Jonathan Lethem & Me
this is a long one, bear with me
So I interviewed Jonathan Lethem a few weeks ago, an event that filled me with as much exuberance as it did abject flopsweat. Lethem is way up in my pantheon of great modern writers, jockeying for position among Haruki Murakami and Colson Whitehead.
The first piece is from the Pitch, here in Kansas City. It was a huge battle on edits and content between me and my editor, which mostly came out pretty well, though I was convinced it was a disaster when it was said and done. Meeting Lethem the other night, he told me it's "great." Which you can take or leave, depending on how much you trust authors and the things they say. (For what it's worth, I'm believing him, if only for my own writerly peace of mind.) You can read that one here.
The second piece is for CBR (Comic Book Resources), and a large pile of thanks is due to Matt Fraction for setting it up and Jonah Weiland of CBR for being patient and encouraging (insisting on) me writing more than 1000 words. Though it's overwhelmingly about anything other than comic books for the most part, CBR has an interest in all things comics and if it happens to be high art that works to reverse the ghettoization of comics, all the better I suppose. It's long, a bit fancy and probably could have done with some more hard-eyed edits on my part, but fuck, I was feeling pretty content with myself, for good or ill. The whole sprawling masterthing can be read here.
And, lastly, leastly, but importantly to someone amongst my hardcore constituency of 12, I present the transcript of the interview. While I twitched over the impending interview, afterwards I fixed on about 30 more questions I could have had. But hell, the fact that he slid me some time based only on the questionable credentials of a New Times publication dead center in America's flat flat Midwest was a slippery slope to begin with.
transcript start now:
x: so how long have you had Fortress of Solitude in your head?
jl: Probably ever since I became a writer, its been somewhere in me. And around the time of Girl in Landscape, I really began kind of thinking through it more and exploring it. And then I did Motherless Brooklyn, and that was kind of my entry into being able to write it, in exploring Brooklyn as the book and express some of my enormous fund of emotion, of feeling for this place without tackling the whole magilla. Ive been scheming to do this for at least 7 years and I knew as soon as I finished MB, there was no more delaying, it was time to sink my teeth into it.
x: i'd think one of the more daunting things was trying to recall the giant amount of pop culture and landmarks of the times. how much did you remember and how much did you have to research?
jl: Its sort of like tons of both, because there are really are so many in there. Usually I relied on feeling and memory to suggest what would be on the page and then I went to research to kind of shore it up or provide the context. But the most telling and the important and the most kind of emotionally loaded elements in it whether songs or movies or products or whatever kind of stuff in the cultural stratum is on the pages were probably things I remembered. Although I did a lot of research just to kind of make sure Id gotten the dates right and that my impressions made sense and to kind of flesh out the feelings I had about the thing.
x: what was your ratio for correctly remembered to totally wrong?
jl: You know mostly my instincts were pretty good and there were some pleasing coincidences and yknow I had no idea for instance that playthatfunkymusic really was literally the number one song in the country the week I began sixth grade. Other times I was wrong and then, of course, I pretended, I lied, I moved the release dates of certain songs around just to have my way.
x: probably the question you have been getting and will be getting the most is all about the autobiographical aspect of the book. I'm just wondering if it really matters for readers.
jl: Well, of course not and its impossible to say how much it is or isnt so its good that it doesnt matter. Because, yknow, obviously the book is hugely autobiographical in feeling, its openly a kind of spiritual autobiography, but the trick is that on any other level its a kind of insane collage of fragments of memory, fragments of other peoples stories yknow because I spent a lot of time hanging out with old friends, including my brother, and just talking about the neighborhood and just gathering incidents and detail that would end up in the book and then a, yknow, ton of stuff that I invented from whole cloth and to begin to sort it out would be totally impossible. I dont even clearly remember in some cases whats utterly invented or what originates with a spark of memory.
x: your brother, Blake, is a pretty big name in graffiti circles. I assume you got a lot of the graffiti stuff from him?
jl: A lot of that lore comes straight out of his anecdotes and his descriptions of the scene. Yknow, I had glimpses of it and there are other friends who knew bits and pieces too, but Blake more than anyone else.
x: on the subject of the background of the book again. the pop culture of things like comics; none of them have really appeared in your novels before. there have been nods here and there, especially lately, like Lionel's fixation on Prince in Motherless Brooklyn, but this seems to be the first time outside of essays that you've really allowed yourself to put things, like comics, that you love, into your books. I guess this really isn't a question.
jl: Yeah, comics haven't appeared before. But neither has soul music or film or rock criticism. This book, I turned a real corner in that I suddenly allowed myself to give my character my own obsession with culture. Yknow everyone in the book is a kind of a fan or a wannabe artist or a critic or has some very intense charged relationship with some kind of art form. Whether its graffiti writing or science fiction or soul singing or painting or film and thats really, yknow, its something Ive excluded from my work in the past up til now my characters havent really been fans or artists. Of course I myself and my family and most of the people I love are like that so this book is much more about people like me and my friends.
x: stopping on comics for a second, what's your history with them?
jl: I was a pretty big fan, although I was never a very assiduous collector, I was more the kid who kind of looked over other kids shoulders at their collections. My relationship to them was kind of different from Dylans in that I, well two things: I got into underground comics fairly early on and kind of wandered away from the superhero stuff, but I was an art student and I was drawing a lot as a kid and so I was trying to make comics and I did make a lot of comics and in that way I think my relationship to them was a little less slavish and helpless than Dylans and a little more, it was like an act of dialogue for me.
x: so I assume you're not too in touch with modern comics?
jl: No, Im pretty much 20 years out of the loop.
x: i don't know how much of your own reviews you read, but you probably know there's been a lot of mention about the break in the book. Some have loved it right up to the Prisonnaires section, others don't love it until the Underberg section ends. How do you feel about the way it's splitting people?
jl: Its funny the way it tends to divide people. Its meant to be kind of a jump cut, some of that shock and, I think, even discomfort is what I was after yknow. Its an expulsion from paradise in a way. Childhood is over and yknow what was once a kind of a collective voice of all these kids playing together in the street becomes a very isolated first person and I think it does challenge the reader to well, it s challenging also because Dylans kind of a shit in the second half of the book, hes not very likeable and thats disenchanting when youve cared about him so much for so long. I guess its something that seems to me it was a necessity and it was always part of the conception of the book that it was going to kind of fall off a cliff in the middle and that childhood would be torn away from these characters and youd sort of deal with what was left in the wake of it. So, for better of worse, that discomfort is very much part of my master plan and I just hope that theres something so irresistible and compelling about Mingus and Dylan both that you need to go on and learn their fates even if youre not liking Dylan very much for the first couple of chapters of the first person.
x: so, knowing that you're going to have huge breaks or that everything is leading to a specific event, i'm just wondering how much you do in terms of advance work on a book like this, or any of your books, really.
jl: I never really take any notes or draw charts or make elaborate diagrams, but I do hold kind of an image of the shape of a book in my head and work from that mental hologram Ive got. So I wouldnt say all planned out by any means but I have certain key moments that I know Im trying to reach and that Im going to have to bridge to and then each days work is a kind of
improvisation to get to yknow to get to the next sequence.
x: whenever you get brought up, the word genre is usually in the same sentence somewhere. you get lauded most of all for working within genre while kind of ignoring all the standard tropes and smashing a bunch of things together under the banner of hardboiled or sci-fi. Your writing career has been kind of a refutation of that, and how you've slowly moved out from 'straight genre' as such to 'real books.' Does this bother you?
jl: The obsession with pigeonholing things and figuring out where to shelve them or what to call stuff is to me very secondary, I just have always kind of written out of my own enthusiasms and those include a lot of genre elements and I was really excited to embrace hardboiled detective novels and dystopian science fiction and the western and just sort of chop all that stuff up and reflect it in the earlier books. But I was always restless from the outset and I knew I could only be restless with any attempt to limit the description of what I was going to do as a writer because I knew I had a lot of other kinds of books in me and that I needed to kind of claim the freedom to write them by saying no, not exactly, dont call me that. So that act of shrugging off attempts at categorization that Ive had to perfect over the years is part of, like I say, just keeping my breathing room.
x: so you're not done with genre?
jl: I dont think of it in those terms. Every project has its own necessities and sometimes Ill reach for one part of the toolkit and sometimes another. But I dont really, its not like a political affiliation.
x: a friend wanted me to ask you: Marvel or DC? I know you've answered it before in a few essays, in the book even, but since you named the book after a DC icon. . .
jl: Theres this kind of, its almost like an admission that youre white after all. I dont know , the characters that meant the most to me are those Marvel characters that you see me obsessing on and some of those marginal, kind of scrappy types like Black Bolt and Omega. But there is a power, a sturdiness to the archetypal DC Superman and Batman stuff that I sort of have to admit is deep in my soul at a certain level. I come back home to it every now and then and realize how inescapable those characters are even if they seem really square to me.
x: i think i've covered everything. oh yeah, what do you think about the cover?
jl: I like the cover. I asked them for, I didnt want a photograph and I didnt want a flat illustration, I wanted it to be something very just typographical and kind of pop art and a little bit retro looking. So when people say it looks like a book from the 70s that makes me happy. What do you think of it?
x: i like it, though I think my enthusiasm has kind of blinded me to an honest take. I really like the english cover, actually.
jl: Yeah, they always do a good job on my covers overseas. I've been really happy with the covers they come up with.
x: hm. Well, I seem to have run out of questions.
jl: You had a pretty good run there.
x: yeah, it was good while it was good.
Posted by xtop at October 9, 2003 08:43 AM