In Conversation with Jonathan Lethem about FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE
Q: You're going on an extensive reading tour for FORTRESS. What's it like talking about Brooklyn outside of New York?
A: As a regional writer, which is what I am lately, I'm incredibly lucky: my region is an archetype that the rest of the country, and indeed the world, cares about. Brooklyn's been etched into the cultural consciousness of most readers (and moviegoers), so I don't feel like I meet a lot of resistance in putting the material across elsewhere. And just about everyone I meet claims to have a distant uncle or cousin living in Brooklyn, not that they ever call or visit.
Q: The book is packed with such rich detail: on the prison system, comic books, the music industry. How much research was necessary on these subjects?
A: I did a lot of research, more than I'd ever done for any other book by far. More than I'd ever done in school, in fact-I learned the pleasure of study for the first time these last five years-which is to say, quite late. Of course, much of what I was studying was my own life, the life of my city as I'd known it, the culture which surrounded me like an ocean surrounds a fish and about which I felt so much already, even if I understood very little. I had to go back and live in the '70's again but with a self-consciousness that would enable me to see and to say what Dylan and Mingus couldn't. As for prison, I relied on the testimony of a few close friends with harrowing stories, and then visited a prison myself. As for the music industry, that was mostly a matter of freeing myself to spend many thousands of hours and thousands of dollars wallowing in reissued soul CDs-pure pleasure, in other words.
Q: How much of Dylan's childhood experience mirrors your own?
A: I'm tempted to be flippant and say 'forty percent' and leave it at that. The truth is that the threads of experience, observation, and imagination are so tightly woven that it's impossible for me to comment without unravelling the book, and I wouldn't care to. In some cases the reality of the book-of its characters and situations- became so insistent and persuasive to me that I can no longer recall the reality behind it. It's certainly worth adding, though, that Dylan's experiences reflect many, many other people's beyond my own. And that, paradoxically, my own experience is much wider than Dylan's.
Q: You've called THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE your most personal book by far. Did this make it more difficult to write than your earlier books?
A: The work took on a compulsive quality. It was hugely satisfying to be able, at last, to tell so much more of what I know and feel-and the wide-open structure of THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE was very freeing, compared to the tight organization of my earlier books. I wrote with a sense of enormous risk, but also of enormous satisfaction-both sensations were tangible on any given day of work. I wouldn't call it difficult, but it was emotionally draining at times. Ultimately, I felt I was delving into the very heart of my own concerns, and that was a great way to live for four years. I'd love to feel that way again.
Q: Was there a real Isabel Vendle who coined the name Boerum Hill?
A: A woman named Helen Buckler coined the name of the neighborhood. She lived on my block when I was a kid. But the Isabel Vendle character is sourced in Dickens' Mrs. Havisham, and in characters from Orson Welles film of Booth Tarkington's THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, and in characters from Paula Fox's novels, and in the character Agatha Harkness from Marvel's FANTASTIC FOUR comic book-as much, or more, than she is a portrait of Helen Buckler. My imagination tends to do that, again and again-to color in the outlines of an apparent depiction with a chaotic scribble of outside influences, imagined and real.
Q: The material on graffiti art is fascinating. Do you have personal experience with this?
A: My brother's the great graffiti artist, and I'm indebted to him for so much of the lore that got into FORTRESS. I was barely even a 'toy'-that is to say, I'd be bragging if I claimed to be a dilletante. My brother's tag was KEO (though he did also write 'DOSE' for a while) and he's someone you can look up in the history books, if you care to. He's still at it, though on strictly legal surfaces.
Q: What inspired you to introduce the element of superpowers into the narrative? And why do the powers of the ring change as Dylan and Mingus get older?
A: I guess I wanted to write about what we all want and can never have-the ability to rise above our lives, the ability to see our worlds from an impossibly privileged angle, the ability to rescue other people, or ourselves, from fate, the ability to slip between the seams of the world and disappear, to know what others are doing or saying when we're not present, the ability to change identities. It seems to me that for the purposes of the book I wanted to assert that we're all wishing to be superheroes, yet the kind of powers we'd wish for change utterly as we fall through one disappointment to the next.