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The challenges and joys of writing: an interview with ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ author Jonathan Lethem

By Richard Chachowski
Staff Writer

Jonathan Lethem is seemingly unstoppable. Over the past 30 years, the author has written on subjects ranging from science fiction to the civil rights movement, dystopias to noir, tough-talking kangaroo gangsters to superheroes that exist in the real world today.

(Photo by Anna Moschovakis, courtesy of Jonathan Lethem)

No author has been able to jump from one subject to the next with such seamless ease quite like Lethem, the Roy E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing and of English at Pomona College in California. Lethem has earned such notable honors as a MacArthur Fellowship in 2005, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for his novel, “Motherless Brooklyn,” which was also named the Novel of the Year by “Esquire” and adapted to a feature-length film in 2019.

Lethem spoke with The Signal in a discussion about reading, his influences, writing style and teaching creative writing.

What do you believe is the key to success in the literary world? 

LETHEM: It is such an uncanny and uncontrollable thing that a few people get to publish fiction and have more than a handful of other people who aren’t related to them care about it. It’s not something where you can go into a classroom and say, “I’m going to make this happen for all of you,” because I don’t think I could even make it happen for me twice in a row. I’m very lucky and the circumstances of my devotion and the fact that it was rewarded, it’s not something that I can be like “And here’s the key, here’s what I did” — it’s just not like that. To be in the creative writing classroom, it’s best to change the framework somewhat and look at it in the form of participation rather than a form of transactional becoming, like thinking “I know the professor has got the key, and I’m going to find out what it is.” 

Participation is something that extends from the life of the reader. If you’re not there in that space because you love reading, then you’ve misunderstood something and you should reconsider. So, what you’re doing is deepening your relationship to the world of writing by trying to connect to it actively, to take your reading to a new place and say, “What would it be like to make stories like this? What would it be like to do it all the time?” and at least for four months of the semester, trying to see what that’s like. “Is this for me? Is this interesting? Can I make other people care that I’m trying to do it?” Experimenting with that and experiencing it, embodying this participation. And also asking yourself, “Oh, and what’s it like to see someone else trying?” Because that’s the great thing about that classroom, is it’s mutuality. 

I know it’s very typical for people to want to come to their mentors or their professors or their elders and receive the beacon — like “Hand me down that torch so I can use it now.” But I also think people learn a tremendous amount, more than they even expect to, from their peers, from being around other people who are trying the same activity, and from working on one another’s stories. It’s why I believe in the workshop as a scene, as an encounter, is that it’s not just about the professor handing down a key, but it’s about this really eerie and interesting experience when people are simultaneously trying to write short stories or parts of a novel in their early apprenticeship connect with one another and see how they’re mutually discovering methods and approaches and how different their ideas about reading and about writing might be. It’s really illuminating to be exposed to other people who are finding a voice for something that we mostly don’t have to talk about, like why we love the books we love. You’re not called on to figure it out, like asking “What’s it doing? Why is that page exciting to me?” while you’re reading. That’s a hard thing to talk about effectively, so above all, it’s a conversation and a participation.

Do you outline or pre-plan at all when it comes to writing?

LETHEM: I’m a great believer in discovery. For me, that’s the principle description I would give it. Improvisation sounds like something actors do on stage. For me, setting out on a writing project, what I have are intuitions about what I might mean and usually a few really charged set pieces or situations or images or characters that already mean something to me, but I don’t know what it is. But I’m interested in them, and I want to explore them and discover their meaning and unpack it. Not knowing everything is good, because that’s what life is like and that’s what your characters are going to undergo, trying to figure out what the situations they’re in mean, so I’m exploring it in a kind of a day to day uncovering — I want to tell this story, I think it’s funny and interesting to have a guy who has Tourette’s syndrome end up going to a Zen Buddhist retreat, but what am I getting at? What’s this scene going to do? What does it imply? What next scene does it make necessary? 

I really love that sensation of discovering. Sometimes I’ll be in a portion of the planning of my work where I have to do a certain amount of notetaking — like I’ve got a bunch of ideas in my head and I don’t want to forget them, or I can’t quite figure out which scene should go before another one, so I’ll do a little bit of mapping or organizing. I wouldn’t call it outlining, because outlining sounds like an overall project and I mostly try to avoid that. But I do local problem-solving in notes and sometimes visual diagrams, just putting things in order. 

For the book I’m doing right now, I have a lot of note cards with different scenes on them because I had to think about which scenic moments came before others and it seemed like they were modular, so I wanted to be able to move them around. So, you know, there’s some planning work, but the fundamental experience I have is everyday going to know and enjoy that I’ll be uncovering something I can only figure out by writing it out.

How do you balance teaching with writing? 

LETHEM: I’ve sometimes reserved or tried to time it so that the starting of a major project comes around mid-summer or when I’m on a sabbatical, and I’ve done that again with this big project I’m working on right now. It’s just good if you have some time set aside to work on it. But I like to write no matter what, and that’s very important to me. So, I’m doing it during the school year. Sometimes, it’s exhausting or stressful trying to keep a project alive at certain points during the teaching semester where things are culminating, or I’m doing extra work or there’s a lot of meetings, but I really favor continuity. 

I’m not that fast of a writer, really, but I believe in producing a number of works. For me, it’s not about having one great novel. I believe in “the shelf.” Most of the writers I like, their different works speak to each other, and I think that comes somewhat from my experience as a visual artist and growing up in that world. I think of it like pictures in a gallery — I think there should be a number of them because they create meaning cumulatively. So I want there to be a lot of books. I’m not a speed demon; it’s about being the tortoise, not the hare. I have to have a little bit of writing time every day and keep adding to the project to make it accumulate.

Do you have any favorite writing exercises or activities that you or your students particularly enjoy?

LETHEM: Yeah, I have all sorts of tricks that I lay out at different points in a semester. I pretty much always talk to them about this idea I have about causality. The two elements in fiction that really make stories catalyze and turn into something are juxtaposition and causality. Putting things together that might not necessarily go together or don’t obviously fit together. Placing more than one interesting thing in a field of operation and then inserting a lot of causality, insisting at some level that one thing necessitates the other or that one is the cause of another or that they are strongly related despite the apparent disparate nature. 

That’s a principal that I teach over and over again in any semester. I do have exercises and a lot of them have to do with creating strong limitations — kind of games or kits for generating ideas that are restrictive. “You can’t use any of this stuff. You have to work within this very narrow framework.” Another writing exercise that I think is valuable for people to experiment with when they’re starting out is emulations or imitations. So, I give people assignments to write like someone else. These things aren’t that rare, but those are a couple I favor very strongly.

What’s a common mistake you see most beginning writers suffer from when they are first starting off?

LETHEM: You can make slightly funny, slightly mean observations about the tendencies for early short story attempts to revert again and again to the character waking up in bed, the alarm clock goes off, they walk into the bathroom and they look in the mirror, and that’s when they describe what they look like. There’s like three or four pages of the character alone before they’re actually in any kind of situation, and you just have to lop that stuff and say, “Actually, over here on page four or page five where you have the action actually begin might be a better place to begin your story. We really don’t need to know what it’s like to wake up on the average day.” 

And inside that truism, that joke about a tendency to see those kinds of pages again and again, there is a more interesting general principle, which is that the specific and the exceptional — the unusual moment is what people are going to fiction for, not the averaged-out, typical experience. I think as readers, students all know this. It’s what they gravitate towards. But as writers, they sometimes feel in some way apprehensive about putting something too unusual or arresting on the page and so they revert to doing something kind of more averaged-out — like they want to be safe and present something that people will recognize, and so they start writing about the typical instead of the atypical.

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