Interviews

Jonathan Lethem, The Art of Fiction No. 177

Interviewed by Lorin Stein

Jonathan Lethem was born in 1964, the son of the painter Richard Lethem and the late political activist Judith Lethem. His first three novels earned him a following among readers of crime novels and science fiction, and a reputation among readers of experimental novels as a pasticheur whose parodies had an uncanny beauty and depth of their own: Gun, with Occasional Music (1994) is the first and only volume in a notional series of Chandleresque whodunits. Amnesia Moon (1995) is a postapocalyptic road novel. As She Climbed Across the Table (1997) is an academic novel, a Don DeLillo spoof, about a professor whose girlfriend falls in love with her physics experiment. Lethem’s stories, many of which first appeared in the purist pages of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine, were collected in The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye (1996).

   Each of these books brought Lethem new readers, but it was Girl in Landscape (1998), a short novel about a Brooklyn girl’s sexual awakening on a distant planet, that first showed his mettle as a psychologist and won converts among readers who hadn’t cut their teeth on Philip K. Dick or Robert Coover. Although Girl in Landscape is set in the future, in space, it wasn’t just dreamlike and learned and funny, it was moving. Its voice was intimate. It was a novel for common readers. Lethem now calls it the first novel of his maturity.

   Girl in Landscape was also the first of Lethem’s novels to return, obliquely, to his Brooklyn childhood. Lethem grew up in Gowanus, the racially mixed neighborhood of brownstones, tenements, and housing projects that surrounds the Gowanus Canal (an area now gentrified and rechristened Boerum Hill). This makes Lethem the only inner-city kid in the generation of novelists with whom he is usually associated: Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Jeffrey Eugenides, Michael Chabon, Colson Whitehead, and Rick Moody. His memories of the city life of children provided raw material for the fantastical Carroll Gardens of Motherless Brooklyn (1999); they are the heart of Fortress of Solitude (2003).

   As a teenager Lethem studied painting at the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan. After high school he attended Bennington College, briefly—making him the one novelist of that group named above never to get a college degree—then eventually moved to the Bay Area, where he lived until 1998. During these years he supplemented his income as a writer by working in used bookstores. It’s the only job he’s ever had, and it has given him an erudition peculiar to antiquarians, a knowledge of books that is precise, catholic, and bibliographical, with particular concentrations in the underdog and outsider. A conversation with Lethem usually renews the cheerful conviction that some of the best books you will ever read are books you haven’t heard of yet.

   Around the time that Girl in Landscape appeared, Lethem moved back to Brooklyn, took an apartment in his old neighborhood (as many writers were doing), and began to hold impromptu get-togethers every few months at his local bar, the Brooklyn Inn. This interview—or, rehearsals for this interview—began late one of those evenings, about three years ago, when I asked Lethem why the Brooklyn House of Detention—the big, glow-in-the-dark brutalist jail down the street from the bar—never shows up in Motherless Brooklyn. This question led to a very friendly and intense discussion of the various imaginary jails in Lethem’s science fiction, the relationship between novels and their real-life settings, and the book that Lethem was then writing. Which, he said, was partly about the jail.

   That novel, Fortress of Solitude, is Lethem’s first novel of wide-angle social realism. It is indeed about the jail, and the place of jails in American life. It is also about superheroes, soul music, science fiction, community empowerment, Spaldeens, graffiti, gentrification, and headlocks. The novel follows two friends, Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude—one white, the son of an experimental filmmaker, the other black, the son of an R&B singer, both motherless, both obsessed with comic books—from the 1970s through the 1990s. Along the way it captures a big swath of what used to be called, reverently, the inner city, and of boyhood and manhood in America.

   To this day Lethem remains his own best, most curious biographical critic: all an interviewer needs to do is sit down, press record, and try to keep up. And that is exactly what happened last fall, during three sessions in Lethem’s third-floor walkup—in a study neatly lined with mass-market paperbacks—over the bottle of old scotch that came with Lethem’s Gold Dagger Award for crime fiction, and next to it, an ever-growing, generously proffered stack of recommendations for further reading.

 

INTERVIEWER

You don’t strike me as an especially paranoia-prone guy, but there is paranoia all over your writing. Is that just a literary device?

JONATHAN LETHEM

My parents were Vietnam War protesters; I grew up in the era of Watergate; the first president I remember is Nixon. I remember being instructed as a child that I shouldn’t go to school and blurt that Nixon was evil. Not that we didn’t know he was evil at home, it just might not be such a good idea for me to say it. I felt he was evil like Dracula. It was like being taught not to curse when you go to your grandmother’s. So when I found that Rod Serling and Philip K. Dick and Thomas Pynchon also agreed with me that the president was probably an evil robot programmed by a computer, it was merely a matter of pleasurable recognition that someone was naming the world.

In that sense, I’m a native. When you say I don’t appear paranoiac to you, I figure you mean I don’t traffic in the thin membrane of social paranoia. Why bother? We live in a fallen universe. We can at least be kind to one another and not jump on one another’s slightest errors or moods. In a desperate situation, pick your battles.

INTERVIEWER

My sense of you, compared to people we know in common, is that you don’t care much about politics.

LETHEM

Listen: I’m thirty-eight. The first third of my life was spent at political demonstrations, shouting my lungs hoarse. It was as much a part of my existence as having a holiday off from school. Those were my holidays. That’s how I visited different cities, that’s how I met adults besides my parents. I was a protester by birthright. I put in my time before I could conceive that the world wasn’t being transformed by the people around me, my parents’ generation. When you’re in the center of demonstrations, you believe. My life was a demonstration. I was sent to public school in impoverished neighborhoods on principle. The day-care center on the corner of Nevins and Atlantic, in Brooklyn; I was there on its opening day, and I understood it as something that our protests at City Hall, the years before, had produced. I stood at the feet of police horses, holding a sign for day care, and then was there the first day it opened. I lived the belief that private school was anti-American. Can you possibly understand? It’s personal. It’s there in my work.

INTERVIEWER

In the form? In the imagination?

LETHEM

In the hope that some fourteen-year-old kid in Milwaukee reads Amnesia Moon and is ratified in his suspicion that the government is television, that George Bush is the star of a rotten soap opera. That’s all I have to offer, what Philip K. Dick had to offer me, solidarity. My politics are everywhere.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said elsewhere that by going to Bennington College you’d rejected your family’s political dedication to the idea of public school. But Bennington was an art school.

LETHEM

It’s impossible to talk about my going to Bennington without talking about the fact that I began dropping out of Bennington—rejecting it in a “you can’t fire me, I quit” sort of way—immediately upon arrival. It’s absolutely true that I was trying to prove something by running away to a world of privilege. I meant to prove I wasn’t deprived, and my reward was a violent confrontation with the realities of class. A confrontation I’d then spend ten years recovering from. I was frightened by my father’s bohemian idealism, and I was equally frightened by what I saw as the corruption of art by money and connections at Bennington.

INTERVIEWER

You don’t seem to have bothered to rebel against your parents’ milieu—their bohemianism, their leftism.

LETHEM

I tried. It’s very hard to rebel against parents whose lives are so full and creative and brilliant—the option is my generation’s joke: the rebel stockbroker. That wasn’t for me. I wanted what my parents had, but I needed to rebel by picking a déclassé art career. My father came from the great modernist tradition, and so I found a way, briefly, to disappoint him, to dodge his sense of esteem. Very briefly. He caught on soon enough that what I was doing was still an art practice more or less in his vein.

I felt I ought to thrive on my fate as an outsider. Being a paperback writer was meant to be part of that. I really, genuinely wanted to be published in shabby pocket-sized editions and be neglected—and then discovered and vindicated when I was fifty. To honor, by doing so, Charles Willeford and Philip K. Dick and Patricia Highsmith and Thomas Disch, these exiles within their own culture. I felt that was the only honorable path.

INTERVIEWER

But elsewhere you’ve described the sustenance you were taking, around this time, from international writers like Calvino, Cortázar, and Borges.

LETHEM

Yes. As a teenager I read those writers voraciously in a rich collision—or should I say conflation?—with the American crime and science-fiction writers I was equally obsessed with. And I devoured literary writing in English as well, but only the kind that had been fashionable in the sixties. Once I began to understand the contemporary atmosphere of the eighties—the Ann Beattie, Richard Ford, Raymond Carver attitude, which I’ve admired in retrospect, but which was an absolute shock to me at the time—I felt only more deeply confirmed as an outsider. Between disreputable or out-of-fashion American writers and those “International Fabulists,” neither of which camp seemed relevant to the writers at Bennington, I stitched together a notion: I’d be the American Calvino, but nourished by scruffy genre roots. As though this would comprise a movement or school of writing to contextualize lonely me. It just didn’t exist, that was the only problem. There was nothing there. I could declare it, and a few people would be gulled and say, Oh, you’re going to be that thing!— but only because I’d just described it with such energy and affection. But there’s no such thing.

 INTERVIEWER

So you’d say things to your friends like, There’s nothing going on at the big houses, Knopf hasn’t published anything in years.

LETHEM

I had no idea what Knopf had published in years. Listen, you can’t imagine what a freak I was. I worked in used bookstores as a teenager. I grew up with hippie parents. I lived in a ten-year cultural lag. At all times. I had not the faintest idea what was contemporary. When I got to Bennington, and I found that Richard Brautigan and Thomas Berger and Kurt Vonnegut and Donald Barthelme were not “the contemporary,” but were in fact awkward and embarrassing and had been overthrown by something else, I was as disconcerted as a time traveler. The world I’d dwelled in was now apocryphal. No one read Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell, the Beats were regarded with embarrassment. When all that was swept away, I stopped knowing what contemporary literature was. I didn’t replace it; I just stopped knowing.

 INTERVIEWER

Were kids actually talking about writers in college?

 LETHEM

Bret Ellis was. Bret, Donna Tartt, Jill Eisenstadt, others.

INTERVIEWER

How quickly did you and Bret Easton Ellis get to know each other?

LETHEM

Quickly, but not well. I could probably count our conversations. They were always wary, glancing, and extremely interesting. We discussed film. I talked about Hitchcock, and Bret about Altman. I realized that I actually didn’t know anything about what was going on. That there was such a thing as going on—the last time I checked in with it was when my mother died when I was thirteen. There was no weather vane for me. Bret and a few others dragged me, halfway, into the present.

INTERVIEWER

Before you dropped out.

LETHEM

I’d begun a first novel, and I told myself I was dropping out to write it. The school cost a then astronomical fourteen thousand dollars a year. I only wanted to work in bookstores and write fiction. I explained it to myself very logically at the time—I liked hanging out with my new friends and I hated going to class. Since I was paying to go to class, I dropped out. I was one of those creepy dropouts who moves into his girlfriend’s dorm room. She stole meals from the dining hall in a Tupperware container hidden in a hollowed-out textbook, and I sat in her room and wrote an unpublishably bad first novel.

INTERVIEWER

You could have gone to a state school.

LETHEM

I could have done a lot of things.

INTERVIEWER

It’s a funny decision for a kid to make.

LETHEM

I needed to make it. I was in another educational system, anyhow—antiquarian bookstores. I’d worked in three of them already before going to Bennington, and I resumed that career as soon as I dropped out. I worked my way up to one of the best in the country, Moe’s in Berkeley. An old-fashioned apprenticeship for a writer. It’s still the only job I’ve ever held, besides authoring.

INTERVIEWER

I’d like to ask if you can remember something about the actual writing of each book.

LETHEM

Sure. Gun, with Occasional Music is a piece of carpentry. I wanted to locate the exact midpoint between Dick and Chandler. William Gibson had published Neuromancer and people called it “hard-boiled science fiction.” I was like, Dude, that’s just well-written science fiction. It’s not hard-boiled. Those saying it had never read Pynchon, who Gibson was really doing. It’s Pynchon in spades, very nicely done. I thought,“You want hard-boiled? The California tradition is quite exacting. I’ve actually read those books. Let me show you. And I fused the Chandler/Ross MacDonald voice with those rote dystopia moves that I knew backwards and forwards from my study of Ballard, Dick, Orwell, Huxley, and the Brothers Strugatsky.

INTERVIEWER

Who?

LETHEM

You’ve neglected your research. The Strugatskys were Soviet SF writers. Tarkovsky based Stalker on one of their novellas. Their The Ugly Swans depicts people trudging through their lives in a very Orwellian way, and raising a generation of dronelike, eerie children who hate them and constantly rat them out to the authorities. Basically, a thinly disguised depiction of what it was like to be a pre-Soviet parent raising a Soviet-educated child. I lifted this allegory and stripped the political meaning from it. Hence the babyheads in Gun.

 INTERVIEWER

I was recently rereading Amnesia Moon, the only book of yours that no one has stolen from me. I liked it much better this time. It’s risky for a novel to posit different “levels” of reality because once you start doing that the reader doesn’t know . . .

LETHEM

What matters.

INTERVIEWER

It seems that you were free-associating, from the very beginning of the novel, and the voice you heard happened to be outrageously funny.

 LETHEM

I like that description. That’s the best I can hope for Amnesia Moon. It was meant to be honestly dreamlike. Humbly so. That book’s an anthology of my apprentice work. It was made out of failed short stories. It actually contains my earliest published writing. But it also consists of an analysis of the reasons for the failure of my earliest work. Those shameless, earnest early stories that now seem to me to be written by an obnoxious child. In them I’m compulsively imitating J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick. But also getting curious about Italo Calvino and Steve Erickson. And making the discovery that I really couldn’t possibly be a science-fiction writer.

INTERVIEWER

What did that mean to know that you weren’t going to be a science-fiction writer?

LETHEM

Well, I’d romanticized something that didn’t exist.

INTERVIEWER

What did you romanticize?

LETHEM

An exile identity, that seemed to me heroic in Dick. I thought everyone understood he was more interesting than what was in fact the genre’s main center of operation. I thought once there had been Dick or Ballard or Thomas Disch that you couldn’t ever glance back at that other stuff. I projected my own feeling about it onto the world, as I was doing relentlessly then. Of course, that became part of the subject matter of Amnesia Moon.

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk about what kinds of problems you thought were getting definitively solved, by Dick or the others?

LETHEM

Pulp SF of the 1930s magazine type is folk art. Then Dick comes along and isolates those tropes that connect it to literature, surrealism, film, comic books, rock and roll. He’s George Herriman, he’s Buster Keaton, he’s Bob Dylan. Dick discards the uninteresting stuff, the pedantic explanations, and preserves precisely the dreamlike, surrealist, evocative, paranoiac reverberations that were all I ever cared for, when I found them scattered elsewhere. I couldn’t imagine that someone else would think Dick had thrown out the wrong stuff, which is exactly what many who exalt the genre think.

That’s what Amnesia Moon is about. Getting over the illusory affiliations and the chimerical causes and locating your heart’s real concerns. And recognizing what interference is coming from you, your own projections. Another reason I couldn’t go on wanting to be J. G. Ballard for very long is that the personality that contentedly destroys the world at the outset of every story, just in order to feel at home, ought to spend at least some amount of his energy wondering why. I’ve come to understand that it had to do with Watergate, with Abe Beame, with New York City in 1971—the crumbling infrastructure, the Paula Fox Desperate Characters backdrop. That’s where I came of age. My appetite for reading tales set in dystopian cities, my pleasure in Orwell, my pleasure in Ballard, was a pleasure of recognition. Of consolation. So Amnesia Moon was a diagnosis of my own morose complicity. It’s too easy for Chaos to think, Oh, poor me, I live in a movie theater because everything’s fucked up. The book is a diagnosis of my own complicity with alienation, paranoia, dystopia. Why do I feel at home there?

At fifteen I thought I’d spend my whole life writing books like Amnesia Moon. Hipster science fiction. By the time I was halfway through I knew it was a farewell to the kid who has to destroy the world in order to begin writing. I glanced at the early stories and they were all the same tissue-thin material, more alike than dissimilar. Wish-fulfillment over-running the insights. The limit you often run into reading Dick, or for that matter William Burroughs or Vollmann or any number of other nightmarish social satirists, is that you feel that their own fantasies intervene just at the moment where they’re about to say something.

But again, more recent influences began to invest in the book. I was thinking of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which is a book of first chapters. I thought, Let me do If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler as pulp. I was also thrilled by Steve Erickson at the time. Erickson’s prose shifts easily from concrete and tangible and sensory images to extremely abstract language. I have difficulty with abstract language. I’d read Erickson and find pages I couldn’t parse. So I proposed an Erickson novel with the abstract stuff left out. A Dick novel with the clumsy stuff left out. A Calvino novel with the high mandarin stuff left out. And the novel that I’d have written at fifteen, but couldn’t. I attacked it with great passion. The result was messy. It took a lot of editing to smooth it out. There are still rotten sentences in that book. It breaks my heart. Amnesia Moon is an emotional book for me. But now I’m overselling it, because you’ve gotten me so interested in these questions.

 INTERVIEWER

What about As She Climbed Across the Table?

LETHEM

As She Climbed Across the Table was another conscious pastiche, this time of Don DeLillo and John Barth, as well as a handful of other campus novels—Malcolm Bradbury’s History Man in particular.

INTERVIEWER

Where’s the Barth?

LETHEM

Just End of the Road, actually. I was obsessed with End of the Road at that time.

INTERVIEWER

What about End of the Road?

LETHEM

Before I began publishing, I’d imagined that pointing out my thefts would be the occupation of my enemies. I had no idea I’d be so routinely called to take up that work myself! End of the Road is a love triangle set on a college campus: an established couple, both tenured academics, and a newcomer, the narrator of the book, the interloper who specifically describes himself as being the ultimate blank slate, a man without properties. So where Barth has a character who metaphorically believes himself to be “without properties,” I made the third wheel in my love triangle the cosmic void—a literal rival without properties. And I reassigned the narration to the jilted lover. Oddly, and I just thought of this, both books end with a nude woman on a cold steel table—though Barth’s is an ugly scene of a botched abortion.

 INTERVIEWER

What attracted you so much to that novel?

LETHEM

The voice. Its knowingness. By imitating it, I learned to instill my own knowingness into my voice. In the earlier books, knowingness was all implicit between reader and writer, but the characters were left in the dark. Metcalf in Gun and Chaos in Amnesia Moon are both explicitly mocked by minor characters for the narrowness of their vision, of their field of reference. By As She Climbed I’d worn out that strategy. Though I still had a ways to go. It took Lionel Essrog, in Motherless, to show me that I could actually let a narrator tell you why he likes a pop song or a sandwich. I was always in a terrible hurry. At some level I must have thought it was illegal for an “inventive” writer to dally over real information. It took Essrog, with his obsessiveness, to stop and talk about Prince or a turkey sandwich with Russian dressing for a full page.

INTERVIEWER

How did you get the idea to write Girl in Landscape?

LETHEM

I was reading Carson McCullers and Shirley Jackson and I was thinking about the teenage girl as an archetype. The tomboy. Also Charles Portis’s True Grit. And I was falling in love with John Ford westerns, The Searchers especially. There’s a generic postmodern move, an assault upon a classic work by taking the neglected or minority viewpoint and retelling the tale—think of Jean Rhys rewriting Jane Eyre as Wide Sargasso Sea. Given my interests at the time, it wasn’t much of a leap to watch The Searchers and wonder about Natalie Wood’s version of events. What might it be like to see John Wayne through her eyes? You can see how the idea fell to me very naturally.

Then I made two large, unconscious thefts. One was from a Philip Dick novel, Time-Slip, which depicts immigrants on Mars and contains extremely vivid images of lonely children digging in the Martian desert. Digging in the ground off in the distance; they’re viewed like figures in Bosch. It turned out I wanted to know what those children were saying when they played and ran and fought. So the idea drifted from being a literal Western—I wasn’t at all interested in factually historical fiction, anyway, nor with the pitfalls of depicting Native American culture—to a tale of interplanetary migration. That way I could have my desert, I could have John Ford’s Monument Valley, without all the necessary clutter of history.

And I ransacked chunks of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. When I was creating the Archbuilders—the odd, gnomic humanoids who happen to populate this place where my settlers have come—I knew they couldn’t be threatening or evil, as in the manner of the Comanches in a John Ford film. Instead I wanted them to be harmless, thoughtful, befuddled types, who stand to one side and comment on the action. What I reached for, unconsciously, were the Indian Indians in Forster. And this unconscious choice shaped the plot to a large degree.

The Archbuilders, like Forster’s Indians, spend the first half of the book puzzling over the behavior of the colonists, seemingly safe, to one side of the action. Then in Girl, as in Passage, there comes a crisis in the middle of the book—in Forster, a possible rape or an imagined rape in a hidden cave. That Marabar Caves incident became, in Girl, Efram fondling or not fondling Pella. And the natives are the ones who fall under suspicion. One among them is martyred to the hysteria that comes over the settlers. And so on.

INTERVIEWER

How odd to see Forster hijack a Western.

LETHEM

It’s finally quite dull to consider the book on its initial premise, as a reply to The Searchers. The Ford film, like any great art, has mysteries that cannot be excavated, and the effort is tendentious—wearisome. So when I meet readers who speak passionately of Girl in Landscape and have never seen the Ford, never considered the relationship between Efram and John Wayne, I feel great relief.

INTERVIEWER

When I came in you were listening to Ethiopiques as you were working. You listen to music even as you write novels?

LETHEM

Always.

INTERVIEWER

What were you listening to when you wrote Girl?

LETHEM

A ton of Dylan. I was obsessing on Dylan in that period. But Girl, like several others, had a musical keynote, a song or album I kept returning to. In this case, a John Cale song called “Dying On The Vine.” Just as Amnesia Moon was a Neil Young book, but the skeleton key was an album by My Dad is Dead, called The Taller You Are, The Shorter You Get.

INTERVIEWER

When did you start going to movies?

 LETHEM

My mother had the schedule for the Thalia pinned to our kitchen wall. I remember pretending to understand when she’d make distinctions: This is good and this is bad, just looking at that calendar. She loved Hitchcock—The 39 Steps, Notorious. Films that may not hold up as well, A Thousand Clowns and King of Hearts. She loved early Polanski. She adored Truffaut. Shoot the Piano Player. Beat the Devil. She loved Bogart. As typical a sophisticated film taste as you can have in her generation. But she had it. So I was an imaginary cinephile before I’d seen more than Mary Poppins and Yellow Submarine. And then I was old enough to go. I followed my parents to The Harder They Come, Black Orpheus, The Red Shoes, Small Change, Sabotage, Barry Lyndon. Big moments for my little mind. And my first encounter with Freud and Sherlock Holmes was Alan Arkin and Nicol Williamson. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution terrified me. You can see me rewriting it in my early story “The Happy Man.”

 INTERVIEWER

You couldn’t have known the demographic when you were a kid, so how did you understand your mother’s taste? What did you think those films had in common?

LETHEM

It wasn’t a matter of them needing to have anything in common. It was the sense there were good things out there. I’ve always been uninterested in boundaries or quarantines between tastes and types, between mediums and genres. It’s a form of autism, perhaps. I’ve never felt I had to pick from among these things and renounce those others. Good stuff’s found across the spectrum. Boundaries aren’t going to tell you where the good ones are; your interest, your Spidey-sense going off, is going to tell you. That describes my mother’s appetite for books and film, and it describes my father’s approach to painting, his own, and the work we’d see in galleries and museums. When I say I’m lucky in my inheritances, in what dropped into my lap, I mean this attitude above all.

Of course, my film taste had to develop backwards. I loved Godard and Kubrick and Truffaut first—I’d seen dozens of French films indebted to Howard Hawks and John Ford before I’d ever seen an American Western or screwball comedy, before I’d ever understood that the Europeans rested on the shoulders of the early Hollywood giants. This is also akin to growing up inside the music of the post–Sgt. Pepper Beatles before discovering their early music, let alone Elvis Presley. Those backwards trails of discovery created in me a rage for authenticity and origins, which perhaps cuts against the postmodern grain of my category-autism. I’m fascinated by influence, which is why I discuss it so much, perhaps awkwardly much. And you’re no help.

INTERVIEWER

What tv shows have mattered most to you?

LETHEM

Thanks. Twilight Zone. I mean, Orson Welles was asked his influences and said, “John Ford, John Ford, John Ford.” Television? Twilight Zone, Twilight Zone, Twilight Zone. That and Ernie Kovacs.

INTERVIEWER

Who is Ernie Kovacs?

LETHEM

You must find out! Put it this way, if the famous innovators of the early days of television were the French New Wave, Ernie Kovacs would be Godard. In that no one followed him. Milton Berle and Henny Youngman and Steve Allen all created television that we now watch. Ernie Kovacs created television that no one could ever follow. There was no successor. Channel Thirteen replayed his entire archive for one brief, beautiful moment in the seventies. My mother sat me down to watch, as though it were school.

Those experiences are as mysterious and deep to me as any childhood reading. They connect absolutely to my mother’s handing me Lewis Carroll or Ray Bradbury or Kurt Vonnegut. And it’s an ordinary boast, but it needs be said, that the majority of my childhood was spent entranced—mummified—in the pages of a book.

INTERVIEWER

Do you remember what you were doing when you were reading like that?

LETHEM

I don’t know. I’m still doing it. You’re interrogating a fish on the nature of water.

INTERVIEWER

Is it still like that?

LETHEM

Well, that’s the ideal. I get there less frequently, for so many reasons. In many ways, my immersion-hours have moved from reading to writing.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever feel envy of other writers who are near your age? Deep envy about their writing, about what they can do?

LETHEM

There are people who can do amazing things. But I never take it personally. Any more than I would take it personally if Christina Stead could do things that I can’t imagine doing, as she does, or Philip Roth, as he does. The generational thing just doesn’t really come into it. That sounds like a real wussy answer, but writing is a private discipline, in a field of companions. You’re not fighting the other writers—that Mailer boxing stuff seems silly to me. It’s more like golf. You’re not playing against the other people on the course. You’re playing against yourself. The question is, What’s in you that you can free up? How to say everything you know? Then there’s nothing to envy. The reason Tiger Woods has that eerie calm, the reason he drives everyone insane, is his implacable sense that his game has nothing to do with the others on the course. The others all talk about what Tiger is up to. Tiger only says, I had a pretty good day, I did what I wanted to do. Or, I could have a better day tomorrow. He never misunderstands. The game is against yourself. That same thousand-yard Tiger Woods stare is what makes someone like Murakami or Roth or DeLillo or Thomas Berger so eerie and inspiring. They’ve grasped that there’s nothing to one side of you. Just you and the course.

From that perspective, the fact of others carrying on the struggle beside you is no more threatening than the fact that libraries are full of great books. It makes the context for what you do. You’d never want to be the only writer, would you? How meaningless. Writers lose their temper sometimes and express a self-destructive wish in the form of a pronouncement that the novel is dead, that it’s a terrible time for fiction, etcetera. In fact there are thrilling novelists everywhere. It’s an amazing time.

INTERVIEWER

OK, that’s the pure relationship between the writer and his work, sure. What about envying other writers?

LETHEM

Every human life includes moments of rage at unrecognition. We’re all injustice collectors. But that’s not the truth of any situation. I don’t mean to pretend that those bad feelings don’t exist. I know them intimately; they’re daily friends. But once you give them their name and shape, they’re like a set of really lousy cats living in your house. You kick them out of the way to get to where you’re going. In truth, it’s only dazzling when, say, Colson Whitehead puts out John Henry Days and there are sequences where I just don’t know how he did it. God what a great feeling! To have him over there in Fort Greene, living a few blocks away, as opposed to Christina Stead, dead and in Australia. Holy shit, right over there in Fort Greene and I don’t know how he did it. What a fantastic sensation. Would I want to be the only writer? No. Would I want to be the best? Well, that’s a lie, there’s no best. So there’s nothing to want.

INTERVIEWER

You can’t imagine experiencing a crisis of faith.

LETHEM

Crisis of faith? But that’s not where the writer lives. He lives in sentences, in fictional architecture. Look, anyone seeking ontological meltdown can easily find it in the attempt to write. Many have. The need to fall apart is well indulged in this line of work.

INTERVIEWER

I’d like to talk about Motherless Brooklyn. Why did it take you so long to write straight novels?

LETHEM

I’m not writing straight novels. What’s straight? I understand your assumptions, but you know that I have to point out how silly they are. There’s no important sense in which I ever began or resumed or stopped writing straight novels.

INTERVIEWER

Is there a kind of writing that you’re trying to cultivate in yourself?

 LETHEM

I don’t try to cultivate any genre of writing in myself. I write what I urgently need to write at the time. What I try to cultivate in myself is the permission to do anything I can think of. I’ve cultivated a lot more freedom in myself. For instance, there are elements of the first three books that are hidebound, not by disinterest or external concerns of publication; they’re hidebound by fear of saying what I knew, of being fully myself.

INTERVIEWER

What were you afraid to do?

LETHEM

I’d be afraid to not be funny, afraid to not be charming. You can only do so many things. This is something I’ve come to understand: there’s a strict ecology on a given page. Those things that people feel are missing from books are missing because they are crowded out by other things. Not because the person wouldn’t have liked to also do them. Once you’ve devoted a lot of energy and attention to accomplishing certain things, that’s where your energy has gone. It’s a zero-sum game.

It’s delightful that readers will look at someone who’s accomplished in some areas and say, Wouldn’t it be great if their women were great too, or, Too bad they can’t do really good landscape description. It’s sweet that people always want that little more. But the extent that As She Climbed and Gun are full of one-liners—this desperate juggling, come on, love me, love me, love me—does, on a simple, technical basis, mean that other things are not present.

Most recently I’ve let go of a certain kind of lean efficiency, a devotion to structure. To plot. The fact is, almost every writer I ultimately find most important to me is hugely digressive, and largely uninterested in any plot that can be admired for its exoskeletal integrity. Yet I thought I had to provide one each time out.

INTERVIEWER

Sometimes with pretty bizarre results, frankly.

LETHEM

Sure. I’d say, You want plot, you want causality, you want a system undergirding the book? Well, I’ll give you one you’ve never seen before. Or one only I understand. But they’re always there. Until Girl in Landscape. In Girl I learned to write out of character and language, without the safety net. Then Motherless Brooklyn is a funny case. There, I relaxed with pleasure into some of the oldest ones in the book, just by borrowing the hard-boiled methodology again. But I also really threw them all out the window. Call that book my farewell to plot.

 INTERVIEWER

Do you find that it’s hard to forgive anything about those early books?

LETHEM

Answering that question suggests I read them. When I was a kid I read a Graham Greene interview. Greene’s another important influence. In the interview he said, in that dry, don’t-ask-me-that-a-second-time way, I don’t read my books. Not only did my jaw drop, I was certain he was a liar. I felt it was inconceivable to write books and not read them. Now I find I’ve never read my books. Never. I’m not interested. It’s not reading. So when we do this, you’re hearing me talk about what I hope is there, what I infer might be there from your questions.

INTERVIEWER

The Fortress of Solitude is like nothing you’ve ever written before.

LETHEM

Actually, it’s a lot like Girl in Landscape and Motherless Brooklyn crushed together. Perhaps I hadn’t demonstrated this breadth of ambition before, but the ingredients are present, in the second chapter of Motherless Brooklyn, in the psychic entirety of Girl in Landscape.

INTERVIEWER

The plot seems more intricate than the plots of your previous novels, with old-fashioned realist commitments. Was the plot hard to figure out?

LETHEM

You prepare by rereading books with architecture you sense will be relevant to the attempt. In this case, Baldwin’s Another Country, Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, Millhauser’s Portrait of a Romantic, and enormous amounts of Dickens, Christina Stead, and Philip Roth. I absorbed the permissions inherent in those books. Once I’d done that, the plot grew from the characters—and out of a handful of essential situations I had in advance.

INTERVIEWER

You give yourself a lot of stuff to juggle.

LETHEM

At the start I meant to write a book of two halves. The first a third-person ensemble, with some degree of omniscience. Organized by the setting, á la Girl in Landscape. And I knew the second half would be first person. Organized by a compulsive voice. There’s a strict alternation in my books. Gun, with Occasional Music: first person organized by the voice, by the one consciousness. Then Amnesia Moon is a third-person ensemble, and has much to do with landscape and setting. Then As She Climbed Across the Table, first-person again, another obsessive voice. Then Girl in Landscape. Then Motherless Brooklyn. You see the rhythm. So, in The Fortress of Solitude I extend the pattern, but the next two books are compressed into one. Following Motherless Brooklyn, I went back to four hundred pages of ensemble viewpoint, third-person, omniscience. And followed that with a first-person book organized by voice; those make the two halves of Fortress. The new book is less unprecedented if you see it that way.

INTERVIEWER

If you see it that way you’d be completely insane. No one would believe that you actually sat down to write alternating books.

LETHEM

But I did. In fact, the second half of Fortress—the section is called “Prisonaires”—has a bizarre superficial resemblance to Motherless Brooklyn. It’s almost exactly the same length. Both begin with an adult narrator introducing himself in the midst of conflict where his “other” abandons him. Frank Minna is killed in the first chapter of Motherless; Abby splits in the first chapter of “Prisonaires.” This loss sends each character careening through a story that, in its “present,” takes only a few days. Motherless takes four days from the first chapter and the second half of Fortress takes five or six days. Both are absolutely hectic with plot and epiphanies, and both make room for an approximately hundred-page flashback to childhood, in which we learn what is truly at stake in the present. In fact, both end in cross-country car trips and climax at these rather non sequitur locations—Maine and Indiana—where the main character learns the secret-hiding-within-the-secret of the book. Both secrets have to do with the past life of an important female character at a bohemian enclave. The similarities go on and on.

INTERVIEWER

Does it feel like something you’ve been waiting to do?

LETHEM

Let me put it this way, there’s a scene in this book that derives from a manuscript I began when I was seventeen.

INTERVIEWER

Which scene?

LETHEM

It’s now smothered in a stream-of-consciousness flashback. Barely a scene, a flicker of a scene. Dylan recalls sneaking into his father’s studio and painting a frame of his father’s film.

INTERVIEWER

At seventeen you already knew Dylan Ebdus’s father was painting frames of film?

LETHEM

No. The character wasn’t named Dylan Ebdus, obviously. And it was then an oil painting. But I’ve felt this book coming all my life. More specifically, I sat down with my agent seven years ago now and told him that I’d just had an idea for a “short book” that I felt I could do quickly before I tackled “the big Brooklyn book.” I told him I thought it might be a good idea because the “short book” was sort of an appealing notion and might earn me some breathing room for writing the “big one.” The short one was Motherless Brooklyn, which I then imagined would be about two hundred and fifty manuscript pages. I thought it would be a sprint, a finger exercise, before writing Fortress.

There were two results. Number one is that this book is better because I waited longer. I gained tools I’d needed—so many that now it seems impossible I thought I could have written this book seven years ago. Number two, Motherless Brooklyn was imbued with energy from the project I was holding at bay. I thought my Tourette’s detective book would be brisk and funny—akin to Thomas Berger’s Who Is Teddy Villanova?, a linguistic tour de force. But I was delaying writing an emotional journey back to Brooklyn, and in fact I was unable to delay it. So those feelings saturated Motherless Brooklyn. And I wrote a longer and more serious book. Kind of got lucky there.

INTERVIEWER

Did you remember all those details about being a kid in the city—skully and stoopball and the other street games—or did you have to research them?

 LETHEM

Sure, I remembered Skully, I remembered all the street games. I’ve had full apprehension of those childhood memories all along. I wrote this book to try to forget. I did some research, just to confirm the external context—for instance, that Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music,” which was emblematic in my experience, really was the number one song the week I began sixth grade in an all-black school. My instincts were usually confirmed.

INTERVIEWER

Was there anything you’d forgotten? Any recovered memories?

LETHEM

Just one. This book has everything to do with revisiting the uncomfortable position of growing up as part of a small white minority within a black and Hispanic neighborhood, and, frankly, that has a lot to do with enduring beatings and bullyings, as well as subtler psychic torments. I’d imagined I remembered all of this stuff, but of course I explored the memories with those friends—both black and white—I could persuade to join me in reminiscing. And what I’d repressed was poignantly simple: the shame of my own utter cowardice. Those few times when I’d abandoned another bullied kid to his fate, when I’d apparently thought, Thank God there’s a white kid worse off than me on this playground, taking the brunt. It took friends to remind me of the lowliness of my own reactions.

 INTERVIEWER

Who was kind enough to remind you?

LETHEM

My oldest friend, Karl Rusnak, one of the dedicatees of Amnesia Moon. He and I were side by side through sixth and seventh grades—ground zero, in the book’s terms. I recalled a story aloud to Karl, a story of our mutual victimization, and he gently led me to the repressed punch line: I’d fled the scene and left Karl to his fate, in the hands of our tormentors.

I was helped by another associate from the neighborhood, a fellow with the elegant name of Alexander Arguelles. Alexander was always rather ascetic and intense, and mercilessly honest—I believe he’s a Catholic seminarian now. We talked together in a Berkeley coffee shop ten years ago, the first and so far last time I’ve seen him since childhood. There, Alexander told me he’d never forget the exact tone of my keening as I cringed and abased myself on the Brooklyn pavement. I had of course been preempting attack by pretending injury in advance. I’d banished the memory, but it wasn’t possible to take exception to Alexander’s description.

INTERVIEWER

Did you get scared by the superhero stuff once you built up the realist stuff so much? Did you know you could handle it?

LETHEM

The superhero material wasn’t a problem. The problem was persuading you that, say, I knew what prison was like. That’s harder than persuading you that teenage boys want to fly, but that they wouldn’t know what to do about it if they could. That’s easy. I’ve spent my whole life figuring out how to talk about that. Teenage life—possibly adult life too, I’ll let you know when I’ve lived one—is all about what you want and can’t have. And then about what you receive and misuse. I don’t mean to say this book was easy, but the blending of the mythic and the realist elements was hardly the deepest challenge. The teenaged human mind specializes in that blending.

 INTERVIEWER

What was hardest? The prison stuff?

LETHEM

I’ll tell you about one area of pressure or resistance. It relates to Girl in Landscape. In that book I noticed that despite adopting the female viewpoint, I was terrified of writing scenes that included no male witness. Scenes between two women, or three. I only managed to get Pella alone with another woman for about two pages, when Diana Eastling takes her off into the desert for a talk.

INTERVIEWER

Don’t we see Pella all by herself?

LETHEM

That’s different. You’re not depicting social reality. You’re just doing consciousness. It was women talking to women that intimidated me. And in Fortress I noticed a unique discomfort when I tackled scenes among the black characters, scenes lacking a white witness.

What else is hard? The violence is hard. The actual violence is hard. The shooting was difficult.

INTERVIEWER

Because you weren’t sure what register you were in?

LETHEM

Because I had known about it for three years before I had written it. I rely on vagueness in my plans for creating both energy and authenticity when I attack a scene. But that plan had been so specific for so long that by the time I got there I became afraid that the characters were being shoehorned into a script. I hope it isn’t so.

INTERVIEWER

When did you realize that Barry was going to become an important figure in the book?

LETHEM

I only had to conceive a book about two sons to know it was also a book about two fathers. Then I knew instantly that the black father would be this figure of a singer, a figure that had been pressing on my imagination.

INTERVIEWER

It’s hard to know where to start with the career of Abraham Ebdus—the white father, that is. He’s a neglected experimental filmmaker who disconcertingly finds himself acclaimed as a paperback-jacket illustrator. Were you winking at yourself?

LETHEM

Well, Abraham’s film career is modeled on specific experimental filmmakers—Stan Brakhage and Ed Emshwiller—though he’s less successful than either. And there is of course my own father, though my father’s art—and his life, his politics—connected him to the world around him, the world of our neighborhood and its conflicts, much more than Abraham is connected. Abraham’s withdrawal, his discomfort, is my own. Abraham is much nearer a writer’s self-portrait than Dylan is, and so his film is more like a novel than it is like any painter or filmmaker’s work. Like Fortress, Abraham’s film is a record of days on a given street—Dean Street.

I suppose I was picking my own old scabs, those to do with the experience of receiving acclaim that is unsatisfying to the point of bewilderment. That is to say, acclaim from the science fiction community. Which, I should add, was my own fault, not the fault of that community. But the scenes set at the SF convention have a much deeper purpose than self-laceration. I’d challenged myself to tell all I knew, to tell where I’d been in the world, and what I knew about class and culture as a result. Once I saw my task in this light, the milieu of an SF convention was an unmistakable opportunity. Had I ever seen any more impacted site of human yearning, expressed through culture-making—and wasn’t that the subject of my book? For an SF convention is a terribly complicated space, where people try to collectively resolve an enormous number of incompatible needs.

So, the ForbiddenCon chapters resonate with Watermelon Sugar Farm, the hippie commune at the end of the book, and with Boerum Hill itself. And with the punk community. Like them, the convention is a bohemian demimonde. As with any such, there’s a desperate assertion of classlessness within it, an assertion that is crumbling around the edges, continuously. An SF convention is a gentrification that fails in the space of a weekend. The whole American premise of community fails everywhere, because it lies about class.

INTERVIEWER

What’s the connection that you draw in the novel between growing up a white boy in the city and getting into indie rock?

LETHEM

The fearfulness with which white public-school kids in the mid-seventies, the disco seventies, clung to the possibility of punk identity. There’s a scene in Fortress of Solitude where Gabe is confronted on the street for wearing a black leather jacket that comes out of real experience. When I tell people I used to go to CBGB’s in the mid-seventies, they think I’m talking about some halcyon thing. What I mean is there was this panicked little bar where they would let the dorks come in and order a beer when you were fifteen years old. We cowered there, in a city we didn’t understand.

 INTERVIEWER

Was the graffiti stuff part of your childhood?

LETHEM

More a part of my brother Blake’s. He became an important graffiti artist, one remembered in the various histories for the tag KEO. More important than any of the characters in my book. In researching the backdrop of the book, I relied on Blake for both historical and folkloric accounts of the “underground” New York of the seventies. In fact, he’s a graphic designer now, still rendering a similar font on more legal surfaces.

INTERVIEWER

And your sister’s a photographer. You come from a family of visual artists, and you trained as one in high school. Do the visual arts influence your writing process?

LETHEM

My process is dull. It’s as plodding and pedantic as Abraham’s film, painted one frame at a time. I’m a tortoise, waking each day to plod out my page or two. I try never to miss a morning, when I’m working on a novel. There are no other rules, no word counts or pencil sharpenings or candlelit pentagrams on the floor. Growing up with my father’s art-making in the house, the creative act was demystified, usefully. As a result, I see writing as an inevitable and ordinary way to spend one’s hours.

INTERVIEWER

You’re gregarious with other writers. Does anyone read your early drafts?

LETHEM

The opposite: I’m gregarious with writers and never with manuscripts. I’m a very private writer, actually. I don’t like to emerge from my room with anything short of a polished book. To create the illusion of seamless perfection, so I alone know the flawed and homely process along the way. I try never to show my editor, the generous and hugely patient Bill Thomas, chapters or halves. Instead I do my best to deliver a completed book, a tour de fait accompli.

INTERVIEWER

You work on a computer. Do early drafts get printed out and archived?

LETHEM

No, I never print anything out, only endlessly manipulate the words on the screen, carving fiction in ether. I enjoy keeping the book amorphous and fluid until the last possible moment. There’s no paper trail, I destroy the traces of revision by overwriting the same disk every day when I back up my work. In that sense, it occurs to me now, I’m more like the painter I trained to be—my early sketching is buried beneath the finished layer of oil and varnish.

INTERVIEWER

I find it ironic that you talk on the one hand about an “illusion of seamless perfection,” while on the other you’re so eager to discuss the patchwork of influences on the books.

LETHEM

But that talk dissipates around the writing of Girl in Landscape, never to return. You’ve drawn me back into that mode because we’ve been casting back over those earlier books, which are, undeniably, pastiches. But there’s one thing I ought to clarify. When we talk about those first three books, it’s important to understand that those were all conceived—and nearly all completed—before I’d published anything.

That is to say that my first real book is Girl in Landscape. That’s the first conceived after I was a published writer, the first not written by a gifted, and giddy, amateur. The first that grows organically from character and voice, embodied in dramatic situations, rather than from cognition and concept. I was a very late bloomer in some senses. It was only with Girl that I began to trust my emotional instincts—which now seem to me the only impulses worth honoring in my writing. Girl seems to me the real beginning of the writer I’m so happy to be now.

INTERVIEWER

As opposed to the writer you . . .

LETHEM

As opposed to the writer I wanted to be when I wanted to be so many different writers all at once.