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Breeding Hybrids in the Genre Garden

(excerpted from Locus Magazine, October 1997)
Jonathan Lethem
    Photo by Beth Gwinn

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Jonathan Lethem was attending Bennington, a private school in Vermont, on an art scholarship when he began writing his first attempt at a novel. When the early book didn't sell after four or five attempts, he turned to short story writing, finally got several works published, and placed third in the 1992 Sturgeon Awards for the short story ''The Happy Man''. His first published novel, Gun, with Occasional Music (1994), was followed by Amnesia Moon (1995), collection The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye (1996), and this year's novel, As She Climbed Across the Table. In the late '80s, he moved to the Bay Area, working mostly in bookstores in Berkeley. As of this year, after being a west-coaster for a decade, he is back in Brooklyn.

''I grew up in a very borderline Brooklyn neighborhood. It was in decline in the early '70s, and has very slowly been gentrified. My parents were part of the first wave: bohemians, radicals and artists, the typical people who reclaim borderline neighborhoods. So I definitely grew up in a world where my parents and their friends were living in the counterculture in the '70s. That very much shaped my perceptions, and I think it is detectable in my work in a lot of different ways."

''The reason it was better to begin writing short stories after that was because you're learning how to finish, how to satisfy expectations, again and again and again. But, having said that, my instincts were, in many ways, those of a novelist, and I still think I'm more naturally a novelist. I came to short stories by a relatively artificial means, because I read novels all the while I was growing up, and that was what I wanted to write. I think I'm prone to digressions and excursions more than I am to the narrow, formal constraints of a short story."

Amnesia Moon, is a book that is a fix-up, though no one knows it. It's a fix-up of unpublished short stories. I was trying to write out an obsession with dystopias, with collapsed or oppressed realities. At some point, I took a step back and said, 'What am I trying to do here? Why are all the stories similar?' The genesis of Amnesia Moon is my conclusion that what they had in common was this kind of need on the part of the characters, and apparently the author, to have the world destroyed. So I set out to write a book about that need, about that yearning to live in a dystopia."

''I remember very distinctly, my mother made a decision. She was a very catholic reader, she read eclectically, with no respect for genre boundaries whatsoever. No high/low distinctions, no genre distinctions. And she made the observation that there was a realm of literature that was imaginatively and intellectually advanced without being (and you'll have to pardon my mother for saying this) emotionally challenging. And she directed me towards Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. I started where everyone starts, or should start, with science fiction, by reading I, Robot and The Martian Chronicles. And that was it. The combination of Bradbury's purple poetry and Asimov's logic machines, that realm of metaphor and imagination, just worked for me, absolutely."

''The first piece of academic science fiction criticism I ever read was Gary K. Wolfe's The Iconography of Science Fiction. I stumbled across it when I was 18 years old, when I was just about to start my first real work, and it was enormously clarifying, because it was precisely the iconography of science fiction that was working for me. It helped sort out the things that were stimulating and effective for me from the sort of espousal of scientific culture that wasn't. In fact, I can claim to be a science fiction writer who is profoundly influenced by science fiction criticism. There probably hasn't been another generation of writers in the field who can say that, because there wasn't a lot of influential criticism until the mid-'60s. And Gary Wolfe was a key influence for me."

"My newest book, As She Climbed Across the Table, is a campus novel. As such, it plays with a set of expectations and a set of literary conventions, formal restrictions as narrow or narrower than many other genres. The things you're doing in a campus satire are very tightly organized according to a set of reading protocols and reader expectations. It was a great thrill for me to try to do justice to Don De Lillo's White Noise, John Barth's The End of the Road, and Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife a brilliant campus novel. I wanted to write one that played by those rules. There aren't just a couple of genres; there's a whole garden, full of genres, once you start to think of things that way."

''In Gun, with Occasional Music, I was obviously trying to marry the hardboiled voice to the dystopian novel. That came out of rediscovering Chandler and reading Ross McDonald for the first time. There's a lot of Ross McDonald in that book. And a couple of more contemporary hardboiled voices especially James Crumley."

''I'm just finishing a book that, in my mind, is a western. It's very strongly influenced not by written westerns but by film. I became obsessed with John Ford, with his westerns, in particular The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Those two films both have John Wayne at the center of them, as a very ambiguous, anti-heroic, tortured character. I wanted to write a book with John Wayne in it. At the same time, I was reading Carson McCullers, and Shirley Jackson especially has become very important to me recently. I conceived a book that was written from the point of view of a 13-year-old girl, that had a John Wayne figure at the center of the plot. The tone of the book is reminiscent of Jackson and some of the Southern Gothic writers like Harper Lee and Flannery O'Connor, who you associate with the tortured 13-year-old girl coming of age, grappling!! in a difficult way with her sexuality, perhaps because she's a tomboy, and there's this monstrous paternal figure on the horizon, symbolizing what is attractive and repulsive about the adult world and the sexual world and the male world, all at once. In some ways, it's a book that takes the point of view of the Natalie Wood character in The Searchers and gives her her own book. Now I've made all this much more difficult for myself and for my publisher by setting the book on Mars! That pretty well describes it: a Southern Gothic Western set on Mars. My working title is Girl in Landscape.''

© 1997 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.