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A Conversation With Jonathan Lethem
An interview with Zachary Houle
November 2000

© Jonathan Lethem
Jonathan Lethem
Jonathan Lethem
Jonathan Lethem was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1964. He burst onto the scene with the critically acclaimed novel, Gun, with Occasional Music (1994). He followed this with Amnesia Moon (1995) and As She Climbed Across the Table (1997). He has contributed several articles to The New York Review of Science Fiction.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Girl In Landscape
SF Site Review: The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye
SF Site Review: As She Climbed Across the Table
Steven H Silver's Review of As She Climbed Across the Table

The Vintage Book Of Amnesia
Motherless Brooklyn
As She Climbed Across the Table
Amnesia Moon
Gun, with Occasional Music
The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye
Girl In Landscape

I understand you've recently divulged a secret hankering for pursuing rock journalism in a published open letter about (Australian rock band) The Go-Betweens -- which is on the Open Letters web site:
Well, the hint I'm actually dropping there points to the book I'm working on next. I'm writing a big novel, and it's going to take me a long time to do. The main character in it is going to become a kind of rock journalist as he grows up. The first half of the book is set in childhood.

I think this all sort of starts with [the fact that] I've always been a very avid fan of music and also have been a fan -- as I sort of say in the letter -- of the great rock writers. I'm always kind of in awe of them. But I've always shied away from trying to do it myself, precisely because I think that the best ones are the ones who've really devoted themselves to it as, you know, their main work. And I just wouldn't want to be a dilettante. It's something that, you know, someone like Greil Marcus is doing so, so brilliantly.

But I want to write about a character who kind of becomes a rock critic and a writer of liner notes. Maybe not on the level of accomplishment of a Lester Bangs or a Greil Marcus, but I want to sort of get inside of a character like that. And think about that alternate world writing career that I might have had, taking my passionate relation to music and marrying it to my writing.

I've written about music a couple of times. I wrote about The Clash for The New York Observer... I did, in Motherless Brooklyn (1999), give Lionel Essrog kind of the taste in music that he's got. He's really into funk, and he's really into Prince.

I sort of realized that there was a way that I could write about music in fiction that was really inviting. With this new book, I'm trying to create a vehicle for letting some of that [music-related] impulse sneak back through the kitchen door into my fiction.

Are you afraid that Almost Famous, the new semi-autobiographical Cameron Crowe movie about the exploits of a 15-year-old rock journalist, might steal some of this book's thunder upon its eventual release?
Nope -- the resemblance is so superficial as to be irrelevant. You'll see when I get there, two or three years from now.

I've heard it's going to be a fairly big novel.
It is. It's sort of a big sprawling one.

Say, an epic 800-page novel?
I don't know if it's 800 pages, but it might be 600. Which, for me, is long. I grew up with the Graham Greene ideal of what the weight of a novel was. I've always come in at these 250 to 300 page books. That feels to me like that's the traditional proportion. But I'm going much more in the direction of the inclusive, baggy, digressive book.

You've also written a piece recently for Rolling Stone (about your experiences hitch-hiking in Nevada during 1984, experiences which formed the basis of the 1995 novel, Amnesia Moon). And I know that starting with your novel As She Climbed Across The Table (1997), the settings are more in a real location...
More the here and now.

Yeah, so I'm just wondering if journalism is something you're moving towards.
No, I don't think you could say I'm moving towards it. I held off on doing any journalism for a long time. I guess it was around the time of As She Climbed Across The Table that I began to be drawn into doing it a little bit, and experimenting with it. I was very, very slow to get started, and I was very reluctant to get started, because I really didn't know how to do it.

I was drawn in, more than anything else, by Laura Miller at Salon. [She's] an editor, and also a friend, who encouraged me to write my first book reviews and film reviews. I began to discover I had an essay voice that I could use. And so I started accepting invitations that I'd previously been turning down to review books here and there. Of course, at this point, the majority of what I've done in journalism has been book reviewing -- which is what novelists tend to get asked to do.

I might do [sporadic reviews] now and again just for the free books and for keeping my name out there. The non-fiction that would interest me enough to keep going would be [in the form of]... a big personal essay.

And I did actually just write one that's going to be published in a magazine called Tin House in the winter. December or January. It's a long essay about my kind of obsessive relationship with a John Ford film called The Searchers, which was one of the sources for Girl In Landscape (1998). I think it's the best piece of non-fiction that I've written. It's certainly the most personal.

To go from the future to your most recent book, The Vintage Book Of Amnesia, I understand it's an anthology of other people's novels or short stories you've edited?
It's half short-stories, half novels, and one essay by Oliver Sacks -- all on the subject of amnesia.

Which is something that has obviously fascinated you. [Note: This is Lethem's second book with the word amnesia in the title, and it's a constant metaphor in his earlier books -- the inventive drug 'Forgettol' from his 1994 debut novel Gun, With Occasional Music comes to mind.]
Yes, absolutely. I wrote about memory in my first two novels. Then, without even noticing it, I kind of glanced around my bookshelves one day and realized I was an unconscious collector of amnesia stories. It was a kind of hidden genre that I was quite obsessed with, and that a lot of my favourite novels and stories could be seen as having that thread of memory loss run through them.

Sometimes [the stories are] very literal -- you get bonked on the head with a brick and you don't know who you are. Other times there's more of an amnesiac aspect to the fiction, a kind of blank spot somewhere at the level of the text.

I sort of find it ironic, too, because I've heard that you're the type of writer who doesn't really write with a net. That is, you don't really take notes, you hold these long narratives in your head. I'm wondering if there's something maybe subconsciously implicit in your fascination with amnesia, knowing that this is how you sit down and do your work.
Memory can't be overstated as a novelist's tool. Which why it's not like you can be a novelist and go on to continue writing once you have Alzheimer's the way, say, [abstract painter Willem] de Kooning was able to paint for 10 years without even being able to dress himself. Your art is completely bound up in your ability to support very complex memory structures, that interconnection between the past and the present. It's almost impossible to be a novelist, and not be obsessed with memory to some degree.

Just from reading some of your other interviews, there seems to be a wealth of literary and artistic knowledge that you've accumulated over the years -- as the de Kooning reference illustrates. Just how much did you absorb in your early years?
I was very lucky to be brought up in what was basically an artist's household, where reading and going to museums was a privileged activity. It was seen as basic that you'd absorb a lot of art and do a lot of reading. That's a habit I've never lost. There's nothing as basic to writing fiction as reading it voraciously, and I think reading it diversely. And defining your own obvious tastes and inclinations, and finding out what other kinds of fiction are out there. It's enormously important, and that's how I entered the world. I'm more self-taught than anything else, and its just by feeding that curiosity. So whenever I teach writing, I'm always urging it upon the students that you can't read enough. You can't gobble down enough fiction.

When you arrived in the early to mid-90s, you were really lauded for turning things in SF on their head by splicing genres together. How subconsciously did you really know what you were doing when you were sitting down during the 80s, hammering down your short stories and the first novels?
Well, I was a much less capable writer and so less of my intention got onto the page. I think my growth since my first published story [in 1989] by now is much, much larger than my growth previous to it. But the intention was always there, the yearning to ignite different strains, the ambition to be the kind of writer who would defy categorization was there. That has to do with a lot of the kinds of writing I love to read, and the people I was emulating quite openly. My favourite writers were always those who refused to repeat themselves and played with genre forms, but did so in a way that overwhelmed the boundaries of the genres they were fooling around with. People like Philip K. Dick, Thomas Berger, Patricia Highsmith, Stanislaw Lem, Italo Calvino.

I fantasized that I would do work that would demand those kinds of comparisons. I'm certain I wasn't managing to do it at the beginning, but I was pointing in that direction anyway. I was trying.

After years of having your books optioned for Hollywood films without being made, your last novel -- Motherless Brooklyn -- is rumoured to be making the jump to the big screen thanks to the folks at New Line Cinema. How close is it really to getting made?
You know, I know less than some other people who're devoted to the subject. The guy who runs the Lethem In Landscape web site [David Myers], he's much more in the loop than I am at this point.

He's got people he talks to about it who seem to see some progress... Of course, I'm enormously excited at the idea that Edward Norton would play the part [of Lionel Essrog, and possibly co-produce the film as well]. And there's nothing I know that's gone wrong with the project so far, so cross your fingers.

The trick with Hollywood is that you don't know what they're going to do because they don't know what they're going to do. They're trying to put deals together. They're trying to find a director and a screenwriter, and put together a package that will work. And they often don't know if they've got one until the very last minute.

Some of the earlier novels still have a chance of coming together [as films]. There's a director named Matthew Jacobs who's working on a version of As She Climbed Across the Table (1997). That seems very promising right now.

But you've had that carrot -- a film deal -- dangled under your nose three or four times in the past six years. Aren't you a bit disappointed that your books have yet to become films lensed by Hollywood directors?
Well, you know, it's been fun to watch them try. And, in many cases, they're still at it. A lot of books have a long, slow journey to the screen.

I think I've been lucky in some ways, in that films demand so much of your attention and can overwhelm the perception of a writer's career. It's been very freeing for me in that there hasn't been a prominent film event, that the books are allowed to kind of be the main subject of conversation for the time being.

I think, for example, if there'd been a Gun, With Occasional Music movie a year or two after that book -- which at one point there seemed to be some danger of -- I would have been a much more well-off person. But I think, as a writer, my freedom to do the many different kinds of things that I wanted to do would have been hampered if that book was so much of its hard-boiled, Blade Runner-ish kind of thing [as a movie].

People, even just from reading the book, were very, very disappointed that I was wasn't going to do that kind of book again. Or at least not right away. If there had been a film that reinforced that expectation that that was the only kind of writing that I was interested in, that feeling would have been so much stronger. I mean, particularly if it had been a successful film, or one people really liked. So it's probably increased my license and my freedom to do what I want to do in some ways because nothing's come along quite yet [film-wise]. But it'll be fun when it does.

I also understand that your second and current wife [Julia Rosenberg] is the head of film development for Serendipity Point Films, which produced David Cronenberg's eXistenZ, among others. Do you think a creative partnership will ever come out of that sort of relationship?
You know, maybe. But not in the obvious way that you might first think in terms of one of my novels going into a production [with her company], simply because there are no novels available. Except for Girl In Landscape (1998), which I think is my definitive unfilmable book. The other four are in some kind of development situation elsewhere.

But in a much longer term way -- yeah, sure. We've talked about it, and there's all sorts of things that might mean. I just don't know what it would mean yet, but I can imagine finding a way for us to fool around on a project together.

Motherless Brooklyn also won the U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction this past March, and -- as far as mainstream writing awards go -- they don't get too much bigger than that. Did winning that award fundamentally change or affect your life in any way?
Well, I changed my life in a much more ground-level fundamental way right around the same time by marrying a Canadian, and moving half-time to Toronto. I think in many ways what the award did -- and I'm awfully grateful for it -- is [it gave me] a tangible pleasure. It felt like more what it did was it consolidated or concretized a lot of real great changes which had been coming about in the year since Motherless Brooklyn was first published, and the award really became kind of a seal on that stuff. The book was so much more widely reviewed, and so much more widely read than the earlier ones. But it was also really nice to see how its success really reflected back on the earlier stuff, and got people excited about going back and checking out the earlier work. The award just became, like I say, a real seal on those changes. It's been really, really rewarding.

I have an unusual career in some way. It shouldn't be an unusual career -- it should be a more common experience -- but it isn't regarded as a possibility anymore. [My career] built up very slowly. I think the cliché about publishing these days is you either break big right out of the gate, or you're in trouble because no one will ever pay attention. There is no mid-list in publishing, and I think that -- for whatever set of really lucky reasons -- I got to be a mid-list writer for awhile. Just sort of poke along and do what I'm doing, get respectfully reviewed and build an audience book by book.

With the big stuff that came with winning that award, it felt like I'd reached the top of the ladder that I'd been steadily climbing. It was much less disruptive than if all that had happened with a first book -- if I'd been thrust into so many interview situations when I hadn't ever done them before. It's been really a gentle ride for me.

I know that you'd started Motherless Brooklyn just after you'd moved back to New York after living in Berkeley, California, for quite some time. Has moving to Toronto had the same sort of impact on your work-in-progress?
I started Motherless Brooklyn when I moved back to Brooklyn -- which is the place where I was from. A place I had deep and complex feelings about. In many ways, it was material that I'd been holding at bay. It was writing I was destined to do, it was just a question of when.

You know, Toronto's interesting and I feel it affecting my work in subtle ways. But I don't think it's likely to turn up as a subject matter anytime too quickly for me. I really actually feel engaged in that psychological return to Brooklyn, and the new book is set there again although it's a very different book [from Motherless Brooklyn] in other ways.

I'd like to talk about your story "Five Fucks" for two reasons. One, it's reprinted in the new The Vintage Book Of Amnesia anthology. [Note: it first appeared in Lethem's 1996 short-story collection The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye. The story was also nominated for a Nebula award.] It's also a short-story which has a rich history behind it -- to put it mildly. I've heard everything from 'he wrote it on a bet' to 'he wrote it after getting into an argument with Bruce Sterling.' How did that story come to be?
One of the provocations of that story ... (short pause). That story is a piece that I'm very proud of. To me, it's very dense and layered, and I can pull a lot of things out of it. There are a lot of different influences in it, and a lot of different emotional layers in it for me.

The Bruce Sterling story is that he and I were in a very interesting and intense workshop setting together called Sycamore Hill. And he was doing a diagnosis, a kind of X-ray of my fiction [of the sort that] he's prone to doing. He's very, very into these deep meta-analysis' of another writer's work. He said, 'You know, Lethem, any time anyone has sex in your fiction, they're punished. The world seems to have to be destroyed just because they got laid.'

It was very funny, but I thought it was insightful and provoking. I guess, in a way, I wanted to look at and kind of go towards that tendency in my fiction. And write the ultimate, you know, 'getting laid destroys the world' story. Just to get it out of my system, and sort of examine the material. You know, kind of a Judo response to Bruce's criticism.

But there's a lot else in there. In some ways, it's a very playful Borges or Calvino kind of story where I'm kind of drawing Baroque patterns on the page for the pleasure of the eye. And, in other ways, it's a very personal story, too.

I almost see it as a very apologist type of story.
Uh-huh. I think it's got some sorrow in it. It's got some real sorrow in it. Sometimes I think it indulges a certain vein of nihilism that I'm prone to about suspecting all relationships, or all human connections. You can see elements of that in Amnesia Moon and other stories were the world is fragmented as a reflection of emotional fragmentation. It's a motif that I went to frequently for a while.

Do you think your writing has changed since then, or gone off in another direction?
Well, I think it's always been changing. Not that there aren't things which are constant in it. There are things I'll never escape or outgrow that I do, and things that I like or don't like about my writing. But they're very deeply embedded in it. I've been an evolving writer I think all the way through.

Before that story ("Five Fucks") was written, as Bruce was pointing out, I'd been doing certain things over and over again. The story was a kind of consolidation story before I was able to move forward to other kinds of material.

I think that should just about wrap it up. But, as a final question, let's talk about endings. A lot of your short stories and novels are very open-ended, something that your critics have taken you to task on a few times because -- in their eyes -- it makes some of your work nebulous. Was there some sort of plan you had in mind when writing that way?
I don't think of it as being part of a larger strategy. I think each book demands its own confrontation with ending. Every book you have to kind of reinvent what it means to end a book over again, and I've solved it in very different ways in different books. As She Climbed Across The Table has a sort of Lady and the Tiger ending, whereas Amnesia Moon is open-ended in a very different way. You decide which of these two extremely definite endings is true, instead of a 'the beat just goes on, and how could you ever end a story like this' kind of ending. It's a definitive vote against endings in life, as opposed to art.

And Motherless Brooklyn has, in some ways, a very traditional and tidy ending. It really comes together. So I feel more like there isn't some policy on endings.

There's a kind of a search that's one of the most basic voyages any novelist is ever on, because an ending is the hardest thing to get right and it's the mark of the greatest books when you find a good one. I'm not sure if I've found more than one ending that is completely satisfying for me -- and I won't say which one that is -- but I know that the reaching, the groping around for a great ending is part of the project of writing a novel.


Special thanks to David Myers of the Lethem In Landscape web site for some research help and fact checking.

Copyright © 2000 by Zachary Houle

Zachary Houle is a 25-year-old Ottawa-based journalist and occasional writer of fiction -- which includes the self-published chapbook Working In The Bowels of Hell (Broken Pencil magazine's 'zine of the month' for February 2000).

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