Over the course of the 30 years since his first published short story in Pulphouse magazine, Jonathan Lethem has forged a unique place in fiction. He has been a blender of genres since his earliest short stories in sci-fi/fantasy magazines like Asimov’s Science Fiction and Interzone, to name just two. His first novel, 1994’s Gun, with Occasional Music, was a deliberate mashup of Raymond Chandler and his beloved Philip K. Dick. But it wasn’t until the end of the millennium that he gained more mainstream acceptance in the literary world with his detective novel Motherless Brooklyn… soon to be a Hollywood movie starring, directed, written by and produced by Edward Norton. His other most famous novel is the sprawling The Fortress of Solitude.
He has also since the very beginning been an avid appreciator of others’ work, with a love of Philip K. Dick, Bob Dylan, The Go-Betweens and Robert Sheckley, to name just a few from a list of many. He has even written entire books on John Carpenter’s anarchist masterpiece They Live and the best Talking Heads album, Fear of Music. Lethem has also written many essays for Criterion Collection releases such as The Magnificent Ambersons, The Killers and Unfaithfully Yours. His latest novel, The Feral Detective, is a Trump-era detective fable about desert gangs, told through the eyes of Phoebe, a former New York Times writer who quits her job after the election. He is also a professor of Creative Writing at Pomona College, a position once held by David Foster Wallace.
I called up Lethem at his office to chat about a bit of everything, including his friendship with Bret Easton Ellis, the latest novel, the Motherless Brooklyn adaptation process, kiwi pop and a lot of Dick.
I’ve heard that a piece in Esquire about you, Bret Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt and your experiences at Bennington is about to be unleashed on the world. What did your time at that college do for you?
I’ve written about this here and there, but if I were to put it simply, I accidentally pulled myself out of a bohemian egalitarian leftist dream that my parents were having, that the reality that had exemplified coming of age in the ‘60s as artists and activists was going to prevail in the world. I was heading off to college just around the time of the Reagan blowback against the counterculture. I massively doubled down on this by shifting from going to public schools in New York City to this very expensive private college, where there was this air of decadence, and art careers being manufactured at the high level of influence and nepotism. I was violently disenchanted, and much of my subsequent life, and of course dropping out of that college and running away from it, has been organised around that sense of the rupture of my naiveté of that moment. That’s one story.
The other story, which is really equally true and they just don’t reconcile or co-exist, is that place was really interesting and rich. I met a lot of remarkable people, both instructors and other students. I made friends including in a kind of uneasy way with both Bret and Donna, they were both extremely talented, massively stimulating, challenging people for me to know. Bret and Donna and loads of others who went onto famous art careers of different kinds, and people who didn’t. All of this changed me despite myself—in a way I was trying to reject that place before it could have any influence. Instead, even though I ran away after three semesters, it was a kind of home for my fledging ambition and curiosity, and I learned a tremendous amount and made connections and gained awareness of things, parts of life, ways of being that have determined a lot of what happened subsequently. It was a giant encounter, even though it cut into two very different directions.
What did you think of Bret’s interview the other week in the New Yorker?
I haven’t had the chance to read that, what is it all about?
Oh, Trump and if Trump is racist. And of course Trump is a racist.
Yeah, that seems like a pretty short interview, I’ll check it out.
Are you ever going to go on Bret’s podcast?
You know, Bret’s never asked me onto his podcast, but he may be sensing that I’ll be squirrely guest, because I like Bret, I like his fiction and I like him personally. We probably disagree on too many… well, you know, I guess, since he has become just now a political writer and it could be the worst time of all. If we could stick to just talking about Robert Altman movies, I think we would have a great time. I don’t even know how much of my work Bret digs—I know he likes The Fortress of Solitude— and we don’t see a tremendous amount of each other, he’s somebody I bump into through the decades of our interesting sporadic friendship. It’s not like I see him all the time and I’m tugging on his sleeve and saying “when I’m going to be on your podcast?” If the invitation comes, I guess I’ll have to figure out what to do with it, he may just not have been that turned on by the last few of my novels he read, I wouldn’t be surprised if they weren’t his bag.
You have a new book out, The Feral Detective, which is kind of your way of dealing with what happened in November 2016.
It’s really as much me trying to find a way to avoid dealing with it as a proposal for dealing with it. For me, dealing with it meant writing a book about running away and escaping into the desert, into a third American space. One of the big points about that book is that for a lot of those characters, it doesn’t matter who’s president, and that was a gratifying space to indulge myself in. And in the act of writing the book about it, running off to it myself. It’s not really a prescription book politically, if you want to look at a slightly more X-ray of the world of money and real estate and skulduggery that gave rise to that “particular person,” I think I was doing it in advance in a book called Chronic City. Feral Detective is more just about the eternal state of disarrangement and madness that is represented on the far edge of the American frontier psyche, which I guess… has to deal with our current situation too [laughs] and probably does.
So the first major adaptation [Motherless Brooklyn] of one your books is about to come out. How does it feel to get this film finally made? It’s been in the works forever, and the fact it has taken so long…does that make it feel more removed from your book and more Ed Norton’s film in the end? Can you watch it more as a viewer than the writer of the book?
I think it was always destined to be Ed’s film, even if he did it very quickly. He optioned the book in galleys before it was even published, and his intentions were so clear, so manifest from the very first moment, that he had a different vision of what he wanted to do. It was very much his—he was going to write and direct it, and wasn’t looking for or invited to be a collaborator, which suited me beautifully. The first day we talked it was an “After you, my dear Alphonse” kind of situation. He said “This is what I want to do and I hope it’s OK,” and I was “please take the book away, just make a film of your own. I like that better and I’m not a screenwriter.” And we were happy with that. He had this idea of shifting the time period of the book, changing a lot of emphasis in the story, but keeping essentially the main character and his immediate gang of accomplices, “the Minna Men.” Lionel Essrog is in both stories, and his sort of father figure Frank Minna is in both stories, and the sidekicks, but the rest of it is completely different and completely his own. It is really time that has separated the two things, but Edward’s artistic path separated the two things more so, and did so right away.
Have you ever been approached to write a screenplay?
I say I’m not a screenwriter and I really mean it, I’m not good at it nor so I enjoy it. To be certain of those things in a long writing career, I have been beguiled a couple of times off my vow to never do such a thing, I have dabbled in very small degrees. I have done each of the different things you can do, and ended up pretty sure that I was better at writing novels, and the world wasn’t going to be denied any masterpieces if I just said “no thank you.” I once adapted one of my own books, I once wrote a spec script, I once did a dialogue polish on somebody else’s screenplay, and I once wrote a whole sequence of treatments and drafts of a pilot for a high-quality cable television show. The key word in that litany I gave you is “once.” I didn’t feel like I was acing the test, nor did I feel so much pleasure in the creation of those, while I take a lot of pleasure in writing novels. I’m lucky that way, so it’s really pointless for me to go from something so fulfilling into something that doesn’t click for me. I’m a huge film fan, and that’s a good position to be in, because I get to go to the movies all the time. And I don’t envy Edward or anybody else who wants to fulfil their creative impulse in that industry, it would torment me—I’m not good at that kind of negotiation, or taking notes from people in the way that is typical of that process, or relying on financial people or lots of technicians. I get to do it all between me and the alphabet, I sit and I fiddle with the alphabet every day and no one can stop me. And that’s a very good arrangement for me.
Have reviews ever upset you, or do you even take notice after a while?
You know, they start to all blend together, including the most devilishly ingeniously savage attacks—you get a few of those, and they start to look the same too [laughs]. If they can bother you, it’s a matter of managing your attention and realising what really matters. I write really strange books, and they’re not for everyone. But they are published very prominently, so I’m going to get into the situation where some people say: “What is this shit?” [laughs]. “Why is this in front of me?” And that’s OK… it means I’m alive. Finally, that’s how I feel on the days when I get the most uncomprehending and hostile reactions—I sure did publish a book, didn’t I? I would be pretending if I said I’m oblivious to these things, but on the great majority of days I have wonderfully many other things to think about, and that’s just my good fortune. One tries to keep one’s good fortune in mind. To have this job at all is a blessing.
Do you think reviews and formal criticism have a place in this world we now live in?
Yes, they are crucial, but in the current world they are in weird disrepute, because are getting sort of drowned in Yelp reviews and Amazon reviews, thumbs up and thumbs down, and average number of stars. One really interesting thing is that just about every book ever published ends up eventually with 3 and a half stars [laughs]. It’s some kind of psychological dynamic where attackers and defenders wear each other down, and when it’s at 3 and a half stars everybody gets tired and moves on to the next thing. Real thinking about books… it’s how I’ve spent my whole life, how could I disqualify the role of the critic? I was a angry young reader myself, with all kinds of exciting hostilities, and very focused on what was overrated and what was underrated. And it matters, and it should matter, it’s wonderful. The thing I like best, and it’s is true in a number of ways, is to try to break the hold of a consumerist temporal horizon on what is new and what is about what is new. I like to think about old books, out of print books, and rediscover books, and reread books, and shop in used book stores. In terms about writing about books, criticism for me is often most alive when it breaks this spell of novelty and the idea that it is a day of release, and everyone has to have a take, and every take is “hot” and competing, and is most tweeted or most linked-to. What I love most is when someone troubles to pick up one of my books five or 10 years after it was written, and think about it then. That’s the writing about books that I’m more and more inclined to do myself. It’s incredibly generous when someone, when things exist after that date-of-sale fuss dies down. I don’t remember who it was, but somebody said: “Never read a new book, because you can’t think straight about it.” Between what’s being claimed about it and the claims against it, and your own anxiety about where your response will fit with this clamour, there is no chance of reading a book well or enjoying it. I read older books because it’s more fun to be off alone with them to a certain extent.
I’m the same, I rarely review new films. Sure I do sometimes, but in the scheme of 15 in a month, maybe three are “new” films.
I think it’s true in film writing as well: the deepest film writing for me is in reconsidering whole careers, or looking at films that have been sitting with us for a while, and that’s usually what excites me best.
I know there’s a whole thread about communal living in the new book. Did your early experiences play into that part of the book?
I’ve had a long sequence of books that muse in some ways on the idea of community. In Motherless Brooklyn, this community of these five men, the orphans, and the guy who turns them into “the Minna Men,” or the street life in The Fortress of Solitude, and I write again and again about constructed communities or temporary communities or families – provisional families made up of related people. This interests me a lot, and communal living or tribes or Utopian attempts of living differently is deep in my psyche and my experience. I have a kind of rich ambivalence about it. I’m drawn to it and I’m also terrified of the pitfalls, the delusions that come in small, clannish gatherings of people. The Feral Detective plays at this again in a different way, some of it is mixed up with my rich ambivalence about a specific generation of Utopians, the hippies and the communes that I grew up in when I was a kid. I still am quibbling with them. And on another plane, it’s a dream that is very alive for me, and I felt the same about it when the Occupy movement busted out. I thought: “Oh, this appetite for change, for utopia and transformation, is so much a part of me.” That’s when I realised I was connected more than I allowed myself to describe or even feel to the American Communist movement, which was so roundly humiliated in the middle of the 20th century, and yet it was this kind of idea something alive, this hunger for a new world. You know, it’s very American actually, the United States itself was made of Utopian fantasies and transformation, and often specific localities were created by eccentric tribes and clans and communes. Much of this history has been unwritten, it was a lot of how the United States was settled, by Utopian experimental communal gangs or movements.
Whatever happened to the film rights for Gun, With Occasional Music?
It was the first indication of this strange magnetism that causes my books to be optioned and developed without being made. It’s actually in its fourth deal. It has a completely new life. That’s very recent, and people are trying again.
Is that a movie or a TV series? Even though the line between those is very thin at this point.
It’s being developed as a quality television show, and that seems like a possibly wonderful idea, but of course, having had many books developed so many different times and then dropped, I’ve become pleasantly sceptical. it’s like: “this is fun, and I’m interested in what you’re talking about, and I’ve happy to collect the money,” it’s kept me writing over again and again, these options that lead nowhere. I have a hard time believing anything is real, even the Motherless Brooklyn film, which exists now, still seems improbable to me. I don’t think I totally believe in its reality. I’ve benefitted enormously from this fun involvement with the failed projects, I’ve made a lot of great friends, among other things.
Whatever happened to that Cronenberg film of As She Climbed Across the Table?
That was a great near miss, and that would’ve been something I would’ve really cherished, because I think he is a genius, a supreme talent, and one of my favourite American—North American— Anglophone filmmakers, and really important to me. The screenwriter was also someone who I’ve become friends with and whose work matters to me, Bruce Wagner, the novelist and director and screenwriter, he is a very interesting novelist. I only have a guess as to what went wrong there, I wasn’t a part as with Edward Norton, I was just a happy bystander. When it seemed like a Cronenberg film written by Bruce Wagner was going to be made from one of my books, I was ecstatic. And when it fell apart, it was mysterious to me, because I know Cronenberg liked Wagner’s script very much, and they seemed to have a good financial structure, as far I could judge it. They seemed to be in position to make it happen, so some producer or executive or movie studio decided it was not to be, and at the time it was a very great disappointment.
I know you’re a big Flying Nun fan. So, how did you discover that label and it’s many bands?
Such a sustaining life force, such an exhaustible resource—they never stop! I was a indie rock 20-something listening to college radio when I was a bookstore clerk in Berkeley in the ‘80s. I was listening to KALX, and I guess it started with somebody putting on a… god knows, a Chills record. There was somebody in the bookshop where I worked who also had some records, and we would play the records while we worked. He was really into the Go-Betweens, and that was the first time I conceived of the whole “Down Under” scene. And there was this Jean-Paul Sartre Experience… and I just liked it and never stopped. I got to see The Verlaines, The Go-Betweens and The Chills play in Berkeley in a small club early on, and Chris Know and his solo records got heavy airplay on KALX at some point— “Not Taken Lightly,” that song. Later on I expanded my sense of what it was and how many people were associated with this one record label— you know, The Bats, The Clean— and it’s never let me down.
I once saw The Clean play before The Fall at Pavement’s ATP
That’s great—and there’s another Bennington College connection, because I was at college with Brix.
What did you think of Ian McEwan’s disgust at his new book being considered “Science Fiction”?
Hadn’t heard about the McEwan flap. I’ll have to go check it out. But there’s a tradition there, right? Atwood, Ishiguro, etc. A pretty standard moment: status anxiety, I guess.
What are a couple of good science fiction books to help us get through the upcoming US election?
I’m pretty old school at this point— I rely on the books that got me through the Reagan era. Read Philip K. Dick – The Penultimate Truth, Time Out of Joint. This is world we are living in, he intuited the entire situation.
What films have you seen and liked recently, new or old?
That’s a good question. I haven’t been seeing a ton of new films. I’m going to pull my own cranky old man, persistence of old stuff thing. Most recently I just rewatched Barbara Loden’s Wanda, and that blew me away again. What have I seen new in the theatre that mattered to me, there was an Icelandic film, Woman at War. It’s about an environmental activist who takes on the local aluminium factory, and it was good. It came out of nowhere—somebody just said “go see this.” I’m lucky, I have a movie theatre in town that reserves one screen for foreign films, they come and go very quickly.
I assume you liked Sorry to Bother You.
Yes, I liked that very much, and of course I’m overlooking the fact that I just saw US, which was very good.
What do you think is biggest hurdle for adapting Philip K. Dick’s novels for the screen?
The funny thing about Philip K. Dick is he has too many ideas, so that’s why the keep making films out of just the short stories, because it’s sort of one idea. That’s what a Hollywood film can handle. But the biggest hurdle is the same thing that stops other kinds of unusual films from getting made. Michel Gondry was very committed to making UBIK at some point, and that’s a possible masterpiece because of the fit of the sensibility, if you gave him the freedom to really make it. The resources were probably on a very short string. The real problem in making Philip K. Dick’s great books into great films is that they had too big of a success with some of the commercial ones, like Minority Report and Total Recall. The producers think they have to turn his things into summer tent-poles, so they have to be dumbed down. They have to be redemptive or have a simple moral theme. So if those films hadn’t existed, you could maybe make a David Cronenberg or Gondry type film out of Philip K. Dick’s major works. I think the agents, the copyright owners, and maybe even the family themselves, and the producers see his work now only in terms of “how big could it be,” and that’s totally failed. The film experience that is by far the most like reading a prime Philip K. Dick novel is Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, he had the genius idea of doing like an unauthorized Philip K. Dick adaptation. He didn’t go to the estate and option one of the books, he just made up his own Philip K. Dick novel that’s fulfilling. And if you want to know what UBIK would feel like… it would feel like eXistenZ. Maybe that’s enough.
And finally, I know you have constantly cited Alice in Wonderland as the first book you fell in love with. Do you have a preferred set of illustrations?
I’m totally traditionalist on that: the Tenniel illustrations seem integral. He was Carroll’s collaborator, they worked together, and I adore those. They had deep, deep power over me as a child. From the first moment I ever saw a alternative proposed, some other illustrator doing Alice, a part of me just objected. It could be interesting—for example, I find Ralph Steadman’s illustrations completely fascinating—but they’re not right. The Tenniel is right, and that’s just how it is for me. I like the Steadman Hunting of the Snark, because there is no Tenniel illustration for that work. I’ve never seen it looking the way I wanted it to, so there I could embrace the Steadman alternative much more easily.
Finally, what are you working on now?
Oh, I’ve got a book about half done called The Arrest, and it’s a sort of low-tech, Luddite kind of future rural post-collapse book set in Maine.