Jonathan Lethem is an American writer whose work spans styles, genres, and odd nooks of curiosity and philosophy, garnering him devoted fans across a broad spectrum, from sci-fi junkies to social realism devotees. He has published nine novels, among them the modern New York classics The Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, the Salon Book Award, and was named Book of the Year by Esquire. He has also published a number of short story collections and works of nonfiction, including The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc., a dauntingly dense yet delightfully idiosyncratic compilation of essays and musings. In 2005, Lethem was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship – possibly the most prestigious and definitely the most lucrative award out there, save the Nobel Prize. Oh, and it’s commonly called the Genius grant.
Lethem has a furious energy about him. You need hardly ask before he’s deep into an answer, a story, a memory. And, somehow, he manages to keep the veritable flood of words articulate and to the point. This conversation took place over video Skype between continents and time zones. It was morning when Lethem checked in from his office at Pamona College in Claremont, California, where he teaches writing. This interviewer waved in response from a kitchen in Stockholm where night had already long since fallen.
Let’s start at the very beginning. You grew up in a rather unconventional situation. You had parents who were political activists and you were raised in a commune – right?
There were two different ways in which I lived in communes. The brownstone where I grew up in Brooklyn had extra rooms and my parents’ friends, my father’s art students, or activists, would be there all the time and some of them lived with us. We would rent out the rooms on the upper level. But because this was in a neighborhood that had what I thought of as real communes in it – the same size row houses but from top to bottom every room was an individual young person or couple and they had sort of commune rules and communes parties – I thought of our house as a family home. It just had some extra people in it. It didn’t seem like an official commune to me because I knew that those places had very official definitions. While, in fact, it sort of was. And then when my parents separated, my father moved into one of those in the next neighborhood over, that was a real commune. We, three kids, would spend two or three nights a week there.
For me, it was really amazingly enlarging to have all these really interesting, weird young adults to go and visit and hang out with. By the time I was ten, eleven, twelve my appetite was really for hanging out with NYU students or hippies who were just a lot more interesting than kids were. I was very oriented toward adults, so I liked those environments. And I also took them as pretty normal. You know, it’s only in retrospect when you say “unconventional” that yes, I have to acknowledge that now it seems that way, but when you are in that… We didn’t have a particular credo or religion or ideology that separated us from the world. I just thought we were people and that was one of the ways people lived. We didn’t feel apart. In fact, it took me a really, really long time for it to sink in that if I widened my viewfinder a little bit, people were mostly not living the way I was.
For many writers, literature becomes an escape from the square or rule-bound world in which they are raised. For you, it must have been more of an affirmation.
Yeah, it was part of the richness. I wasn’t offered any hierarchies of value among some of the things that were sort of tumbling around me. I mean, my parents were very oriented toward, “This is a good movie,” “This is a good book,” “This is a good painting.” But there was a lot to read around. I was prone to reading kids books and Ms. Magazine and poking around my parents’ shelves and reading Anaïs Nin erotica books…all at once. I just made a lot of my own sense or order out of it.
You father was a painter –
He was a painter and intermittently an art professor. He was a professor on a real career path early on, teaching at Columbia and the Kansas City Art Institute. But his career in academia unraveled when I was a very young kid because of the war protests. For my parents, the anti-Vietnam movement was so overwhelming and it was changing their lives and making them want to be out of institutions – it felt complicit to be a part of institutions. My father identified more with the students who were dropouts or war resistors than he did with the faculty around him. And so he became a carpenter. Though we were living in New York City, it was, in a way, a very back to nature kind of choice. He worked a lot as a carpenter when I was growing up. He would still teach art but in ways that mingled with his commitment to social activism. He taught it in prisons, he taught it at a youth center in our neighborhood. And only in my adult life, in the last twenty years, has he gone back to being a college professor.
That must have influenced you, because originally you thought you wanted to paint.
Oh, absolutely. He was showing his art, he would be working in his studio every day. I modeled on that in the most direct way. I had inherited some of his facility – like hand-eye coordination – so I could impress adults very quickly. It was a very easy role to inhabit as a kid, the little art wunderkind. I went to a music and art high school on the strength of a portfolio of drawings I had done in junior high school.
I continued to be really, really interested – I still am very interested – in visual culture and comic books and fine arts and film, but almost all of my leanings were away from the static quality of the visual arts toward the narrative. So I started to think about film and cartooning and things that could include this language level and narrative stuff, more of the kind of conceptual material that I was finding in the writing that I loved.
When did you begin thinking in those terms?
In high school. I think in some ways I was playing the role of the art kid. I was painting and sculpting a lot but I was also thinking about things I wanted to write and trying some writing and also dabbling a lot in those mingle forms – thinking I was going to do film and doing a lot of cartooning, things that pointed me toward what I would eventually do: being a storyteller.
So while you were focusing on being the art kid, were you writing?
I thought about it all the time, I didn’t write all the time. In junior high school, in sixth grade, I wrote a thirty-page short story – it was like a novella – on lined paper in script. It was in answer to a very small assignment. I had been asked to write a five-page creative piece and I had written these thirty pages. I held onto the idea that I had done that as a little glimmer of something, as a promise of being a writer. But I didn’t really try to go back to it.
And then in high school I was writing these little satirical pieces with a couple of friends, we had a newsletter. It had collage, cartooning, it was kind of like a dada journal that we invented called The Literary Exchange. It sounds like a very ponderous name, but it was actually very tongue and cheek. It was basically all puns and free-form surrealism…it would read like the liner notes of a Frank Zappa record. But it was writing of a kind and I was fooling around with language and migrating ever so slightly away from the visual component. And nurturing this idea that I was going to write.
But in fact, what I did most of the time was paint, and draw, and do sculpture. I was not only an art major in high school, I was kind of one of the star art students there. At the expense of everything else – I was a terrible student and had very few options getting into college. It’s ironic. You’re looking at me here [in his office at Pomona College] and I’m at a tenured professor. It’s all very ironic for me to be embraced in any kind of academic context because I was temperamentally so disinclined to being a student. Even though I liked writing and language and reading, I was never studious, I barely ever completed my assignments. All I was doing was painting and sculpting by the end of high school.
So, I applied to college on the basis of being an art student. That was my identity. I got into Bennington, which was the kind of place you could get into with bottom of the barrel grades and SAT scores. It seemed really cool and special and it was made for someone like me, it was like a rescue.
So, you went to Vermont.
Again, I was fulfilling my script. For the first semester at least. I took art classes and was making sculptures and paintings and hanging out where I was very comfortable: with the other art students. But on winter break freshman year, I started a novel. And it became so consumingly interesting to me that, even though in a kind of dead man walking way I carried through a couple more semesters of school and even continued to paint a bit, all I could think about was: “I’ve started a novel. I can be this thing I really want to be.”
Tell me about starting the novel.
It was winter break, a two-month break when you go apprentice yourself to somebody or do something. I went and worked at this Quaker youth center that I’d been going to as a teenager. It was a wintry, upstate New York environment and I had a lot of time. So, I began this book that I had been thinking of starting, which I now dared myself to do. I probably wrote forty or fifty pages in those two months. It was enough to impress me.
I was also very willful and kind of perverse about the prospect of anyone teaching me. Again, it’s ironic. I now teach writing and am very dedicated to the idea that there is something I have to offer a young writer. But I did not believe that framework mattered at all. I thought if I went into writing classes it might ruin what I was trying to do, or in any way threaten it or tell me that it wasn’t good yet. I just wanted to decide for myself.
So, I hid it. Kept it secret. And this was a time when the writing program at Bennington was a very interesting, charged environment because I had entered a school where Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt were freshmen writers at the same time I was there. I even hung out with them and sniffed around the edges of the writing workshops. I sat in on some classes and checked it out. And then willfully decided that to write was to run away. Again, I guess I had inherited my parents’ anti-authoritarian leanings and fear of institutions.
And, you know, a lot of the writing I loved was marginal in some way, it was anti-academic work – like the Beats, I was reading a lot of the Beats. I was also reading a lot of genre fiction that thrived in exile from the culture at large. So, I thought I needed exile. I took my novel in progress and ran away from school. A lot of the things I had thrown over I, of course, ended up seeking out immediately: some peers who were also doing what I was doing, a little bit of mentorship, and I went to Berkeley and found some writers there who I liked who were ahead of me and could tell me a little bit about what to do and even gave me some editorial feedback. So all the things that I was pretending that I was better than, I ended up sniffing around trying to find anyway.
But in a non-institutional context.
How did your family feel about your decision to leave school?
Well, my mother had died when I was a teenager. And she provided a perverse example herself – she was very bookish, very, very well read, better read than anyone I had ever met – but she dropped out of college. My father was a funny example because he had gotten higher degrees and been part of higher institutions but had then veered off… So there wasn’t a lot of ground for anyone to stand on to order me back to school. [Laughs.]
My father kind of arched an eyebrow at one point. But I think compared to most parents he was probably able to ratify what I was doing and how I was choosing to do it relatively well and relatively quickly.
When you left Bennington with the beginning of this novel in hand, did you have a plan?
I did. It doesn’t sound like a very good plan. It was to work in used bookstores until I could become a full-time writer.
And why did you go to Berkeley?
One, I was very much in flight from New York City. When I went to Bennington, to Vermont, I felt like I might never live in New York City again. I felt that the city was oppressive and a thorny place. It seems ludicrous now since I identify with it so strongly and am so engaged with that place, but I didn’t think it had anything to offer me. And I think I had inherited a script, partly from the Beats and partly from the American manifest destiny script, that you go West, you run away to the place where there is freedom and utopia and people get to reinvent themselves. That seemed very appealing.
And you hitchhiked there, too. Like a good apprentice of the Beats.
Yeah, it’s lucky that I’m around to tell this story…
And I associated with some writers – disparate writers: Philip K. Dick, Kerouac himself, Raymond Chandler – who were attractive to me and strange and they created an image of this faraway place that was contradictory and contained a lot of darkness and was also very alluring.
I think, in truth, even though I was telling myself that I’d run to a very exotic, different, faraway place, because of my parents’ hippie milieu, Berkley was very comfortable for me. It was a bit of a sixties-trapped-in-amber environment there that helped me feel at home and not too much confronted by the Reagan eighties, which were underway by that time and that were so violently out of sympathy with the way I had grown up and with the kinds of things I thought of as the human future. Berkeley was a bit of a bubble of my parents’ values, even as I was apparently running far, far away from home.
So where did you live – did you have friends out there?
Yeah. My friend Elliot, who I traveled across the country with, he had an uncle who had a garage out in the Berkeley hills that we were allowed to set up shop in, to live in for a while. It gave me my first home base. I lived there for a number of months. Just writing.
You know, it was funny. I lived almost like a feral creature up in this garage and then I would walk down to Berkeley and look at the campus and buy a hamburger and then walk back up and resume work on my novel and these early short stories I was writing. I really had, for a little while, initially, gone into a kind of a hovel mode. It was very Beat Generation.
This was your first real attempt at writing. Did you create a structure for yourself? Did you get a routine going?
The structure was just to write as much as I could at any hour of the day. I was young and energetic and also had no demands, no human responsibilities to speak of. And a lot of the writers that I admired were, again, in their marginal identities, slightly outside the norm in terms of their manner or habit of writing, or of productivity. Kerouac gave me one model of writing until you collapsed on an endless roll of paper, writing fifteen novels in four years. And some of the genre writers were also maniacally productive whether under the influence of amphetamines or just, you know, to keep the wolf from the door. They were people who batted novels out very quickly.
My work now conforms to a much more bourgeois, Iowa City model. It takes me about three or four years to write a novel, I’m fairly diligent and ordinary in my work habits. But back then I didn’t have any rules because I didn’t know there were any rules. And I had this really crazy idea where I thought I should be able to, without much difficulty, write two or three novels a year. Well, that was exposed. I was really disappointed when I turned out to be a so much slower writer than Philip K. Dick or Jack Kerouac. [Laughs.]
I felt my way into all these understandings. I did not have anyone suggest them to me.
Did you show your writing to anyone?
Here and there I was finding people to show it to. And, also, I was sending it out into the world right away. I just thought I should submit it. I didn’t see any reason not to. I would throw it out in any direction to people I thought might be interested or who might be useful to me in some way. And then I would try to make sense of the reactions. Of course many of the reactions were shrugging ones, because the work wasn’t very good! I wasn’t anything but a really faltering apprentice, just very enthusiastic. I wasn’t very impressive except in my certainty. But I had a lot of certainty. I just felt clear that I was going to do this.
Did you consider yourself a “writer” before publishing anywhere?
Well, I think this is where I had the benefit of my father’s example. I have lived with a working artist. He went into his studio every day and he always intended his work to be seen by people and he sought exhibitions. There were ups and downs and lots of frustrations, sometimes he felt like the world didn’t care what he was doing, but he did it anyway. He had faith in his practice. And I have inherited this intimate, somatic lesson. You make the work. And you are legitimate because you make it.
So, I did feel like a writer right away. And trying to communicate with it was a native, shameless, healthy part of making it. The idea of declaring myself a writer wasn’t exotic at all to me. Because I had grown up in a world where there were artists and writers and filmmakers. Some of them the world was embracing and some of them not but they were all obviously real by virtue of doing it.
Do you remember the first piece of yours that was accepted and published?
It was this tiny little short story that I placed with a little magazine in Texas, I forget the name of the magazine. It was a year before anyone picked up anything else. Actually, the wait for having one piece placed felt right for me. I understood this mountain I was trying to ascend. But to have it happen and then…it was like I got reset to zero. It was as if it hadn’t happened. That intervening year where I didn’t place a second piece was the hardest time. It was like someone had played a little trick on me.
Tell me more about what life was like. Where did you move after you moved out of the basement?
I was in the garage but then I ran back to Bennington for a while because my girlfriend was there. I was actually living in her dorm room. Strangely enough, I finished the novel on the Bennington campus, living in the dorms, sneaking into the dining halls to eat, hanging out with a lot of my friends who probably thought I was still a student there. I was writing and working really hard and finished it [the novel] within a few weeks of when I would have graduated. It was as though I had substituted this action for my college years. I was even there for what would have been my graduation. So, I was like a phantom.
And then, because I didn’t really want to be in Vermont or anywhere near New York, I dragged my college girlfriend – upon her graduation – back to Berkeley. Then we were like grown-ups. We got an apartment, she got a job and I got a job in a bookstore. I began submitting that novel, which wasn’t any good. At all. And was rejected. But I also started a new one, right away. It was like that was the next new beginning. And it was more of a real one in the life sense in that I was paying rent and had a job. And also, that second novel, that I began at that point – at my non-graduation – became Gun, With Occasional Music which eventually became my fist published novel. It took a long time to get it right. I mean, it took me about three years to write and then I set it aside and rewrote it. It was eight years before it was published.
Wow. But your certainty never wavered?
No, I was really sticking to the plan.
A lot of people might have been dissuaded.
I guess so. I have a hard time even thinking my way into that question, let alone congratulating myself for my strength of character. Because it was just more like a total delusion, there was no pin sharp enough to prick the bubble of delusion. I just simply believed in this faith. And, I think I armed myself with plenty of examples. On one hand I felt very late, I felt like it was coming very slowly. And some of that had to do with the fact that my college mates, these people I had been at school with, were among the most famous novelists in the country all of a sudden. It was really disturbing, disorienting. Although it was also exciting. But on the other hand, Raymond Carver published his first novel when he was in his fifties. And I just thought that there is every way possible way of doing this and I am one of the people who is going to do it.
I think that in this sense, my father’s example also prepared me. To know that acclaim wasn’t a given. You could control that you were making the best work you could make and then the world would deal with you or not deal with you.
So yeah, I was very abiding. It looks like strength of character but I was just impatient with anyone who even raised the question with me at that time. I was like, “Just get it! I am actually doing this. Just wait.” I was just annoyed by the idea of doubt.
You were teaching yourself. Did you see yourself developing?
Yeah. And it is something I tell my writing students now: to savor those early years when you develop by leaps and bounds. Your capacities grow so much that it can almost be problematic. Like, the beginning of a story could be worse than the end of a story because you learned something in the middle of it. Oh my God! You’re a whole other writer by the end of it!
I improve very incrementally now, if at all. It is something to savor every five or six years now when I do something a little better than before. But back then it was every five seconds you were improving! I took that sensation for granted.
You were working in used bookstores and living with your girlfriend. Money must have been relatively scarce. But when you had money, what did you spend it on? What were your indulgences?
Well, books and movies. I’ve always been pretty easily entertained. That girlfriend ran back to New York City after a little while. But I got married at twenty-three. In the middle of this period of working in bookstores.
Not to that first girlfriend?
No, to the next girlfriend. She was a writer so our life was very much about what we were trying to do. We were really excited and we were reading and writing frenetically and going to parties and dancing – which was free – and coming home and collapsing. So, it didn’t involve money in any real important way. Berkeley was good for that too.
Yes, because that would be difficult to do in, say, New York, today.
Totally impossible. That’s how Berkeley was serving us. Its ultimate purpose for me was that it was a place where you could be totally dirt poor, as I guess I really was, but feel like… You know, the weather was great, it was a student environment, there was cheap food and you could walk up into the hills and be in nature. It didn’t feel like we were making sacrifices of any kind. It was just a great way to live.
You got married very young. That is somewhat surprising coming from the unconventional family and living arrangement you grew up in. Though, of course, your parents were married.
It was a pretty unconventional marriage actually, that one.
How was the marriage unconventional?
Because we were both artists and bohemians, totally committed in a way that seems very typical of the Bay Area. Within a brief time it wasn’t a functional marriage but it remained a very, very close alliance and partnership. It was sort of like the idea of marriage gave way to some other kind of polymorphous life connection that was very exciting but which didn’t really fit inside the concept of marriage anymore. She and I are still very dear friends. But within, like, a year and a half or two years it stopped being what it announced itself as when we married. And we were married for five years.
Of course we also went berserk and screwed up our lives by making all kinds of crazy mistakes, but the marriage was almost beside the point.
And what this going berserk about, how did you screw up your life?
Just lots of other lovers. And lots of drugs, truthfully. Everything you want to do in your twenties. We just happened to do it inside what was a legal marriage. But it just turned out to be a container for the usual free form… It turned out that declaring yourself married didn’t really change the agenda that much. [Laughs.]
So, you never wavered in your commitment to your artistic pursuit. But you were working in bookstores and cobbling things together. Did you ever feel like, “Shit, this is hard.” Did you ever wish you were doing something a bit more, I don’t know, reliable?
You know, it seems like I should have thought that. Everyone would agree. [Bursts out laughing.] But I didn’t give it a thought. And I don’t know how to account for that. It just seems so…almost autistic of me, right?
But one explanation, one small defense I can make, is that by that time I was working in a bookstore called Moe’s Books, which was a little different from the usual retail job. It was a haven. In some ways it was a commune. It was owned by a man named Moe Moskowitz who was an old commie who became a really great entrepreneur who started a really amazing, important bookstore that was a major institution in Berkeley. And he had proper insurance for his employees, very good health insurance. Three or four years into my job, I was still the new guy because people stayed there for so long. It was really like a career. It was the one place in the entire United States of America where being a retail clerk could be a career. And there were people who had been there for decades when I got there.
And I was very good. By that time I had worked in seven or eight used bookstores. I was good at my job, I was an expert on rare books so I was valuable to Moe’s and I was a happy camper there. Though I was still fully intending to become a full-time writer, any minute! But my fallback wasn’t as threadbare as it may seem.
The other explanation is that I was autistic. I didn’t think about it. I just lived in a crazy dream world. My anti-capitalist gene was so powerful that it defied all injunctions that I should know how to support myself. I kind of wanted to be a starving artist. I just didn’t see any better life than that.
And it did lead you to where you wanted to be, eventually. You published several books before you reached more mainstream success.
I had a very slow – in some ways uncannily slow – developing career in a period that was sort of all or nothing. You were either made or ruined right at the outset. Your first novel was published and then you were either a famous writer or it was a regrettable mistake and no one would ever publish the next one. I did the opposite. I did like the old, old thing of having a few books come out very quietly. And I was paid very little for them so no one was expecting anything at all.
But, again, my deep, deep naïveté of the way the world works [made it so that] when I had a book out from a major publisher, I thought I was totally made. It wasn’t like I was wanting something. When Gun, With Occasional Music came out, I thought “I am now a writer. That’s it! I begin.” And I thought that every book I would ever publish would have about the same impact as that one and that they would accumulate and fifty years after I died, I would be recognized. Because most of the writers who were most dear to me had not been put on book tours or given major awards. They just weren’t! And their marginality seemed essential to me. I totally assumed that I would work from that kind of position. And, in fact, that position made me exactly the kind of writer I had set out to be. So I wasn’t thinking, “Wait, this isn’t enough.” I didn’t ever have that feeling or that thought.
It wasn’t like I needed to be obscure. But it was completely this weird evolution… It is something I have tried to write about. The oddness of my own failure to envision occupying what I guess – shrugging off the false modesty – is a kind of major position. Once I had won the National Book Critics Circle Award I was not an underdog. I was not an underrated writer anymore. That was so disconcerting to me that for a long time I didn’t even recognize that it was true. I would end up on lists of important writers and I would think it was just another weird, temporary symptom of some kind of odd story that I was inside. I didn’t realize that there was actually not more to being taken seriously than what was happening to me and I had to actually deal with the repercussions of it and the errands, the little chores, that were now mine to do to be an adequate citizen of the role of “Major Writer.” I have to weigh in on serious shit –
And do this!
Yes, and do this. Being interviewed. This one is different but…I mean, I do them now like popping frozen waffles into the toaster – all the time!
Like, another one on the quarter hour, say the seven things I know I’m supposed to say about this book, and then get off the phone with whatever regional newspaper it is. I do interviews like they are flossing my teeth now! And if you told me that would be my fate, I would have just been puzzled. And it’s not false modesty when I say that. I’m really trying to describe the oddness of my condition, which was that I never envisioned this aspect of it.
When The Fortress of Solitude came out, it was a big ponderous book. If you liked it, it was a good big ponderous book. If you didn’t, it as a bad big ponderous book. But it meant that for some reason, whether you liked it or didn’t, it was the case that I was only supposed to do a big ponderous thing next. And I didn’t want to! I had this romantic comedy I wanted to publish. Well, that didn’t go over very well from the guy who wrote The Fortress of Solitude. It was really awkward. And I just didn’t get it. I was like, “Don’t you remember those earlier books? Those light, silly ones?” And, actually, the answer was no.
Right. Because they hadn’t read those. They were not in the public consciousness.
People asking that honestly didn’t have any idea what I was talking about.
And then you got the MacArthur. Is that really how it works, they just call you of the blue and tell you that you’re a genius and that they’re going to give you 500,000 dollars?
I was in a car wash. I mean, literally under the brushes when they called. I had been told to expect a very important phone call, so I was keeping my cell phone close, which I don’t usually do. But I was actually under the bristles in a full maintenance car wash and I had to shout at them, “Wait, wait! I can’t hear you!”
It was great. It was also a rescue. I had been very financially irresponsible. In a very real sense, I was about to have to choose between making a family and writing the things I wanted to write. For the most precisely opportune five-year period, I didn’t have to make that choice at all. I chose both.
That’s amazing. That’s obviously a huge triumph. But was there another early, young triumph that was important to you?
Like I said, when I learned that Gun, with Occasional Music was going to be published, it was everything to me. And it was when it was published. It felt like a triumph the day the agent said, “The want to take the book.” And it felt like a triumph the day I opened the box and met the physical object. The day that I first saw a copy of my first published novel was my thirtieth birthday.
Stop it! That’s incredible.
It saved my youth. I wasn’t an old failure.
When I realized people were buying it and reading it, the first time someone handed it to me and wanted me to autograph it the way I had always asked writers to autograph books, the entire ride of its arrival, of the reality of having a book in hardcover… That is bigger than the MacArthur, and it is bigger than anything that could ever come. It’s the biggest reward that could ever have come to me.
Do you still feel that with every new book?
Yeah. Because it connects back to that sensation of, “Wow, I did it.” I am looking at these shelves [Lethem turns his computer so that I can see the bookshelves in his office at Pomona College]. For me, it has always been about my joining the company of the stuff, the writers who mean so much to me. My book going into the shelves. It’s about participation in this incredible world that I grew up revering. So, yeah. Every time I understand that I have added a little something to my tiny shelf within the shelf of literature, it’s amazing.
Can you think of an early challenge or hurdle that was defining, or almost impossible to get through?
There was very strange disorienting moment when Gun, with Occasional Music was finished and it was under submission. There was an editor at a publisher who got on the phone with me and he was thinking of taking it. He wanted the ending sort of made cheerier and more conclusive. This is an editor whose name I had heard of, and I idealized everything to do with the literary world. We get on the phone and he was feeling me out about making a change that, somewhere in the course of the conversation, I grasped didn’t have anything to do with this book being its best self but had to do with making it more acceptable, a little less strange, a little less provoking or open-ended, that I could feel emanated from some sort of jaded place he had gotten to in his career. He could see that there was something good but he wasn’t going to fight for its deep, strange, pure realization. He was willing to publish it if he could just help it slide through. I felt this gross tremor go through me. Like, “I am not always going to be in the world I idealize just because I idealize it.” But then I sold the book to an editor who was incredibly passionate and met my unrealistic standard beautifully.
But that’s probably a very common experience. Which is a bit scary. Now you’re teaching writing. What kind of advice do you have for young writers?
Well, I am working with undergraduate writers here. I spoke before about that idea of trying to slow down and cherish the apprenticeship – of course I was a very poor client for that advice myself. I was in such a desperate hurry to be professional and to have arrived and be finished and be writing the best thing I had ever written already. Well, in fact, none of those things were possible. Working with undergraduate writers especially, though I have tried to impart this when I teach writers in MFA programs too, I say: Experiment, play, dare to be really bad, fool around, and just notice what an incredible luxury it is to be in this formative, uncertain, experimental phase, one where you learn and discover new things very rapidly but also haphazardly – you don’t know when and how it is going to happen so it is crucial that you try different things and weird things, and that you read very unexpected things and glom onto influences that are uncomfortable but fascinating. Because you know, later, if you persist and become a writer, the rate of change will slow down, expectations that you produce from within and expectations that are produced from without will tend to slightly concretize this task for you, it will become something more professionalized, so make sure you relish this period that won’t come again. It belongs only to you, for the time being.
It is hard to do that. Certainly, if you were me it would be very hard not to be racing to get it out there into the world. But I take a lot of sustenance from remembering the ways in which that frustratingly slow apprenticeship was also this incredible, paradisiacal period when I was my only passionate reader and I was in this fascinating feedback loop of understanding what it was I was trying to do. It doesn’t come right away.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Fred Benenson
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