Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Jonathan Lethem on Nonfiction Vs. Fiction, Margins, and Teaching -- with Dave Mondy

Q & A with Jonathan Lethem

I’d been thinking about the boundaries of Creative Nonfiction – and realized that one of my favorite writers of both fiction and nonfiction loves breaking boundaries.  

Jonathan Lethem’s early novels were noted for being bizarre/brilliant hybrids, leading up to the bestselling Motherless Brooklyn, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named Book of the Year by Esquire; this was followed by The Fortress of Solitude, a genre-juggling, oft-lauded bildungsroman. Other acclaimed collections and novels have continued apace (along with a MacArthur Fellowship).  His nonfiction work includes the essay collections The Disappointment Artist and the iconoclastic The Ecstasy of Influence, which plays with plagiarism (among other elements) – and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and a New York Times Notable Book.

I called him at his office at Pomona College, where he currently teaches, after the release of his most recent novel, Dissident Gardens, and we touched on a lot of topics, including:

The Teaching of Writing:

Pretty busy right now?

Jumping from books tours to teaching to the next thing – it’s kind of like a triathalon.

Speaking of teaching – I reread your essay, “The Disappointment Artist,” where you give some space to the notion of Creative Writing programs possibly being like a pyramid scheme. It’s funny, because when I first read that essay, I had no interest in an MFA, and thought, “Yeah!” Now that I’ve gone through the MFA process, re-reading the essay, I see it’s a really nuanced piece.  Is it weird for you, teaching writing?

Oh, I’m completely enmeshed now!

But you had this reputation as an autodidact. Dropping out of school, working in a bookstore, writing for years and years on your own—

People cast me like that.  Like this feral creature that now works in a zoo. But it’s much more modulated….  Sure, I dropped out of college, and didn’t earn any degrees the hard way – I did the “honorary” thing. 

But back then, I went and re-created for myself a lot of the experiences that typify writing school.  I looked for peers and mentors, I hammered together a regular “workshop” – an appointment for myself, people I could show manuscripts to.  We talked shop, shared gripes, encouragements. 

A community.

Yeah, I wasn’t off in some hut, off on an iceberg. It helped – I got off my high horse about certain things I was trying, because they were making people roll their eyes. I realized I needed to apply myself more diligently to revisions.  And I became mildly socialized, in the way a writer needs to be socialized, when submitting things and being rejected… And then eventually I replaced that with the lucky professional stuff: Having an agent and an editor.  But the point is, I wasn’t alone.  I wasn’t some wolf boy. A lot of what I constructed looks a lot like what I’m participating in now, but from the other angle.

Being more on the mentor side.

Helping people not be too esoteric about themselves. Seeing that there are craft aspects to even the most inspired or iconoclastic writing choices.  And also, the other thing I was doing those past years: I was reading an enormous amount – everything I could think to read, I read. And that’s what I insist that everyone who is trying to be a writer has to do
That’s cool to hear, because I’ve told my students that.

So you teach, too.

I’m a part of the whole thing now. Any advice?

Ha, well, now that I participate in the Ponzi scheme… I just try to give a lot of humble, individual attention to each person who comes my way.  Realizing there’s not one big method – realizing writers and writer’s manuscripts are pretty individual.  And if I can help them – which I can, at least some of the time – that’s okay.  It’s good.  It’s a human act.  Even if it takes place within this giant house of cards, right?

I totally agree.  I think there’s this economic pressure to perform right after graduation. Instead of saying, “How great that, for four years of your life, you get to write, become a more whole human being?” There’s an economic sense that if a student doesn’t become a professional writer right after graduation—

Well, that’s not a very likely situation. Setting out to do that is like setting out to become a superhero.

Which some of your characters have tried to do.

And here I am, teaching… But really: writing is a human thing. It’s a social participation that’s completely worth it.  And necessary.  For everyone, from the amateur to the Big Ol’ Pro who we like to put on a pedestal and routinely wrench off a pedestal, they’re all doing the same thing… They’re trying to make space for their own thinking in the bigger conversation.

On Writing from the Margins:

Speaking of making your own space, and education – there’s a lot of spots in your work where a younger person finds an older mentor, usually an outsider artist…

I guess I identify very easily with people working from various vital margins.  I see those “marginal” operations as, paradoxically, much more central than is often given credit.  A lot of the environment is made up of a lot of people feeling like they’re marginal.

In your latest novel, Dissident Gardens, you dive into the history of American Communists, which is a history that gets pretty short shrift elsewhere. Is that part of the margins?

Well, similar to another one of my novels, The Fortress of Solitude, there’s a witnessing aspect.  I don’t claim to be a social documentarian. All I’m trying to do is say: Lives were lived like this.  These lives… are included.

They were here.

I just want to say what I know.  In a “can I get a witness” fashion… I’ve picked material that means something to me in way beyond any [political] statement I might make about it.

On Fiction vis-à-vis Nonfiction (and Process):

I don’t want to ask the “where do you get your ideas” question.  But you write a lot of fiction and nonfiction, so let’s say you get a notion – how do you pick if it should be, say, fiction or essay or whatever?

It’s so different for different projects.  It’s hard to make one overarching statement.

But you have to! It’ll make for a better interview!

Well, okay… Usually, I have a whole rumbling pile of different influences, things that are bothering me, that are charged for me – fraught – in a way I don’t understand.  And I’ll think, “Oh wait, here’s a cool idea… someone would love this.”  And who knows if I’m right or not… but then that conjoins with something I’m trying to work through emotionally or intellectually or both. Perhaps it’s some part of a previous attempt that left me unsatisfied.  Something I glanced off of and want to go at more directly.

To try to get it right?

Just to open up a new area of exploration for myself.  Exploring something I can’t think about clearly… until I begin writing about it.

You’re learning by the actual act of writing.

I learn a lot by writing. I learn… what I suspect.  What I wish for.  What I mean.  What I feel.  And also, I just learn stuff.  Because what I’m writing about will force me to go out and just read a lot to figure out some subject.  The project drives me to an intellectual experience I’ve been wanting to have.

And so you just start working.

It’s all been sitting there, rumbling in a weird slag heap in my imagination.  And I start organizing it by starting the project.

So rather than thinking about a specific genre, it sounds like it’s a more intuitive process.

I guess there’s been very few things I’ve mistaken for being an essay that were really a story.  If they’re calling up both those impulses at the same time, then I usually try something short and end up with something weird. There’s a lot of pieces like that in Ecstasy of Influence.  Like “Proximity People.”

Or “My Internet”?

Yes.  Where I’m using my image-making or storytelling muscles to work out some thought.  But I’m not going to the trouble of working it all the way up into scenes and characters.  The voice is the character.  But mostly, my stuff organizes itself pretty naturally into genres.  There are things that only fiction can do.  And then there are things that only work with that special game of first-person confessional.

But there is overlap. In a lot of your fiction, there’s first-persons confessing.

Yeah. And the nonfiction draws on what I do as a fiction writer, too. But [for nonfiction], there’s a fundamental stance that’s called up when I say: “This is me.”  The work will be electrified by that primary gesture: Me Telling You.

That’s such a great distinct definition of memoir, “me telling you.”  I don’t know why I’m asking so much about definitions and delineations in an interview, when I’m not even sure if they really matter…

Well, listen, I’m a great destroyer of category and genre – but that represents a tremendous degree of engagement with category and genre, too.  To be thinking about categories, fantasizing about how they can be melted down and violated in interesting ways, is to be pretty fascinated with them.

You have to like taxonomy to bother messing with it?

Absolutely – there are a lot of great writers out there that have no interest in messing with it. Someone like, I don’t know, Dostoevsky? Who is standing totally at the center of one giant operation, never questioning its edges, he’s just vomiting out gigantic fictional vistas… And I’m here asking “What is a novel?” He’s forgotten that question.

It’s the water he’s swimming in.

Exactly.  But someone like me, I’m doing a bunch of things – short stories, essays, weird provocations, quasi-essays, novels – and I’m touching the edges, the shore, all the time.  Trying to futz with it.

And I guess your most transgressive futzing, at least at the time, was the title piece in The Ecstasy of Infuence?

Sure, because I’m messing around with the boundaries between my voice and other people’s voice – which is one of the boundaries we take most for granted.  If you take from other people’s voices then… you are plagiarizing.  Right?  So if you want to mess with that boundary: “Oops! Get away from there! Don’t look there!”

And by messing with that, you sort of became a spokesman for various Open Art groups, or for sampling culture. Just like, say, after Motherless Brooklyn you got involved with various Tourette’s organizations.  Is that stuff still happening?

I get pulled into things, but I’m kind of a dodgy guy, you know?  I don’t really like the identities I get offered.  The causes I’m offered to be the poster boy for – I don’t get into to being the poster boy, not for very long, at least.

“Evasive” is a negative way to say that I’m just kind of restless. These things I write about – they mean a lot to me. But eventually, I feel like I’ve expunged the exploration – I don’t have any more to say.   They’re things I was really interested – still am, in a way.  But it’s no longer a live wire for me, electrifying for me to touch.

And that’s important – you need that.

I’m always looking for that next problematic situation that will give me that sensation of having to figure something out.  

On the “Truth In Nonfiction” Debate:

I have to say, with all the talk of boundaries, and fiction and nonfiction – there’s one question I’ve never experienced in your work.  The whole “truth in nonfiction” debate – I’ve never found myself reading your work and asking: Is this true?

I guess that’s fair.  Because I don’t ever claim the memoirist's position.  Maybe I’ve self-inoculated?  By writing fiction, and doing the Ecstasy of Influence piece, and by writing so many things that are self-questioning.  I write a lot about memory, I assert, “Maybe this happened?”  So that issue doesn’t crop up for me… I’m not a Problem Case.

Not that I don’t write things that could be questioned on those terms. 

But that’s not really the relationship that you have with the reader. Every writer has a unique relationship with their readers, so it’s hard to come up with hard and fast rules. 

No.  Let’s go further.  It’s not hard to come up with hard and fast rules.  It’s impossible.  There are no hard and fast rules.

Everything should be judged case by case, maybe?  I mean, there’s the James Frey problem, sure, but then you have people questioning someone like David Sedaris about little details when he never claimed to be writing journalism

Yes! Right!  Of course.  You brought up the word “journalism.”  Well, Sedaris never presented his stuff in those terms, with the word “journalism.”  All of this is journalists migrating their standards for internal journalistic accusation over into a different kind of writing.  Which is a total botch.  It doesn’t make sense.  It’s wrong.

But it does seem to pop up a lot in memoir and essay.

Not just there.  Even in fiction, there was the “scandal” that attached itself momentarily to Ian McEwan about his research and sourcing.  Moronic.  I mean, absolutely moronic.  But that was journalists projecting their… what?  Ethics?  It’s like kabuki etiquette.

That’s a great way to put it. It sort of explains why these “scandals” sometimes seem so absurd to me. For example, another author whose fiction and nonfiction I like: John Steinbeck.  I saw somewhere that someone was going back to Travels with Charlie to find out if he really went to all the places in that book.

Oh, good lord! Whatever.  Where do we stop then – what’s next?  It’s like not liking a film because you find out some of the lines were dubbed.  “What?  They did that in post-production?  A travesty!”

That’s hilarious.  And I didn’t mean to get us distracted into this debate.  Mostly, I just want to go back to what you were talking about, when talking about working on new projects.  About just going after whatever is gnawing at you.  That feels like good advice.

Not just what gnaws at you.  Go after what delights you.


(the above collage was created by Dave Mondy from an author photo and covers of Lethem's books) 

Dave Mondy has won several awards for his travel writing, and has also written for public radio (A Prairie Home Companion) and toured several one-man shows throughout the country. He recently graduated with his MFA in Creative Nonfiction, and is publishing new work in literary magazines while also writing a column on sustainably-sourced liquor and beer (for which he enjoys doing research).


  1. What an intelligent and spacious view of writing. It's often a puzzle to me that a culture which values fusion or hybrids in other areas -- music, visual art, food, photography -- has such hard and fast insistence on fiction being one thing, non-fiction another, and the fierce borders between them.

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  2. Theresa: Yes! And apologies for the slow reply... But my sense, post-interview, was just an enthusiastic YES! This isn't to say that there isn't an occasionally perfidious blending of genres... but I feel like the badder apples might be weeded out naturally by readers responding unfavorably, and maybe we don't need some excessive, academic reaction. As if we should let writers write, without internal arbiters ("Writers Without Arbiters" as a charity?), and the good ones... well, we'll just really enjoy them.