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Birnbaum v.

Jonathan Lethem

The dead may know Brooklyn, but it’s the living who make it. Author Jonathan Lethem talks about his new book, how to handle savage reviews, and the process of remembering his hometown from far away.

Jonathan Lethem was born and raised in Brooklyn and attended Bennington College on an art scholarship. In 1997, Newsweek named him (the only novelist) to their ‘100 People for the New Century’ list. With his latest book, The Fortress of Solitude, he has written six novels including Gun, With Occasional Music, Amnesia Moon, As She Climbed Across the Table, Girl in Landscape, and, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, Motherless Brooklyn. Add to Lethem’s oeuvre a book of alternate Kafkas (with Carter Scholz), Kafka Americana, a story collection, The Wall of the Eye, The Wall of The Sky, a novella, This Shape We’re In, and a couple of anthologies he has edited, The Vintage Book of Amnesia and Da Capo Best Music Writing 2002, and occasional appearances in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, McSweeney’s, and The Believer.

The Fortress of Solitude tells the story of two boys in the early ‘70s, Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude, one white, one black, who are friends and neighbors in a Brooklyn neighborhood populated by blacks and Latinos but on the verge of what is, in its aftermath, called ‘gentrification.’ As Michael Chabon opines on the book’s dust jacket, ‘[Lethem] has vividly and lovingly and truthfully, through thrilling evocation of its music, its popular culture, its street games, argot, pharmacology, social mores and radical politics, recreated a world…but most of all, from my point of view, he captures precisely…how it feels to love the world that is, on a daily basis, kicking your ass.’

Jonathan Lethem still lives in Brooklyn, down the street from his best friend from first grade.

 

* * *


Robert Birnbaum: The last I read of yours was your Searchers [Girl in Landscape] book, your western. Among other things, I am struck by how different The Fortress of Solitude is directionally and stylistically than other things I have read by you. Is this an homage to Toni Morrison?

Jonathan Lethem: Oh, no, I wasn’t thinking of Toni Morrison. I mean, there are some strong influences that may be adjacent. I was thinking of James Baldwin and Another Country, particularly. And of late-career Philip Roth, where he goes back to Newark. I wanted to do a similar justice to Brooklyn. What excites me so much about those books is he does the neighborhood and the childhood in the neighborhood and also brings the characters fully into the present and the complexities of adult life.

RB: Has someone asked you about Morrison and your book?

JL: No

RB: Any idea why I am asking?

JL: Well—I won’t guess. Tell me.

RB: I see echoes of Song of Solomon. Where there is a very pronounced flight motif.

JL: Right. That makes sense. Maybe I was unconsciously putting Song of Solomon and Invisible Man together when I concocted the two feeble powers of the Aeroman’s ring.

RB: I have one quibble with you. I don’t think you were respectful enough to Curtis Mayfield in your two or three references to him. Is it because you are from the East Coast?

JL: I am a huge Curtis Mayfield fan and I can’t remember dissing him in the book. He is a little bit politer and better adjusted than the singers I have as models for Barrett Rude are. He’s such a great voice and such a great conscience, but he’s less of a tormented soul. When you talk of Marvin Gaye or David Ruffin or Philippe Wynne—the guys who were the source for Barrett Rude Jr.—it’s guys who don’t resolve those conflicts but instead embed them in their voices. Mayfield had a very tragic accident at the end but he didn’t deserve that in the way the others—tragedy is embedded in their careers. Curtis Mayfield rises above that. He is a very beautifully adjusted and well-tempered artist.

RB: Do you know Arthur Kempton’s book, Boogaloo?

JL: I have a copy but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I suspect when I do I will realize I looked at some chunks of it in the New York Review of Books or elsewhere already. I am curious about it.

RB: The liner note section of The Fortress of Solitude made me think of it. Tell me a little about the book and what moved you to write it.



Writing a book is a daily process of discovering the language necessary to bring each new scene or character to life. You know there is a lot of discovery in the process. So maybe it’s better said that I couldn’t hold off any longer.



JL: It’s a book I have been wanting to write or daring myself to write for a long, long time. And specifically for 10 years or so and certainly before I conceived of Motherless Brooklyn I was already thinking I had to go in and engage with the material of the Brooklyn I grew up in, the racial politics there. But I guess I was also waiting—I was waiting to acquire the tools it would take to really tackle that stuff. It took encouragement—so many people have said, ‘People do their autobiographical bildungsroman—

RB: [laughs]

JL:—first, why did you wait?’ I guess I was thinking of another kind of model, Thomas Mann or Somerset Maugham really did wait until they were the writer that they needed to be—until they had come to the right psychological distance from that kind of stuff to go all out. What I needed was a language—that I was inventing book by book. There are parts of Girl in Landscape that are very much the precursor to this [book]. The quality of psychological intimacy with the characters and the exploration of family dynamics and then also characters, groups of children specifically, in a kind of frontier reality, a wide-open landscape. And then obviously Motherless Brooklyn became a chance to interrogate the place I was from but from a more iconic and pop perspective. I wrote a valentine to the place first, before making the deeper excavation.

RB: Is there no irony in the fact that perhaps this book should have been called Motherless Brooklyn?

JL: Probably the title would have worked just as well, yeah. Motherless Brooklyn became the precursor in another way that I hadn’t anticipated so much. Which is that, in all the previous books I was very rigorous about being a fiction writer who always stuck to invention in creating my worlds. If my characters in my earlier novels went to a movie or listened to a record it would have to be a fictional one. I would have to make it up. Lionel Essrog in Motherless Brooklyn was very free in a way I had never been as a writer to stop the progress of the books and give a brief appreciation of Mad magazine or a certain song by Prince or certain sandwiches he admired. So that ability to just write about real stuff—

RB: Whatever you felt like writing about—

JL: Yeah, and to appreciate the real world very directly in the voice of the book—that was actually something that was a kind of breakthrough for me in Motherless Brooklyn and obviously very necessary if I was going to write this panorama of pop culture and historical reality.

RB: You said that you felt that you needed to acquire the tools and the language to be able to write this book. How did you know when you had what you needed?

JL: How did I know I had gotten there? It was really more that the pressures to write this book had become unbearable. I couldn’t divert it any longer. I used up the obvious feints.

RB: [laughs]

JL: It’s not that you think or by any means that you have all of what you need but you are ready to invent it on the spot. Writing a book is a daily process of discovering the language necessary to bring each new scene or character to life. You know there is a lot of discovery in the process. So maybe it’s better said that I couldn’t hold off any longer.

RB: I found two extremely comical sections in The Fortress of Solitude. One, I got strong flashbacks from [the Coen Brothers movie] Barton Fink, where the film mogul is talking to the writer and is spewing nonstop bullshit-doubletalk. In your book, there is Jared the young producer meeting with Dylan, who presents this emotional roller-coaster ride that you mimic. He is totally and transparently inauthentic in his response to Dylan’s Prisonaire movie proposal.

JL: I’m glad you find it comical. Some people are intimidated by some of the tones of the book into fearing that it’s not meant to be funny, when it is. And certainly that scene is meant to be. I like your description of it as an emotional roller-coaster ride and he is on a kind of emotional bender in a funny way. [Hollywood is] a very hard world to satirize—or even not default to clichés when you write about it because it satirizes itself. And it’s become such a cliché If I captured anything that’s different or I added to the mosaic of writerly impressions of that place I think the mogul—he’s a not a mogul, he’s a development executive—

RB:—the would-be mogul—

JL: as himself going on an emotional roller-coaster ride with each pitch, that’s what I like about Jared—he’s full of shit but he is also the victim of his bullshit. He’s along for the ride.



I’ve come to realize that I like a sense of danger. I like to be working on something that I don’t know how to do. Which is why I throw out so much from book to book.



RB: The other scene that I thought had the same humorous qualities was when this wealthy young lawyer Zelmo Swift champions Dylan’s father and sets a up a conference honoring Abraham and there is a dinner scene with Swift, who is loud and self-centered, which was hilarious.

JL: Good.

RB: So having said all that, besides your own overwhelming need to write this book, what was the starting point? Where did this story start for you?

JL: It started with an image of a kind of drunken—a bum superhero wobbling over the rooftops of the street I grew up on. And the farcical image against the extremely real backdrop. For me the kind of classic sepia-toned memory of this childhood place and somehow reconciling those two things, that was the starting point.

RB: And the final passages, where you ruminate on middle-space, middle-ground, did you know that was where you were going?

JL: No, I found my way there. I am not sure at what point in the last six months of work I might have begun to understand how that final meditation would play out. But I think I did always have a sense that the book would end on the road, with Dylan alone in a car. I am not sure why that seemed so important; it did give me a final image that is a fairly indeterminate one for a book that is so rooted in place and community and relationships.

RB: The road is a place.

JL: Yeah. [pause] Yeah.

RB: Speaking of indeterminacy, will you return to any of these characters ever?

JL: Oh, I couldn’t. But I have never been able to picture my characters going on beyond the last page of their books.

RB: Otherwise you would have?

JL: I don’t know if I would have but certainly people have expected, especially with the two characters who are versions of the hard-boiled detective, that I’d bring them back. And I can’t do it. It’s very complete for me.

RB: So you’d never move towards a Faulknerian or a [William] Kennedyesque fictional world?

JL: I don’t think so. No, [pause] I don’t think there is any way I can To me the book is a complete organism or engine that has its own parameters, and if it were open ended in that way it wouldn’t have been finished.

RB: So when you begin a new book, what’s there for you from the work that you have already done?

JL: I’ve come to realize that I like a sense of danger. I like to be working on something that I don’t know how to do. Which is why I throw out so much from book to book. On the other hand I see such strong relationships between them in ways that I think aren’t obvious because certain surface strategies are so different. This book is longer. It uses so many mimetic textures. But I can see it in some ways as consisting of—the first half is Girl in Landscape again and the second half is Motherless Brooklyn again. Dylan as a grownup is basically a hard-boiled detective with a long flashback in the middle of his section about his childhood and then a chase for what he let go of in the past. So, I lean on earlier methods without even meaning to, at times.




Jonathan Lethem, photo by Robert Birnbaum
Jonathan Lethem, photograph by Robert Birnbaum


RB: And the [Dylan’s] father, who is he?

JL: He’s a very autobiographical character as well. That film [Abraham is making] is a self-portrait of a writer writing a long novel, that incremental frame-by-frame resurrection of a street in Brooklyn. And I was thinking of the fatalistic end point of a high modernist, the Rothko outcome or Beckett and Rothko—

RB: He is presented as a seemingly perfect moral character. I can’t see any flaws in him.

JL: His morality is maybe unquestionable but his temperament is so—he is so—

RB: Clinically depressed?

JL: Well, maybe depressed but also ascetic in his inability to engage with his environment. The way he has purified his work of context is also the way he has failed to integrate himself into that street in anyway.

RB: He does have a sense of what is going on. He is aware of what is happening with Mingus’s father.

JL: To me that is one of the more moving places in the book, when the reader and Dylan come to understand the fathers haven’t been locked down in their separate houses, when the boys leave the street. In fact they have made contact.

RB: Yes, Dylan’s dad brings Mingus Rude’s father chicken soup. Your musical reference points seem to be grounded in fact; what about the rest of the book? Do you play with the way Brooklyn—

JL: Oh yeah, it’s very much to the convenience of the book. I did want to present the gentrification of Boerum Hill in a way that felt like a documentary and there is an enormous amount that’s accurate to the standard of a novel. But I compressed the events into a narrower window in order to make Dylan and Mingus these kind of super witnesses, to get everything under their eyes, basically. And I exaggerated the isolation of the characters. In fact, there were more forms of community than I allow these characters to experience.

RB: In another era, not that long ago, this book would have had end papers that had maps of Brooklyn, that might have aided the reader slightly in getting a feel for the geography

JL: Sure, someone else mentioned, actually a review in Minneapolis that said this book is perfect except you need to see the streets, you need a map. One thing I realized is that I don’t—for all the visual texture I imply in the books, I don’t do a lot of direct visual explanation. You don’t ever hear characters described in such a way that a police sketch artist could make an image of them. And I don’t also do that with landscape. I don’t lay it out in any—I don’t give you the real logistics.

RB: Charles Baxter wrote an essay in The Believer to the effect that very few fiction writers would look a character in the face and describe them.

JL: I haven’t done a poll but I suspect he is right, that my own disinclination is typical, actually.

RB: You mentioned that you had read at least one review—

JL: I always do—

RB: This is like a court of law where you introduce a subject I wouldn’t have brought up and then I feel some license to bring up the subject—like James Wolcott’s review in the Wall Street Journal.

JL: That one was at the very start. It’s hard to remember the details. What it seems to me about Wolcott was that it was the kind that is so—it’s the kind of bad review where you laugh along with the reviewer. It didn’t really—there were reviews that were much, much more favorable but took exception to this or that that stung terribly. This didn’t have that effect. It was just self-ratifyingly obvious, I was the worst writer on the planet that day and we could all enjoy the joke that the book had been published. It didn’t really, to me, actually bear on the—

RB: That’s a pretty healthy response. Have you always been that healthy?

JL: I had a lot of time to warm up to this risk of getting savaged. I never was. I was a cult writer and so everyone who reviewed me for five books in a row, five novels in a row, took the approach of either celebrating the books or ignoring them. I didn’t get bad reviews. I don’t mean that they were bad-review proof, in any way. But that something in the nature, in the way I was published, meant that people didn’t see me as needing to be knocked off any pedestal. There was nothing to be compensated for. No one had made a claim that I was the great American writer. But after winning that award [Newsweek’s ‘100 People for the New Century’] I was going to be. It was going to be a natural thing I was going to be compensated for and that’s good. It means that I am taken seriously. It was about time, actually, that some people went hunting. Otherwise I would have really felt that I was being underestimated.

RB: I read Wolcott’s review [before I read the book] and thought that it was it was an obvious case of indigestion, on two levels. Do you remember the review, he quotes Thomas Wolfe, ‘Only the dead know Brooklyn…’

JL: He’s upset by the mystique. You are helping me remember. Of course, that’s legitimate, it’s a mystique. My editor joked that if you want a good review out of James Wolcott you shouldn’t kill a cat on the first page of the book.



I don’t mean to suggest that I know the man on the street, on any particular street, cares at all. But I think it probably would just be better if fewer novelists were reviewing each other, in the most general way that would be better. And in a very loose way, my sense is that the community of novelists would be relieved.



RB: [laughs] Do editors keep playbooks of what you should and shouldn’t do to appeal to certain reviewers? I recall that a few years back you were lauded as a person or face or some such thing to watch in the 21st century—

JL: Yeah, yeah—

RB: [laughs] How’s that worked out?

JL: I don’t know. I made it, anyway. I am still—

RB: What does that stuff mean?

JL: That’s Wolcott in the opposite direction. It was a list—I remember now. I hadn’t thought of this in a while—of a hundred people to watch. I was the only novelist. That is what made it so funny and, of course, so meaningless. Because if I was solely in charge of novel writing in the 21st century, we are all in terrible trouble, no matter how good a job I do. You knew that it’s gotten silly and it doesn’t mean anything and it’s something nice for the publishers to bat around. Between the two, somewhere there is the artist working and trying to keep faith with the work and that’s all that matters

RB: I just read a book review that suggested there is no literary journalism in the United States.

JL: What’s interesting is that there seems to be a self-consciousness about it right at this moment, with this debate about viscous reviewing and the ripple at the Believer on the one hand and some of the reactions. And also the atmosphere at the New Republic, the take-no-prisoners reviews that—James Wood, in his way, is brilliantly intolerant but I think there is a yearning for—well, I guess there are two different things. There’s a yearning for a greater number of figures of greater authority. For there to be not one Edmund Wilson or whomever, arbitrating everything—because it’s terrifying—but seven or eight people as good as Laura Miller or working as often as Laura Miller exclusively in the art of—

RB: You feel that Laura Miller is making a contribution to literary journalism?

JL: I think so, yeah.

RB: I find much of her recent writing to be careerist and hackneyed. I have lots of trouble with her stuff.

JL: I think what she does that Dale Peck doesn’t do, is set the parameters within the body of the piece so that you understand the standard by which she is operating.

RB: Was that evident in her review of Chuck Palahniuk’s latest novel?

JL: No comment.

RB: OK, I wonder about your suggestion that there is a longing for authorities. I don’t read Wood or most reviews but I do believe that Dirda and Yardley and Caldwell and Mendelsohn and Eder are dependably fair. They aren’t known for hatchet jobs. But besides a few people like you and me, who does care? Where would one look for the evidence of this yearning?

JL: I’m terribly subjective here. I don’t mean to suggest that I know the man on the street, on any particular street, cares at all. But I think it probably would just be better if fewer novelists were reviewing each other, in the most general way that would be better. And in a very loose way, my sense is that the community of novelists would be relieved.

RB: I would prefer to read writers writing about writers than reviewers writing—

JL: Well, it has strengths and weaknesses. It’s the only art form that is reviewed in the medium in which it is conveyed.

RB: As Vendela Vida said, maybe architects should start reviewing books.

JL: It creates an intense but also a very neurotic relationship between the reviewing and the making.

RB: Do you believe that literary fiction is marginal to American culture?

JL: [exasperated tone] I guess it is. It may be that it’s easy to pine for an imaginary time when fiction, novels, were central in what you are calling popular culture. There is Dickens and the docks crowded with people waiting for another chapter of Dickens and then what else is there? There are books that have—you have a Catcher in The Rye here or there that thrums along and becomes a icon of popular culture but it only does so in the kind of osmosis—it still hasn’t topped Hulk’s opening weekend, probably in terms of people receiving the object.

RB: [chuckles]



A majority of this book was not written in Brooklyn. It was written in a hotel lobby in Germany or in deep in the woods in Saratoga at a writers’ colony or a café in Toronto. Dreaming my way back to Brooklyn seems to be a necessary part of loving it for me—continuing to also love it from afar.



JL: It’s meant to be a more occult, intimate, more [reaches for a word]—it’s part of the stealth world of the fine arts. Even though people can pass their time with it. Its mode of operation isn’t that of pop culture.

RB: I wasn’t intending to compare literature today against its status in the 19th century. If it’s marginal, it probably was marginal then—

JL: I think it is intrinsically. Beautifully, even when it seems that at some moment that every person in the—

RB: In the bar—

JL: In the bar is reading whatever it is—The Corrections, they’re still each having that occult intimate one-on-one relationship that a book has to the mind of its reader. It’s not a mass experience. It just has intrinsic properties that cut against that.

RB: I thought you were going to say that everyone in the bar was writing a novel. What explains the burgeoning of writing programs and the apparent celebrity of young fiction writers? I have mentioned this before but a New York publication had a list of 50 loathsome New Yorkers and there were three or four novelists on that list.

JL: I’m glad I missed that. I don’t know, I am very tempted—I know I do this a lot—to make a there-is-nothing-new-under-the-sun observation. It seems to me fiction writers in certain urban circles have always been fashionable to gossip about and cherish as guests at dinner parties and there have always been young ones who are whispered about at any given time. I’m not sure that there’s anything different now. For society, they are a kind of decoration.

RB: That sounds true. Maybe it’s the case that gossip is so much more prevalent and part of the informational mix that writers and narrative artists are just part of it.

JL: Yeah, but of course, we don’t make such really great gossip compared to the people who are talented at it—

RB: Compared to Liza Minelli and her latest ex-husband.

JL: Yeah, I haven’t seen anything that impresses me as a significant trend.

RB: Don’t you think the money that is being offered writers is beyond—

JL: Well, yeah, sometimes the money is silly. That doesn’t seem to me as remarkable as an aspect of the literary world so much as it is a paltry reflection in the literary world of the boom and bust, star or gutter mentality of our capitalist culture at the moment. There is only—it’s our little subculture’s funny version of tax breaks for the guy driving the Hummer.

RB: [laughs] Your relationship to this writing culture—you don’t teach, do you?

JL: I don’t have to, so what I do is drop in a week here or there in a summer program just to mingle and to travel. But not in any real sense. I have never had a real teaching job.

RB: You can’t get away from writers in Brooklyn.

JL: Yeah, you can’t. It’s true.

RB: Do you want to have some separation or distance from the literary world?

JL: There are times when I desperately want it. I am lucky in being in Brooklyn—my relationship to the place as the book suggests. I am walking the streets of my childhood. My best friend from first grade lives on my street. So I am not susceptible to thinking it’s a mediascape. It’s not only its contemporary self to me. It’s a real place. I know some of the Brooklyn writers and some of them are dear friends. The problem isn’t the acquaintance of other writers. The problem is when people think that it means something more than it simply does. People decide to imagine that there is a kind of conspiracy or elitist klatch or some kind of cabal that needs to be dissected or penetrated or spied on.




Jonathan Lethem, photo by Robert Birnbaum
Jonathan Lethem, photographs by Robert Birnbaum


RB: I was thinking along the lines of just wanting to have beer and gab about the latest trade by the local ball team. Instead of the kind of bibliobabble that frequently results—

JL: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. A lot of that of that has to with what almost everyone has to manage in their life now, to stay sane. Which is modulating your access to email—

RB: [laughs]

JL: Not punching ‘Check Mail’ every five seconds. And this is a part of coping with contemporary life for anyone. Whether it’s email or some sort of analogous reduction of your number of fixes from the gossip stream.

RB: Well, clearly there is a need to be able to edit the informational shit-stream. But there is the problem of seemingly acquiring facts that you have no interest in and didn’t seek out. We seem to know things about Michael Jackson or Madonna with no conscious effort at all.

JL: Right. Running away, taking a walk, visiting the park—the antidotes are very simple. It’s just hard sometimes to keep them in mind.

RB: Is writing an antidote?

JL: Yeah, yeah. I mean, not writing for magazines but writing for no destination particularly or writing a novel that comes out of your deep and eccentric needs, is completely an antidote.

RB: When was the last time you sat down to write something that you had doubts about whether it was publishable?

JL: Practically speaking, what I write now is publishable. I love little magazines. I can’t write a piece so eccentric that I couldn’t place it. I don’t write for very long if I am unhappy with the result. I am not someone who commits to a lot of false starts or wrong turns. There aren’t a lot of outtakes to The Fortress of Solitude Basically, if I am not happy, or I don’t know what comes next, I don’t doodle. I sit and stare at it until I have the right thing on the page. I have become more and more a ‘get it right the first time, that’s the main thing’ kind of writer. That involves a tolerance for apparent blockage or stillness, anyway. A tolerance for sitting and seeming to do nothing to yourself but knowing that you are waiting. And I wait a lot.

RB: And in those moments—you are clearly working on a computer, yes?

JL: Yeah, why is it clear?

RB: Checking email every five seconds—

JL: I don’t alternate the writing with fooling around on the Internet, so much. I listen to music while I write. So there is another informational track streaming in, of a certain kind, the whole time I am working. I found that I have always needed to fill the—that I do have two channels. I do need to fill one with something to still the howling there while I write, but then I am simply writing while I am immersed on the other channel.

RB: When you are listening to music, are you trying to influence what you are writing?

JL: Sometimes there are musical touchstones to books. I can name them and they are interesting. I’ll play certain things that help me recall an emotional state, a key one for a given book. But that’s a minority. Most of the time I am [just] playing some music. Very intermittently, I will be doing it in some way that bears on the work.

RB: You made one literary reference that I noted [besides casually listing what Dylan’s mother is reading, Kurt Vonnegut and Henry Miller and Richard Brautigan] in the Fortress of Solitude. You have the woman [Isabel Vendle] who begins the gentrification of Boerum Hill, reading Anthony Powell.

JL: [That was] hugely important to me in structuring this book, was reading that whole sequence. Arthur Lomb is [Powell’s character Kenneth] Widmerpool; the character that you meet early on and you never think is going to be important to your life and take these different guises and resurfaces at different times with new face. Arthur is absolutely Widmerpool.

RB: Let me return to the fact that your best friend from first grade lives down the block from you. There is something about that—that’s a very vivid reminder of your past, isn’t it?

JL: I’m very lucky, much luckier than Dylan in my resources of continuity, I would call them. I have all sorts of bonds to that neighborhood, even when I flinched for about 10 years and lived in California, and didn’t apparently cultivate those connections through my siblings, which Dylan lacks, and through my extensive continuous friendships, which he also lacks, and also my family. My father wasn’t Abraham in that he built a life that had very much to do with the neighborhood. He was deeply a part of it. And so I have these wonderful kinds of inroads back into that life.

RB: Can you imagine living somewhere other than Brooklyn?

JL: Well, I can and I do. One of the things that’s deceptive is that there’s this simple story that I end up telling when I am having a simple conversation of ‘I was there and I left and now I am back.’ But what that conceals is that while I was away I was always running back and checking it out again. I would travel to New York, once or twice a year, every year that I was living in California. And now that I am back I run away all the time. I seem to be locked in some ways. I love having returned, but I am also in a funny way frozen in my 18-year-old act of fleeing the place. And I always have another destination—for a couple of years I was living in Toronto as well as Brooklyn and now my girlfriend and I are buying a house in Maine. In other times it’s been the book tour or a European trip or going to Yaddo. I am always kind of there and running away. Abandoning the place. In fact, a majority of this book was not written in Brooklyn. It was written in a hotel lobby in Germany or in deep in the woods in Saratoga at a writers’ colony or a café in Toronto. Dreaming my way back to Brooklyn seems to be a necessary part of loving it for me—continuing to also love it from afar.

RB: What’s next for you?

JL: I am more depleted and more completed by finishing this book than I have ever been before as a writer. So I don’t have another novel started. Or even fully intuited. I usually wait to see the shape of something coming. I know some things I won’t do in the next book. I can see it by process of exclusion. I am not going to touch Brooklyn and I am going to ignore fathers and sons and even generally parents and children. If you look at it in a certain light I have done three books of parents and children, in a row. So there are some things I am certain that I am not doing next. In the meantime I am writing a couple of short stories and completing a collection and that will be the next book.

RB: So there is no pressure?

JL: I am doing my best not to feel any pressure. I am not hurrying the next book and there is a certain sense in which this feels like a culmination and a watershed and I am going to write a little differently having gotten to this one and put it behind me. And I am very curious about that and it’s another kind of starting over—doing what I don’t know how to do already.

RB: Are there things that you have read recently that stand out—can I say, give you hope?

JL: There’s stuff that excites me all the time. I am not dour about the state of writing. And I, almost out of sympathy, I read a couple of my cohorts on book tour. The names you see in the bookstore the day before you get there or the day after—you realize they are suffering as you are suffering. I read Charles Baxter’s new book [Saul and Patsy: A Novel] and I thought it was lovely. I read J. Robert Lennon’s Mailman. [I] thought that was terrific, one of the funniest American novels—

RB: Really?

JL: It’s remarkable. Crazy book and deserves attention. But that’s the exception because the other thing I am doing is reading a lot of dead and out-of-print people. One of the things I have learned in the last few years is that I am malnourished if I am only reading stuff that everyone is talking about. I begin to feel that I am reading only as part of participant in a community. What I want, what I need desperately is the occult intimate act that I was talking about before. I am trying to reproduce the quality of reading when I was a teenager and had no knowledge of the conversation. I never read a review, I had no idea who was alive or dead or in print or out of print. I grabbed the book and the relationship was absolutely private and complete. So I read obscure and out-of-fashion writers to reconfigure that childhood relationship to the book.

RB: I won’t ask who they are—let them to remain obscure. Thank you very much. I expect we’ll talk again.

JL: You bet. You bet.
 

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum