Those who are interested in writing or simply enjoy reading can benefit from meeting authors. Therefore, on March 29, ‘ink’ will welcome Jonathan Lethem, an accomplished writer who has written several short story collections and novels, including his latest “Fortress of Solitude,” and has also been named among Newsweek’s “100 People for the New Century.” He took some time to speak about the beginning of his writing career and what it means to redefine a genre.
Audrey Levine: When did you begin writing?
Jonathan Lethem: There are two points. When I was 14, 15, I was writing short stories. When I was 15, I wrote a short novel, 125 pages. I didn’t really get serious about it until I was 19 and then I had been an art student and it was at that moment that I quit painting and started writing for real. I never looked back after that. I began a novel when I was 19 that took me three years to write. (At that point) my training wheels came off and I was beginning to be a more confident writer.
AL: What made you start writing?
JL: I grew up in an artist’s household and because my father was a painter, I thought it was the path (I would take). I had a love of language and it led me away from painting and towards the narrative arts. I wanted to write stories that took place in time. It connects to loving books and being a reader and picturing myself wanting to write books that would go on a shelf with the ones I loved.
AL: Where do your ideas come from?
JL: It’s always a combination, a very confused and inextricable mass of personal experiences and imagining or dreams, things that my subconscious throws up that are irresolvable images and other influences, things I see around me that somehow speak to me in some way.
AL: I read you enjoy reading Philip K. Dick. What do you enjoy about his work?
JL: Philip K. Dick is considered a science-fiction writer. My personal opinion is he’s just a great novelist. He has a quality of being sort of a great improviser, his works have a chaotic madcap quality that encompasses his own unique response to the world which is a very paranoid and a very neurotic one but it means his characters in his stories take the form of being madcap dreams. I have at times tried to adopt his imaginative style, his chaos, (but) it’s not always easy.
AL: It has been said that you reinvent genres whenever you sit down to write. What genre do you consider yourself writing for?
JL: I try not to think of my stuff as fitting into any one genre, I like that it defies some while it shows the influence of various different styles or techniques. It’s often hard to pigeonhole.
AL: What genre do you prefer reading?
JL: When I was younger I was a voracious reader of crime and science fiction novels. In recent years, I’ve been less likely to read those partly because I burned through that pantheon of novels. My feeling is that every book in some way participates in every genre. For instance, academic satires, novels that are set on college campuses, follow a specific form but people don’t see them as fitting into a specific genre.
AL: What do you think it means to reinvent a genre?
JL: What they usually mean is that they’ve had their own eyes opened as writers in ways that genre writing and literary writing can be connected and can be shown to be closer together than most people assume. In my opinion, most writing that’s connected to genre, that’s interesting at all, usually does this to some extent.
AL: How does it feel to receive so many awards, including being among Newsweek’s “100 People for the New Century?”
JL: It’s wonderful in the simplest possible way. If it leads readers to discover the work, than that’s what I’m most grateful for. There’s no World Series and a winner, there are actually hundreds of writers who are doing superb work and there are innumerable ways that writing can be getting some recognition that can lead people to appreciate its achievement. I’ve been fortunate that some spotlights have been shown in my direction.
AL: When your first novel didn’t work out, why did you switch to short stories?
JL: Writing stories early in your development as a writer can be very (helpful) because they are shorter and you get to finish things more often. You get to see how to complete stories, how to bring them to a finished conclusion. (Otherwise) you won’t be able to figure out as well how narratives work.
AL: Do you often speak at colleges? What do you enjoy most about these readings?
JL: I do occasionally. I do probably three or four a year, lately. It’s still a special occasion. (I enjoy) being in touch with my readers and newer readers who remind me of myself at that point when I was developing my adult taste and there was a kind of appetite and energy to my curiosity about books and writers. It’s very nourishing now to come in contact with that same energy.