Jonathan Lethem On Writing

I talked to Jonathan Lethem shortly before his magisterial Brooklyn epic, Fortress of Solitude, was published, back in 2003. We met in the backyard of his favorite local restaurant, a couple blocks from his Bergen Street apartment. It was a muggy summer afternoon. We drank a lot of water.

I don’t like the semi-colon in fiction very much. I resist it. I think that especially in Fortress, as ornate as the sentences can get, in some ways there’s still an underlying conversational, vocal quality to the prose, and to me the semi-colon just isn’t spoken punctuation, so I shy from it. It’s not an absolute boycott, but I shy from it.

I don’t think, after Henry James, that most contemporary writers think in semi-colons. They get inserted by copyeditors. Because they’re not vocal. Copyeditors are a bigger influence on the books you read than you might imagine—unless they’re wrestled with, unless you decide to assert that your sentences are going to stay wrong the way that you’ve written them. And I did fight for the wrongness of some of the sentences in Fortress.

Three-decker novels are what the novel used to be meant to be. I don’t think I feel that it’s a necessity that every writer tackle the Big Book, or that every really important book has a larger scope, but just personally I knew that I was interested, that I had enough longer novels that I loved that I was going to have to be drawn to that form, and I also knew, as the inklings of this project came over me, and they’ve been coming over me for ten years or more—I mean, I knew I was going to write something like this book, a long book of a Brooklyn childhood, well before I began Motherless Brooklyn—I had this book in mind. In some ways, as ambitious as Motherless Brooklyn was, I conceived that book as a deliberate warm up to Fortress of Solitude, because I didn’t feel, writing Motherless Brooklyn, that I didn’t have all the tools yet.

I knew Motherless Brooklyn was the warm up. In fact, it got bigger than I expected it to. My notion then was I want to write the big Brooklyn book, but I’ve got this kind of jazzy funny idea for a kind of quick velocity exercise. I thought of Motherless Brooklyn as a book that would be written very quickly and that would probably be short, because I wasn’t sure how long a book of tics you wanted to read anyway, and that I was holding off the real emotional material of Brooklyn, anyway. Well, of course I tricked myself, because I couldn’t hold it all at bay, so some of the feeling about Fortress of Solitude—some of the love for Brooklyn—and the more extensive psychological and emotional material that was coming in my work leaked out of the future of Fortress and into the present of Motherless Brooklyn, and that book became a longer book and a richer one, I think.  But I never thought that that book was going to be this one. I knew I was holding the real flood of material at bay.

I think I surprise myself very little in the overall shape or scope of the books. Each came out a little longer than I expected—I guess I’m writing longer as I get older. But the proportion, the weight, and the tone, the emotional intensity is more or less as I conceive. The place I surprise myself is in local surprise, in the daily work. On a given page, I find things I had no idea was even pursuing. I answer questions I didn’t even realize I was asking. That’s where I surprise myself, but not in the larger conception of the book.

I’m pretty interested in plot, so it means I have to know some stuff. You know, I meant to abandon my plottiness in Fortress, but it just shows you how much of a storyteller I am, which is just an elaborate way of saying I love books with story, and so I read them and disgorge that same patterning in my own work. So Fortress is digressive in its plot, but it still has a structure. Causality. I like causality in fiction. Which is really just … I always think “plot” is a little bit of a deceptive word, because it makes it sound like there’s a kind of superstructure, or something you can actually understand and describe, and there isn’t. It’s more just a local effect, really, that one things proceeds after the next. I have no outlines. It’s all in my head. Whatever there is, it’s in my head, and there’s a lot that’s unknown, there’s a lot of gray turf I have to cross.

A premise for a novel comes when you take that momentary amusing thought and you fill it with emotional projections, when you care about the characters.

I just trust my emotional instincts better, so I’m doing less conceptual riffing, and I’m also being less of a smart-aleck. I used to think I had to make sure you stayed engaged by riffing a lot, making a lot of asides and jokes which were by definition very cognitive, very brainy, and I just have relaxed into the emotional understructures that were always, for me, the most important matter.

The things I had the longest ago—and I mean very long ago—they’re fragments of this book that were in my mind when I was 18 or 19 years old, although I was five novels away from having the tools to rise to the invitation—but the mother beating up the enemy and the kind of moral disaster that that creates, that was something I had right at the start. The mother taking on the bully. Absolutely so long ago that they were just inklings that stayed with me, so that over time the rest of the book just accrued around these moments, these ideas. That was one. Another one was just the image of a superhero on Nevins Street leaping from the rooftop of PS 38 across to the storefronts, and it being glimpsed, and it being somewhere between a bum and a superhero. And the scene that’s now so buried it’s no longer a scene—it’s embedded deep within a kind of bit of flashback late in the book—Dylan is recalling sneaking into his father’s studio and painting one frame of his father’s work covertly—that I had when I was still a teenager. Moments were with me for years, but all I knew was that they all pointed to writing a big book about a childhood in Brooklyn with superheroes in it.

I just couldn’t wait any longer. I did feel there were aspects of Motherless Brooklyn that were a deliberate study—freeing up my affection for Brooklyn, letting myself write so affectionately about the streets, was me daring myself to do that. A book before that, in Girl in Landscape, doing the dead mom, was also a dare to myself to just open up a little bit of a window of autobiographical fiction, and of course then I rush away from it to Mars. But it was another place where you see me testing the water. And then there are other tools you can’t have until you are writing the book in question. You locate them on the spot. You will them into being when you need them.

I’m not… I have pretty regular habits. I’m not a very tortured writer. I don’t have a love-hate flirtation with the practice of writing. I pretty much, when I’m going well, just get up in the morning and work, and the mornings are best for me. I’m not super fast, though, so the way I’m productive is to be regular. It’s like a bowel movement. I just do it ever day. And that’s it. If I do two pages, that’s an extremely good day. And there’s not much more to it than that. I try not to count pages or words or hours at the desk. The only rule I set for myself is the simple rule of writing every day. … Well, I say that but then I just sound so pathetic, because when was the last time I wrote anything. But when I’m working, I write every day. Yeah, I’m lucky, because I have an inheritance from my father’s career as a painter. His legacy to me—his first and most basic one—was that I took art-making for granted. He was doing it in the house. It was normal. It was a part of life. It wasn’t something exotic or inaccessible. I mean, I think a lot of artists or writers, the first thing they have to do is invent the posture, they have to dare to even take hours out of their life, and they feel like pretenders. I don’t really have that struggle. I was given a gift of, oh, this is a natural part of life. This is something you might do. It’s not a big deal.

My father struggled in his career as an artist to find the recognition he wanted and to support himself. But his relationship to the work itself was—has always been—still is—extremely healthy and nourishing. He works. And he loves it. And he paints and he makes the art. And that’s the relationship I inherited.

I’m very suspicious of the formulations that have it that it used to be good and now it’s all in ruins. I just always think people are kidding themselves when they set things up that way. I don’t know what percentage of the population ever reads a novel now—and it’s probably some really depressing number—but I think that that’s not how art is made or consumed. That’s not what matters to the maker of the art. Any given serious form always basically has a small audience—by any measure in the history of the world and its populations. It’s not how you decide if culture is valuable. And there’s a couple of moments, fascinating moments, and I guess Harry Potter is a version of that, but also like Dickens where forty thousand Londoners are waiting on the docks for the next installment of his novel. That’s interesting because it was insane then and it would be insane now. It’s an exception. And it’s just not what writing has mostly been about, so for people to suddenly say, this year, or any of the last twenty years, in each of which I have heard someone say “Oh my God, it’s so bad, the novel is dead,” as though just the year before there had been people at the docks of New York waiting for the next John Gardner book, or whatever was the important novel the year they’re pining for it. It’s just a meaningless nostalgia for a moment that never existed. I think this is a great time. People are writing great novels. I’m stuck inside my own subjective tunnel vision, but I think people care about writing.

I think that the novels I’m writing and the novels that I read that are written recently exist in a charged and vibrant relationship to the novels of the past. The fact that they’re communicating—that literature seems to be an ongoing conversation—suggests to me that the function of novels can’t be that different than it was in Dickens’s day. I think they’re an amazing form of art because of their simultaneous public and intimate aspects. Every reader reading a novel, ever, no matter how forgotten or popular or widely read at that moment or widely read at some other moment—every reader when they sit down with a novel is having an absolutely intimate and timeless exchange with the mind of the author. It’s a totally private act, even if you’re reading, well, The Lovely Bones last year … However many millions of other people are doing it at the same time, and that quality defines literature, that immersive privacy. How different can its function be?

However serious or grim the book may be taken to be, there’s a tremendous amount of self-entertaining going on when you’re writing anything. And if you’re not entertained, you’re not charming yourself—whether it’s actually funny or beguiling or sexy or frightening—if you’re not entertained, you’re probably not writing pages that anybody’s going to feel interested in. In serious conversation about books, it’s probably the neglected factor: you probably always do want to be entertained … as well as telling yourself what’s happening. After all, people buy books partly on the premise that they are going to be edified, but they don’t actually want that to be the center of their experience; they’d be very sorry if it was.

It’s great because I have such a cake-and-eat-it-too kind of thing, where I am a regional writer, I’m a ridiculously regional writer, but my region is this archetype at the same time that everyone has a feeling about. I got to Europe and people have this—through the movies and through the layering of different writers’ accounts—Brooklyn functions as a metaphor in culture, so I get to be a regional writer and not be boxed in in the way someone who writes an epic novel about Cleveland feels sometimes really frustrated by the typecasting that results. That said, I think I’m always writing against—it’s a sweet box to be in, if it’s a box at all, it’s one I’ll certainly accept, but it’s my instinct, it’s always been my instinct, to wriggle free of the constraints that my own writing has previously imposed, so I’m probably going to avoid Brooklyn the next time I write a novel.

Oh, man, if I could answer that succinctly, I wouldn’t have written two novels about Brooklyn.

Well, thank you. This is the first time I’ve ever really researched more than just a kind of … I researched John Ford to write Girl in Landscape, but that’s a matter of three biographies and I watched twenty-five or thirty movies on videotape and maybe another twenty-five to thirty great westerns to provide the context for The Searchers, but that’s nothing. This book involved archival research, but it was also paradoxical, because it was memory work. I was researching my own experience, in a way. I was researching the backdrop of my own childhood and the gentrification of downtown Brooklyn and the growth of both hip-hop and crack culture, stuff that I was privy to but of course I was stupid about it at the time, so I went back and made myself smart about everything I had an inkling about, everything I failed to make brilliant observations about as I watched it happen. I kind of treated myself to living my own childhood again with a dispassionate, scrupulous eye.

I was always folding more information into my process. I continued to research as I wrote and I continued to reinforce my awareness of stuff by going back to—I was lucky enough to research a bunch about soul music. Research creates habitual interest in things, especially with something as fascinating as R&B and soul, so I would continue to research it long after I had to research it.

All the characters in this book—whether it’s graffiti art or experimental film or science fiction or liner note writing or soul singing—they all define themselves according to their satisfied or unsatisfied yearnings toward cultural art-making.

What strikes me about the book … It’s a deeply autobiographical book in feeling, so of course it invites speculation, but no, I’m not Dylan. In fact, there are tremendous factual disparities. It seems to me probably the most crucial one is that I had a brother and sister, and Dylan doesn’t. So then that leads me to wonder, Why if I was creating a character who was a vehicle for my own autobiographical feeling, why did I make this choice that he was an only child? And then I’d look a little further and see that Abraham, the father, is a terribly isolated character, and like Abraham, my father was an art-maker, and the biggest difference between my father and Abraham was that my father’s art-making was populated with life and color and music, his studio was a place of nude models, our house was full of other artists and guests all the time—it was the opposite of Abraham’s isolation. But I suppose I have a method that consists of isolating my characters in order to heighten their psychological issues. Dylan is a conflation. There wasn’t really only one white boy in Gowanus, there were fifteen or twenty of us, and lots and lots of people’s experience is sort of refracted into Dylan.

 

 

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