Novelist, Essayist, Grown-up
JONATHAN LETHEM’S 1994 book Gun, With Occasional Music captured a Nebula Award from the sci-fi magazine Locus for best first novel. It took four more genre-jumping books—science fiction, detective, Western, and campus novel—before Lethem found a broader readership with Motherless Brooklyn, which won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award. It tells the gritty story of a young Tourette’s-suffering orphan-cum- detective in search of his mentor’s murderer.
Lethem moved back to Brooklyn in 1996 after a long stint in California, eventually settling down in his childhood neighborhood of Boerum Hill—the setting for his semi-autobiographical 2003 novel Fortress of Solitude. The book chronicles the racial and familial tensions—as well as the musical and material culture—that suffuse the life of a boy growing up on a gentrifying Dean Street in the late 1970s.
On the heels of his second short-story collection, 2004’s Men and Cartoons, a volume of essays, The Disappointment Artist, is due out in March. Lethem, 41, is now at work on a novel he jokingly calls his “stab at chick-lit.” Lethem spoke with The Inquirer from his home-away-from-Brooklyn in Maine.
Your name has become somewhat synonymous with “the Brooklyn writer,” even though most of your novels are set far from the streets of Boerum Hill.
When people identify me with the place, it’s not really Brooklyn as a whole, because it’s much too big to encompass in any description or even in any novel. But Boerum Hill, Gowanus, South Brooklyn—when I get credit for somehow epitomizing this little area in the world, I’m immensely proud. I am very much a product of that part of Brooklyn so it feels to me like a pretty natural expression of talking about where I came from and who I am.
A few years ago you wrote an introduction for one of Paula Fox’s novels. Which other Brooklyn writers do you count among your favorites?
Growing up I read Norman Mailer and Henry Miller very avidly. I strongly identified with the stories of Miller being a Brooklyn street kid. More recently, there are writers like Paul Auster, who I admire enormously, who work in a way that is strongly connected to the place. And there are others who happen to be neighbors who are terrific writers. Paula is almost unique in the way that she depicts the Brooklyn I knew growing up so intimately that I feel like there are times when I’m reading her work that I myself am just sprung from her pages. The one other person I should mention in that regard is another writer from Dean Street named L.J. Davis, whose novels are out of print now, but who wrote fantastic, dark parables of the early gentrification of Boerum Hill that I would read when I was growing up. I also knew him; he lived a couple of blocks away.
You, like many writers, politicked on behalf of Kerry. Do you think writers make effective political advocates?
The quick answer’s probably no, for me anyway. My writing act—which is so immensely private and inward, and even perverse in some ways—it certainly has a kind of ahistorical, secretive, imaginative center that doesn’t relate to the world of the immediate necessities that make up the political world. When I speak politically myself, it’s very much not as a writer. The fact that I might, in effect, borrow a little bit of my writerly authority and lend it to this cause is just a happy opportunity.
You delve into coming-of-age themes in several of your novels. I understand that your 41st birthday is on the horizon—
So you’re wondering when I’m going to grow up?
Do you plan to write about less youthful figures?
Actually, in the book I’ve started just now, I’m trying to overthrow a lot of my tendencies for a number of reasons. Fortress of Solitude was kind of a watershed book for me in terms of writing about childhood and writing about Brooklyn. My instinct was that I ought to give it a little rest and find some other territory to work for a while, and so I’m writing a book about 30-somethings living in Los Angeles. No parents, no children, no Brooklyn for the time being.
Stylistically, what sort of threads are you following?
I like the way you put the question. Between the two Brooklyn novels and the collection of stories, and a collection of essays that’s coming out in March, I’ve been working so much with memory material. I wanted to get away from that part of my writing self for a while and instead focus on the storyteller and the improviser. So the book is a playful one. I’m trying to tell a romantic-comic tale without any dutiful overtones. In this case, my main character is a single woman, and I’ve been joking with myself that I’m finally taking a stab at chick-lit.
Erica Brody is a contributing editor at the Forward and a frequent contributor to ARTNews.