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interview    
 
jonathan lethem
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photograph   I think that Jonathan's a very interesting writer because he pays homage to classical and contemporary pop culture influences, but not in a way that's cheap and easy. He doesn't just drop brand names into his prose," says Thomas, explaining his interest in the young author.

Lethem's third novel, As She Climbed Across the Table, is a strange and dazzling love story and is unlike any other you are likely to have read. "I think this new novel represents a great leap for him, both in terms of his technique, and in terms of realization of a novel, a fully realized novel," declares Thomas. "It reminds me aesthetically of one of my favorite pieces of music, John Coltrane's My Favorite Things. Coltrane takes a standard pop song, a rather banal pop song, and expands and plays with it, still maintaining faithfulness to the melody, but through his own genius makes it a singular piece of work."

"I think Jonathan achieves the same thing with several influences in As She Climbed Across the Table, most prominently and obviously Alice in Wonderland." When asked if the new novel can be described as an updated version of Alice in Wonderland, Thomas is emphatic: "That would be unfair to both Jonathan and to Carroll's book. But he does manage to play with a work which is central to people's imaginations, and not in any way diminish it."

This is a novel that can be read and enjoyed on many levels. "It can be considered an academic satire. There are references to Beckett, Foucault, and Derrida," Thomas continues. "But he twists these references, shapes them and fits them into the narrative in such a way that they do not seem odd or fractured or pretentious in any way. While there are these rather complicated aesthetic maneuvers which make us think about our own cultural identity, he also manages to tell a luminous love story."

When asked where Lethem fits in the realm of contemporary fiction, Thomas is initially reluctant to answer. "Well, I guess if one has to pick a school or a movement, which is always a dicey proposition, David Foster Wallace, Katherine Dunn ... Geek Love is certainly one of the books that influenced him, and another, that rather explicitly did, is White Noise, by Don DeLillo."

Thomas explains the similarities by pointing out the tendency for these authors to distort reality in an effort to hold up a mirror to contemporary society. "There's an element of the fantastic in all his novels, as there are in those writers. And yet he's not using the fantastic in a pulp way, in a solid science-fiction way. He's using it to bend and twist contemporary American culture." Wary of describing the author in terms of any existing genre, Thomas came up with a new one. "There isn't really any word for it, but we've been calling it American Magic Realism, as an attempt to guide the reader into understanding what kind of fiction it is, to distinguish it from the mass of boring, domestic realistic fiction out there."

Lethem has received an extraordinary amount of critical acclaim for such a young author, but his editor is not worried about its effects. "I think it can be a burden to many writers. I think you see a second novel syndrome where initial success somehow messes up their ability to communicate with the real world and translate that experience into a work of art," he explains. "In Jonathan's case, he's an extremely level-headed, self-aware individual. While he certainly enjoys the critical acclaim, and he is grateful to have received it, as a professional he understands the dangers. I would think that what is important for Jonathan is that he write according to his muse, and let the audience come to him."

Pressed for an example of what excites him about the novel, Thomas replies, "I think that my favorite part is towards the end of the book. Philip, who is the protaganist, has a conversation with an Italian physicist that is about love and the search for knowledge and the nature of the universe, and is at the same time hilarious in an arch and wise way, and heartbreaking because Philip is going through a crisis of the soul. And the Italian physicist, who has been really a peripheral character, becomes for me rather a voice of wisdom."

When asked to dispel some of the misperceptions people have of writers, Thomas is solemn. "A lot of people don't consider, if you want to be a writer, a real artist, someone who writes well enough and successfully enough to make a living at it, that it's work," he says. "It is not God throwing a thunderbolt at your typewriter. It's hard, arduous, mistake-filled, circular, difficult work. One has to assimilate that fact to become successful."

"One thing a lot of really gifted writers share, is that they're professional about what they want to do with their work," explains Thomas. "There's a mysterious element to the creation, but once you get down to the text Jonathan is extremely aware of what he wants to accomplish and how he wants to accomplish it. He's very gifted, not only in an artistic sense, but also as a craftsman."

As many people are not aware of the editor's contribution to the creative process, I asked Thomas to describe his work on As She Climbed Across the Table. "For me one of the most immensely enjoyable experiences is the dialogue about the writer's intentions and its effects. I'll sit down and I'll go through the text and say 'This had this effect on me,' and 'You were trying to achieve this and I'm not sure if you did,' or 'Could you try it this way?' or 'I didn't understand this reference.'" As Thomas describes this process, the pleasure he takes in his job is clearly evident. "It isn't so much that I'm fixing the book at all, what it really is, is involving myself first-hand in the dialogue about what the writer wants to accomplish."

Despite the fact that most businesses are changing at a dizzying pace, the process of discovering a new writer remains painstakingly simple. "You read a lot," says Thomas. "You read immense, immense amounts. You read literary journals, and there are thousands of them; you go to conferences.... Agents are still the most important conduit to editors, especially for fiction. Publishing is still a very verbal, rumor-filled culture. It's fairly informal outside of the agents' submissions."

"I think that people who are drawn to publishing tend to be generalists by nature, to dabble in this and that, to explore interests and enthusiasms," muses Thomas. "The luxury I have in my position is that when I do publish fiction, since I don't do much, it is always a labor of love. I only do those things which I fall in love with, those particular writers whose voices speak to me. And that's the best possible way to publish fiction."

When asked to relate the most satisfying part of being an editor, Thomas thinks for a moment before answering. "Well, two things. One is the actual process of editing, which I find extremely intellectually rewarding and emotionally satisfying. It's a real privilege," he enthuses. "And the second thing is when I get the books from the warehouse. You know, we work for one, two, three, sometimes five years on a book. The amount of work is extraordinary, complicated, and mind-bogglingly varied. Then suddenly, you get this package and you open it up and there's this book, and you can feel it and touch, you have this tactile relationship with an object that you, in some way, have helped create. It's a reward that I think is very rare in the information age, where the final product of work is often abstract.

I asked Thomas his thoughts on contemporary literature, and he pondered the question awhile before answering. "American letters are very vibrant, but the novel itself, I think, is a little sick. A writer should in some ways be a medium between the society in which they live and, through their imagination, some more universal aesthetic vision. Nowadays, because it's very easy to imitate you get a lot of realistic novels that are set in middle-class domestic life, that don't take any chances."

"There are still fabulous novelists being published, several of them every year. David Foster Wallace is one. Infinite Jest--I mean, the fact that Wallace attempted it is wonderful. Every year, there are five or six novels that are incredibly rich and varied and interesting. But I don't think that enough American novelists take risks, and you get this self-perpetuating culture of dull novels. I mean, dull. That worries me."

Thomas goes on to praise some other forms of writing which have recently excited him. "Memoir is a genre in which some fantastically terrific writing has recently been published. And I think there have been some narrative non-fiction books written that are every bit as good as the finest literary novel."

Asked what needs to be done to breathe new life into the novel, Thomas appears unworried. "The free market will take care of it in some sense," he concludes. "A book that lasts is loved, truly loved. That's why it lasts. People read it and they pass it on. They say, 'You have to read this.' And that process continues over and over and over again. To the point where a book becomes a classic. Because it can touch people, because you can sense the great, fierce struggle in the author's soul."


--Larry Weissman
 
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