The Beatrice Interview: Jonathan Lethem (1995)

Jonathan Lethem is a writer whose science fiction novels receive praise not just from other science fiction writers like Karen Joy Fowler, but from ‘literary’ authors like Barry Gifford and David Bowman as well. They all realize that there’s an inventiveness to Lethem’s prose that transcends genre distinctions; as you’ll find in this discussion, it’s something of which Lethem himself is deeply aware. In addition to two novels, Gun, With Occasional Music and Amnesia Moon, he hosts Head Space, a weekly chat room devoted to science fiction at the Hotwired web site. [Head Space was terminated in 1997, by which time hosting duties had been taken over by fellow SF writer Martha Soukup. –RH]. I met with Lethem at Book Soup in Los Angeles in the early winter of 1995.

How did you first get involved with Head Space?

I was a guest on Club Wired initially. I was completely befuddled by it; I had to be introduced to the notion. I had been a cynic about online matters, not a knowledgable cynic. It was based on received wisdom in an oddly defensive way. I didn’t have that setup at home, so I told myself it was all just superficial chitchat anyway. But I had a really substantial hour, very fun; I went an half hour over the time allotted trying to answer everyone’s questions, and I must have made a good impression on them in turn, because they asked me to host a show soon after that.

I feel like I’m in the early stages of a new broadcast medium. It’s like the first years of television, when only a few people had sets, and everything was shaky, there were a lot of hours to fill, so people were just throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks. I realize that there are very few media where it’s considered a big coup to have an audience of 25 people for an hour. Even the most miserable radio talk show at four in the morning has hundreds of listeners. But Head Space has started to show momentum, and there aren’t a lot of expectations built up around it, so I’m allowed to take chances.

I’ve been impressed by the substantiality of the discussions. It’s fascinating to get four or five good science fiction writers in the same room, so to speak: you, Jack Womack, John Kessel…

I’ve been lucky enough to make semiregulars out of my guests. Once you learn how to check in, it becomes easy to come back. Some of the regulars are less well known, but are good writers from whom we’ll be hearing more, like Ray Davis at the New York Review of Science Fiction. It’s like the convention circuit: you get the big, shaggy conventions with lots of filksinging and Star Trek outfits, but then you have others where the audience is as literate as the ostensible guests of honor. It’s a very writer’s writers sort of place.

Is it hard getting guests to come online?

Because Wired is so deep into computer literacy, they often forget how offline the rest of us are. They always seem amazed when these important writers have to be led by the nose into learning how to use the space. It’s almost like an inoculation for the future I’m handing out to one writer at a time. It doesn’t necessarily make me a foot solider in the “Wired revolution,” where people will be online all the time. For me, an hour a week is fine, and I want to make that one hour a really strong experience. If it is sometimes content-heavy, I think that’s a good thing. A lot of the web is still tissue-thin. There’s showy stuff with nothing underneath.

You were at Bennington around the same time as Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt. What was the writing program there like?

I saw a lot of hotshots studying literature together; the trick is that I was really on the outside of that myself. I got to Bennington as an art student, and began to get serious about my writing after I got there. I dabbled in the writing program there, and then very quickly dropped out. I had a lot of good experiences there, but I’m not in any sense a product of that program. I don’t even have a degree from Bennington. I’m a sophomore on leave to this day. I had good friendships. It was a small school, everybody knew everybody. At that time, Bret had just been published, and it was a freak of nature to have somebody you knew, a sophomore in college, who had a published novel, and that it had become the debut novel of the year.

I was beginning to think of myself as a writer, but this was so disproportionate to anything that was going to happen to me anytime soon. It blew any of my notions of being a prodigal out of the water. Now, ten years later, Jill [Eisenstadt]’s published, Donna’s published, Lawrence David has published a few novels, I’ve written some books. But you can’t say enough how superficial my connection to that is. The fact that I knew them is neat and sort of inspiring at times. I have a lot of friendships with writers now, and still with some of the writers I knew then, but if Bennington seems like a big cabal of writers, that’s only in retrospect. At the time, we were miserable college students whining a lot.

Were you writing science fiction back then?

The strange collage of influences that make up my style were already in place. I grew up reading a lot of genre fiction, both science fiction and American-style crime fiction. I loved Ross McDonald, Chandler, and Hammett; the science fiction I loved was mostly stuff that was prominent in the ’60s and early ’70s. I worked in a used bookstore as a teenager, so I was always kind of lagged, in a very fortunate way, in that I was reading last year’s books. In the early ’80s, I was reading J. G. Ballard and Samuel Delany and Thomas Disch as if they were brand new, even though they’d already been overthrown by a somewhat blander, regressive type of science fiction, partially inspired by the success of Star Wars.

At the same time, I was reading Jack Kerouac, a lot of Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, and British writers like Graham Greene and Kingsley Amis, people whose work was a little more craftsmanlike, a little more solidly built. When you start writing, you eventually come to love writers with a great sense of craft. “First draft” writers like Kerouac appeal to you less than someone who gets out the hammer and nails and gets all the planks nailed down instead of sending out a pile of wood.

I read voraciously and I made connections across boundaries. If I read two authors that I liked, then they were equals. I didn’t care about the publishing boundaries that were supposed to keep them apart. I was aggressively naive about genre; I liked what I liked, and to me it was obvious that Philip K. Dick had more in common with Don DeLillo than, say, A. E. van Vogt, or that Barry Malzberg was a lot more like Norman Mailer than Norman Mailer was like Saul Bellow.

Gun, With Occasional Music, with its combination of science fiction and pulp crime novels, seems to me to be an interesting counterpoint to books like Neuromancer which play up the pulp angles. You give the two strains a more equal balance.

It’s impossible to overstate the influence on my work of a bunch of writers I see as a group: Borges, Calvino, Stanislaw Lem… Lem has a lot more in common with Calvino than he has with Isaac Asimov; that’s another false sorting that genre has given us. You’d never really call these guys, except Lem, science fiction writers, but they’re contemporary fantasists. It’s nothing to do with an archaic or mythological imagery that’s usually meant by ‘fantasy.’

I’m a science fiction writer…also. I like to engage in extrapolative stuff, and I don’t do too bad a job of it sometimes, but fundamentally, I’m a fantasist in that sense. Like a Lem or like a Dick, because I’m a product of twentieth century America, my vocabulary and imagery, my metaphors, are technological and modern. If Marquez had been born in Brooklyn in 1964, he might have grabbed on to the images and metaphors of technology and contemporary urban society to convey his fantastic imagery instead of the leafy green South American stuff that was available to him. But our impulses are the same.

It’s made sense from a marketing standpoint to position people like Dick and you as science fiction, because otherwise we don’t quite know how to deal with it.

Some of the pain associated with that was crippling to Dick’s self-esteem as a writer. It meant that he produced shoddier work than he wanted to because he had a low self-image thanks to the bad associations of being a ‘science fiction’ writer. But it could also be very liberating for him, and the work he produced when he thought he was writing serious fiction is often less engaging than his science fiction. He’s not fully himself when he think he’s being a good boy.

But he’s one of the ones who made it possible for others. He established that there is this little space where writers can function both ways, and it’s not a mistake. You can say, “This is science fiction, and it’ll appeal to readers across the board. It’s okay.” It wasn’t okay in his lifetime. But enough people seem to get it now, that you can be a science fiction writer and still write well.

Amnesia Moon was just reviewed in Newsweek. But that’s an exception to the rule. When was the last time, for example, a science fiction novel was given a stand-alone review in the Sunday New York Times?

The New York Times Book Review is a last bastion of reactionary critical culture. They’ve got that little column where science fiction is held in check every two months until they’re forced to give a review to somebody like Jack Womack. But look at the Voice Literary Supplement, which has done great pieces on Dick, and Octavia Butler, and Howard Waldrop. They don’t pretend they aren’t related to science fiction, but they’re not embarrassed to write about them, either.

I’m a science fiction writer forever, but I don’t think that’s all I am. I don’t think it’s a second class way of being a novelist, and I don’t think it should be an obstacle to the people who would appreciate my writing.

The Club Wired chat you held with Alan C. Elms about his book Uncovering Lives was fascinating. Not only was he taking science fiction seriously from a literary standpoint, but he had a major academic press publishing a book taking about Phillip K. Dick and Nabakov in the same breath.

Academia has its own superstitious boundaries. It all looks very honorable and highbrow to us, but I know plenty of academics involved in desperate battles to legitmate areas of study which people have deemed inappropriate. Elms has found a fascinating niche for himself as the voice of psychobiography. It’s a very embattled subgenre of biography, like being a romance writer would be among novelists. And he’s the one willing to go out there and say, “Well, what’s the difference between a really, really well written romance and a Jane Austen novel?” Like Dick writing in the science fiction ghetto, Elms has his own battles to fight.

What led you to write Amnesia Moon?

That’s probably harder to answer in this case than it’ll ever be with any book I ever write. It’s a very complicated process. There are parts of Amnesia Moon dating back to the first serious writing I did after dropping out of Bennington, and other parts written ten minutes before I turned it into the publisher. There are pieces of short stories from before I really knew how to write. It’s almost a self-diagnosis. When I was starting out, I was more imitative than I am now. I was writing like Ballard, like Dick, and I kept writing these disasters, destroying the world over and over. I had this need to see my characters living in the most godawful dystopias.

Now this isn’t to say I won’t ever write dystopias again, but I was doing it then in a compulsive, neurotic way. The Green section is one story I was working on, the world dominated by Kellogg is another, and so on. Each was a good disaster story, but the most striking thing about them is that I was destroying the world over and over again, and it was always tied up to the characters’ personas. So I decided to string these okay ideas together into one better idea, about the characters’ need to have the world destroyed to cope with their own neurotic experiences. I took the character Chaos, and walked him out of the story he was in and into the Green story.

This is an anti-science fiction novel in a way. Science fiction is always obsessed with the question of “How did this come to pass?” Well, it doesn’t matter if you know how; what’s important is what you’re going to do with your life now that it’s happened.

It’s basically a novel about coping.

And memory. There’s a question about where remembering is enabling and when it’s simply a reliving of your traumas. I’m questioning whether the world really would be better if we all remembered the horrible things that have happened to us, or maybe we should just get on with our lives.

Cornell Woolrich, one of my favorite writers, was the master of the paranoid amnesiac plot, in which protagonists would wake up not knowing what they’d done and spend the entire story trying to find out, and the last chapter is always the worst, because you find out what’s been motivating this obsessive pursuit is really something quite banal. So I was trying to write, in a way, a Woolrich novel without that bad last chapter.

Things are somewhat open-ended at the conclusion of Amnesia Moon. Do you see yourself returning to these characters?

You’re the first person to ask about it for this novel. I used to get asked all the time about Gun, and I’ll give you the answer I gave people about Gun. I did as much with the characters as I wanted to…in that world. If I wanted to deal with those characters again, it would have to be in a completely different reality. The thread of continuity might be alive, but it would be extremely subtle. It might be the case that only I’d recognize it as a sequel.