, but they were being treated as a discarded part of the city and now they're being recognized. The brownstone is a very precious thing, so these are million-dollar houses. It's amazing to see it come true because it took a while.

Q: It seems like Brooklyn's almost a character in Fortress of Solitude.

I think it is. It's a very overwhelming place. It's not just a backdrop. One reason I had to leave for so long and come back was that I had to contend with the intensity of where I was from.

Q: Have Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude changed your status in the literary community?

Yeah, between the two of them, the most decided change was when Motherless Brooklyn took the National Book Critics Circle Award and I felt I was no longer a dark horse in a way I'd grown very accustomed to, and in some ways very comfortable being a cult writer. I'd taken on that role pretty happily because a lot of the writers I admired growing up were these cult commodities or dark horses. After that, I became someone more in the center of the community. Moving back to New York, I was less of a stranger to the people who were publishing me and to the literary media here in New York.

Q: Was part of being marginal because people saw you as a science fiction writer?

Sometimes it was that, but sometimes it was because I'd been so contradictory; there were many who thought I was a crime writer as well. Other people, particularly those who heard me talk in an interview or on a book tour knew how varied my influences were and how various my aspirations were and they saw me as a post-modern oddball. One way or another, I seem to be working from the margins.

Q: Does part of it have to do with people's attitudes toward genre fiction?

I think so. I was playing with a lot of prominent genre elements and those still set off alarm systems in some parts of the reading community, red alerts: this might not be literature, it might be something more disreputable. But playing with those images from pop culture was always going to be something I was excited to do, so whether or not I was setting off their genre alarms didn't matter because the excitement I was feeling about the material was central to the work.

Q: Obviously, you don't have issues with genre.

I don't see it the way some people do, that there are these very hard and fast categories and some of them are more literary than others, no, I don't. I don't see some as more literary than others.

Q: I can't think of the name of the theorist [Mikhail Bakhtin] who said in effect everything's a genre.

Absolutely, and to put aside that word and the question of putting books in any category, the only thing that finally matters is the quality and meaning of a given book or story; they're finally all absolutely individual and have to be encountered directly. You can't really learn that much about anyone's writing by trying to figure out which camp to put them in.

Q: True, though in a lot of cases it seems like if you don't understand the genre, you miss something important. Thinking about Motherless Brooklyn, if you don't think about the noir genre, you miss a lot that's cool about the book.

Absolutely. People who exclude that kind of reading are missing out on a really crucial part of the cultural vocabulary. Not to have encountered Raymond Chandler or not to have encountered Howard Hawks' version of The Big Sleep would be a great loss.

Q: I think about David Lynch, and how his movies make a remarkable amount of sense once you figure out which genre he's working with.

A: I think that's a great way to describe it. We're all enmeshed in the universe of genres and storytelling modes and pop culture vocabularies, and that's what most of the really interesting writers are engaging with, not because of some theoretical standpoint but because it's exciting stuff and energizing.

Q: I thought of 18th-century British novels by Henry Fielding and the like when I was reading Fortress of Solitude.

Truthfully, I was thinking of Dickens a lot, the structure of Great Expectations most of all. In general, George Gissing and the great Victorian novelists -- that amplitude, the willingness to tell a story that swallows up big chunks of the world and isn't afraid of digression. I was very encouraged by that example.

Q: It also seems the texture of life in those novels is as important if not more important than the central narrative thread.

I spent the first part of my novel-writing life very focused on plot. The books differed in many ways, but they were very stripped-down and propulsive. I wanted to make sure there was an urgency to the telling of the tale. There are many writers I've admired as a reader who are the opposite, who take pleasure in the digression and the descriptive, and I wanted to try to give myself that same kind of freedom. When you're immersed in a book that is so much like the world itself and you can live in it and roam in it, that's the greatest reading experience of all.

Q: I was reading about your affection for Philip K. Dick. Where would I find Dick's influence in Fortress of Solitude?

Well, there's less there than in others for sure, but he's so deep in my writerly DNA that I can find traces of him in everything I do. In Fortress, in some of the double reverses of plot in the second half, the paranoiac superhero stuff when Aeroman tries to tackle the Oakland crack epidemic, and of course when Dylan invades the prison. That paranoia relates for me to Kafka, but also to Philip K. Dick. There's also the eccentricity of certain kinds of characters in Dick. When Dylan goes to the science fiction convention, he meets that guy Zelmo Swift who's sort of a charlatan, but a charlatan bearing wisdom is very much like the kind of eccentric gurus that Dick's characters often encounter, characters who are full of shit but have some deep secret to impart.

Q: How much of Fortress of Solitude is autobiographical?

Everything and nothing at once. Spiritually, it's an autobiographical book, the affection for this place and that time in the world, Brooklyn in the '70s, and the milieu of the characters -- the school that Dylan and Mingus move through, the culture they're immersed in, comic books and the music and the movies they sneak into -- that's hugely autobiographical, and gives the book a passionately autobiographical tone. But it's deceptive because the characters are not one-to-one in any regard. I've given Dylan some of my interests and some of my fate in sending him to the same public schools I went to, but I don't actually relate to Dylan that much. He's a character with a lot of smallness of spirit that doesn't feel autobiographical to me. In many ways I relate more directly to Abraham; he's a character who's full of confessional details. There are other senses in which there are parts of me in Abraham and Arthur and spread out throughout the book. Conversely, there are people I grew up with, people who are close to me, who look at Mingus and Dylan and see parts of themselves in those characters, and they're completely right to feel that. So the book is almost collectively autobiographical; it's almost tribal testimony for me and a bunch of guys.

Q: Pop culture references seem crucial to the book. What are they giving you?

It was something I avoided as writer for a long time. I actually thought it was cheating. I never did any journalism, I never did any nonfiction writing, I came from a painter's household and I had this hierarchy and thought real artists invented everything. In my early books, if your characters went to a movie, you had to invent a fictional one for them to go to; if you mentioned something real, you'd go to fiction jail. Then I had this unexpected breakthrough in Motherless Brooklyn where, because Lionel and the exact nature of his temperament and his personality, he was so scrupulously interested in everyday things -- he liked to touch everything, look at everything and talk about it. He would stop and examine certain sandwiches or he'd talk about a Prince record or Mad magazine, and I discovered the pleasure I'd denied myself in writing about real artifacts.

Lionel slowed me down and made me try this. Then I realized I wanted to write about this part of myself. I'm a big fan. I'm a collector and a fan and a connoisseur and I love stuff, and I love thinking about it and I love favoring the specifics of the material of my world, and I realized I could write a book about characters who felt that way, and to do so, I would want to let myself reference everything and not be afraid that I was breaking the fiction law.

The danger people propose to you is that the book's going to be dated, or it'll be too specific or that people who won't know those references won't care, but I started to think I had to move through that fear and embrace that choice I'd make and be spectacularly referential. If I think about the way I experience reading a Dickens novel about London in the 1860s, it's full of brand names and real shopkeepers' names, and ditties washerwomen were singing that year on the streets of London. I don't recognize any of it, but I believe in it, and because it's all caught in this matrix of Dickens-charged language, I'm nevertheless swept away, so I like living in that alien world of all those references. I thought if the fiction was strong enough -- if a story was imaginative and sweeping and the language was musical -- the references would be swept up in the same kind of matrix and it would play.

Q: Those references also break down the difference between reader's world and the world of the characters.

A: At its best, that's exactly what it does.

Q: In a book that has as a central feature a ring with super powers, it seems like something that blurs the line between the real world and fictional world seems valuable.

A: The thing that seemed to me so comfortable, so right about this choice I'd made to write a book that smashed together an almost documentary account of Brooklyn in the 1970s with something so absurdly fictional -- something on the level of a myth or a fable like the ring -- is it would force me to meld metaphor and reality, which is what I like best in the books I'm most in awe of, the way they're real and mythic at the same time.

Q: What books are you thinking of?

A: Things with that largeness to them. Call It Sleep by Henry Roth is one, Another Country by James Baldwin, which was a strong influence on this book, the Dickens I mentioned before. There's a great novel of adolescence, Portrait of a Romantic by Steven Millhauser, that was a real touchstone for me.

Q: Not so much magical realists?

A: There's one sort-of magical realist -- or fabulist -- that I thought of a lot writing this book and that's Samuel Delany. His book Dhalgren, which is another book in many ways about New York City in the '70s, about a kind of ruined bohemian utopia with very real elements and very mythical elements in the same book.

The reference that people often want to suggest I'm making is to [Gabriel Garcia] Marquez, but I've never really read Marquez apart from a few short stories. I love some of the short story writers I associate with that label like (Jorge Luis) Borges and Julio Cortazar and Italo Calvino, but I haven't read a novel that went under the label "magic realism" that was as great as some of the others that I've just mentioned to you.

Q: Why "Dylan" and "Mingus" as character names?

A: When I was talking about the ring and some of the ways I tried to be brave in this book, one of the things I wanted to do was go ahead and be unsubtle, and make the book very big and corny and reach for a lot of large stuff. Those names represent for me heroic figures with mixed fates in the world, as heroic figures usually have. One black, one white. One who got to have his whole career, one who spun out and lost it. They stood nicely for some of the large feelings I wanted to invest in my own characters.

At the same time, it's a bit of realism. My name's "Jonathan" which is pretty prosaic, but there are a lot of kids my age and a little younger than me whose parents, because of their idealism, because of the counterculture, because of the meaning of their lives in the sixties and seventies, did give their kids these names. I went to college with a lot of Dylans and with a Miles and with a Coltrane. It's a bit of truth about the world that these names are out there and these kids are saddled with names that reflect their parents' cultural touchstones. Since that was one of my themes -- the legacy of the sixties generation for their kids -- I thought that was another way the names brought me into the heart of that material.

Q: It also seems like you lean toward unusual names.

A: It's true. Whether I'm being absurdist with names or just picking odd ones, I have a funny thing which is that when reading fiction I often forget characters' names unless they're unusual, so I've always preferred characters with slightly odd names.

Q: Is there anything in "Essrog" and "Ebdus" as names?

A: I kind of backed into that. The softness of both their names -- beginning with an open vowel and ending with an "s" or with an "s" in the middle. They have kind of an unformed quality that seems like they stand for the way both of those characters are unsure of their identity. People have asked me if they're anagrams, and of course they're not, but the fact that they feel like they're puzzles or that they could be solved or should be fixed in some way feels appropriate to me.

Q: You seem to have become the pop go-to guy in literary circles.

A: I'm the current guy who says yes (laughs). I'm sure every one of those editors went to Rick Moody first and he said no. Soon I'll get worn out and stop saying yes, and it'll be someone else's turn.

Q: Do you get concerned about doing those projects?

A: I don't know if I should. I don't think too hard about it that way. The really important work is the novels, and what kind of side projects is mostly beside the point. It's more a question of what will I enjoy doing.

In the case of the [Welcome to the] Atomsmashers book, I was lucky because I was able to write an essay that felt substantial enough to me that I'm going to assemble it into a book of essays. It led me into an activity I've discovered I like a lot, which is writing these semi-autobiographical essays. Ostensibly, Jack Kirby is my subject -- or John Cassavetes or Star Wars -- and then I end up telling stories about myself instead and I've written a few of these now and in 2005 there'll be a book of them [The Disappointment Artist, due out next March].

Q: Has it made you now a lightning rod for comic fans who want to talk about their favorite marginal characters?

Yeah, some people have found me. So much of that energy goes on in online spaces so when people send me links I drop in as a lurker and look over the shoulders of these people having conversations that are triggered by an essay I've written. Of course there's always some guy in there slagging me terribly, as is the nature of online discourse. I only have a limited amount of will and energy to bring to that kind of stuff. And the truth is, by the time I've written an essay like the one in Atomsmashers, I've had my say. I don't have a whole lot more to say about Jack Kirby, so if people get a hold of me they're kind of disappointed. The energy's in them now. I've said my piece and they're all wound up and they want me to listen, but I don't have any more to add.

Q: I'm probably three or four years older than you, and I bought many of the comics you refer to, and while I was geeking out seeing those comics referred to, I realized others were likely doing the same thing.

A: Obviously, if these were the only readers that Fortress of Solitude attracted, I'd be in trouble because there aren't that many. There is a subset of the people who read the book who you might call my constituency, who are guys more or less my age who, whether it's the music or the comic books or some element of the milieu -- suddenly someone is talking about their life or their world in a way that they haven't encountered before. I like that and am proud of it because I love that feeling myself when something I think is a part of my world and I haven't imagined there's a -- constituency, I suddenly realize, ŒOh wait, we can come out about this and talk about it.'

Q: I had that feeling when Please Kill Me [an oral history of punk rock from 1997] came out, when people who shared values with me and who were old enough to appreciate that were in a position to make decisions at a major publishing house. There was something about that that was very validating. I'm sure for a lot of people, seeing a reference to "Speeding Motorcycle" and Kirby's '70s comics was similarly validating.

A: I know exactly the feeling you're describing and I've enjoyed providing that. It's also another excuse or another justification for throwing as many of the oddest references as I did into the novel. I felt at some level those were shout-outs to people who were going to be so turned on to see those put in a book.

I don't know if you know the band Smog. Smog is just the bassist for Yo La Tengo, but I mentioned that Smog is in Dylan's record collection. It's the record Dylan's girlfriend makes fun of him for having. I recently met Smog -- this guy James [McNew] whose four-track, closet recordings are the secret behind Smog -- he told me he'd been amazed how many people got in touch with him to say, ŒDo you realize you're in this novel?' That felt like a great gift to him.

Q: What was something that did that for you, when you felt validated and felt someone out there was talking your language?

A: It's in rock criticism, and when I realized that some of the guys writing for The Village Voice 10 years ago -- the newer bunch of guys writing in the way I associated with figures of authority and thought of as older people -- that they were starting to drop references to video games I'd played into their music reviews, and I realized these are guys my age and they're running the show now. Like you said, that moment when you realize your generation has taken the reins.

Q: Have you done any music criticism?

A: Barely any. It's a funny thing -- almost by slight of hand, I've fooled people between giving Dylan that career and editing that year's best music writing book [Da Capo Best Music Writing 2002], people take it for granted that I must have been a regular record reviewer at some point, or at least done a lot of freelance sporadic music writing, and the truth is I've barely ever done any.

I wrote about Jonathan Richman for Pulse, the Tower Records magazine about 10 years ago, and it was such a disenchanting experience to interview a hero of mine in music that I swore not to put myself in a position where I'd become disenchanted. I wanted to remain a fan in a very pure way. I've never liked reviewing anything. I've taken a few book review assignments over the years and I reviewed two or three movies at one point for Salon, but basically the only times I've really written about music or film is either in the fiction, as I've done in Fortress, or in those kinds of more eccentric and personal essays we were talking about earlier. &127;
click to enlarge "The book is almost collectively autobiographical; it's almost tribal testimony for me and a bunch of guys," Lethem says of Fortress of Solitude.
  • "The book is almost collectively autobiographical; it's almost tribal testimony for me and a bunch of guys," Lethem says of Fortress of Solitude.


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