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Jonathan Lethem on "Dissident Gardens" and Exile



Last May, I spoke with Jonathan Lethem at BookExpo America about his new novel, Dissident Gardens, his long-distance affection for New York City, and his obsession with New York Review Books Classics.


So tell me about the book.

Well, this book is kind of a family saga set in Queens. The central figure is a matriarch, a woman named Rose who has some DNA in common with my grandmother, who also lived in Sunnyside. But Rose is a passionately disappointed American communist. She was a believer that the revolution was going to come to the United States in her lifetime. And like a lot of people in her generation, she lived long enough to see the Khrushchev revelations about the Stalin purges and so forth, so it didn't go exactly as she'd planned. The nature of her disappointment and where those energies go give shape to what happens in her orbit, especially her daughter Miriam.

When you write a novel about your family, do you have to get permission? How does that work?

Oh gee, I've never asked anyone for permission. But I lucked out. It turns out for me to write about real people—which I do a lot—I also need, creatively, a strong necessity to mash them up like a DJ with some other stuff. I often take more than one real person and turn them into a character. It's confusing for anyone who knows any of those real people. But for me as a writer, I become enabled to do whatever I want.

So is Thanksgiving dinner like, "Hey Jonathan, I saw myself in this character and this character..."

Absolutely. Everyone's distributed. And it's true for me too, because I'm always in the books. When I look back at this book, it's very strange because I realized that in this chapter, I'm Miriam or I'm Rose or a number of other characters who are containers for my own personal experience. So I figure if I'm fair game, everyone else is too.

You're very strongly associated with Brooklyn, having written about it a lot. This is your first novel set in Queens.

Yeah.

But you actually live in California now.

I live in a college town in east LA. It's my second stint as a Californian. In my twenties I moved to the Bay Area.

Is it strange writing about New York when you're so far away?

It is strange, but writing's always strange. I actually really like exile in a funny way. I've done my best writing about New York from a distance. Most of Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude were written at an artist colony [called] Yaddo in upstate New York or while I was living in Toronto for a while. There's something about dreaming my way back to New York that seems to really work for me. Pining for the place, trying to restore it in my own imagination leads to good things.

So what are you reading right now?

I just finished Renata Adler's Speedboat. I'm completely addicted to the New York Review of Books Classics' reissues.

They're very handsome.

They're beautiful and I'm a sucker for that.

And one after the next they seem to be exciting for me to read. One thing I like about them is that they're surprising. When you read new books, so often you've heard too much. You've been reading reviews because you can't really stop yourself and someone else is reading it and you're talking about it. Or you hear something like this [interview] when you go on Amazon. And you absorb a lot of information: it's like seeing the trailer to the movie or something.

As a reader, I'm really addicted to being surprised. It's a great method for me to read these reissued books that I don't learn a lot about.

It's funny. They're things that have been out forever, so you think you would've heard about them a lot. But [Dissident Gardens] is a book that's not even out yet, and a lot of people are talking about it.

Well I hope it doesn't damage the experience too much. If it was up to me, there would be no flap copy on jackets. I really just love to plunge into a book and discover what it's about from the inside.

So Chronic City was your last book and that came out in 2009. Have you been writing Dissident Gardens since then?

I began Dissident Gardens immediately after. I was researching it even while I was finishing Chronic City, because it was coming to me in great waves. I had a real idea of what I wanted to do next. I started on it, and worked on it for a bit. And there was an interlude where—well a lot of things intervened: I moved to California, I had a new baby in my family, and I had these little nonfiction projects: I wrote a short book about a film called They Live and another about a Talking Heads' album, Fear of Music.

I think in some ways, Dissident Gardens needed me to take a big time out in the middle. It was a very research-intensive book and the structure was strange. I was confused by it, how to organize the material. So I sort of stopped for a while and did other things and my life changed. And I got back to it and wrote the rest of the book in a two-year burst.

Is this often how you write novels, with other things on the side?

It has happened that way for me. I don't always think it's a good idea, or I haven't always intended it to happen. More often than not, especially with a long book, something will intervene at some point. In the case of Dissident Gardens, in retrospect, I was figuring things out I didn't know yet. It was a very intricate book for me, but once I figured it out, I was off like a shot.

Maybe it's too early to say this, but what are you working on next?

Barely anything. I just finished the last corrections on the galley pages of this. I'm greatly anticipating a summer of reading and thinking about what fiction to write next. I have some inklings, but I don't want to pick yet.


Dissident Gardens is available tomorrow, September 10.

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