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S2: I mean, really, my fourth decade of working on this weird, esoteric thing of changing my whims, my what I read and what I think about and what I see around me into stories people would want to read. That’s a really strange project. And it’s it’s amazing. It works even briefly.
S3: Welcome back to Working. I’m your host, June Thomas, and I’m your other host, Isaac Butler.
S1: Isaac, today we’ll be hearing your interview with writer Jonathan Lethem, whose voice we just heard. Super excited about that. But first, I believe you are currently deep in revisions of your book about the method. How is it going?
S4: Oh, no, I think objectively it’s going fine, I think being deep within it, this is an extremely difficult moment in the process. There’s a hard deadline within that. The work is very detailed. You know, it’s less about the large gestures of the book and now about like verb choice and stuff like that, you know, trying to really get the points across. Have I picked the right quote of the thousand quotes I have for this moment? There is also a pandemic and a failed coup attempt. And my daughter is full time remote right now from school. And, you know, it’s just a lot. Yeah. And, you know, this happened to me a little bit with the world only spins forward that as you reach the like, end of the process. And actually there’s all sorts of other stuff about the process to go after the book is finally drawing them for the final time. But but as you reach this point of the process, it’s tough not to go back and question all those foundational decisions you made that shaped the thing in the first place. But, gosh, what if I had actually approached it like this? What would that be? But you can’t do anything about that. You know, that’s pointless anxiety. So, yeah, I’m just saying it’s a weird moment of the process. It’s a difficult one. I wake up about an hour before my alarm every morning, you know, thinking about something having to do with the work and and but yeah, I’ll get through it. What other choice do I have right now?
S1: Yeah, I can’t wait to see. It also sounds like you’re sleeping, so that’s something.
S4: Yes. And I should also say, you know, to listeners that I’m going to be on the show a little bit less over the next couple of weeks as a result of this. And I’m very grateful to you and Remon for giving me some space to just finish things up.
S1: I understand completely. This just is a really tough time in which to be doing creative, challenging work. So I’m so glad that you are getting it done.
S4: Well, thank you. Well, you know, I do also think that this is something we get into in this episode with Jonathan that, you know, books take a long time. So, you know, the decisions that I’m thinking about now are ones I made two years ago and your relationship to the material changes over time. And so managing that in a healthy way is a complicated part of the process, I think.
S1: Yeah, well, OK, so what do we need to know about Jonathan Lethem?
S4: Wow. I mean, I guess I mean, he’s one of the foremost American writers of his generation. Right. If you know Jonathan but haven’t read his work. But no. Of him, it’s probably because of these two books that he wrote, Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude, that were really his breakthrough into kind of critical renown in the popular consciousness. Motherless Brooklyn won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and around the time of the publication of Fortress of Solitude, he won a MacArthur genius grant. And both of those novels were bestsellers. And I really think that Jonathan, along with Michael Chabon, is probably one of the big forces behind the kind of détente between genre fiction and literary fiction, because he was always drawing from both of those traditions in a really interesting and wild way. He’s also a great essayist. There’s a wonderful collection of his essays called The Ecstasy of Influence. He’s written many wonderful short stories. You know, he’s always integrating science fiction and detective stories and superhero comics and all sorts of stuff in this kind of swirl in his work. And he also currently teaches at Pomona College. He actually has the teaching position that belonged to the late David Foster Wallace. It’s a it’s a chair endowed by Roy Disney.
S1: In your conversation, you talk about the arrest, the novel he published at the end of last year. What kind of book is it?
S4: You know, it’s a delightful one. I actually read it and romance novel back to back and romance, I believe, is mentioned in this episode. So, you know, the the arrest, I guess you would call it a postapocalyptic comedy. It takes place in the near future where this event has happened called the arrest, in which all machines and our devices just stop working. And this hack screenwriter named Journeyman is stranded by the arrest in rural Maine because he was visiting his sister who lives on this agrarian commune there. And, you know, these sort of eked out this weird postapocalyptic existence is basically the mailman for, you know, the surrounding area. And then, lo and behold, one day a figure from Journeyman’s past this malevolent studio executive named Todd Ballum shows up in a gigantic impossible to describe nuclear powered car and journeyman becomes the go between for Todd Balam and the rest of the community.
S1: Not that old familiar plot again. I know, right? That old saw. Wow, that sounds weird and interesting and incredibly original. I can’t wait to hear more. First, though, it’s time for me to remind you about the importance of Slate. Plus, if you enjoy this podcast and the rest of Slate’s journalism, please consider supporting us by joining Slate. Plus, those of you who are already members will get to hear a little more from Isaac’s conversation with Jonathan Lethem. And that’s just one more benefit of membership. Your first year of sleepless membership costs just 35 dollars. Go to sleep. Dotcom’s working plus to learn more.
S5: All right, now let’s hear Isaac’s conversation with Jonathan Lethem.
S6: Jonathan Lethem, thank you so much for joining us to talk about your process here on working. Thank you, Isaac. It’s great to talk with you. So I just thought I’d start with the most basic. Do you have a kind of daily or regular writing practice? And are there particular rituals or anything you do to kind of get in the zone when you’re writing?
S7: Well, I mean, sure I do. I claim to have one and I claim it to myself. And that claim is very important, even though it doesn’t come true every day. The core of it is that I, I believe in the every day and when I’m writing a novel, I think adding something to it every day is the kind of for me the the the quintessence of of of practice. And that that can be a different amount or a different quality or, you know, the time in can be very different. It might be three more hours, it might be 20 minutes. But that’s something about contacting the project. Absolutely. Every day. It means that I’m thinking about it even when I’m not thinking about it and when I’m sleeping. And then I’m solving problems, semi-conscious consciously. So this everydayness is the center of it for me and then secondary to that, like the next thought and a very helpful one for me, even though I defy it or I, I, I forget it all the time, is earlier is better before the world has flooded in, you know, after your first coffee. That’s that’s better. And that that’s been really helpful for me when I can, when I can hold to it.
S6: You teach currently. I was wondering how that has affected your your writing process or how you think about writing now that you’re teaching creative writing and certain books. I know you’re revisiting over and over and over again. And I was I was wondering what that the effect of all that has been on you.
S7: You know, when you take a really wide view, there’s sort of always a thing or several things that you’re doing that are not writing. So when I first began teaching, people would say to me, wow, that’s going to be a big change for you. Now you have to balance writing against teaching. And I would I would always sort of think, well, it was always balanced against things, you know, and often it was a really centrifugal it was like some journalism and some lecturing or some book touring or, you know, or all kinds of other things that would be in the counter position, you know, writing and but, you know, the the really rich part of teaching, writing. And I I experienced this. A new replenishing thought and a replenishing experience is that it’s a conversation about what I care about and also what I think and what I feel about what I’m doing changes. And so this is a space where I can really detect that. You know, I think I teach very differently now. I think I write differently now in certain ways. And and that, you know, keep that keeps. That keeps it alive. And you asked about rereading, you know, I mean, I I was always a reader, I think I’d read, you know, Philip Zubik and Raymond Chandler’s farewell, my lovely, you know, each four or five times before I was 20. So I’ve always thought that there was something to be discovered in those encounters, you know, and and there are other books that have that talismanic quality to me, but also encouraging other people to read them when you’re not reading them as a way of staying in them, you know, making someone else get excited about reading Patricia Highsmith or or Iris Murdoch makes you remember the books. And teaching is just a more developed version of that practice. Right? Like, again, it’s a conversation.
S6: So one of the things you mentioned is that you do feel like you write a little differently now, that now that you teach or something has happened, something has changed in your writing since you began teaching. I was wondering if you were able to articulate what it was or if it feels kind of ineffable to you.
S7: Well, I think it would be misleading to make it sound like a kind of a shift or a watershed so much as it’s a flow of continuous, you know, reflections, insights, destabilizations. I mean, it changes what I read. It changes what I know about people because I’m in this conversation with. Really, you know, brilliant younger people than myself, so it nicely disables some of my assumptions and also disables some of my assumptions about what I write and what I revere in in my reading and how it’s going to play, how it works, you know, things that I think are legible. You know, you really notice it when suddenly the faces go blank and you’re like, oh, that’s not that’s not part of the body of assumptions anymore. That’s either up for grabs or it’s just opaque. It doesn’t it doesn’t figure anymore. And so, you know, it’s healthy for my writing. I mean, really, my fourth decade of working on. This weird, esoteric thing of changing my whims, my what I read and what I think about and what I see around me into stories and trying to make them into stories people would want to read and care about and enjoy it and make them experience, make my my self amusement into experiences for other people to undergo. That’s a really strange project. And it’s it’s amazing. It works even briefly, right? Yeah. To keep it going for so long is really is is really daunting and also involves dumb luck. But I think being asked to teach and being in the conversation with people so much younger than myself and also with my my academic colleagues who alter my assumptions and my framework, a lot has been really fortunate.
S6: And so the result of this latest kind of, you know, developing the things that amuse you and do a story for other people is, of course, your new novel, The Arrest. And I was wondering where that novel began for you, like, was it with the world or its protagonist or a question or an image or, you know, what was the first kind of, you know, Ember that that you had to breathe on their.
S7: I’ve been living in a in a small town in Maine when I spend time in periodically, very happily and usually only get to briefly, but I’ve been living there for like a seven or eight month stretch, which is really rare for me. And I was driving alone while actually alone with an aging Jack Russell terrier at Midwinter across the country, embarking from this small town in in coastal Maine. The day I packed the car, packed myself and the dog in the car, it was like twenty five below zero. And I drove across the wintry continent back to where I’m sitting now, California, and where I usually, you know, the preponderance of my months of the year are lived here. And so I was alone on the road, leaving this town and experiencing the breadth of the country, the cross-country drive. And I was listening to Don DeLillo’s Zerok on audio book. Hmm. And then suddenly this image popped into my head of some monstrous. Car reversing the that the driver was making and going back to the town I’d just left and under conditions that were apocalyptic or postapocalyptic, this car being something that was outfitted for for this destroyed world, this destroyed version of the United States, and it was going to disturb the quietude of this small town, which was a little oasis in the disaster. So it all kind of just came into my head as an image. Really, of this vehicle heading towards that town in the opposite direction I was going, but I also, of course, this book comes out of, you know, my love of certain books, and I namedrop them, almost all of them in in my novel. Right. You know, George R.R. Stewart’s Earth Abides and Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban and Dr. Bloodborne by Philip K. Dick. So that’s a that’s a really big piece of this was that I was I was wanting to be in a conversation suddenly again with this kind of book that’s that’s so such a baseline condition for me. I read I read almost all those books that I just named when I was in the forge of my teenage years, like 16, 14, 15, 16, and becoming the person who would want to write postapocalyptic or dystopian books. And so referencing them is like referencing a formative self.
S6: Mm hmm. It’s interesting because, you know, you have this image of the car, this desire to revisit that kind of literature. Did you know immediately it was going to be a novel? Because it seems to me you can have that image, any number of forms you could write a poem that’s that car in those words, whatever, a short story, an essay or, you know, at what point were you like, oh, this is actually a novel I want to spend.
S7: 12 to 18 months or whatever, you know, breathing this to life, I did know right away and it was because the size and the mysteriousness of the image, the things that seemed to instantly border on in my own consciousness and how how dark some of those areas were was suggestive instantly of the kind of richness, you know, I need a lot of questions. I need a lot of areas of bewilderment to set out writing a novel. I need to be thinking I’m going to discover a lot of stuff. And this image was so, you know, on one hand it was so. Silly, so specific and kind of embarrassing and cartoonish, but it also was perplexing and I didn’t know who was in it or what they were doing or what the result would be or what the conditions of this voyage might be and. You know, the number of questions that attached instantly were, you know, had it had that wonderful feeling of the prospect of something like a novel and also, you know. I was looking around for my next novel is what I what I’m doing all the time, when I’m when I’m not in the grips of one, in the absolute grips of one is I’m very eligible for that. Whereas I’m not you know, I’m not looking to bat ideas away or shrink them down and say, oh, I better just do a little, you know, drawing of a car or write a poem. I mean, I like to drawings and poems, but I’m I’m wide open to ideas for new novels, especially at certain moments. And and so this there was every good reason to cooperate with how big and strange this thought was.
S4: It’s interesting because you’re you’re starting with these kind of questions, these befuddlement. Right. Do you.
S6: Solve those in the process of writing itself, is it in the draft that you figure those things out or do you outline a lot or you know, how do you begin to set about figuring out even who’s in the car, you know?
S7: Yeah, I mean, I have I have to know that before I can start. I have to know a lot of outset things and and have some kind of character systems, systems of relation, not just characters I’m interested in, but how they matter to each other.
S6: You mean like the brother sister relationship, the journey M.A. have?
S7: Absolutely. And and Todd Belmond Journeyman’s, you know, problematic partnership there. They’re the way they were allied, the frenemies at the center of the book and. But I don’t do a lot of projecting into outlines or story. Notes, I mean, I’ll jot notes if specific set pieces or turns occur to me. Mostly I just need a lot of that beginning stuff and I need something at the ending. I need to like a really strong image or sort of icon, iconographic or set piece kind of feeling about the ending like a place. I really want things to get to that I’m writing toward. And then I like being lost on the way there. But it’s the difference between being lost with no destination and being lost with an absolute destination. So the improvisation, the development of a story as I unfold it or discover its implications and and how they can kind of conjugate into. Different scenes and different problems and different kinds of causality, one scene forcing the next one to exist that I really love to discover, I like I like reading books that feel like they’re discovered that they have this improvisatory energy in them. And so I prefer strongly prefer it myself, as well as being bored by notetaking and, you know, chart making or outline making. It’s never really felt very compelling to me.
S5: We’ll be back with more of Isaac’s conversation with Jonathan Lethem after this. Do you have questions about the creative process, big or small, about establishing creative habits or how to plot out a novel? If so, we would love to answer them. You can drop us a line at working at Slate Dotcom or give us an old fashioned phone call at three or four nine three three work. That’s three or four nine three three nine six seven five. We really, really like phone calls and we want to help you with any question you might have.
S1: OK, let’s rejoin Isaac’s conversation with Jonathan Lethem.
S6: So one of the really particular things about the arrest to me is its protagonist, it’s POV character journeymen who you you describe as a as a middle person. He’s a middle man between things. He’s not quite a brilliant writer. Right. He rewrites other people’s stuff. He’s sort of stuck in between two things. And although he’s a protagonist in the book, in many ways, he’s kind of a side character to its action. He doesn’t always he often does not know actually what is really going on, which is a really peculiar way to lends a story right to the character is sort of a side at witnessing it, trying to figure it out, often unsuccessfully. What led you to him as your kind of main character in the book? And to him, sort of being that way.
S7: Yeah, I mean, I would say, first of all, that it represents a continuation of an interest of mine in the well, in a couple of things. I mean, one is specifically the narrator who is has a rich sensibility in terms of local observation and seems to be willing to to be a good narrator. They’re not Humbert Humbert, but they’re actually really, really super bad at being being the main character. Right. And. I also think that, you know, one of the subjects of a number of my books is like being not the the main story, you know, being on the margins of big happenings. So Journeyman is a kind of a very specific kind of white male, somewhat successful, self-deprecating mediocrity, who’s trying to measure and I think failing to measure. But he’s at least interested in the question what his complicity is with those more powerful and obnoxious and destructive than himself. You know, if you’re a journeyman and you’ve spent your life rewriting big Hollywood movies for the people that, you know, at the very least are responsible for blotting out, like a lot of our brains with this terrible received carbon copy, big screen, spectacular tentpole franchise plastic. Are you are you part of it or are you are you just are you like the pilot fish at the at the jaw of the shark or are you like actually one of the shark’s teeth, if you know. And that’s most of you know, I mean, we do have monsters in our midst, but most of us are thankfully not the monster. But we’re in we’re in proximity. That’s journeyman.
S6: Right, and he, of course. A lot of that is because of his relationship with Todd Baum, who very much views himself as the protagonist of his story in a way Journeyman doesn’t. And is this sort of figure of the corruption of Hollywood sort of every thought you have about how corrupt Hollywood is or America is is right there in in Todd Baum? And I was wondering about that as a character, because, of course, one of the ways he sort of affects his villainy is through storytelling itself. And, you know, there’s such a high skepticism of storytelling within this book that is itself a very entertaining act of storytelling.
S7: Well, yes. So, I mean, I do think that the book is framing questions around the intoxicating nature of. You know, narrative and whether it embeds all kinds of ideological material, including the notion that there are protagonists and non protagonists that we are saddled with and in a fight against without knowing that we should be, you know. So, yeah, storytelling in a way. It’s like part of the hangover from the past. The Todd Brown represents, along with, you know, his nuclear fueled espresso machine. You know, he brings back a weapon, he brings back technology, he brings back bullying, the obnoxious charisma of his, you know, his personality, which is like a car wreck that you don’t want to look away from. But in a sense, he brings back the technology. You know, it’s as a one of the technologies that has collapsed and the rest is storytelling. And along with all the others, the the the the people in this community and perhaps the reader might be tempted to say, oh, wait, maybe we don’t want it back. Don’t bring that back in. Hmm. You know, I grew up as a person who lived in the world of the arts. My father was a painter. I always wanted to make comic books or movies or or books or or, you know, if I could make music, I would rather make music. So but at the same time, I had this apocalyptic imagination where I was always envisioning the end of the world, thanks to Rod Serling and Philip K. Dick and you know, Bob Dylan’s Hard Rain’s Going to Fall and a thousand other things. I was always pretty sure that I was going to live in a post apocalyptic landscape at some point, you know, if I was lucky. So the next thought, and it’s a very generic one, is what will your job be? Well, of course, then you award yourself, oh, I will be the matchmaker. I will be the storyteller. I can’t you know, I can’t forge a, you know, a plow out of steel. And I can’t I’m no good at you know, I’m not going to be able to fix the broken, you know, radio that we used to communicate with the other group of people in Canada. But, hey, I can you can invite me to the fire and I will tell a great tale. I’ll keep the spirit of civilization alive with these images and these, you know, and then the next thought, which was the one that in some ways insects, this whole book is maybe they don’t really need that. There’s no there’s no need for the story. What they what they need is a mailman. Yeah. If you if that’s all you have to offer us, we’re going to give you this other job. You can scrub the floor of the butcher’s barn. You can you can carry stuff from here to there.
S6: I know you’re a writer who gives sends your manuscripts to other writers to read and get feedback from and I’m just sort of wondering about how you approach revision, what you like from a reader who’s giving you notes, you know, how you think about that part of the process.
S7: That’s great. Well, so, I mean, I can tell some good stories around this this book in particular, I, I always try to go to a new group, partly just you don’t want to burn people out or ask the favor too many times. I mean, there’s some people I’ve ever returned to, but I was very conscious of wanting a lot of readings for this one. I was delighted as I was writing and I felt very confident and thrilled about how it was unfolding. But I also I I think I’m increasingly reliant on the help. And so I did ask people I’d never asked before, although I had known them a very long time. And one of them was Kim Stanley Robinson, who gave me this beautiful disclaimer. He said, I’m happy to do it. I promise you beforehand that I will do what I the only thing I always do, which is I’m going to tell you it’s. Absolutely perfect. And you shouldn’t change a word. And I said, OK, I’ll accept that kind of reading. So I sent it to Stan and he he read it. And that was exactly what he did. I mean, but but at length, he wrote me this really great kind of love letter to the book exactly as I sent it to him. And and that was weirdly helpful, even though there were a lot of things that were still to change because, for example, other people pushed on it in all sorts of ways. And there was there and they were second thoughts. I had things I knew I wasn’t satisfied with Steve Erickson, who’s a writer of Revered Forever and who’s another. Influence on this book as he is on a number of my books, but especially the ones that do you know, anything surreal with very American landscapes. And Steve was very. Modest and supportive and asked a few gentle questions and but largely endorsed the book. As it was written and then at the last possible second, the last line of his email said, despite all that, I kind of can’t help but wonder how this book would play in the third person. And it was staggering because I never conceived that it could work in the third person. And I just stared at this and I it was like I’d been tempted into this thought experiment that I wasn’t ever thinking I wasn’t ever expecting to to undergo. And it was irresistible because of it. It’s exoticism to me. So I, I, I transferred a few pages of the very beginning and the very end into third person and oh my God, it became such a crucial I you know, in the acknowledgements page of the book I, I save it for last and I say thank you to Steve Erickson for the intervention and it’s as though he was barely going to mention it. He was so modest. I wouldn’t be such a disastrously large suggestion to make. You would never make it as a suggestion. This book needs to change from the first to the third. But he did thank God. He he did mention that it flitted through his. Thoughts, because it changed everything, and crucially now the book seems to me to have needed it. Like an intervention, because the book was too wordy and and journeyman was too in the way. Hmm. Well, you need a little distance from him. Yeah, he was digressive and he was chatty. And actually, what I liked about this book, what I wanted to do was the same thing that had flashed into my head when I was driving cross-country. It was an iconographic book. It was about the shape of the objects as much as the characters and their voices. It was about the car moving and the town enduring, the car appearing and the isolation of the car on the park and and the the the movement of the boats to the island and the building of the tower. And of course, I’m now I’m going to risk a spoiler, so I won’t say. But it was really about these iconographic shapes in space and it was way too much in the way of that experience. You couldn’t see all of the shapes in space because he was blabbing at you.
S6: So when did you, like, finish the arrest, when did it go into production so close to the beginning of.
S7: What you’re about to start talking about that it’s crazy, I was I was writing the last. Pages, you know, revising or maybe adding the last new thoughts to it in January and and the very first week or two of February. As I already also responding to lots of copy edits, and I was doing like the closing moves on the copy edit response in March while I was. Believing that we were about to send all the students home from their dorms and then I was about to begin teaching my college students on Zoome even while my children were moving back into my house to begin doing their their grade school on their iPads. And I was trying to accept that this was real, like everyone. Right.
S6: It’s just the reason why I ask is is, of course, you know, there’s the book as it exists and there’s the book and the context of the reader. And, you know, five or 10 years from now, someone’s going to read the arrest and they’re not going to think, oh, there is an apocalypse going on right now. Hopefully they won’t think there’s currently an apocalypse going on while they read it. But of course, right now, when we read it, when you look at the book, it seems prescient in this sort of dream logic way. There is an apocalypse that has cut us off from a normal way of being in the book. It’s electronic relations and here it’s in real life relations. There’s a very Trumpy and figure in Todd Balam, who uses stories and his gift for performance to malevolent ends. And and I just sort of was wondering what the experience was like for you to bring this book into the world at this moment that it feels very connected to in this odd way, as if almost as if you wrote it during the pandemic, even though you wrote it before.
S7: Yeah, I mean, it’s so. It’s that’s so large a form of resonance that it’s almost doesn’t count as personal. I mean, like, I had so much company this year. If you read Roman Allums book, our co-host or co-host here, I’m working. If you read Kim Stanley Robinson’s book and you read Lydia Millet’s book. And on and on and on from there, you know that we’re saturated in this kind of collective. You know, I mean, I guess I forced myself to use the word zeitgeist of apprehension and and and response, and novelists are just one giant collective canary in a coal mine. But we’re just feeling. What life is about now and has been already, I mean, this quarantine year has sublimated the catastrophe. Right. But it’s the life of the 21st century. So the book has the weird as I like the way you say, it’s like a dream logic precedence because the book is funny. If you look at it in terms of literal precedence, it’s totally wrong and totally right simultaneously, like we are going to be forced back into our locality in the immediacy of our homes. And our places where we live, travel will become impossible, so then it seems like how did he know that? But then again, you and I are on Zoom and everything I do is endless virtuality like our lives have been. Kicked into virtual space by this experience, technology is everywhere, super prominent, super visible, and that’s the opposite of my story, where all the electronic. Tech, along with a lot of other things, is just, you know, in my thought experiment, is just winnowed it completely out of life.
S6: Right, well, Jonathan Lethem, thank you so much for joining us today on working.
S7: It’s great to talk, Isaac. Thanks.
S1: So many interesting nuggets in that conversation. One thing that really stood out to me was. That he made me see something differently. I have to admit that I had that feeling that he described somebody sharing with him of thinking that teaching would take writers away from their work in a way that would distract them from, like the important stuff. But he talked about it as facilitating a conversation about a subject. He’s passionate about the things he cares about most. I know you sometimes teach. Is that how you see it, too?
S4: Well, I was just so moved by that answer. I think a lot of writers and artists in other fields both talk and think of teaching as burdensome, that it’s the kind of drudgery you have to do to get the time and space to write. And it’s the only thing an MFA qualifies you to do. So that might as well be your day job, you know, and so forth. We’ve all heard that, I think. But the way Jonathan has framed it as this conversation, one that he learns from with engaged young minds that helps keep him involved in the world because we think of it as retreating to the ivory tower. But to him, it’s a way of connecting to the world. You know, I think that’s a sign that he’s probably a really good teacher. Yeah, I’m I’m starting teaching this week, actually. It’s a brand new course that I’ve never taught before. And I’m really excited to try to, you know, work to frame it that way in my mind in a more in a more active way. And to have my syllabus reflect that attitude and sort of the way I address the students and stuff like that.
S1: That sounds amazing. I loved that notion of fiction writing as something he does to amuse himself while at the same time hoping he can turn it into like a public amusement. He seems to be quite a modest guy, but it’s great to hear that he finds it fun to do his work.
S4: Yeah, you know, the thing I learned, as I think I referenced earlier, a thing that I have learned writing this book is, you know, writing books takes a long time and it’s a lot of work, particularly if you care a lot about what you’re doing and you want to do it. Well, I think writing probably comes easier to Jonathan than it does to a lot of us. But he’s still going to be spending a few years with whatever he chooses to write about. And then when he’s done, he has to promote it and talk about it all the time. And it’s really important to try to keep a sense of fun within that process to to let the subject leave you this breadcrumb trail of amusements that you can follow. You know, and I think that also shapes the work. His work is often really fun to read. There’s a couple of his books that are sort of purposely darker territories, you know, but but his books are really delightful. I mean, you know, Todd Boundry is a nuclear powered supercar that cannot be described in language that has a built-In espresso machine. I mean, that’s delightful. You know, and I think as readers, we we respond to those kinds of moments where the prose comes alive because the writer has keyed into something that interests them even more than the rest of the project.
S1: Yeah, I have to admit that I was surprised to learn that he starts a book project, a writing project with a beginning that he’s worked out and a destination that he’s heading toward, but that the bit in between is improvised because for all the weird reasons, because I’m obsessed with the Japanese stationery brand called Pallotta that I search YouTube for, I have learned about the two types of fiction writers, plotters and pences, that is, people who plan everything out before they start writing and then those who write by the seat of their pants. And it seems like Jonathan is somewhere in between. But I guess I assumed that all writers of his caliber were Plautus.
S4: My guess is, is that there’s more pantsing than we might think in the fiction world, in part because you can use the revision process to take what you have discovered and turn it into something that feels, you know, very devised and well plotted out. Like there’s one novelist I interviewed and he told me that his process is he writes the first draft of a novel longhand on legal pads to figure out what the story is, who the characters are, where it’s going, all that basic stuff. And then he literally tosses it in the garbage and sits down and starts over. That’s his process, right? Is that plotting or is that pantsing? It’s like he passes through the first draft, but that creates the plotting. I don’t know. So I think it’s one of those things where, you know, you’ve got to create the process that works for you. And part of what Jonathan needs to do is create room for himself to be surprised.
S1: Yeah, to have fun. Yeah. His anecdote about seeking feedback from writers he admires. And then one of those people, Steve Erixon, making a suggestion that transformed the book. I mean, that was mind blowing to me. Like, first of all, that that he would take that suggestion with such openness and, you know, with something that causes so much work, like that’s a commitment to the work where you’re like, you don’t say, oh, no, I’m done with it. You say, well, that’s a great idea. Let me experiment with that. I must confess, I’m not familiar with Erixon. Can you tell me more about Steve Ericson? And secondly, you’ve read the book. Can you imagine it being in the first person?
S4: Those are great questions. Steve Erickson is one of the great authors, author of I think you would call it science fiction. Most of his work falls roughly into that category, although not all of it. But there’s usually a sort of high concept gambit at their core. So, for example, his latest Chadbourne is about the Twin Towers suddenly manifesting in the middle of the South Dakota badlands. And then Elvis Presley’s twin brother, Jesse, comes back to life and often swirling around this is this kind of sense of Americana, of popular culture. And the plotting is very dream logic. These are not realist novels. They’re really structurally fascinating. He’s a really, really fascinating writer that Jonathan has been a huge champion of over the course of his own career. So I was very excited that he had then turned to him for feedback, because I know that Eriksson’s work has been so important to Jonathan. And I also say the third person poverty strategy is so integral to what the book is doing that it was really shocking to me that it had ever been in first person that he’d ever thought of it. I mean, that gives you a sense of what a great note it was, because while the book is focused on journeyman, the narration at times pulls back to describe things that are outside of him or even directly comment on him as a person. And I think that little ironic distance that’s inserted is really vital to the books project because it mirrors the gap between the story Journeyman thinks he is in and what kind of person he thinks he is and the one he turns out to be in, in the kind of person he turns out to be. And much of the actual story of what’s going on in the book is happening in the background, and he’s not aware of it. Now, you can do all of those things in first person. We all love an unreliable narrator, right? But the way Jonathan has accomplished that in third is just super persuasive to me.
S1: Wow. Now I’m even more wowed by his willingness to reconceptualize.
S4: I will also say, though, I feel like, you know, when you get at least for me, when I get a really great note that, you know, that on some level you’re like, that’s right. But the the burden of it is everything you’re going to have to do with it. My first response is like, God damn it. And then you feel so grateful and excited to do it. But there’s that first moment of, like, God damn it.
S1: Yeah, yeah, yeah, totally.
S3: All right, listeners, we hope you have enjoyed the show this week, if you have remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, then you will never miss an episode. And yes, I’m going to give you a sleepless plus pitch slate. Plus, members get benefits like zero odds on any Slate podcast bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Your Prudence. More importantly, at least to us, you’ll be supporting the work we do here on working. It’s only thirty five dollars for the first year. To learn more, go to Slate Dotcom Slash Working.
S8: Plus, thank you to Jonathan Lethem for being our guest this week and to our splendiferous producer Cameron Drus. We’ll be back next week with June’s conversation with pianist and singing coach Kathleen Kelly. Until then, get back to work.
S6: Hazlet plus listeners, Isaac Butler here, thank you so much for subscribing and for supporting everything we do here on working. I’m joined again by Jonathan Lethem. We have like a little bonus segment for you. So, Jonathan, you’ve been writing novels for 30 odd years now. And over the course of that time, I feel like your life has changed really dramatically many times. You know, when you first started writing, you were working in used bookstore, then you were writing and that was your only job. You know, then you were famous. Now you have two kids and you teach at a college. You have you had to remake that process to be able to get to the table first thing in the morning over and over again.
S7: Yeah, I learned I learned a lot of different strategies for dealing with those different things that were in your list of people. I’ve been you know, when when you mentioned they used bookstores, one of the things that was true when I was in my very early 20s and I was writing down with occasional music and management was that I was working kind of like a dog as a bookstore clerk. I loved it. I had a lot of energy. I was also doing other things, going out to parties and just being young and irrepressible. But I was most of what I was doing was trying to learn to be a writer and working constant shifts at the bookstore. And one of the things about them was that they were sometimes day shifts and they were sometimes night shifts. So I got to experiment with writing before I went to work and writing after I went to work and writing it like two in the morning after a night shift and writing it, you know, I got to. Fool around with a lot of different formats while I still had the energy to prevail despite all of that fooling around, so it was it was really helpful in figuring out what, first of all, that I could prevail, you know, that you can kind of if you want to enough, you can do it whenever. But also that I kind of liked that first putting it first mornings were best if I could if I could write before anything else, I was on the whole, going to be happier with the result.
S6: This has been a very peculiar year in a whole number of ways, but I’m sure you’ve kept up with culture, with reading, with Zoome theater, with whatever. So what in twenty twenty was a sort of big deal cultural experience for you that you felt really affected by and that touched you.
S7: So a couple of weeks ago I had the. Absolutely random, lucky and blessed experience of being thrown a free ticket into something that was being put on in live theater in Vancouver and it was called the Craigslist Cantata and the composer, musician and theater artist named Vita Hili. And this was a series of so indescribable and so beautiful. It was a series of real Craigslist ads that had been adapted into song by Vita and her collaborators and then theatrical ised in a kind of cantatas, the only word for it, they were woven together and that the theater artists did it in a real theater in in a series of isolated spaces within the theater. They were each in a kind of a closet or a side room in a black space so that when you saw it on Zoom, they seemed to be in the black space responding one to the to the other. The musicians were downstairs on the main stage, it was just to a drummer and Vitor Hili herself playing piano and the singing was extraordinary. And the the it was so gorgeous and humorous and and unexpected and and disarming. And I was in tears, absolutely shattered the way theater can deliver. I was in tears by the end, but not before I thought, oh, this is the funniest thing I’ve seen in a million years. And there were songs there were songs taken from Craigslist ads. I mean, many of them not exclusively, but many of them, of course, misconnections, types of ads. And they were songs with titles like Clown on Stilts at Mall Downtown. I took your picture. I was the guy who took your picture. You know, I just can’t even say how heartbreaking and and and and absurd and splendid this this experience was.
S4: Amazing. Amazing. Well, thank you for telling us about how the show was.
S7: Craigslist, Canada, the Craigslist cantata, the Krasnaya I, I of course, with theater, you’re always ambivalent. You’re like it happened. It went into the ether and it was perfect and it shouldn’t be reproduced. And of course then you also have the wish that other people could experience it. So you hope that someone did a screen capture and that you can revisit it. But I had the good fortune to see it live. Amazing. Well, thank you so much again for joining us. Thanks, Isaac.