Jonathan Lethem Click here to read more or purchase the book Jonathan Lethem
conducted 12/26/96

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Jim Freund: Beginning at 10:00 PM (Eastern Time) our guest tonight will be Jonathan Lethem, a (former) chat host himself at Wired's website, Head Space, and a brilliant sf writer. What follows is John Clute's article on him from the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (available in paperback and CD-ROM).

Jonathan Lethem -- (1964- ) US writer who began publishing sf with "The Cave Beneath the Falls" for Aboriginal in 1989, and who has published at least 35 stories since, the best known of them probably being "The Happy Man" (1991).

His first novel, Gun, With Occasional Music (1994), meticulously rehabilitates the noir narrative voice cyberpunk writers notoriously acquired from writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, not only through the exactitude of the stylistic miming involved, but also because the setting, characters and overall ambience of the tale directly homage the earlier masters. The setting is a cloistral near future California; and the main character (who narrates) is a private eye in a world which has been reduced--rather than liberated--by the recursiveness of a culture near the end of its tether.

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In the terrified, shrinking world of Gun, With Occasional Music, it is socially unacceptable to ask personal questions; drugs like Forgettol continue to reduce the mental spaces available to humanity; a weary dictatorial police state gives thugs in its employ the right to punish citizens by reducing their "karmic points" until they have none, and are sent to deep freeze; animals and babies, transmogrified by "evolution therapy", walk and talk. The nightmarishness of the book derives, perhaps, from a sense that JL has--as accurately as or Steve Erickson -- captured the surreal underlying bleakness of any future Hammett or Chandler might actually have imagined.

To update John Clute's article, Jonathan Lethem's second novel, Amnesia Moon, (Tor Books) has had no less of an impact on the sf field than GWOM, and his first collection of short stories, The Wall Of The Sky, The Wall Of The Eye, is now available in hardcover from Harcourt Brace.

Jonathan Lethem: This is a test. Had this been an actual message it would have been interesting. This has been a test of the Jonathan Lethem broadcast channel. Jim?

JF: Hi Jonathan... Just getting stuff in order. Lovely interface, huh? :-(

JL: hey, it's working. No crashes is all I ask.

JF: I just had one. (Non-chemical in nature.) At any rate, welcome!

JL: Thanks, Jim. This interface is oddly lonely, after working at HotWired for so long. There you always had a list of who was lurking.

JF: I guess we shouldn't assume everyone has read Amnesia Moon yet. Do you have a simple way of describing it? (Tough question, for a book with that much sub-text...)

JL: Amnesia Moon: a road novel set set in a fragmented future America. A collage of disaster and dystopia scenarios. A psychic chase scene.

Amnesia Moon is where I tried to dispose of all my impulses to destroy the world in one book.

JF: I shouldn't ask which psychics are being chased... If your first novel (Gun, With Occasional Music) has been described (by me at least, and I think John Clute) as Chandleresque, is AM Kerouacian? Dickesque? Or simply Lethemian?

JL: Well, it is an out-and-out homage to Dick -- the most overtly influenced book I'll probably ever write (Though the next one owes a lot to Delillo..) But also Kerouac. And Cornell Woolrich. And a lot of movies.

JF: Are there any over-riding influences over your body of work? (I mean as opposed to any one story.)

JL: I'm beginning to see this interface as a game of anticipating questions... which movies, you ask? A BOY AND HIS DOG, AN AMERICAN FRIEND and KINGS OF THE ROAD (both Wim Wenders)...

JF: (FWIW, I would have said _AM_ to be Dickesque, but I'm surprised at how many people drew the Kerouac connection instead. I guess they're not as familiar with PKD...)

JL: A few overriding influences -- I'll just list them and you grab onto what you find interesting: Dick, Crumb, Hitchcock, Highsmith, Graham Greene, Calvino, Borges, Kafka, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, Lewis Carroll, Robert Heinlein, ummmm...

We're talking BIG UNDERLYING INFLUENCES, you understand. Shirley Jackson. The Phantom Tollbooth. Don Delillo. Marvel Comics. Fritz Lang. I could go on... George Herriman.

To answer a question I just realized you asked (implicitly): I think people draw the Kerouac comparison because they're groping for a way to describe what it is about Amnesia Moon that feels like it isn't SF... not that it's a bad comparison (or not an influence.)

hmmm... I hear an echo. Am I interviewing myself at the moment? Fair enough. How did Robert Crumb influence AMNESIA MOON, Lethem? Well, the relationship of Chaos (protagonist) and Kellogg (villain in the early going) is very similar to that between Flakey Foont and Mr. Natural in R. Crumb's now-classic early "MR NATURAL" comics, which I recommend most highly.

JF: Sorry--got thrown out and had to reboot...

Amazing--you list all my favorites--particularly The Phantom Tollbooth (by Norton Juster) ...

JL: re: favorites: I am you and you are me, goo goo ga joob....

re: Norton Juster, Phantom Tollbooth, etc -- for me it's amazing how influential certain 'children's literature' has been... I graduated to 'adult' books (not porn, wiseguy!) quickly, but it seems like nearly all the kid's books I read were important and I can trace their connections to my work... Lewis Carroll, as I said, The MOOMIN BOOKS (a Finnish writer whose name I'm forgetting) HARRIET THE SPY, etc.

JF: "Well, the relationship of Chaos (protagonist) and Kellogg (villain in the early going) is very similar to that between Flakey Foont and Mr. Natural." -- That's enlightening -- complete with the abuse. Though I never saw the two of them as acting out their violent natures as such.

JL: Okay, Chaos is Flakey Foont on a bad day... basically, I stole Mr. Natural's style of being a irreverent guru who makes fun of the sobriety of his follower for Kellogg. But there's also that WIZARD OF OZ influence in there... for me, the movie, not the books, which I never read.

But I could point out influences all day -- a fun sport for me, but I'm not sure it's so gripping if you didn't happen to write the book yourself. Let alone for those in our audience who haven't READ the thing.

JF: When writing a book where reality shifts, do you consciously think of the reader's experience when writing, or more of the characters? (Or is that question completely off the mark...?)

JL: hmmm... I'd say I remain conscious of the reader's (virtual) attention at every moment. I myself am a kind of reader even as I write, and I try to please myself. But I do find that stories live and breathe more if my characters are real enough to exert an influence, bend things, impress me now and then with their own notions. I wouldn't go so far as to say I ever surrender control, or make sacrifices in readerly pleasure to indulge them. My characters have gotten rounder lately.

This also has something to do with creating plots/situations more improvisationally, so the characters are less hidebound by some overpowering plot mechanic. The book I'm writing now is freer in that sense.

JF: Which begs the question, what are you working on now?

(There! You did anticipate the question!)

JL: Put this guy on stage and watch him blab away, eh? I need a strong disciplinary hand, and I'm not getting one in here. Well, as I was saying, the book I'm working on now is more character driven... it's a sort of Western-in-Space, told from the point of view of a 13 year old girl...

working title: Girl In Landscape. The book is very directly influenced by a John Ford film called "The Searchers". John Wayne is the hero of the movie; he's sort of the villain in my book. The writing is most influenced, in this case, by Shirley Jackson. Her prose, and her sense of character psychology.

Of course if I had any commercial sense at all I'd be plugging the book that's about to COME OUT, as opposed to the one in the workshop. There is a new book out in March. But go ahead and ask me more about GIRL IN LANDSCSAPE if you like... it's certainly on my mind.

JF: With so much of your work being influenced by visual media, have you thought of adapting, or having your stories adapted, to film?

JL: re: film: Well, that's being taken care of for me, in a sense. Both GUN and AMNESIA MOON have been optioned by real hollywood producers, and so they'll get their shot in that high-stakes, low-odds world...

I'm not involved in either project (beyond cashing checks) and that's probably for the best. In each case I said what I had to say.

JF: The mind boggles at the thought of GWOM being filmed. In your fantasies, who would direct? (I think Tim Burton might be right for _Gun_)

JL: I did, however, collaborate in adapting one of my novellas, "The Happy Man", for a feature-length screenplay. The experience led to some meetings with producers, some quite flattering, some Barton Fink-ish, but no cigar. I was pleased to get my brief taste of the screenwriter's life and get out, at least for now.

re: fantasizing about directors for GUN, WITH OCCASIONAL MUSIC. Well, they offered it to Burton, I think. Personally I'd want someone less cartoony, who could bring out the serious side (since the jokes will take care of themselves, I suspect). Carl Franklin (ONE FALSE MOVE, DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS) would be good.

Neil Ira Belsky: A rather interesting choice for source material. Many people feel that John Wayne was already the villian for trying to reestablish the status quo for the girl. Have you decided how you are going to handle this?

JL: Yes, Neil, you're absolutely right... the power of THE SEARCHERS is in the ambiguity around the John Wayne figure... I did my best not to underestimate the film... my character is flying more bluntly in the face of reality, let's put it that way. But he's not completely evil... the difference is more one of VIEWPOINT. I take the girl's throughout...

JF: It would be interesting to remake The Searchers completely from the Natalie Wood POV (which is somewhat what you're doing...)

JL: My story is also one of COMPLICITY -- the community's need for a "John Wayne" figure -- which is a sub-sub-motif in the film, I think. Plus I complicate things in a lot of sillier ways. My aliens are less noble and less savage both than John Ford's Indians. They stand around making droll comments, mostly. The occasional pratfall, too.

JL: Martin Scorsese said the only flaw in THE SEARCHERS is that it's missing a scene between Debbie (Natalie Wood) and Scar, the Indian who she weds. That's why TAXI DRIVER has a long love scene between Jodi Foster and Harvey Keitel (her pimp)....

JF: That does make sense. I'll bet Scorsese wishes he could restore such a scene, were it ever filmed.

While we're waiting for audience questions, what is your Gibsonesque thing for not having a computer? :-)

(Yes, I know he has a Mac, but you've been a chat host, and you're still bumming around for a login...:-)

JL: Practical answers, Jim -- I'm fond of my old computer, a Toshiba laptop without a hard drive. And Wordperfect 4.2. I haven't spent a cent on computing (or a moment of writing time on learning curve stuff) for eight years... I still haven't been persuaded that I need e-mail -- I love postal mail, and I'm slave enough to the phone as it is. I'm very obsessive-compulsive about replies, and I think e-mail would be the death of my writing, frankly. Having said all that, I'll probably be upgrading and on-line tomorrow.

JF: Good answers. but then computing is an obsession (and profession) for me. Have you ever looked upon the computer as a medium (such as hypertext) you might work in the future?

JL: Short answer: nope. I'm linear and a control freak. Plus I've got friends who have that stuff covered, god bless 'em. I think they're breaking ground (as have other fiction/prose avant gardes) that will feed the traditional novel, which is my form. So I'll read them with interest, exchange thoughts with them informally and on panels, but never work in their medium.

Ellen Datlow: Well, I'd like to point out that although you're fighting and screaming not to get online etc etc. you have agreed to participate in a round-robin online some time in mid-January....or am I such a good bully???

JL: Ellen, a bully uses a stick. You, being a seducer, used a carrot: namely, a chance to collaborate with Karen Joy Fowler and Maureen McHugh...

JF: You say the novel is your form, but you've written some brilliant short stories. Have you given those up?

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JL: re; short stories -- Jim, I misspoke myself. I hope never to give up the short story (another traditional form, of course), though I am writing fewer these days. The predictable career course, I'm afraid. I've been fantasizing about giving over a year to stories sometime in the next century...

Oh, and thanks for calling them brilliant.

JF: Is it economically feasible to give oneself over to short stories these days? (I'm a big fan of the form, but so many writers say they just can't afford to do it.)

JL: The problem with stories is not just the economic disincentives. I've got 2.5 unwritten novels stacked up waiting to be written, and so there's a sort of internal competition for attention between the forms. I wish I could write faster.

I would do just as well economically writing short stories as novels if I wrote twenty or more in a year and sold them all to The New Yorker, Omni, Playboy and Harper's... but that's not too likely, is it?

JF: Are these stories sf?

JL: Jim, you know me well enough to know I try to dodge questions of genre placement at every opportunity... I can only guarantee continued strangeness. One of the unwritten books is (probably) a contemporary crime novel with a sort of Oliver Sacks element... another is a novel-length party scene set on a generational spaceship... sf or not? I hope to raise that question, not answer it.

Ellen Datlow: As a short story editor I have a problem pushing writers who started out writing short stories to continue to do so. I've lost wonderful writers who have gone on to novels and as you say, don't have the time or economic incentive to keep writing short fiction.....

JL: oops. I just did the math and realized that makes it sound like I'm doing awfully well... a man can dream, can't he?

Ellen Datlow: So few markets pay authors well enough to allow them to keep writing short fiction. I tried for years to get Joan Vinge to write a story for OMNI (I got here after her fer- tile period of short story writing) and she said it took her as long to build an entire world for a story as it did for a novel.

JL: Yes, Ellen -- my substantial stories (like the ones assembled in my collection, ahem) DO involve as much 'world-building' (that makes it sound a very scientific process, which it isn't) as a novel...

Jim, you probably ought to ask me a bit about the book coming in March, yes?

JF: *ahem* Jonathan, I understand you have a book coming out in March. Can you tell us about it?

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JL: "Must I do everything myself?" he raged, flattening several small Japanese cities with one mighty thrash of his magnificent tail.... ah, the new book is called AS SHE CLIMBED ACROSS THE TABLE. It's set on a college campus in Northern California, and involves a love triangle between man, woman, and void.

JF: Aha! Actually, I'm completely unaware of this book. Who's publishing it?

(...and can I get a galley? And will you come back on the radio with me to promote it? and... etc.)

JL: Oh, there you are Jim, he said sweetly. Yes, in March. Yes, I'm quite proud of it. A funny book, and a real love story, I think. No crime/mystery influence this time. Calvino, Delillo, and Lem. Very rubbery science. "Alice in Wonderland meets White Noise" says the publisher.

New publisher -- Doubleday. Galleys, etc -- we'll talk. I'm doing a book tour this time, so I may be out of town when it first comes out...

JF: Well, you're a NYorker again, so I can get you on the rebound.

In the words of RA Lafferty, Does anyone else have anything further to add?

JL: Yes, absolutely. And speaking of rebound, my eyeballs feel like superballs that the cat's been batting around the floor for a few hours... holiday hangover, etc. mind if we leave off here, having plugged?

JF: No prob. Audience, when you all take back those crappy gifts you got for the holidays, exchange them for a copy of Amnesia Moon and/or The Wall Of The Sky, The Wall Of The Eye by Jonathan Lethem. Thanks for being here.

JL: Thanks for having me, Jim, and Ellen. See you in the real world.

Ellen Datlow: Thanks Jonathan.

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