Jonathan Lethem by Betsy Sussler


BOMBLive! Cleveland Institute of Art, Cleveland October 2, 2008

The following is a transcript of the conversation.

Betsy Sussler What brought you to Tourette’s syndrome? Your protagonist in Motherless Brooklyn has it.

Jonathan Lethem Maybe everyone doesn’t know Oliver Sacks, but he’s a brilliant essayist who works in the in the mode of case studies. His essays are often published, they’re essays of diagnosis. He’s a neurologist who writes about people with brain diseases and undiagnosable dysfunctions, very artfully, very evocatively, and with great empathy.

The essay about Tourette’s syndrome is about a brain surgeon, a very accomplished brain surgeon. He has a very advanced form of Tourette’s syndrome. He’s someone, who if you walked into his office for a consultation, he’d be doing something akin to moving around a glass, scribbling against a wall, and hitting himself in the head at the same time. You’d think: this probably isn’t someone you’d want in your cranium (laughter). But, the beautiful and amazing thing about his case is that when this surgeon is in the operating theatre, for up to six hours at a time, his concentration and discipline are absolutely perfect. He has no symptoms. It’s only during his work that he is free. Free, from what otherwise, is the total grip of Tourette’s syndrome.

I began to think that this describes my own state of mind while I’m writing. Though, I’m not a Tourette’s sufferer in any way—or one that anyone would diagnose—there is the sense that I achieve a blissful disappearance of my own disordered reactivity to the world by writing. You could say a neurological-style in keeping with Tourette’s. Tourette’s is often, though not always, a verbal thing. It has this tendency to invert words, move words, mangle language, to use language confrontationally. With Tourette’s all of these things are disinhibited in the brain. I thought this seemed like a writing thing as well. It was so compelling to me that I knew I’d write about it instantly. I didn’t yet know how, or in what frame I’d put it though.

At this time I was just moving back to New York. I was returning to Brooklyn. When I left for California this was something I thought I would never do. One of the things about being a New Yorker in the Bay Area—I loved it there and I was very comfortable—which is what I was looking for in my twenties, a place to go to that wasn’t New York City. But, though I’m not a particularly aggressive, sarcastic, or confrontational person by New York standards, in the Bay Area it was another story. I had this constant problem of getting excited in a conversation. I’d step up and start to say something and people would respond to me as if I’d become upset. They’d say, “Is something wrong?” Or, “I’m sorry.” Then I’d say: “No, no, no, I was just making a point!” But, there was my tenor, the frieze of sarcasm, and the escalating tone. I would get on a jag when I’d start talking, and it didn’t play very well in the Bay Area (Laughter).

When I got back to Brooklyn, I was just conceiving of this fascination with Tourette’s mixed with this identification of myself. I was going to play in my book the first person role of the Tourette sufferer. But, suddenly I got back to Brooklyn and I felt: the babble on the streets, the juxtapositions, the urgency, the quickness to confrontation that was typical of New York street talk. This was where I’d come from and I thought I’d made this really great conflation. Brooklyn is my Tourette’s. The two things seemed to occupy the same space. It’s true in my work that often, mistakes are very useful. I embrace them and try to figure out why I made them. This was like a deliberate, shotgun marriage between Brooklyn and Tourette’s syndrome. That was how the book started.

BS I’m very curious about the animals in your novels. You’ve got a mobster kangaroo, a sarcastic sheep, children and aboriginals who transform into deer capable of eavesdropping, you have a very crabby TV star who is literally a crab—why give animals human speech? What does that do?

JL The Ground Zero reading experience for me was Alice in Wonderland. When my first novel came out—it was a hard-boiled detective novel that was also a dystopian satire—it was compared to Philip K. Dick and Raymond Chandler, who were almost my two favorite writers in the world. I felt ecstatic. I thought that was fine, they made a great identification, certainly one I could live with. Yet the book is full of talking animals and that’s taken for granted, exactly as Lewis Carroll has Alice wonder through Wonderland. We’re not concerning ourselves with the why of why: the cat, the turtle, the griffin, or whatever, can act as they do. We’re not concerned with why they can speak, but what’s wrong in their fictional world: why are they so irritated, why are they so bad? That was the kind of book that I’d written, I’d claimed Alice in Wonderland for myself.

I think in some ways I’ve never gotten far away from that. The excitement I feel at what that metaphor, motif, or whatever that is, and what it embodies for me. I often see other writers working through that lens. If you read Dickens, he describes his characters so much in animal terms. The way he has them speaking and moving, the vividness that he brings to character has everything to do with us seeing them as creatures on the earth, moving and confronting each other in their own strange menagerie of behaviors. I just feel that that’s a method, I first had met, when reading Lewis Carroll. The way it infused my reading, and then eventually, my writing forever.

BS I’d like to read this because it’s a beautiful sentence: “Each of my novels is fuelled by loss, and I find myself speaking of my mother’s death everywhere I go in the world.” You’ve also entertained the subject of memory loss before. I’m curious, why amnesia?

JL What I do is use something tangible I can get hold of; often that’s my mother’s death. I think I’ve written about motherless children in many different ways and at different times. I use what I can to get at the fundamental suspicions I have about the kind of broken quality of our waking life, the incompleteness or instability in experience itself. I was so struck by the loss occurring in that space of my own family.

Up to that point my family was a kind of bulwark against an assumption of things being lost. I grew up in New York City as a kind of ruined city. But, by the early ’70s with the election of Nixon and the souring of the idealism of the ’60s culture, there was the feeling of a wrecked crusade or a wrecked project that was in the background of the world. Then, with Regan’s election becoming part of the story, there was the feeling of something that we almost had and then fell apart.

My mother was herself a survivor of a very dark family. She was an only child. Her father, whom I never met, left my grandmother when my mother was three, and so my mother grew up as the only child of a divorced mother in Queens who worked in a pickle factory. My grandmother, the worker in the pickle factory, was a very dark woman totally obsessed with the Holocaust. This infused our family very deeply. Our sense of the world was as a disaster zone, a place where things were being taken away. That might be taken away at any moment. So my mother, the most forceful and extraordinary person that I knew, the one who seemed to hold everything together, and a great creator of meaning and feeling herself was lost. I didn’t experience this as disenchantment; I experienced it as a confirmation: everything I’ve been warned about in the world can come all the way to you and reach you in your own center. So, in a funny way I was already predisposed to look at the world that way. That’s why in my work it’s always a conflation of this kind of loss with amnesia, disaster, or some other kind of black hole. It’s coming and taking away what you care about. It’s a meaningful confusion for me, it’s one I can’t stop exploring.

BS In The Fortress of Solitude, both Dylan Ebdus and his friend Mingus, in a sense have been abandoned. By their mothers and by their fathers as well, who are preoccupied with their lives: making paintings, making music, taking drugs, whatever. The boys live in a Brooklyn neighborhood, where you grew up, one that’s mixed in terms of race and class. Dylan and Mingus come into possession of a ring from a homeless man. This ring enables them to fly and they use it to fight crime. The Fortress of Solitude has a very gritty realism to it. It is profound and has a profound street credibility to it. Also it is a stunning indictment against racism. My question is: why bring superhuman powers into that mix?

JL That’s how it arrived in my mind. The first thing I knew was that I had this image of a very pathetic, kind of a bum, superhero flying off the rooftops of the street that I grew up on. I received this image and I knew that it was going to be important and that the entire book would proceed from it. I can never see it in any other terms. In theory, the book tricks the reader by seeming like it’s going to be grittily and realistic. Then the superhero wobbles his way over the rooftops. For me it began there. Maybe it should have begun there on page one and I wouldn’t ever have to feel defensive about it.

What I do in book after book after book is smash together—as urgently and as adamantly as I can—things that feel verifiably real everyday: textures, stuff of the prosaic and dreamlike material. I’ve done it all the ways I can think to do it, every combination. It’s different every time out. The Fortress of Solitude is the best example of that so far. Well, with the possible exception of the book I’m finishing right now (audience laughter).

I would say that for a lot of reasons. One is that collision is in some way the thing I need to do, and makes it more pure and more absolute then ever before. Which means more real, it means the textures of the everyday are persuasive. People always want to tell me about their own lives after they’ve read the book, and that’s very moving to me. It means that it feels like an important connection; it’s like testimony. There are a lot of testimonial experiences from my own school days in it, and I borrowed stories from my brother’s life, my best friend’s life, that I’ve smashed together into these characters. I’ve awarded so many people’s experiences into these two boys. It’s almost overwhelming how much testimonial detail there is in it. Then, at the same time, I also have the most absurd and fantastical elements I’ve ever dared to put into operation. The corniest one of all: it’s a magic ring! It could come straight out of Tolkien, or Wagner, or a cereal box. And, what does it do? It gives you the two most obvious powers that you could have, the ones everyone is always fantasizing about: flying and invisibility. So in a way I just took the most embarrassingly broad and fantastic things and smashed them into my realism. For the people who are going to overreact, it’s the most embarrassing choice I’d ever made, but it’s really what I do again and again. Just in a more absolute sense.

Oh, what I was going to say was what The Marvel writers had begun to do, was take someone like Spiderman and write a little bit against the fantasy, the total encompassing fantasy of power as it was represented. What I have done in various ways is, as I’ve used the image of the superhero, is write totally against it. The interesting thing about the powers in The Fortress of Solitude is that the powers can do nothing to help the boys. They’re less than useless. Or, I should say worse than useless. I just recapitulated this just now in a comic book I wrote, called Omega the Unknown. Where again, the last thing an urban kid needs is a superhero hanging around him. That’s just another disaster in terms of trying to survive the daily life in a junior high school.

BS Girl In A Landscape, was inspired by Philip K. Dick’s novels, by John Ford’s The Searchers, and by Australia’s aboriginal culture, I’d like to know how you construct? Where did you start and where do you proceed building all those influences into a novel?

JL Well, Girl In A Landscape is a very interesting case to talk about in those terms because it was much more like a reworking of an existing story. One that seemed legendary to me, to have some kind of iconic power that made it seem almost biblical. The thought was of a western movie from 1956 called The Searchers, directed by John Ford, and staring John Wayne. I had a response to this movie that I couldn’t account for; it was so varied and turbulent. It made me want to study the movie, which I did, but that didn’t get me to where I needed to go. It was as if I was surrounding it with information, but I wanted to penetrate this movie in someway: so I set out to rework it. I was aware of other influences as I went, and then there were other references that crept in that I wasn’t aware of. One the things about that book is that, as much as it was a conscious reworking of the John Ford film, when I finished it, I realized I had borrowed from E. M. Forster’s Passage To India all over the place.

In retrospect, I can do things like claim to be a writer who works by re-organizing existing materials, but that’s not really how I feel when I’m conceiving it and starting a novel. I have to feel that I have something very pure and personal, and an insistent rise in me. Because, there’s no way to write, even a short novel, barely possible to write a short story, just on an impulse to demonstrate that you can kind of rope together this or that existing material. When I first started to describe my work in these terms I felt I was being more honest than other writers when they described how novels were written. It seems to me, that there’s a constant dialogue between sources and originality. To such an extent, that you couldn’t talk about your impulse to write something honestly, unless you did a lot of acknowledging of other sources and references. Like all the echoes at different levels of conscious organization that are appropriated. It seemed to me that that’s what writing consisted of. I still feel very stubborn about this in a way. When I get into these kinds of conversations, about the secret collages at the heart of so many of my works, I still feel that I’m being the champion for lucid description of something that’s very, very fundamental. It’s about describing a process that is organic, and is as organic as writing can possibly be.

BS In your essay, The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism, I think that these are your words, “originality and appropriation are as one.” You’re talking here about Bob Dylan, but it’s true, retelling what happened is innate to storytelling. It’s gone on from epic poetry to James Joyce and beyond. What brought back the anxiety of influence rather than the ecstasy of influence?

JL One thing is, we’re at an art school, we’re preaching to the choir. Visual artists are far less confused about these things in a fundamental sense than writers have been led to be. I can further some of my guesses about that, one reason I tend to talk about stuff the way that I do is because I was trained to think as a visual artist. I painted for so long before I was a writer. I painted, made sculptures, drawings, collages, other things, and comic books—I tried to draw comic books. All of which involve appropriation, tracing, and elements of visual plagiarism. It’s a very organic part to the process of becoming an artist.

Writing though, can labor near academic writing and journalism. In the area of academia and in the areas of journalism, there are very stringent and very reasonable expectations that certain kinds of bartering should never happen. Those standards get absorbed into literary writing, but I actually think they don’t belong there in the same way. I think that what I do is closer to painting or making a film or making a song in this sense. Appropriations, references, echoes, are all native to the act of making. They can’t be patrolled, the way a journalist would patrol a colleague. Or the way a teacher would patrol a student. It’s not the same situation.

BS How do you come by naming your characters? At first, I thought that maybe they’re anagrams, or maybe combines… .

JL There’s Dylan Ebdus, my stand-in character sort of in The Fortress of Solitude, and Lionel Essrog, my possibly other most autobiographical character in Motherless Brooklyn. One of the things that I like about those lumpy names beginning with a really soft “e” sound and so half-formed. They’re like the sound of a baby trying to say something, like ahhhh. You think, “What is it?” It’s a character trying to be something. After all, I’m writing about identity so much, and its slippages and instability. Those names are stand-ins in a way for those characters. They’re in a constant negotiation with who they are. Some others are inexplicable to me, too. I just come up with them and they amuse me or seem really important, or they are real names. I think that names are often stranger than people realize too. Names in books are very ordinary.

I’ll tell you one good story. The gang leader, the hood in Motherless Brooklyn, Frank Minna, that’s an inversion. That’s my grandmother’s name backwards. Her name was Minna Frank. When she filled out forms, people would think that she’d filled out the form wrong, and in waiting rooms people would always call, “Mr. Minna? Mr. Frank Minna?” She had this running joke where she’d say, “That’s not a Mr. Minna, that’s a felony.” (laughter).

One day she announced to us how exhausted she was by this error. Her husband left her, returned to Germany I should say—a very strange life story—he was a German Jew who repatriated to East Germany in the 1950s because of his communist leanings. So she was a single mom in Queens named Minna Frank, and she was so sick of this phantasm that was Frank Minna that she said, “You know I’m going to find this Frank Minna!” She opened up the Queens phonebook and there was someone named Frank Minna. She called him on the phone and immediately proposed marriage (laughter). Unfortunately, he was already married and it, uh, didn’t work out. So that name is a secret homage to her.

BS One more very quick question, and that’s Perkus Tooth, the character in your next novel, that has made a few appearances in some literary journals and appears in a book of short stories edited by Zadie Smith. You’ve described your youthful self as a wide-eyed autodidact. And, I would say that Perkus Tooth is also a wide-eyed autodidact.

JL I’m always looking for different kinds of containers to put different parts of myself in. It sounds very solipsistic, but this goes back to when I was just figuring out how to write, I didn’t intend to write autobiographically at all. I just wanted to tell stories, I thought. Or to make artifacts, my self was the least interesting thing. Then I’d see that I’d created two characters that were two parts of me arguing. It’s a very banal observation, but a lot of people are this way, I think. People who invent characters split themselves into different types.

We were talking about Amnesia Moon. I was thinking about two characters in a ruined landscape, in a sort of Beckett situation. I had these two characters named Chaos and Kellogg, and I had Chaos telling Kellogg what a drag he was. I thought, That’s one part of me teasing the other part. I’ve gone on doing that, and Perkus Tooth is another container. But, the reason I’m excited about the new book that he’s in is because I see as much of myself in some of the others too. But, yeah, the friction, the things that are impossible about Perkus Tooth—the way he drives other characters crazy—that’s me too. It’s not as though I’ve written him to get rid that part of me or to fulfill that part of me. It’s like part of your fingernail flying of, and then it becomes this human! You can be amazed at this act, and then love your fingernail. There it is (laughs).


Q&A Session

Student I’m interested in the act of appropriation that you mentioned. Has the way that people viewed that act changed over time?

JL The great writer on the subject of the eternal textuality and cultural expression is Lewis Hyde. He wrote a fantastic book called The Gift. It talks about how corrupted art becomes if it is looked at purely in terms of transaction and an artifact that can be handled in a commercial culture. Part of what an artist is doing when they are trying to make something, also has to include entering into a connection, a transaction, a conversation, a cultural zone that is beyond commerce. That’s when mentorship is possible, and when you start to look at things though that lens, that’s when appropriation and originality stop seeming so far apart. You start to see: that if you want to play the game, want to swim in the ocean with all of the rest of the amazing things, you just have to enter into a permanently impure relationship between your own original feelings and thoughts, and other people’s. It’s not a thing to be shunned or denied. To do this at all is to embrace it, finally.

Jonathan Lethem, best-selling author of Motherless Brooklyn, Fortress of Solitude, and The Disappointment Artist, talks with Betsy Sussler, co-founder and editor in chief of BOMB Magazine. Lethem’s tales incorporate the elements of noir mysteries, westerns, science fiction, and comic books. A contributing editor to BOMB, he has been featured in conversation with with Noah Baumbach and Lydia Millet. You can see Jonathan’s website here.

This interview was part of the “Tomorrow & Tomorrow & Tomorrow: The Kacalieff Lecture Series 2007–2008.” For more information about this series and the Cleveland Institute of Art, visit their website at

Jenny Diski by Frederic Tuten