Monday, November 22, 2010
Last Monday I attended a reading by Jonathan Lethem at Butler University. Lethem is the author of of novels including Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude, and Chronic City. Before he began reading, he talked about his connection to Indiana. When he was young, he would spend summers in Bloomington where one of his cousins lived. This connection also resulted in Indiana interludes in two of his novels. I always love when authors have personal memories of my home state!
Instead of reading from his most current novel, Chronic City, as most authors would do, Lethem treated us to a chapter of his novel in progress. He read chapter three, "The Grey Goose." The title comes from a Burl Ives song of the same name. The novel is set in Queens during the 1950s/1960s. The chapter introduces a new character called Miriam who is the daughter of Rose, a "disappointed Comunist." Chapter three not only gives insight into Miriam's character but also her relationship with her mother. After hearing Lethem read, I'm excited to read some of his work for myself.
The Q & A that followed was great. The audience had some really good questions for Lethem and his answers matched. Here are some highlights.
When asked about his main influences, Lethem said he has a lot of them and they tend to change from book to book. For the novel he is currently working on, he cited Philip Roth and Christina Stead. He also mentioned what he called his "talismanic writers" or root influences including Graham Greene, Shirley Jackson, Lewis Carroll, and Raymond Chandler.
Lethem responded to a question about the editing process by saying that the real action, the real writing, happens in subsequent drafts (not the first draft). He also talked about revision being a "process of self-understanding."
He talked about writing as a habit or behavior you have to form. Rather than track how long he writes each day, he just vows to write every day.
Lethem also talked about wanting to be a conceptual writer like some of his inspirations, but found that he just isn't that kind of author. The "human gum" kept cropping up to mess up his conceptual ideas.
When asked what books aspiring authors should read, Lethem said hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them. He doesn't think there is one sacred canon. You have to create your own and choose what you read with willful excitement. Writing isn't a dutiful pursuit but should come from a ravenous pursuit of words and stories.
This reading was a wonderful installment in the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series. The next author in the series is Elmore Leonard, which I'm particularly excited about. If you are in the Indianapolis area, it is scheduled for 7:30pm on December 6 at Clowes Memorial Hall of Butler University.