Thomas Stolmar and Alexander Laurence get bookish with Jon
AMNESIA MOON is the second novel from Berkeley resident and Brooklyn transplant Jonathan Lethem. Amnesia Moon uses the evocative landscape of post-apocalypse literature and sci-fi films and most of all the work of R. Crumb. Chaos is the main dude in this unusual book that takes place in Wyoming, where the nuclear bomb has exploded, where people cannot remember their pasts, and sexual mutants dominate. Chaos, who lives in a multiplex, goes on the road to search for the dark truths of the past. Much of this visual story goes on to investigate the American road novel, with a twist of Philip K. Dick thrown in. Lethem shows that he is a connoisseur of pulp fiction, comic books and film noir. He always deals with memory, dreams, landscape and desire, as in his first novel Gun, With Occasional Music. His first novel was optioned, and he can spend his time committed to writing. He has a book of short stories coming out next year. To readers of both genre-fiction and literary novels, Jonathan Lethem is definitely a writer to look out for.
Alexander Laurence: You were originally a painter, so I'd like to know when did you have thoughts of being a writer?
Jonathan Lethem: I was cultivating this whole covert writing thing as I was going to Bennington College. I was reading voraciously. I had already been working at used bookstores, which was a way to read a lot of different books. I was reading all sorts of books at the time: Laurence Durrell, Norman Mailer, Philip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard, and other stuff that I ended up not liking like The Beats, which I read throughout High School. I was obsessed with Kerouac and Burroughs. I was reading detective novels, mysteries, and science fiction at the same time. It was all wide open for me. I have never been able to read anything besides fiction effectively which is why I was never a very good student. I don't think abstractly very well. I think in terms of situations, metaphors, and images. On the strength of all the reading I did in High School and college, I think that I'm still the best read person in fiction that I know. That was what I was doing instead of doing well in school.
AL: You went to Bennington at the same time that Bret Easton Ellis, Jill Eisenstad, and Donna Tartt were there, all who went on to write novels as well. How did that environment influence you?
JL: My closest friend was Jill out of those you mentioned. I knew Bret. Of course something quite absurd and really striking and disconcerting was going on which was: there I was at the time just out of High School. I wasn't particularly precocious. You might have said that I was promising, but that I hadn't accomplished anything yet in adult terms. Even in painting I had done little and I had only discovered that I wanted to be a writer. I was a contemporary in school with this guy who had his first novel come out when we were sophomores. He said to me very convincingly that he just expected that this was a very amazing thing to have done but the book will disappear like all first novels do. There was no way to predict what did happen. This unfolded while I was there thinking that I still had some time to, maybe take some drugs and grow up. It was good for me to know Bret and see it happen because it showed me up close what I would eventually pursue as a writer, and at the same time it blew any chance of pretending that I was going to be the precocious one out of the water. Now people say to me "You have two books out and you're 31," and I just chuckle because I have been plodding forward for what seems like forever. I saw some of the negative aspects that Bret had to deal with, and it tempered my impatience to have success. To know that it happened before you knew who the fuck you were and had written a lot of other stuff. By the time my first novel came out, if people wondered can he do it again, I knew I could because I had the books at home already written that were going to be follow ups. Bret had nothing else written, and the terror of "Can I do it again?"
Thomas Stolmar: Let me ask you a question as we stand in your living room. We are surrounded by quite an array of fiction, ranging from The Girl From Planet Five, Planet Big Zero, Virgin Planet, The Perfect Planet; and then we move to the next corner where we have Satan Is A Woman, a great novel by Jill Brewer, Halfway To Hell, To Hell Together, and finally, Satan Was A Man. Do you read all this stuff?
JL: Most of it. What's under the cover of a great vintage paperback is everything. They put Nabokov behind covers like that. They wrote books to order under these covers. Just because it has a great classic 1950s painting doesn't mean you know anything about it. It's just how books looked at the time.
TS: There's a sense of being doomed in a lot of these books. I also get that sense from Gun, With Occasional Music.
JL: Gun makes use of a pretty standard hard-boiled doomed ethos of "You're probably the last mortal man around" and it's a bad situation to be in and you've learned to have a cynical nihilistic self-involved persona to go with it. Does that have anything to do with my fondness for genre fiction? There's a tonality from film and from book covers and from writing of that period that excited me.
AL: Gun, With Occasional Music and Amnesia Moon seem to have a big concern with memory. Why is that? Also, both of these books are supposed to be set in the near future, right?
JL: Right. Taken literally. I think that Gun is secretly set in 1958. All the real influences and technology necessary to make the book possible come from then. It's like the movie Brazil: it's a future created out of chunks of the past. I would say that the true psychic setting year-wise for Amnesia Moon is 1978. It's not really the future either, but I am catching up.
AL: You can understand that it's 1958, or 1978, but it's simultaneously 1998, both future and past?
JL: Yeah. Certainly not further in the future than that. My characters tend to be concerned with memory and I guess some of that comes from my experience growing up. I grew up frustrated with people who didn't seem to have a lot of long term memory and I used to take it very personally. People forgot something that I was involved in, that I remembered. It was like a conspiracy: they were getting away with something or they were pretending to forget. Gradually I figured out that I just have slightly better memory. Nothing to brag about. I had to get used to the idea that I was going around holding on to bigger chunks of past relationships than other participants cared to. I couldn't hold it against them because it wasn't a trick being played against me. The shortness of cultural memory is another subject in my work. When people thought that Gun was like Blade Runner, I thought "Yeah, but it's more like Ross MacDonald and Alphaville."
AL: What about this Post-Modern influence? There's the idea that literature is one big grab bag. That you take it and re-use it in some interesting new way. How does that idea figure into your books?
JL: I relate to that and at the same time it's easy to overrate because it's become very overt now that writing and creation have always been an engagement with the precedents. You're entering into a dialogue with the other people who did this stuff, who wrote. There are paintings and writings that are Post-Modern in that sense. There is a special focus on Post-Modernism now for some reason. I write reactively. I write in the spirit of engagement with other people's works every time out. Sometimes the influences are obvious and even when they are not, I'm still engaging in that dialogue like most good writers are. Once in a while there seems to be a writer who writes something that really seems to only refer to itself, like Cline, and that gives it a singular quality. Cline, who is an exception, stepped out of the dialogue. Also I should point out that I was a visual artist and I am very comfortable with collage.
TS: What is the question that you would ask yourself that we haven't asked you in this interview? Like what are we doing in your house?
JL: Well, that's a tough one. Maybe it's that we're taking all this for granted. That there is a reason for doing this [writing] and that I'm going to get away with it. (Laughter)
TS: Why do you write?
JL: I don't have a clear answer. I'm too deep in a value system that says that books are it. My house tells you that story too. Writing is like wanting to have sex. I'm no more useful on the question of why write than I am on why fuck?
AL: When you start writing a novel how do you begin and what goals do you set for yourself?
JL: I take no notes and I don't outline. I hold it in my head and the tension that is created by constructing this virtual novel in my head, and by the inability to flesh it out in detail. Because I am holding the entirety fuels the need to get it on the page. I often have a scene or image in mind that is a resolution. I don't know what this resolution means but I find out by writing the book. I used to have some problems with plot early on, but not any more. What is a plot but what happens when you create more than one strong character and they don't agree on what should happen? What happens to them is the plot. You got to do that or you're just pushing an engine-less car uphill. I am a very dedicated worker as a writer, and start early in the morning. The cost of re-entry is too high so I never take a day off from writing. It's never as good after lunch.
AL: Amnesia Moon has an apocalyptic feel. What was that in response to?
JL: I think it was my first love. I was very into the post-disaster setting for novels. My favorite science fiction was that way. I read Earth Abides by George Stewart, Dr. Bloodmoney by Philip K. Dick, or 1984. I liked dystopian literature. Amnesia Moon is almost my clearing the plate of my obsession with disasters. I put them all in one book and exposed them as psychic necessities rather than real world events. It was my rebuke to my teenage self: why did you want the world to be destroyed so badly? Could it have been that there was something wrong with me? All the disasters in Amnesia Moon are traceable to neurosis. Maybe if I wasn't so sexually frustrated when I was fourteen I might not have needed to see the world laid to rubble so often.