an interview with jonathan lethem    

photo of jonathan lethem

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Larry Weissman: A recent article in the New York Times on John Wayne and a movement of "young Americanists" talked about Girl in Landscape as the classic American story, re-enacted on another planet. What were you hoping to convey with this novel?

Jonathan Lethem: Well, I was very flattered by that Times piece, but I think if I'd consciously set out to extend or participate in or retell the classic American story I probably never would have written a word. The novel came out of my very personal obsession with John Ford's The Searchers, and I guess I'd credit that film with being some kind of paradigmatic American story--but as a novelist my involvement is with the tangible particulars--the way John Wayne moves his hands, the way a young girl looks at him with both fondness and horror--and I try to forget about larger, more abstract meanings. If they come in through the back door then I'm lucky--it means I've picked well, and my work might resound with bigger stuff.

LW: Girl in Landscape is your darkest novel yet. How does it relate to your feelings about the current state of the world, and does this darkness have anything to do with your move last year from California to New York?

JL: No, the opposite. Girl was conceived and partly written in California, and it's completely bound up in the darkness of the West that I glimpsed out there. That we've-reached-the-edge-of-the-world thing. It's very hard for a book to reflect one's feelings about the current state of the world, of course, because they're written slowly and then delayed further in the publication process--so Girl might be more an insight into my feelings two years ago, when I was exploring childhood feelings that had been deferred, that hadn't gotten into my first few books. In fact, my return to NY is resulting in a new book that is in some ways Girl in Landscape's opposite--giddy and word-drunk and sweet. Like a book written by an Archbuilder.

LW: Your writing creates these surrealistic landscapes, yet you succeed in making them completely plausible for the reader. How do you go about inventing a new world for your reader and making it believable?

JL: Well, thanks. I don't know that I can explain the effect you're describing, except to say that it's often a case of less is more--I do my best not to explain the odd elements, to instead let them creep into view almost subliminally, so that they have the appearance of real life--which is never explained in books, is it? This isn't exactly a technique I invented--the offhand presentation of the surreal goes back at least to Lewis Carroll--but perhaps I've succeeded in giving it my own flavor.

LW: Which of your novels do you like best, and why?

JL: Right now I'm in love with Girl in Landscape, and not just because it's the newest. It seems to me my first true novel, really, in that everything in the book is completely an organic outgrowth of the characters and settings, and the progress of the plot emerges from the characters' emotions and responses. It's felt all the way through. Whereas my first three books were conceit-driven--the characters were always at the mercy of the some clever overarching design.

LW: You have studied art and appear to be somewhat of a film buff. What attracts you to the novel as an artistic medium?

JL: I was raised by an artist, a painter, and brought up with the expectation that I would paint. At the same time my family was terribly literate, and I had a childhood soaked in books. These weren't things I questioned--they surrounded me. And I never really saw a strict division between those interests, those impulses. My parents were filmgoers too. Film is an irresistible narrative force, and as a writer you can only turn your back on it completely, or do the opposite, allow it to wash over you, influence you, and then engage in a conversation with it, which is what I've done--most literally in the new book, of course. I've also fooled around with music, with mixed results. But the point is I'm keen on the arts in general (doesn't that sound bland!) and I guess I like cross-fertilizations between them, just as I do between genres.

Oh, but you asked what attracts me to the novel. Well, it's really the biggest, smartest, most encompassing medium, I think--you can describe a film, a symphony, a play, or for that matter a philosophy, a war, or the wholeWorld Series in a novel, and it's still a novel--and at the same time it's completely under one's sole command--no cast, no crew, no paints, no unwieldy canvases or chunks of marble. That paradoxical hugeness and economy is perfect for me. I'm an absolute dictator, unable to delegate, so to have someone screw up my special effects or give a rotten performance in a film or hit a flat note in my symphony or whatever would make me scream. I'm sparing others by writing novels instead.

LW: You are a young writer who has already received an enormous amount of critical acclaim. What challenges are you looking forward to? How would you like to grow as a writer?

JL: Challenges? Well, really just to keep doing what I'm doing is challenge enough. The world has called my bluff in the most spectacular way--I claimed to have all these novels in me and at the moment the world seems interested, interested enough anyway that I'll get to keep on with it, get to find out what I meant by my own claim. That's exciting, and sometimes daunting. As for growth, I'd really like to expand on what I think, I hope, I've begun in Girl, and that is to make the books realer, more possessed by emotional truth. I want to learn to write books so undeniable and rich that the impulse to categorize them falls away, that the questions of genre that I've tended to raise up to this point become really moot, no matter what sort of surrealist or generic moves I've indulged. I want to write absolute books, one-of-a-kind books.

LW: What have you seen or read recently that has moved you most?

JL: I'm going to sound like a company shill here, but two of the most memorable books of the past few months for me I read in galleys--Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist and Aimee Bender's story collection Girl With Flammable Hair. But so often I'm finding older things that move me enormously--I've been obsessed with reading Dawn Powell lately. Oh, and I just reread A Passage to India. Forster is unbelievably good, I had to keep putting it down and groaning. Forget the film, read the book. Rereading is underrated. I also just saw Orson Welles' Touch of Evil again, and that's as inspiring as art gets. Every frame, every line of dialogue just sings.

LW: What are you currently working on?

JL: It's too soon to say much about it, but the novel in progress is sort of a crime novel. It's set in Brooklyn, mostly. The voice is very, um, agitated. And a bit goofy. It's sort of a voice book, the way As She Climbed Across the Table was. And there's hamburgers in it, White Castle hamburgers.
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