Open to Influence: Jonathan Lethem on Reading, Writing, and Concepts of Originality
by Brian Gresko
Jonathan Lethem is the author of eight novels, including Motherless Brooklyn (1999), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and The Fortress of Solitude (2003), a New York Times Bestseller. His native Brooklyn serves as the setting for both of those acclaimed novels. Recent work has found him exploring Los Angeles in You Don’t Love Me Yet (2007) and New York City’s Upper East Side in Chronic City (2009). That book, along with much of Lethem’s oeuvre, is influenced by the work of Philip K. Dick, whose novels Lethem edited for The Library of America. In addition to fiction, Lethem’s essays on music, literature, and culture have appeared in publications such as Harper’s and Rolling Stone. Last year he published a critical look at John Carpenter’s science fiction film They Live; a study on the Talking Heads album Fear of Music is forthcoming. Lethem teaches creative writing at Pomona College, in California, but I had the opportunity to speak with him at his studio in Brooklyn.
Brian Gresko: Do you have models in mind when you begin a project? By models I mean works that influence your writing.
Jonathan Lethem: I’ve always been a consciously influenced writer. I usually have some models in mind for anything I’m writing, whether it’s other novels, or some films, or sometimes even a comic book. In terms of prose style, I am almost always open to writing some degree of homage, or trying to adopt or import a part of another writer’s style into what I’m doing. Usually it’s more than one author, and/or it’s in combination with some radically different influence on the narrative strategy, or on the kind of motifs, characters, or situations that I’m writing about. I never think that this is going to simply seem like writer X, because I’m always colliding that influence with a number of other elements.
I’ve come to believe that there is something innate in my method, my sentences, and my approach to narrative and characters that’s inalterable, and that transforms these influences even when I’m not conscious of it. So I don’t ever think in terms of embarrassment or hesitation or reservations about being influenced or working with models. I pretty much assume that’s how it works for me.
I understand that a lot of other people are much more deflective or diffident or uncertain or unconscious about these processes, but I believe strongly that they’re what’s going on in making narratives for anyone. That is to say, I don’t see being open to influence as some kind of radical or postmodern or experimental or unorthodox proposition, I see it as a way of talking about what simply is the case, and always has been for writers of all kinds.
These levels of inhibition from talking about influence may represent a kind of contemporary condition. Certainly the frameworks for identifying influence or for being anxious about it or resisting it are very recent ones. I don’t think that these questions bedeviled people one way or another until relatively recently. So anytime people express surprise about my disinhibitions, I suspect that they’re responding to the discourse, not the practice.
Anyway, it has always been my pleasure to assert my influences, partly because it connects my reading life to my writing life, and they seem so fundamentally connected. It’s a way of talking about my enthusiasms for narrative arts of all kinds. And this preference makes the condition of having to talk about one’s work vastly more interesting, because I’m talking about stuff I love all the time.
BG: In the Malcolm Gladwell article “Late Bloomers” (The New Yorker, October 20, 2008), Jonathan Safran Foer said, “How [can] you learn the craft of being original?” It sounds to me like you’re proposing a different way of thinking about the writing process, where inspiration doesn’t come like a bolt from the blue, but rather from other sources.
JL: Jonathan’s remark implies the classical obfuscation of sourcing in art. It suggests that writing is some sort of pure physical act, in which you make marks on a page and if they’re original then everyone jumps for joy. I don’t have a bone to pick with Jonathan in particular because this is so universal a notion that he’s expressing, but I propose a rival view of “originality”—quotation marks around originality.
I think originality is a word of praise for things that have been expressed in a marvelous way and that make points of origin for any particular element beside the point. When you read Saul Bellow or listen to Bob Dylan sing, you can have someone point to various cribbings and it won’t matter, because something has been arrived at which subsumes and incorporates and transcends these matters. In that way, sourcing and originality are two sides of the same coin, they’re a nested partnership.
I don’t think originality has any value as a description of process. In that regard it’s as meaningless a process word as beauty is. No artist says, “Let me sit down and do some beauty now.”
BG: Perhaps instead of using the word original when discussing process, we should say surprising. An author finds pleasure in being surprised by where a work goes.
JL: You want to feel surprised. If my description proposes some sort of dutiful, grinding, crossword puzzle work—“let me take some Raymond Chandler here and graft it to some Philip K. Dick over here”—that’s horrendous. You, the author, want to experience something that feels surprising and uncanny and native. You want to take all your sourcing and turn it into an experience that—for you first and foremost, and then of course for the reader—feels strong or urgent in a way that mimics some kind of natural, automatic process.
BG: What specific authors have influenced your work? I know you have a long history with Philip K. Dick. Would he be a good place to start?
JL: He’s a good place to start with in one sense, because right at the beginning of my writing life I thought that I wanted to write like him more than anything else. He was a tremendously persuasive model in terms of motifs, ideas, narrative twists, and character groupings, and he stays with me. He had a very definite plan for what kind of characters should be put in the same space if the story’s going to come to life, and I still feel his influence operating on that level when I plan a book. He’s totally useless as a model of prose discipline or polish, because his work doesn’t feature those things. I don’t mean to suggest that I’ve transcended his accomplishment, but I was outgrowing him as a model almost by the time I set down a few sentences.
I had to call on other sources or other instincts to arrive at sentence making and paragraph making—formal concerns. Where Dick was useless to me, Chandler stepped in. He helped me think about putting meaning, pressure, and emotion into every sentence, making each one alive and full of attitude. Of course, I developed some of Chandler’s tics for a certain kind of hardboiled banter, some of which might have served me less well than others. I also loved Graham Greene’s novels, and he supplied me with a lot in terms of prose and structuring a book—proportion, and his immaculate realization of a scene. He puts a scene across brilliantly.
And I was influenced in numerous ways by things I wasn’t directly modeling myself on: lots of mysteries, science fiction, and comic books. I’d also read—it seems so obvious it’s silly—a tremendous number of children’s books, and some of the books that I read and reread the most were things like Alice in Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth. I still feel Lewis Carroll fundamentally operating in what I like to do with dialogue, some of the ways that characters misunderstand each other, which basically come from Alice talking to impossible creatures like Humpty Dumpty or The White Queen. I also developed an appetite for writers who were working with the fantastic in other, more literary ways, like Kafka and Borges, very early on.
But from the fantastical I would then read a relatively realistic writer like Greene. I wanted to do all these things at once—the fantastic and the realistic—and I think that still very much describes what I do. Soon enough that appetite itself began to forecast what kind of writers I would get excited about: Italo Calivino, Don Delillo, and then Iris Murdoch. They all came on really strong for me in my early twenties and in their different ways they all balance realism against heavily symbolic or fantastical or grotesque fictional modes. I was on the scent of this double kind of operation that I wanted to do myself.
BG: Have you encountered books that have influenced your work once you began writing?
JL: There are foundational influences, there are conformational ones, and then there are surprises on top of that, but I don’t think anything can shift some of the formative predispositions anymore. For that matter, I doubt they could have been shifted after the age of twenty-five or twenty-six. But sure, new things come along and knock me for a loop. Often that’s some combination of them reminding me of something that I forgot to be interested in, or stopped thinking that I was allowed to do, or for whatever reason lost touch with.
Roberto Bolaño has been very influential for a lot of writers I know, simply because he frees up the impulse to write fiction about writers. Many American writers hesitate to do this out of fear the work will only be of interest to writers and aspiring writers. But Bolaño turns this interest into writing about writers as characters into a method for writing extremely ambitious, encompassing, relevant stuff that goes to all sorts of wild places. He freed me in a certain way, at least for the duration of a short story called “The King of Sentences.” I was thinking of Bolaño and his pleasure in creating these noble but pathetic writer characters.
BG: That solves a riddle for me, because in the notes you don’t say who you’re thinking of as the writer in that story. Salmon Rushdie (the editor of The Best American Short Stories 2008, which this story was featured in) suggests it may be Donald Barthelme.
JL: Barthelme’s with me almost every time I write a short story, especially these days. He’s a very strong influence when I’m thinking about short stories, and much less of one when I’m thinking about novels. That’s an interesting thing too, the way different authors become part of one arsenal or you suddenly reach for them when you need them or when they’re germane.
BG: When you reach for an author, is that something that happens in your head, or do you reread that person’s work? You’ve written about reading some of Dick’s novels four or five times.
JL: I happened to do a lot of rereading of Dick recently because I was editing the Library of America volumes of his novels, which definitely influenced Chronic City. It’s dark and urban and very detailed, in some ways like The Fortress of Solitude, but also has very extreme fantastic elements, almost like horror fiction or H.P. Lovecraft, of the world falling apart at the edges.
Sometimes I’ll be preparing a project and I’ll think, “It would be interesting to read some Roth again right now, because I know he’s capable of going so deep in these areas.” Maybe that’ll encourage my daring in this project in that area. But mostly I reread out of pleasure and quite haphazardly.
BG: In The Fortress of Solitude you quote song lyrics and movies. How much of that is conscious and deliberate? Do you worry you might inadvertently quote someone else when you don’t mean to?
JL: I let quotation happen when it wants to happen, and I’ve definitely stopped worrying about it. Some voices are much more prone to this than others, but it’s never out of the question.
For example, Girl in Landscape is relatively free of cultural reference. The voice is in the third person omniscient and stays relatively close to a thirteen year old girl who’s not a voracious reader or music listener, who lives in the future, and on this other planet. Yet I know there was at least one moment when some descriptive passage of the desert landscape under the sky slipped into a tiny bit of a Joni Mitchell lyric. It was irresistible, it was like a throb in the voice that just felt right, and there’s no reason in the world why I wanted to resist that. There might have been five words of quotation, but direct quotation, and I just let it be. But that’s notable because it’s so exceptional inside that project.
In other projects, like Motherless Brooklyn, where the character’s a literally stitched together Frankenstein voice made of quotations constantly remixing themselves, it happened constantly. You’d say it was deliberate, but that doesn’t mean that I was sitting there thinking, “Okay, quotation now!” It means that it was deliberate at the level of conception. I freed the voice to be that way from the outset, so then it began to happen automatically, it was an organic process made possible by the premise.
The same is true, although in a very different emotional register, in The Fortress of Solitude. The third person omniscience dips in and out of different characters for the first two-thirds of the book, and makes references on behalf of the character’s subjective emotion in that scene. So when Barrett Rude Jr. is thinking about betrayal in his career, his thoughts come out in the lyrics of a thousand soul songs about cheating lovers, because that’s his mode, that’s his world.
BG: Your use of omniscience, the way it shifts focus, is something that I’ve always liked about your writing. I noticed this in You Don’t Love Me Yet, where the perspective is mostly Lucinda’s, but every so often becomes the band’s as a whole.
JL: I was trying to do gestault consciousness, which is something that interests me very much, and what interests me about bands partly. As writers we’re stuck inside our individual selves, but a band is an attempt at a creative group mind. That attempt is poignant and risky and stirring to me even in its almost inevitable failure—bands break up or are dominated by one member, people don’t meld very easily in life. But the attempt is infinitely fascinating and beautiful in the brief moments when it works. This is something I wanted to celebrate. Even though the band in You Don’t Love Me Yet may seem to be kind of pathetic, I’m really invested in that open hearted attempt that they’re making to thrive.
But I’ve learned to be interested—and this again is something I’ve learned from writers who got there before me—in how many different degrees there can be between a full omniscient voice, a pure God voice, and a deep subjective third person where nothing is outside the character’s thoughts. It’s not a binary choice, an either/or choice, it’s one where you can conceive sentences that exist at all sorts of interesting degrees in between. In fact, if you look at most really interesting third person writing, it doesn’t obey a very strict formula of degree of proximity to the character’s consciousness. It goes deep in and it slides quite far away too. So what you’re describing is something that I consciously bring myself to be more and more able to do.
BG: What led you to change from third person to first person narration in the latter third of The Fortress of Solitude?
JL: That’s a big structural choice in the book, and a lot of people responded very badly to it. The interruption is a dangerous one, because in the preferences of most readers, if they get four hundred pages into one style then they’d rather stay there. But I wanted the book to be wrenchingly broken in the middle.
In my conception, the book structurally had to exemplify the enormous gulf between Dylan’s childhood experience and his life later, when all of the stuff that had been happening on Dean Street among these kids seemed to him irretrievably distant. Dylan as a grownup needed to seem like someone who exiled himself from that place, from that mode of thinking and feeling and remembering so completely that the book itself would represent this. I think part of the reason people object to it stylistically, when they do, is that it is emotionally disturbing. It establishes that Dylan has become a kind of cold, shitty guy who’s trying not to think about the past.
It also creates an effect that for me was thematically important. The first part of the book, which may seem at one level to have described a lot of very tough, painful experiences that you want to leave behind, in retrospect, compared to Dylan’s harsh first person narration, seems like a golden time that you want to get back to. The style encodes in the reader the same experience Dylan is having.
BG: Were there any models for this decision?
JL: James Baldwin’s Another Country begins with a character named Rufus and stays in his point of view for about fifty pages. While you’re with him, since it’s the start of the book, you can’t imagine anything else. But then you leave him decisively and never get back to him, and the book is then taken over by other voices and other strategies in telling. In a way, it freed me to make that break that I make so late in The Fortress of Solitude, although Baldwin doesn’t risk making the break so late, he makes it quite early. Still it was part of what I had in mind.
In a more general sense, if I ever felt that I did something too radical or destabilizing by taking a main character who started as a sympathetic victim of social forces and then making him into a kind of snobbish, shitty perpetrator of social forces later in the book, I only had to look so far as Great Expectations and Portrait of a Lady to see that precedents exist. Pip, Isabelle Archer, and Dylan Ebdus are each caught up in a social role that may threaten to crush them, though by the end of the book the reader is forced to judge them as snobbish collaborators with such social forces, to some degree. They also remain lovable to some extent—I hope Dylan does, by the end, though he seems impossible to love for a little while, when we first meet him.
BG: For this project I’ve also spoken to Lynne Tillman and David Gates—
JL: That’s funny because I’ve made one very conscious appropriation of Gates. I wrote a long short story that was published as if it was a novella called This Shape We’re In. If you look in the front page I made up a word: “acknowpologies.” I say acknowpologies to Franz Kafka and David Gates, because in my mind it’s obvious that I’m doing a Kafkaesque motif, but the voice was partly derived from reading Gates’s Jernigan. There was such a crazy, self-loathing and self-amusement in that voice, a combination of the character constantly making jokes that no one gets but himself and then being gruesomely abject at the same time. I thought it was so cool, I wondered if I could catch a little grain of that, so I’m sort of doing Jernigan doing Kafka.
BG: David Gates said he comes from another position, in that he tries diligently to strip away influence in his writing, to write honestly and without any echoes of other writer’s work.
JL: He needs to feel the vacuum. In some ways he’s closer to the norm in that framing of the process. I wonder if that conception is changing or not, or if it’s eligible to change.
BG: With hip-hop sampling, and the internet blurring lines of authorship, there seems to be more openness to the idea that artists mash things together in order to get new, unique work.
JL: Certainly there’s a lot of cultural context for overt reference right now, even if it also calls for an extreme counter-reaction—a lot of exaggerated exalting of the idea of originality. I think it can be hard for people to get their minds around the notion that their ideas or values of originality or purity in creativity may not be grounded far in the past. Many writers before the twentieth century wouldn’t have been terribly interested or engaged or anxious about these questions. You can point out, for instance, that Shakespeare cobbled lots of other stuff into his work, but that won’t always help people realize that maybe he existed in a world where no one could be bothered to valorize purity at that level. There’s something very modernist about the anxiety around influence.
BG: To rewrite, as Shakespeare did, an old history or mythic tale today and pass it off as an “original” work would be unusual.
JL: It would only be done as an overt, postmodern gesture, as opposed to just something to do. One area where this practice is a little more visible is in classical music and folk song tradition. Here, both the apparent high and low musical traditions were, until the twentieth century, not just sporadically or passingly open to influence and reference, they completely depended upon it for their function at every level. All folk songs are collective and built upon other creators’ work, and all classical music consists of motifs and references and quotations, consistently, up to a certain point.
BG: So is Dylan just bringing it all back home in his latter albums, where his quotations and references are more deliberate?
JL: This whole question of quotation and theft in Dylan tends to be looked at in arguments in favor for or against his unique genius, as though he himself were introducing the very problem that undermines his own claim. In a way it’s giving him too much credit to call him an original thief. He’s a typical thief. So can we now please just leave that question behind? But when an ideology exists, no one is free of it. He’s spent a lot of time defending himself or obfuscating about sources because he has absorbed the same frameworks that people are using to judge the work.
Ultimately, if art is working then it’s done something and you only need to become interested in sources if they interest you. Nothing more needs to be said. When art succeeds it’s its own law, it’s its own reason for being.
Brian Gresko is a fiction writer and essayist based in Brooklyn. His interviews appear on The Huffington Post, The Millions, The Paris Review Daily, and The Iowa Review Online, and are forthcoming in Glimmer Train Stories. He keeps the popular Fathering from the Hip column for Prospect Heights Patch. (9/2011)