Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Jonathan Lethem

Last night Jonathan Lethem dazzled the crowd at Butler by reading the third chapter of his upcoming novel, which takes place in late '50s Queens. The chapter, titled Grey Goose, takes its name from the title of a Burl Ives song featured in those pages. Here, Miriam, the young daughter of Rose, a single mother (and apologetic communist), is on a quest to lose her virginity. Expectedly, the prose was rich and textured, and the sentences were saturated with nuance and color.

Lethem's two-day visit to Butler was off to a breathless start. After the reading it was time for questions from the audience, many of which had to do with the craft of writing. Lethem advised that the process of revision is where the real writing happens; that editing is a process of self-understanding. His best advise to aspiring writers is to write every day, although having said that he admitted his own practice is less than consistent. He joked that if someone were to take an average of the time he spends each day writing it would come to about 17 minutes! Even so, making writing an automatic part of the day is important, he said, adding that one's relationship to his or her writing practice is also important. He prefers to think of the practice of writing each day as a habituation (something you do because you love it) rather than a discipline (something you make yourself do).

In response to another comment, Lethem agreed that a theme common to many of his books is the negative space left by a missing or deceased mother, most notably in (my personal favorite) "The Fortress of Solitude." He said readers incorrectly assume that this book is autobiographical because it carries within it many details of Lethem's young life (Lethem's mother died when he was 14), but that the plot of "The Fortress of Solitude," most of which takes place after the mother absents herself, is completely unlike his own childhood.

When asked about his newest book, "Chronic City," Lethem said he aimed to emulate the "chilly" characters of his favorite conceptual writers but that what he ended up writing were "hot" characters, and the mess of their humanity gummed up the "chilly" concept.

Today there was more Lethem: a Q & A in the morning followed by pizza. At the Q & A Lethem spoke about "Motherless Brooklyn," saying he got the idea for a Tourettes inflicted protagonist by reading Oliver Sacks. At the time he was living in the Bay Area, an area much more laid back than the East Coast, and as he ruminated about the frenetic energy and spurts of thought and language that are the hallmarks of Tourettes, he came to see his hometown of Brooklyn as "having Tourettes."

He went on to spend a good part of the Q & A addressing the subject of reading, emphasizing that no writing happens in a vacuum. Lethem was adamant in saying that writing is an intellectual pursuit rooted in language, and that every single word carries with it layers of meaning ascribed to it by the culture it exists in. He said that the supposition that a writer can generate work in an unsullied, pure environment, without contamination by the surrounding culture, is ludicrous. Reading and writing are reciprocal activities that feed off the other. In other words, read, read, read!

Then the pizza arrived, and even as we ate, Lethem generously continued to share his thoughts. In fact, it was during lunch that the most remarkable moment of Lethem's time at Butler occurred. One of my classmates asked Lethem what he thought about the workshop process (This is the structure of a standard creative writing class. Writers hone their craft by presenting work to a class of their peers who then offer feedback.) Lethem first commented that it has become fashionable to disparage the workshop process and say it turns out mediocre writers whose work all reads the same. He then offered his opinion: that writing workshops offer writers that golden, sought after opportunity to connect with other writers. A chance to say, "Hello? Anybody there?" through the can at the end of the string and find a "Yes!" at the other end. Lethem said that, as writers, this is what we all want, to be heard. And at this, Lethem's eyes actually welled up.

Butler's semester of visiting writers has brought authors of all stripes. While all of them read enthusiastically from their work, some clearly came with an agenda to engage, while others did not. But even of the authors who sought a mutuality to the author/reader dialogue, none of them did it with the articulate, generous, open-heartedness of Jonathan Lethem. An author who is brought to the brink of tears by discussing connecting with others through art? It leaves me all but speechless. All I can say is come back soon, Jonathan. We want more.

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