30 May 2013

BEA 2013: How Jonathan Lethem Writes (And Wrote)

Live from BEA, the publishing trade show where naughty booksellers sneaking suitcases onto the tradeshow floor receive their slow but definitive comeuppance.

The last time I saw Chuck Klosterman at BEA he was interviewing Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, a man who – and I apologize for the language I’m about to use – had no fucks to give at that moment. Absolutely none. He had a book to promote and was in the middle of an arena tour, but my enduring memory of him is how widely he splayed his leather-clad legs in the chair onstage while Klosterman, despite showing a heroic level of patience, started to turn a bit pink and eventually shot steam out of the top of his head. And I don’t blame him at all. In an event billed as a “conversation,” one participant cannot give all the fucks alone. This concludes today’s R-rated advice on event planning.

Klosterman was much better matched this morning with novelist and critic Jonathan Lethem, whose ninth novel DISSIDENT GARDENS arrives this fall. (Klosterman also has a new book out this fall, called I WEAR THE BLACK HAT: GRAPPLING WITH VILLAINS REAL AND IMAGINED.) After exchanging some pleasantries about DISSIDENT GARDENS – “All art is helplessly political” is the soundbite you’re going to see around from that section, Klosterman really dug into him about his work habits , which was fascinating.

Normally a question like “So you hitchhiked to San Francisco and then 12 years later you published your first novel. What happened during that time?” would be too combative for this kind of format, but Lethem approached it without defensiveness. After dropping out of Bennington College, he worked in a bookstore in the Bay Area, a place he describes as “where people go to develop their lives in lifestyle terms, not career terms” (feel free to weigh in, Californians), and wrote a novel and many short stories during that time. He attributed his prolificness to having many models of authors he read who were amazingly prolific, like Philip K. Dick, Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch and Patricia Highsmith.   

Most of all, Lethem said, he enjoys the process of being present with his writing and doing it rather than being prolific for its own sake. “I miss the days spent writing DISSIDENT GARDENS,” he said. “I’m eager to be in that situation again where I’m discovering a book as I write it. The way I do that matters to me and it feels good and important… Once I’m writing, I go into a flow state where the preparation melts into a semiconscious fascination and I’m responding to what the language is doing.” If anything here I was hoping that Klosterman would interject a little bit about his writing process, which I’m guessing is quite different – but that’s for another panel.  

Lethem wrote his first three novels by manual typewriter, not because it was the only option at the time but because it felt like a discipline, and “you commit to every sentence again” when retyping it out. (“My students’ drafts are nothing compared to the typewriter age,” he joked, adding that he challenges his students now to print out their stories, delete the entire file and force themselves to type it again.  

The most memorable moment during the audience Q&A was a woman who asked what Lethem thought of MFAs and whether she should get one. “I don’t have one,” Lethem said – in fact, he technically never finished his B.A. -- but he teaches in them, so he carefully picked around what he described as “such an individual decision.” I think it’s fair to say a lot of young writers (self included) don’t have the kind of discipline that Lethem describes himself having, the willingness to be perceived as a “grind” and shelve a novel and “30-40 short stories” before finally breaking through with GUN, WITH OCCASIONAL MUSIC, but clearly he is unwilling to write off the whole enterprise. Probably a wise choice. 

No comments: