MacArthur “genius grant” recipient and novelist Jonathan Lethem ignores the boundary between literary fiction and “lower” pop-culture or genre work, drawing inspiration from Raymond Chandler, Philip K. Dick, and comics. Lethem stayed mostly in science-fiction territory in early novels like Gun, With Occasional Music, and found wider success with 1999's National Book Critic’s Circle Award-winning Motherless Brooklyn, about a Tourette’s-afflicted private eye. He drew on his Brooklyn childhood for 2003's The Fortress Of Solitude, both a detailed reminiscence of the 1970s and a literary superhero tale. His new You Don’t Love Me Yet follows the romantic entanglements and unexpected success of a nameless young L.A. band. The A.V. Club recently talked with Lethem about kangaroos, the importance of escaping the familiar, and the question of who really owns an idea.
The A.V. Club: You recently had an interesting discussion with cosmologist Janna Levin in Seed magazine, where you noted that there’s always an element to your writing that bridges the realistic and the fantastic or metaphorical. It seems noteworthy that You Don’t Love Me Yet has elements that feel surreal, but very little that literally could not have happened in reality.
Jonathan Lethem: It’s sort of there, in a strange way, in the surrealism or the fabulation at the level of emotion and metaphor, and inside the sentences and inside the characters, rather than being a world that isn’t literally possible. One of the things I’ve been exploring is this question of where the magic is located. And for me, the reason that it makes sense that everything I’ve written has had this collision of the prosaic textures—the everyday, recognizable, intimate detail—with something impossible, is because the basic implement of writing fiction is kind of poisoned by magic in that way. It’s got metaphor, it’s got craziness in it. Words and sentences themselves don’t behave. Which is why I always think the idea of “realism” is a very weird one, because this synthetic, kind of magical implement doesn’t really want to be used [in that way]. It’s not a camera taking a photograph. The same kind of collision that I’m interested in is already inherent in the language. Words are little embedded metaphors in themselves, and so there’s really no way to take some sort of scientific survey of what everyday life is like, as if we could agree on that in the first place.
AVC: And no art form can ever capture reality perfectly. Even if you could duplicate something down to its molecules, it would still not be the real thing.
JL: Right. And you’ve totally intimidated me by bringing in that conversation with Janna Levin, because not only didn’t I understand what she was saying a lot of the time in that interview, but I didn’t understand what I was saying. I just got so brilliantly abstracted into the idea of a conversation about scientific metaphors that I felt like one of my own characters from As She Climbed Across The Table. Like a professor brilliantly bullshitting in front of a roomful of graduate students, and leaving them all totally stymied. But what you just said gives me a way in that is much, much simpler. And that is to say, I actually find myself completely uninterested in the question of realism. And when you talk about the other arts, it suddenly can become easy to understand how beside the point that question might be. When you admire, say, a song by the Talking Heads, is it because in some way it’s realistic? Or when you respond to a really great painting, is it any more interesting to judge whether it approaches the optical quality of a photograph? Or is it about what it makes you feel? And there’s kind of another realism, which is the realism of response. Do you feel real while you’re reading the pages? Does it make you encounter yourself? And that operation can be attempted by every means that language has available. And a sort of microscopic, fine-grain description of everyday life isn’t disqualified, but it’s merely one tool among so many amazing possible implements. And why exclude metaphor? Why exclude fantasy?
AVC: Having said that, there is a case to be made that your work has been moving, from your early novels to now, toward less overtly fantastical and science-fictional elements.
JL: You know, I will disagree with that. Let’s put You Don’t Love Me Yet aside for just a moment, because I think you’re talking about the arc going from Gun, With Occasional Music to something like The Fortress Of Solitude. The funny thing is, in The Fortress Of Solitude, I used the most embarrassingly blatant piece of fantasy I could think of. A magic ring that lets you fly is a howling, howling piece of fantasy. But what’s been true for me is that I’ve learned to do a more extreme or more vivid version of a kind of conflation of materials that I like. The fantasy is more utterly itself, and in that book, the use of traditional mimetic description is more complete, more realized. And so I was looking to smash the two things together in an even more jagged and disconcerting way. And I think if you look at some of the reactions to that book, where half of the book is completely resisted, I have to claim a kind of success. I don’t think that describes any kind of reducing of the element of fantasy; I think I’ve made it more obtrusive, actually.
And as for the first question—I’m kind of circling around to You Don’t Love Me Yet—well, what about Motherless Brooklyn? This is a book where no one even kidnaps a kangaroo. The level of the fantastical is completely linguistic in that book. It’s all about a neurological kind of surrealism. And everything that takes place—I don’t know if you want to compete between the hapless rock band and the hapless Buddhists and detectives in Motherless Brooklyn, but that book is certainly not fooling around with any science-fiction elements. What’s exciting to me is to always locate the juxtaposition at some other level or levels in the book, and reinvent this combination that fascinates me so much, and see how I can then resolve the disruption. Every book is a kind of experiment in doing something that feels impossible.
AVC: You Don’t Love Me Yet is set in Los Angeles, which is a change from Fortress Of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn, both very much books about New York.
JL: Of course, I had a bunch of novels set more-or-less in California and the west before the two big Brooklyn books. There’s a kind of expectation—an understandable one—that I would want to climb inside this kind of authority that I’ve gained with the two Brooklyn books as a kind of “Faulkner of Dean Street,” and just set up shop there. You know, why would I want to throw off that special power that I seem to have derived from all of my local provenance, my street cred? But it’s very inhibiting, for me anyway, to settle into any stance of bogus authority. I think it really was crucial for me to remain kind of a marginal operator in some ways. Being the laureate of Brooklyn wasn’t a fate I wanted to completely settle into any more than being whatever else I’ve been offered: “the postmodern science-fiction writer” or “the quirky detective writer.” I had options to follow up other things I’ve done too, and kind of shook them off. Los Angeles is a place that really fascinated me, but I hope the book doesn’t seem to claim to be incisive about L.A. in any important way. I’m using it, really, as a kind of non-setting, for a book that has more of that sort of enchanted, magical-forest quality. It takes place in a contemporary city that sort of melts away and becomes Shakespeare’s forest, where lovers swap identities. I was diverted by a curiosity about L.A., and that itself seemed to be a good stance to be in. Rather than relying on all of this really dubious authority about place, I was happy to be a pretender again. It seemed important.
AVC: Los Angeles seems like a perfect choice if you want a real place that’s also a non-setting.
JL: [Laughs.] Well, I’m happy to have you say it, but a lot of people might not agree.
AVC: I don’t mean it as a slam, just that Los Angeles has been so mythologized by Hollywood that it sort of feels unreal, like a construct, to those of us that don’t live there.
JL: My sense of that setting extends from my sense of those characters, and they come out of my feeling about a certain time in my life when I was living in Berkeley, in San Francisco—but I was really living in that sort of sketchy bohemia of the mind. And if I somehow plopped out of my college years into Williamsburg or Silver Lake, my milieu wouldn’t have honestly been all that different. That’s not to say that L.A. is a disposable city, but that there’s a certain kind of skittish, detached quality to the way these characters live. They never read a newspaper. They’re not curious about the gentrification of Echo Park and Silver Lake. They’re just not achieving a lot of traction with their real city. So it wouldn’t have made sense for there to be long asides where I suddenly analyze the racial politics of East L.A. But yeah, it’s easy to misunderstand, because I seem to be a very serious writer about setting, at least in The Fortress Of Solitude, and so people are disconcerted. And I guess I can’t blame them. We live in kind of a non-fiction, very literal-minded time. And the things that art does that are irresponsible or have no grounding in sociology or research are very hard to ratify. People want, even in fictional books, storytellers to flash their credentials a lot. By picking L.A. as my setting, where I’m a blatant tourist, I was being a little bit flippant. I was saying, “If this story works, it’s not going to be because you are going to learn something about Los Angeles. This isn’t a non-fiction book in disguise, it’s a piece of enchantment. Take it on that level or leave it.”
AVC: So you wanted a place that didn’t really have a lot of distinct associations for you.
JL: Yeah. And this is all really just about me looking for an opportunity to work in a way that was going to be surprising to myself. Anything people enjoy, I have to enjoy it first. [Laughs.] But there’s a real value in being kind of an amateur. And I felt it was almost urgent for me to reconnect with my feelings of not knowing what I was doing. If I’d written another Brooklyn book right now, I’d have been relying on this kind of grave authority that everyone’s awfully eager to honor me with. But an artist is a fugitive a lot of the time—I mean, there’s that great Joyce quote about “silence, exile, and cunning”—and I needed to be capricious. What I like best in any of my books, and I like it a lot in this one, are the things I am learning to do as I do them. And writing about these characters and letting go of Brooklyn, parents and children, and the extensive, explicit pop-culture references that characterize the last couple of novels—working in this unexpected way meant I was learning something. I was inventing something on the fly. And it’s that game of not knowing what you’re doing that, for me, is where the real energy comes from. When I wrote The Fortress Of Solitude, I was blatantly attempting something I didn’t know how to do, and every day I had to learn how to write it to make the scenes I wanted to make. And that’s how I felt with this one, which is why I see continuities that other people don’t.
AVC: Even though it’s less directly autobiographical than The Fortress Of Solitude, there are certainly things in You Don’t Love Me Yet that seem like they resonate with your own life.
JL: Like the front cover? [Laughs.]
AVC: Like your photo on the front cover, exactly.
JL: It’s a confession, too. It’s always that. The thing about that question that’s always so hard to answer is that the answer’s always “Yes, completely” and “Well, no, but not in the ways you’re thinking.” I’m everywhere in the books. I’m distributed very thoroughly. There are bits of my vanity in Matthew, and my kind of angry awkwardness in Bedwin. I relate enormously to Lucinda. She’s a very, very intimate character for me. And in a way, also the complainer; you can even see him as a kind of author surrogate. It’s the fortysomething guy who’s come along to screw up the lives of these hapless, innocent twentysomethings. And so he’s kind of a stand-in for me, for the borderline vulgar impulse to write about people younger than myself. But it could have been a more autobiographical book than it was if I’d given into the impulse to put it in the Bay Area, which is where I was in my 20s. But after all the Brooklyn stuff, I wanted to dodge excavating personal material directly. And so by kind of flipping it to L.A., where I’d be disconcerted out of those habits in relationship to place and setting and a certain time in my own life, I loosened up some of that stuff. I projected the autobiographical feeling more. You know, it is more sublimated.
AVC: In that case, why put yourself on the cover?
JL: Well, it was a joke that turned into a plan. I kept expecting it to be vetoed by some corporate mind somewhere. It’s kind of amazing to me that it made it through. I showed the picture to my publisher, because I thought it could be the author photo. I didn’t think it would be on the front jacket. But I think it’s very funny. What I love about the photograph is how painful my pretensions are, and how unavoidable it is. So it’s a way of confessing that I’m not making fun of anyone. Or if I am, most of all, [I’m] making fun of myself. But there’s something so poignant and personal to me about that period of self-invention in your 20s when you are kind of a pretentious fool by definition. And never more so than if you’re trying, as I was, to become an artist of some kind. It’s so compelling to me to think about how much of a pretender I had to be. You announce yourself to the world before you’ve accomplished anything, and no one cares, and you sort of have to stake out this attitude and try out this profile before anyone cares, and there’s something so tender about that. So I’m very fond of the photograph the way I’m fond of those characters. But I also think it’s just really funny. I like the kind of Fear Of Music aspect of that photograph. [Laughs.] The way I’m not quite touching the guitar. Like I want to be seen with one, but I wouldn’t dare to pick it up.
AVC: What was your musical background back then?
JL: I’m hopeless. I’ve said this for a while, because people asked about the music in Fortress, that I think if I could play music, my relationship to it as a writer would be so different. For me, music is sort of the art that I can’t incorporate into my person the way I want to. I still love books. I feel very holy about books and films. But narrative arts, I kind of do them. I have domesticated those impulses, and I think about how stories work, and the magic is decanted a little bit. But music still sort of hangs up there in the sky for me as this thing that moves me so much, but I can’t really make it. It’s like a car I can’t drive.
AVC: Visual art has always been very important for you.
JL: Being an art student for so long, as well as growing up with my dad’s painting—and the habits of museum-going and gallery-going that just went with my father being a fine artist—I still think in those terms a lot. When I think of formal issues, like the ones I was blundering around with with you when we first got started, you know, the whole question of the coexistence within one frame of observed and imagined elements, it’s such a natural impulse. And yet people are always questioning in my writing, “Why is Dean Street realistic, and why does the magic ring really work? How can you put those things in the same frame?” Well, when I think about painting, I understand where that assumption comes from for me. Because it seems to me that there are so many great painters—from Edvard Munch to American pop artists—who just don’t recognize this division. Mimetic elements and fantastical ones pretty much always coexist in the visual arts. So I’m different from a lot of writers I meet, in that I kind of washed out as a student. I didn’t spend a lot of time writing papers. I certainly never wrote a thesis or a dissertation. And I also never worked as a journalist in any real way. I didn’t do magazine work or write book reviews or other kinds of non-fiction. So I didn’t have this essay-writing background where I switched from writing a lot of non-fiction to stories and novels. I switched from making paintings and sculpture to trying to make stories and novels. Only much later did I ever attempt to write essays or non-fiction. So I don’t feel this sort of connection that others do to the academic or journalistic use of words. I think of them more as the other kind of paints and canvas I picked up. The pictures I wanted to make turned out to be story-pictures. They needed to take place in time and language, and so I started to use words and sentences instead of pigments on canvas.
AVC: As you’re writing, do you tend to have a pretty solid idea of what things or characters look like?
JL: [Laughs.] Well, now I’ll contradict myself bizarrely. This is a really weird area for me, because I never know, and very rarely say, as much as people want me to about how, for instance, characters look. I kept forgetting what Lucinda’s hair color was. And this sounds really sketchy, like I really haven’t done my job in some way. But for me, there’s nothing there but what’s on the page, and despite the visual-arts background, I don’t think I’m actually that oriented to visual description in my work. And The Fortress Of Solitude might be an exception in this, but for me, when I was a reader only, I was a very fast, voracious one. I would skeletonize the books that I read, and the things I skipped are the things I now skip as a writer. I wasn’t really very patient with long evocations of clouds and trees and buildings and landscape, nor did I pause over elaborate descriptions of the facial characteristics or clothing styles of the characters. I always wanted to know what they were doing and saying. And also what the mysterious big idea of the book was, what the metaphors were. So I would rush to those things, and I would be very cursory as I read the descriptive stuff. So now I don’t have, in some ways, the tools or instincts of a visually descriptive writer. I sometimes surprise and please myself with a visual description, but I still think that if you analyzed the books and did some sort of ratio measurement of how much language I devote to dialogue, I think I’m very, very parsimonious about description.
I really devote a lot of my wordage, just to look at it in kind of a zero-sum way, to other stuff. But I’ve often been told that I’m a visual writer. It’s interesting to me, because what I think they mean is, well, one really obvious thing is that I go around talking about being an art student all the time, so they say, “Well, he was an art student. He must be a very visual writer.” The other thing is that, I think, sometimes visualization in writing works by a kind of homeopathic process. The less you offer, the more readers are forced to bring the world to life with their own visual imaginings. I personally hate an illustration of a character on a jacket of a book. I never want to have someone show me what the character really looks like—or what some artist has decided the character really looks like—because it always looks wrong to me. I realize that I prefer to kind of meet the text halfway and offer a lot of visual collaborations from my own imaginative response to the sentences. And so I think that I invite the reader to do the same thing. And I suspect that if people, when they say that I’m a visual writer—if they mean anything other than just that I go around talking about having been a painter—what they mean is, in fact, weirdly the opposite, that I deny description and force them to do a lot of visualization, so they have a visual experience as they’re going. That I create situations that demand visualization.
AVC: The new novel demands that readers invent their own idea of what the music sounds like. When I was reading it, just because I know you like Talking Heads, I imagined that your band sounds kind of like Talking Heads.
JL: [Laughs.] This is a great example of the stuff that people think I should know that I don’t know. I only know what’s on the page, you know? And I’ve been running into this in a very funny and specific kind of way right now, because I’m inviting some bands to make some of the songs that are mentioned in the book into real songs, and they all want to know what I think it sounds like. And I don’t really have an answer for them. The descriptions on the page and the fragments of lyrics on the page are exactly as far as I ever got. Not being a musician, it probably isn’t a good idea for me to go any further than that. But this gets into that mysterious realm of “Where does an artist’s authority come from?” And people can be quite infuriated if you suggest that you’re not writing about something that has a secret reality hiding behind it somewhere. “Oh, the answer is they sound like Talking Heads,” or “Oh, here, let me play this example for you, this is what the real band sounded like.” I’m evoking emotions and imaginings in my readers by manipulating language. There’s no other name for what I do. It isn’t that there’s a kind of hidden reality behind it, it’s that language is this weird drug that you can transmit feeling and suggestion from one person to another with, if you use it artfully. And I hope I’ve done that, so that everyone will come away with a sense of what the music might sound like, but of course everyone’s sense would be slightly different.
I think Talking Heads are a good point of reference, just because they have that awkward, nerdy, art-school quality. Intellectuals yearning to be funky, the early Talking Heads. And bottom line, they’ve got gender diversity. [Laughs.] I was thinking of a lot of bands with, you know, boys and girls. Like The Go-Betweens, and in a weird way, Fleetwood Mac, for being a band with exes in it. But also—it is kind of a perverse game to play, but I was very careful about not nailing down exactly when this book takes place. You can kind of isolate it to some time in the early ‘90s, and I was thinking of a lot of bands that were sort of famous to me in that period, but didn’t get famous to very many other people. Like Glass Eye and Big Dipper and a band called Christmas, from Boston. Bands that were probably like the kind of musician I would have been if I’d ever been able to be one: a little bit nerdy and erring on the clever side, but with that awkward sincerity—when that breaks through the intellectualisms the way it does in Talking Heads or Arcade Fire, it can be very exciting.
AVC: You were talking about things that don’t have names, and that’s a technique you use over and over in the novel—the band doesn’t have a name. And you often refer to the characters not by name, but by their positions in the band.
JL: “The bassist” or “the lead singer.” Yeah, I like things that don’t have a set name. In Fortress Of Solitude, every character had at least two names. There was your name, the nickname that Mingus gave you, your graffiti name… In this way, I’m thinking very much about masks and roles, people trying on different selves. And since this is a book about that weird, hapless, middle-20s period in life, it’s not even that these characters have an abundance of possible names, but they don’t really find any that they’re comfortable with. Their names seem to slip away from them a lot, which speaks to the slipshod identities of that pretentious period of self-invention, I think is the right way to put it. You’re trying on faces, like I am on the front jacket of the book, and then you’re immediately embarrassed and you discard them.
AVC: The title of You Don’t Love Me Yet comes from songs by, respectively, Roky Erickson and The Vulgar Boatmen, which you quote for the epigraph of the novel.
JL: It was just kind of dumb luck. I have this very aggrieved history with titles—I never have them until the last possible second. Every one of the books, with the sole exception of Girl In Landscape, had some really bad working title that held until almost the last minute, and then my publisher forced me to do better. I could go down the list and tell you what the bad alternate title is for every novel I’ve written—and in some ways, because I’ve lived with those alternates for so long, they feel like the real, secret name of the book. But they’re bad enough that I mostly don’t want to confess them. This book was going to be called Monster Eyes. I just thought, “Oh, of course, it could only be called Monster Eyes.” And then the clunkiness of that was pointed out to me by enough people that I grudgingly let go of it. “You Don’t Love Me Yet” isn’t my phrase, but for a book about appropriated language and the way things can be repurposed, it seemed okay. And, it’s a beautifully passive-aggressive title. [Laughs.] Especially with my mug on the cover, and the words “love me” highlighted in red. It’s like, “But you’re gonna! I hope!” And of course it has the added bonus that it brings to mind not just one, but two irresistible pop songs. I think that is my favorite Roky Erickson song, and it’s one of those incredibly versatile songs; all the covers are really good. I really am always happy when I hear someone covering “You Don’t Love Me Yet” by Roky Erickson. And then there’s this great Vulgar Boatmen track, which has nothing to do with the Roky Erickson, and is maybe my favorite Vulgar Boatmen song. That this had so many sweet associations just made it feel very lucky to me to put it on the book.
AVC: Speaking of appropriating language, you’ve been doing a lot lately with public-domain issues, like the essay you wrote for Harpers drawn from other people’s writing. There’s the Promiscuous Materials Project, which grants other artists the right to adapt some of your shorter work for a dollar, and you’re also offering to give away the film rights to You Don’t Love Me Yet to someone willing to let the movie go into the public domain in five years.
JL: A lot of people would say, “Who are you to assume anyone cares, or wants to use this stuff?” [Laughs.] But it’s a fun realm to dabble in. I’m getting to make what feels to me like provocative yet inoffensive gestures toward a freer culture or healthier public domain. And there’s something very fun about giving stuff away.
AVC: The question of who owns an idea comes up in You Don’t Love Me Yet—Bedwin is nominally the songwriter of the band, but Lucinda gives him lyrics from someone else. Later, they’re asked who writes the material, and three people give three different answers, all sort of wrong and sort of right.
JL: One of the things I like to think about, as I did in the Harper’s essay in a kind of serious way: The image of the artist is sustained by this great myth of iconoclastic individual genius. A lot of great stuff is made up by individual iconoclastic geniuses, and that’s fine, but a lot of other stuff comes burbling out of collective culture. That gets invented one way and then used an entirely different way, and different people work on it, and you end up with this sort of puzzle. If you admire certain kinds of artifacts, especially pop artifacts that are made kind of collectively or out of a mingled corporate impulse, modified by someone trying to make something actually artistic peculiar… What do you have then? Who is it that you’re admiring? What are you exalting when you think that an ABBA song is really good? Or when you have to admit that you really love a certain action movie? Pop music has always feasted on appropriating bits of garbage language from the culture, things that were just floating around. There’s all these great soul songs that use advertising jingles—you know, things like “Stop! In The Name Of Love,” or “I’d Rather Fight Than Switch.” Or Buddy Holly grabbing the line “That’ll Be The Day” from The Searchers. So whose line is that? And how do we feel about it? And this goes, of course, to the accusations that are always being levied against Bob Dylan… Another really great example is how you are supposed to feel if you think The Monkees’ “I’m A Believer” is a really great song, and it makes you feel something when it’s on the radio. Is it an embarrassing problem that [the song] was made almost cynically, and certainly wasn’t made by the people whose voices you’re singing along with? The instruments are all played by other people, and the song was written in the Brill Building. I like those conundrums, and I wanted to fool around with something like that.
AVC: Since you brought up Bob Dylan, what was it like to interview him for Rolling Stone?
JL: This is a funny thing: As a writer, I came out of that experience vowing that the only thing that mattered in writing the piece was, I was going to exactly try to put on the page what it was like to be with him, even if it was at the expense of some great quotes from him, or of making people think that I was an amateurish music writer, because I was putting too much of myself in the piece. I would answer that question in the piece, and I would talk about being in the room, and how surprising and mercurial and generous he seemed. So I did my damnedest to do that, and, of course, the result is that everyone who reads it, their first question is “What was it really like?” [Laughs.] That itself is one of Dylan’s interesting dilemmas, and what I sensed very strongly is that the more he tries to say, “Hey! Here’s what I think,” the more people say, “Yeah, but what do you really think?” The more he tries to expose his secrets, the more secretive he somehow seems. Personally, [the interview] was, you know, beautiful! I loved it! [Laughs.] I was treated very kindly by someone who I think is sort of a Shakespeare. As titanic a creative figure as we could be lucky enough to have walking around on Earth at the same time as ourselves. And he wasn’t in any way impatient with me. So no complaints.
AVC: Dylan’s persona has a lot of resonance with what you’re working with lately.
JL: Also in terms of this question of the exaggeration of the idea of purer originality, because who could better illuminate the chimera, the bogus notion of absolute originality, than someone like Dylan, who… Every single piece of material that he offers us has evidence of its sources. He’s a total composite, in a certain sense, and yet, how could his work ever have existed, if he himself didn’t give it that singular voice and bring together the sources in one place the way he does? There’s no question that he’s an explosively creative figure, and yet you can always talk about his debts. Pointing arrows of lineages and connections and sources; he’s almost a museum of sources, his body of work. And the two things coexist absolutely. I think it can be a great incitement to letting go of the anxieties about influence, and instead accepting it as the beautifully impure state of creativity itself.
AVC: How difficult was it to get your novels accepted as “literary” fiction because of the genres you were working in?
JL: Well, I stopped thinking about that a while ago. The great thing is that at a certain point, you realize there’s no door marked “Literature” that you are on one side of and knocking on, and then you’re simply admitted, and they give you a T-shirt with a big “L” on it. The world of the arts is gloriously chaotic and subjective, and there are people who probably thought I was doing something worthwhile right at the start. There are probably people who will never be interested at all. And it doesn’t actually prevent me from writing the way I like to write, and as it’s turned out, having the incredible luck of being read. I mean, I’m taken seriously enough. You only need to be taken a little bit seriously. [Laughs.] The rest of it is not only not in your control, and not only doesn’t matter, it probably doesn’t even exist.
AVC: Do you think that with your own work’s reception, and things like Michael Chabon winning the Pulitzer for The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay, with all its comic-book elements, that genre fiction is becoming more critically accepted by the mainstream?
JL: Well, I’ve always felt gleeful to point out the places where pop culture or genre has been embraced, either consciously or kind of helplessly by highbrow culture, but the divisions don’t really make as much sense as they seem to. If we were waiting for Michael Chabon to legitimize cartoonishness in fiction, then what about the way Donald Barthelme was the New Yorker’s favorite writer in the ‘70s? Or that Thomas Pynchon won the National Book Award with his resolutely cartoonish style? It’s sort of a revolution that’s always happening and is never finished. It’s a false image of progress in the arts. The idea that, for us who embrace these motifs, and I certainly do embrace them, that there’s kind of a war to be fought and maybe we’re winning it. Or—oh no!—we might be losing it. I don’t really think it works that way. I just think that the people who are excited about things like this have a lot to be excited about. [Laughs.]
AVC: Are you still working on a new version of Omega The Unknown for Marvel Comics?
JL: Yes! I’m the slowest comic-book writer on Earth. I’m medium-fast by novel-writing standards, but by comic-book-writing standards, I think I might be William Gaddis. Which isn’t to say I’m writing The Recognitions of comic books. I’m writing a very quirky, kind of an emo comic book—that’s what I’ve concluded about it. One of the interesting things is that, you know, I fool around with words all the time, but I’m realizing as I do this that [comics] is not really a word-medium. The most important thing about writing a comic book is giving the artist some really cool shit to draw. So I’m just doing my very best to give [artist and collaborator] Farel Dalrymple amazingly challenging and weird and tender and strange scenes to bring to life.
AVC: What is your approach to reinventing the character?
JL: I think the simplest thing to say is that—and this wasn’t a plan I had in advance—I feel that I’ve ended up doing to traditional Marvel comics, what, in some ways, I did to dystopian science fiction in Amnesia Moon. The normal thought about comic books is that to make them “better,” they need to be made more intense, or more realistic, or more violent, or more adult, or darker. It’s pretty much synonymous with the claim of importance for a comic book now that it’s dark. But I don’t think that, for me anyway, there’s any useful direction in darkening Omega The Unknown, or the superhero image generally. I think it’s been darkened plenty. [Laughs.] So I’m just making it a little looser and sweeter and spacier and more introspective. Just making it a little quieter in some ways. But it’s terribly important to say that it also really is a reinterpretation of an incredible story by the original creators, by Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes, and I’m depending on it in all sorts of ways. Part of the pleasure of this work is manipulating pre-existing materials that are magically charged for me. It was a big influence on The Fortress Of Solitude; the elements that it drew into one place really helped me dream up that book.
AVC: This is the second book you’ve written where kangaroos are a prominent part of the story, the first being Gun, With Occasional Music, with its genetically engineered, intelligent kangaroo thugs.
JL: I don’t know if I have anything better than a tongue-in-cheek response to that. It was a little bit of an in-joke for me, that I owed a debt to the kangaroos because I’d gotten them so flagrantly wrong in Gun, With Occasional Music. The male kangaroo in that book has a pouch, and I felt like I’d always owed them a correction.
AVC: It’s funny that you think of that as a flaw, considering they can also talk and shoot guns.
JL: [Laughs.] Well, I’m a realist, you know… You Don’t Love Me Yet was a book that was very open to serendipitous influence. I didn’t know the zoo was going to be a part of the book at all. I was waylaid during one of my research jaunts. I got this great invitation from a guy who was billed as the mayor of Silver Lake [the L.A. neighborhood where much of the book’s action takes place], this hipster maven, and he was going to drive me around Silver Lake and talk to me about what it meant to him. And he suddenly understandably grew very self-conscious about this assignment, and he realized how uncool it was to be the official mayor of Silver Lake— you know, to be it was to not be it. And so he took me to the zoo instead. It was this weird usurpation of my day of research, but then the zoo became this sort of half-willing presence in the book, and it got more and more interesting to me. Part of the pleasure of abandoning some of my tools and habits and opening myself up to chance, and the liberating qualities of being an amateur again, was that I could let things kind of intrude into the book. Once I noticed that the L.A. kangaroos did look a little bit, you know, despondent, I backed into this echo of Gun, With Occasional Music that amused me, and I could afford to be amused by it. There was no reason to resist it.
AVC: Does that kind of serendipity happen a lot when you’re writing?
JL: Well, it can. More in certain contexts than in others. You know, when I talk about wanting to make sure I don’t, you know, let any kind of bogus authority settle over me. You know, one of the tricks to Fortress Of Solitude—I’m so immensely proud of that book—I was in a weird way doing, like, a collective oral history of the place I grew up in, and that entails a kind of dutifulness. You know? I hope the book doesn’t feel dutiful, but I certainly felt that I’d taken up a meaningful representation, in a way. And I was skirting that with the kind of book that I conceived next. And that creates an open structure that is very permissive, if a kangaroo or a friend wishing for a cameo appears before my eyes. I think in that sense, I was trying to make the book itself replicate the issues that the characters are facing. They’re at that point in their lives where everything is possible and impossible. The book itself, I think, is sort of like hipsters in their 20s, trying to figure out what to be. I hope it has some of the sweet haplessness of the kinds of lives that I’m writing about.
AVC: What is your typical workday like, when you’re in the middle of writing a novel? Do you write every day?
JL: Yeah, that’s it. That’s the only thing I really worry about. I try to write every day. I don’t beat myself up about word counts, or how many hours are ticking by on the clock before I’m allowed to go and do something else. I just try to keep a hand in and work every single day, even if there are other demands or I’m on a book tour or have the flu or something, because then I keep my unconscious engaged with the book. Then I’m always a little bit writing, no matter what else I’m doing.
AVC: What do you do when you get stuck?
JL: I may sound like some sort of lunatic optimist here, but I don’t really ever think of it as “stuck.” I just have a tolerance for waiting, and acceptance that there are times of hesitation and waiting and confusion. That is writing. You know, a novel is an enormous compilation of problems solved, and once you accept that that’s what the work consists of, you also have to accept that there are times when you haven’t solved them yet.