The “genius” at the dump


Jonahan Lethem, right, with high school students from the Portland area at an event sponsored by Telling Room, a local non-profit dedicated to encouraging Maine's young writers. (photo/Ari Meil)
Jonahan Lethem with high school students at a Telling Room event. (photo/Ari Meil)

A talk with Jonathan Lethem

By Ari Meil

Jonathan Lethem is a part-time Brooklyn, part-time Blue Hill, Maine, writer who just won the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, also known as the “Genius Award.” It’s an award you cannot apply for, and those under consideration for one are not notified unless and until they win it. It’s given to people who are particularly innovative in their field. 

The author of many books, including Motherless BrooklynFortress of Solitude, and his most recent, The Disappointment Artist, Lethem definitely qualifies. He sat down and spoke to us before a recent reading at Space Gallery in Portland. 

The Bollard: What were you doing when you received the call from the MacArthur Foundation?
Lethem: It was idiotically picturesque. We were going to the dump. I was playing phone tag with them, so I knew something was going on, but of course you don’t really let yourself think about it, you keep mental blinders on.

But I’m just waiting for this call, and I’m kind of beside myself, and we’ve already loaded the car with the stinkiest garbage, so I drove to the dump, missed their call at the dump, went to Ellsworth, and we were going through the touchless carwash. The jets were just pounding, just hitting the windshield for the first time, which meant that the three-month-old Jack Russell Terrier that we were taking care of, which was in my arms, is totally freaking out, as though the car was being attacked by aliens.

So I’m holding this squealing puppy and the jets are making it sound like we’re in Niagara, and I’m just shouting to what turns out to be the entire committee of the Foundation on speaker phone: ‘I can’t hear you! I’m in a car wash! Wait, wait, no, don’t hang up!’ That’s how I heard the call.

Writing can be pretty strenuous mentally, so writers do a number of things to ease the pressure. I know a writer who sometimes leaves her coat on when she writes to psyche herself out. You know, she could leave at any moment, it’s no big deal. It takes the pressure off. Do you have any quirks or habits when you write? 
I’d be straining to offer you an eccentricity. I had a lucky cardigan sweater at one point, and until it was in tatters I would sort of ceremonially put it on, at least for a day or two, during the writing of any novel. I think I last wore it for a day or two during Motherless Brooklyn, and I lost it after that. 

But, the truth is, I think I practice a kind of boring-the-muse-into-submission. I’m extremely prosaic and workman-like…. There’s a famous Flaubert quote – see, I’m being the MacArthur Genius now. Let’s see if I can remember it: “Be orderly and bourgeois in your life so that you may be violent and original in your art.” I always loved that, because he made it an if/then proposition, one is in order that you do the other. And I hope I’m violent and original in my art. I am positive that I’m orderly and bourgeois in my life, so I’m at least keeping half of his tenet.

So, do you have a schedule?
Yeah. I try to write everyday. I keep it really simple. I don’t count words or pages or hours on the clock. I just try to be at the task sometime every day. 

And it changes, morning, night?
Yeah, sometimes that means a great solid four-hour session between breakfast and lunch. That’s often the best choice if I can get there, but if I blow it, then maybe I’ll work for an hour before going to bed, or if I’m on the road, for half an hour in a hotel lobby. But I just make sure I’m touching the work all the time. 

The thing that that gains you, apart from just the way pages tend to pile up even if you only work a little bit everyday… is it keeps your unconscious in the game. You know, you don’t lose the thread, and so even if all you added is a sentence or a paragraph, even if all you added was a bad paragraph that later you’ll take out of the book, you still were engaged, you still were kind of communing with it. And that’s what I think is irreplaceable.

You have a very developed sense of place in all of your writing, both fiction and non-fiction. Brooklyn obviously plays an important role in a lot of your work, if not directly, then indirectly. Do you have a sense of Maine’s place in your work?
My own writing in Maine is only just poking its head out. I mean, I do write here, but I haven’t written about Maine really at all, except in Motherless Brooklyn I did almost by accident. I mean, I wasn’t living here then. My father [painter Richard Brown Lethem] already lived here, in Berwick, and I was kind of digging the Maine coast when I would come up, but it was very arbitrary. In fact, it’s one of those weird moments when my art predicted my life. Somehow the book went there before I knew I was so interested. 

But I think I digest place, myself, very, very slowly. I mean, it took me a very long time to even actually write about Brooklyn. I wrote several novels in a more sort of cartoon reality before I could really contend with where I was from. So I don’t know how long it would be before I tried to be incisive or really say something about Maine. Right now I’m just happy to dwell here.

What did you bring to read with you down to Portland?
I’m only spending an overnight, but I did bring, absurdly, two different books with me – which, probably, I’ll be lucky if I open even one of them. I’m re-reading [Italo] Calvino, and reading some of the small number of stories of his that I didn’t devour when I was in my twenties, because I’m trying to write an essay on Calvino for The New York Times.

Which ones?
I brought along Difficult Loves, which is the early, almost World War II era, 1950’s era, short stories. They are sort of all the stories that predate the ones that he’s famous for. And a book of essays called Why Read the Classics?.

Right now, it happens that most of my reading’s got a responsible tinge. One of the things, it seems odd, but when people ask me what’s the MacArthur going to mean to you, it’s gonna mean I’ll be reading what I want to read completely for pleasure for a while. That’s the most tangible thing I know that it’s going to mean for me.

Do you have some contemporaries to recommend to our readers?
Well, I don’t know if they’d be startling choices. There are a lot of contemporaries that I find very exciting, some things just published, like Aimee Bender. Her new story collection [Willful Creatures] is very cool. I’m about halfway through it. And I’m a great Rick Moody fan. I devoured the new novel [The Diviners]. There’s all sorts of people. Do you know Kelly Link’s writing? She’s got a relatively new short story collection that you should check out [Magic for Beginners].

I know that you tend, in your own writing, towards deconstruction, and a bit more experimental writing. Do you have any out-there, bizarre stuff that your average reader isn’t going to topple over?
Well, there are a lot of out-of-fashion, or now slightly outré writers that I cherish, but they are not mostly along highly experimental lines. They are actually more often quite staid novelists, and those are my best-kept-secret writers. I’ve been devouring Barbara Pym and Anita Brookner. I think they are undervalued, underappreciated writers, in America. 

I do have my secret weirdos that I love, too. Like Boris Vian, a French writer. He’s most known for a book that was turned into a famous B movie called I Spit on Your Grave. He’s kind of a French surrealist noir writer, who is terrific. I can’t remember who, but some good small press [Tamtam Books] brought out a bunch of the Boris Vian books in very pretty new press paperbacks. So there is my hipster tip for you.

Great. That’s what I was looking for. So you said that you just finished a novel. What are you working on now?
Yeah, the book I finished is kind of a deliberate confection. After the intensity and breadth of Fortress of Solitude, I wanted to leave that behind in a number of senses. I wanted to leave Brooklyn alone for a while, so this book is set in Los Angeles. I wanted to avoid fathers and sons and memory material, so it’s not set in the ’70s, and there are no parents and children. It’s actually set amongst a group of twenty-something wannabe rock musicians in Los Angeles. It’s kind of a little bit of A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in the early ’90s, not particularly wedded to any reality. It’s a bit of a Comedia Del Arte.
For more on Lethem, check out his Web site at It’s the coolest author site we’ve come across, and it’s filled with strange material that you won’t find anywhere else.

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