Jonathan Lethem and Ben Arthur in Conversation
Jonathan Lethem is prolific. He has a book published for every year the last twenty and he moves easily between forms, recently releasing bestselling novels, collections of short stories and critical commentary, lyrics to an album, and a graphic novel. He is as good naturedly self-deprecating as he is unfailingly generous to fellow artists.
I met Jonathan for the first time in 2013, when we wrote and recorded a song with Walter Salas-Humara in the course of an afternoon (a music video of the song, using footage shot that day, is premiered below). Since then we’ve collaborated on another song, written in response to his story “Pending Vegan,” which will be released on my upcoming album, Call and Response.
Jonathan is the Roy Edward Disney Professor in Creative Writing at Pomona College, in Claremont, California. We met in his airy and comfortable office in Crookshank Hall on a January morning. I started by admitting that I had just read his dense and brilliant critical collection The Ecstacy of Influence, and was feeling wholly inadequate to the conversation.
I. A HUNDRED FINGERPRINTS
BEN ARTHUR: You mentioned that this conversation was good, in order to get your head into this space—why?
JONATHAN LETHEM: I’m co-teaching a course, with my friend Kevin Dettmar, the guy who just wrote one of these 33 and 1/3 books on the Gang of Four. A course we’ve just invented, called Inauthenticity. It’s a giant umbrella. The subtitle is something like Plagiarism, Appropriation, Sampling, Copying, Pastiche, Collage, Influence, and Forgery. I can’t remember which terms we mention, actually. But they all apply.
BA: That sounds like so much fun. Did you read that piece about the guy who was trying to use fingerprints of artists, left accidentally in the paint or on the side of the canvas, in order to authenticate paintings?
JL: I didn’t. But that’s a marvelous…
BA: He was, of course, forging everything.
JL: Our romantic image of the artist has to do as much with the Renaissance masters as anything. And they were all workshop artists who had a specialist come in to do the clouds. They were above doing the trees in the background; they’d call in their twenty year-old apprentice. You’d find a hundred fingerprints on the paintings. There’s not a sole author there. In the class we’ll do Led Zeppelin and Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan and T.S. Eliot, all of it. High, low, sampling, appropriation, copying. Fakery scandals, authorship controversies, and YouTube culture, fan appropriations of popular media.
BA: I kind of wish I could take that class.
JL: I wish I could take it myself. That would be much more congenial. But I guess I can rely on muscle memory, I’ve thought about this stuff so much. We’ll just call up YouTube clips and listen to the songs that Led Zeppelin stole.
BA: Sure. You’ll start with a urinal and then you’ll…
JL: We’ll begin in the urinal and we’ll end up in the comments section. Somewhere between there we’ll get to High Modernism, we’ll get to Joyce and Eliot. It’s a forgiving course description.
BA: It does seem that music has been such a key point in your literary identity, and your association of identity within your work. Music is one of those sources that you use to form characters, and to place them.
JL: You mean that my characters are partly constructed out of their appetite for music.
BA: Yeah. And their influences… and their dreams.
JL: Yeah, it’s funny. It even got into the title of my first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music. It’s impossible to overstate how my relationship to music forms a preserve for the esoteric or even spiritual aspect of my relationship to cultural stuff, to human expressivity… it’s a safe enclosure. The reason being that I can’t practice that art. I’ve never been able to master an instrument. I had a few chances—I was given a trumpet in junior high school. They tried to teach me to read charts so I could be part of the jazz band.
BA: I would fail at that myself.
JL: I tried to learn guitar in my twenties…
BA: You were in a band.
JL: Let’s put that aside for a moment. Really, my versions of “being in a band” are a charade. I really don’t mean that as a form of bogus modesty or…
JL: See, “being in a band” and “playing music” are two different things. Sure, I’ve been in a band. Did I play music? No. I chanted or spoke-sang or wrote lyrics and I participated in the activities of the band and got to be in the band photograph… but that doesn’t mean I ever became a musician. I’m certain of this. I never have been a musician; I’m not actually capable. Because I can’t even pretend to acquire the gift, all of my first feelings about art are still attached to music. I look at it yearningly, I look at it wonderingly. I behold it from afar, as something unattainable, something outside of myself, from which I can take nourishment, but I can’t domesticate and master.
BA: Which is a story that you tell a lot: music as this distant point, far from you. And yet you totally…
JL: Well, what do you want to do with a distant point? You want to bring it as close as you can. I’ve tried in so many ways. I hang out with musicians (i.e. right now), I pretend to be in bands, this weird kind of participation where I write lyrics and get to be as near the site of the action, of the creation, as possible. I sing to my children because they don’t know how bad I sound. I listen to music all the time. I write while listening to music. And I tell myself that the music nourishes the art forms that I do master and domesticate, and have authority over. As much as I revere great writing, and am still humbled by it, literary activities are no longer esoteric to me. When I read a great novel—something that I could never have written myself—I’m still looking at it a little bit like a technician.
BA: Sure, you’re at home.
JL: And maybe I’ll steal a little of its magic. I’m like, “Oh, I can take that! This shit I can do!” I work with narrative and character. I work with the structures of storytelling. Other stuff I love, like film, or comic books…I can break them down. I have some association with them, some mastery. I’m sometimes asked to write a screenplay. I once wrote a comic book. Without meaning to claim that I’ve excelled at these things I’ve only dabbled in, I do think I brought some competencies to these other forms, which like fiction are made up of narrative, language, character, structure, dramatic scenes. These strengths do carry over. If I stuck with it I’d probably be a solid screenwriter. I could probably write comic books. But I could never make music. I can’t. My ear, my body… that sort of thing remains outside.
II. THE FORMS GENERATE THEIR OWN VARIATIONS
BA: You’re drawing a bright line between melody and lyrics.
JL: Creation of an original melody, but also fluency with my voice or on an instrument that would persuade or impress another human being… it’s unattainable.
BA: But I’ve written songs with you. And you did participate in the melodic thing. I remember sitting next to Walter [Salas-Humara] and I was trying to push him toward a particular path, and you were like, “Yeah, yeah, you sing it like this.”
JL: But only because I had you guys at my disposal.
BA: You think of it as a producer’s role.
JL: A Vulcan mind-meld thing. I have musicians with me… I’ve done this a bunch, and especially with Walter. I’ve sat in a room with him and said, “Make it sound like this.” That’s not the same thing as being the musician.
BA: It’s almost quaint, what you’re saying. It’s sweet.
JL: If Walter was a guitar, I could play the guitar. [Laughing.] But he’s a human being!
BA: But as someone on the other side of that bright line that you’re drawing…I don’t see it.
JL: Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is my sacred myth. But being wrong in this fashion, if I’m wrong, means that I still feel about music…it restores me to my position as the reverent, aspiring child. When I trick Walter, or you, into making a sound that pleases me, and I’m a little bit connected to it, I might as well be dropping the needle on a Beatles record at age seven. I’m still like, “Wow! How is that possible?”
BA: The way that you’re describing it sounds more like an intent than a real divide. And it’s not an intent that I’m not sympathetic with. I think keeping things in that magic space is important. I have songs that are time machines: I won’t listen to “Welcome to the Machine” by Pink Floyd. I turn it off if it comes on, because I know that if I carefully preserve it, I can use it to be instantly yanked back twenty years and I can feel the rubbery buttons on my yellow Sony Walkman, and I’ve got the plastic things in my ears that hurt, and I can smell things from then…
JL: Those time machines are incredibly useful when you’re writing a novel. My God. Those time machine songs… I listened to Supertramp’s Crime of the Century, which is kind of abysmal music to confess to even having on your computer. I listened to it a hundred times when I was writing Dissident Gardens, to put myself into this really queasy time machine, to make me feel as vulnerable to the 1970s as I needed to be.
BA: Do you often use those time machine songs when you write? Because I find that I can’t really do much with lyrics in the background without getting distracted.
JL: I have music on when I write all the time. And of course when I’m really writing and the sentences are coming out, my hearing shuts off. I can also write with the baseball game on. Always with the Mets in the summer when I’m writing. And I don’t really know what’s happening in the game when the sentences are actually making themselves. But every second in between, whatever I’m listening to floods back in.
BA: Are you as fast when you’re writing like that as you are with lyrics? Because you’re preternaturally fast with lyrics.
JL: Well, I don’t know. You only saw this one… we had this one enchanted sequence.
BA: Well, no. It’s also echoed by Walter in your several days writing with him in Maine. You wrote an album in… three days? What he described was sitting across from you—chatting, he thought. And then at the end of five minutes you handed him a sheet with five verses and a chorus.
JL: A lot of that is just literary pattern-making. I have a lot of templates in my head. I was a big one for the lyric sheet, as you’d expect, growing up. Later I began to relate it to lyrical forms, either in poetry or buried but implicit in paragraphs of prose. Because it’s there. Those kinds of variations. The forms generate their own variations.
JL: Those kinds of rhythmics, those kinds of internal rhymes. Honestly, I always feel sheepish tabulating these petty triumphs. It sounds like the most unseemly kind of bragging: that is people bragging about being good at somebody else’s art form.
BA: No, the most unseemly kind of bragging is bragging about that… and then dropping a name in there as well.
JL: OK, I’ll do that, too. It’s very much Sylvester Stallone’s painting career. So let’s just get this out of the way: what I’m doing is I’m Sylvester Stallone displaying my paintings right now. Or the children’s book by the famous actor doing the author tour.
BA: Sure, Keith Richards.
JL: I’m Keith Richards with my children’s book.
BA: And accompanying CD.
JL: Yes. Well, by the time you and I did this together, I’d been at it for thirty years. I started writing lyrics with my musician friends in high school. And never stopped. I did it with Eliot Duhan, a childhood friend. We were in grade school together. Somehow I already knew that my role was to pretend to be in a band, and to write the lyrics, and to tell him what I wanted the songs to sound like. We first wrote a song together when we were sixteen. I wrote most of the lyrics on Eliot’s first record. It was a regular activity for me. In fact, I was doing this at the same time as I was learning to write fiction. So the two things are nested together for me in a weird way. From age sixteen, that was when I conceived that I was going to write fiction, and I wrote my first short stories and at age nineteen I began my first novel. All through those years I was routinely writing lyrics for Eliot’s songs. Then in college I met my friend Philip Price, whose current band is The Winterpills. I probably wrote eight or twelve songs for Philip, over the years. And in my twenties I was in a band in the Bay Area with an almost unpronounceable name: Emma the Crayon. You have to really slow down to say it.
BA: Yeah, I think I’ve heard actors use that to warm up.
JL: [In a studied actorly voice] I would like a bottle of beer, please, Emma the Crayon. Emma the Crayon didn’t last long, but with them I wrote an album’s worth of songs, a gig’s worth of songs. And then in my thirties I began working with bands people have heard about—here’s where the really gross name-dropping gets involved. Bands you’re more likely to know.
BA: Have you heard of… the Velvet Underground?
JL: I wrote a bunch of their songs. Exactly. Now you’re going to have to deal with making sure the sarcasm is clear. We need a lot of (chortles), (hoots), (laughs).
BA: [Chortles] Such as…
JL: Working with Walter. I mean the Silos were a big band for me. After my books started to come out I wrote a bunch of songs with Walter, and I did the Jill Sobule thing, and I worked with you. I worked with One Ring Zero. I also started the Promiscuous Materials thing, where I wrote the lyrics first and then said, “Who wants to record them?” Some terrific people did. John Linell from They Might Be Giants played one. These are people you feel like you’re quite lucky if they pick up your lyrics. People are weird about song lyrics. I have a feeling that I’m somewhere between the Bob Dylan attitude and the Brian Eno attitude.
BA: And those attitudes are…?
JL: Well, Bob Dylan has said a thousand different things. But I mean my sense of what Dylan’s lyrics are doing is this: they’re not poetry, but they’re great lyrics for Dylan to sing. As much as people want to be like, “Oh my God they’re so great on the page!” they’re really not great. They’re not poetry in the sense that poetry is.
BA: Yet they can break your heart in the song.
JL: In the song, in the performance. While lyrics are tremendously important and you want them to be marvelous and magical in terms of the song, they’re not something that you want on the page. You know, when Lou Reed publishes a book of his lyrics… I don’t want to read that book. I want to hear the songs, because the lyrics are activated in terms of their rhythmic life.
BA: Although that’s an interesting example because he often flirts with spoken word. Which gets a little blurry, doesn’t it?
JL: But still, spoken word within the performance. It’s still the grain of the voice, it’s still the auditory context.
BA: Don’t you think it gets pretty close to a poetry reading?
JL: I beg to differ. Not the kind of poetry reading I would like to be at. Because literature for the page is doing a totally different thing. It’s doing what it does when your mind operates it. And your mind is the voice. And when lyrics are written for a song…
BA: It’s performance.
JL: It’s performance, it’s the singer, it’s the context, it’s the melody, it’s the rhythm, it’s the sonics. I don’t mean that any lyric will do. Lyrics can be terrible. But wait: I still want to say, so that’s the Dylan concept. The Brian Eno concept is that they really don’t matter: you might as well be singing, “Goo-goo, ga-ga.” Because it’s just the occasion for the sound. Now the funny thing is that I love a lot of Brian Eno’s lyrics the way I love Bob Dylan’s lyrics. They can break your heart, too, even though they’re not often doing it in an obvious way, but in a counter-intuitive way. “Taking Tiger Mountain” is a weeper. But it’s not a weeper like, ‘then she left me and my heart broke’. It’s a weeper like a Max Ernst painting—in a surrealist way. You know, a Max Ernst painting can also tear you apart.
BA: One of my theories is that the secret superpower of songwriters is compression. Because if ninety percent of us (or more, God knows), had to explain what we were talking about in a given song we would sound like a-holes.
JL: Like we’re sounding right now?
BA: Exactly. If we had to explain, if we had the room of a novel, to explain ourselves, it would be horrifying. But when we cram it down into a very vague, lovely thing then…
JL: Yeah, I know.
BA: I always think of “Long May You Run.” That song knocked me out, and I loved listening to it until one day I was driving along and I realized: “Wait a minute, are you talking about a fucking car?”
III. SPECIFICS ARRANGED AROUND A MYSTERY
JL: I’m a terrible poet, but I sometimes write a poem. I put one in a book, The Ecstasy of Influence, and no one has ever said a word. They’re so polite. No reviewer, no reader, no friend, no one has ever said, “Oh, and the poem, wow, hey, the poem!” It just sits there. It’s literally like the world has surrounded it with silence… to try to make it okay.
BA: Well, it’s a very dense book. As I was saying when I walked in this morning, you scare people because you’re so dense and so well-spoken that anyone who gets into that book… reading it myself, it’s heavy. And who wants to…
JL: I’m a big, heavy pain in the ass.
BA: No, you’re scary!
JL: Listen, it’s hard to take, for me too. I have to live with this 24/7. I try to find ways to just stop, and lighten up. But the thing I was going to say about the poem—whether it’s an acceptably mediocre poem or not, it was significantly improved when I showed it to my dear friend and ex-wife Shelley Jackson, who looked at it and made this really simple intervention. She said, “Use ‘it’ instead of the noun. This poem will be better if you take the subject of the poem out.” Knowing that “Long May You Run” is about a car hurts the song. The removal of the subject is often a very good idea. You need to find ways to make the reader or the listener have an experience, where they construct meaning. And one of the most basic moves you can make—and it actually can be true in a novel—is that you take the primary subject out.
BA: It’s a sort of magic trick of specificity and vagueness, which is to say that you need it to be vague enough that the listener can insert themselves into it, but specific enough that it feels emotionally true, so it doesn’t just feel like a crossword puzzle.
JL: A novel is made of a big giant heap of specifics, but if it can also find a way to be specifics arranged around a mystery or a question mark or an absence, that can be an attractive thing.
BA: And are you just talking about a novel, or a song, too?
JL: I’m still resisting comparisons. When I write lyrics, I really do go into an automatic folk appropriation mode… I see the vernacular register of 20th century song as being a bunch of forms to adapt and reconfigure. When I write a novel, outwardly my novels take a very traditional structure.
BA: This is one of the things I wanted to get to. You’re a traditionalist in ways, but you’re almost always tearing apart forms.
JL: That’s overrated. Those things are always being torn apart—it doesn’t require some iconoclast to do it, and I’m not one. To work within genres is to push within boundaries. It’s pretty typical. And I didn’t invent the gesture of creating that kind of disturbance around definitions. That itself is a traditional move.
BA: So here’s my question: working with you as a lyricist, I don’t sense as much tearing apart in your lyrical work as I do in your novels.
JL: Yeah, no, I just would like to write a good pop song.
BA: Exactly. It feels like a good pop song. Is that conscious? Or is that to do with the self-consciousness about being sort of a musical tourist or visitor?
JL: No, it’s not modesty! To think that you could write a good pop song is a total vanity as far as I’m concerned. It’s really, really hard.
BA: Whereas within your books you tend to be a little more…
JL: I think you’re talking about the reputation that my books have gathered. I’m not remotely an experimentalist.
JL: I don’t think so. It’s a total disrespect to what, for lack of a better term, we’ll call “the experimental tradition,” to suggest that I have extended modernist experimental or avant-garde experimental work one tiny iota. I’ve never experimented. I’ve benefited from experiments. I’ve incorporated the results of other people’s experiments into my very traditional work. I firmly believe this. I just think that the majority of people in the reviewing class are for the most part quite cloistered and reactionary. Their aesthetic worlds are so easily fucked with, they see me out on some bleeding edge. But I’m not. The value of my books, whatever amount they possess, doesn’t come from their innovation.
BA: It terrifies me to disagree with you, but I do. I once read a book that Faulkner wrote that he had supposedly intended to be a totally trashy bodice ripper. Sanctuary. It was his attempt to sell out. But my recollection of reading was, “This is so Faulkner.” It’s not even remotely the sell-out that he imagined. He cannot escape sounding exactly like Faulkner. And listening to you say that the idea that you are postmodern or that you have changed the forms, is a conceit, or a misapprehension of reviewers is a little mind-blowing to me. But I say this as an ignorant bitch, so… school me.
JL: No, no, it’s fine. It’s great to have it on the table. Usually this implication is lurking. I’ve entertained myself, I’ve pleased myself, but I don’t go around thinking that I’ve made radical interventions in literary forms.
BA: I don’t suggest that you go around thinking that. I suggest that your natural state is not…
JL: I get it, Ben. What you mean is that I am a fucked up freak, and I can’t even see it.
BA: Only in the best way…
JL: I’d be delighted. I’d love to believe that that’s true. Most of my favorite artists are just helplessly weird, and trying, often, to be normal. For instance, Bob Dylan sometimes, more than sometimes, is simply trying to write a good solid pop song or love song, and then failing in the sense that he’s stuck being Bob Dylan. When he writes “To Make You Feel My Love”: that’s a recent example of an old strain in his work. You can detect it in “Lay Lady Lay” or “To Be Alone With You.” He’s constantly trying to write just a simple classic love song that a thousand Frank Sinatras could cover, and sometimes he kind of gets there. Right there smack in the middle of Blonde on Blonde is “I Want You.” He’s trying to do Tin Pan Alley, and it’s only not Tin Pan Alley because he’s Bob Dylan.
IV. BUT THEN AGAIN, A LOT OF ART IS DEEPLY UNNECESSARY
BA: Coming around to this project with Walter, in this very office—what was that like, working with your own story as the premise of the song? My recollection is that you felt like you were far enough removed from the story that you barely remembered it, that you had to refresh your memory.
JL: I’ll be honest with you: the imperative that the song derive from my story, which was important to you, was negligible for me. I was excited about writing a song with you; that’s what got me in the door. And I was perfectly willing to humor you in what ended up being a really tangential relationship to the story. A listener would never guess if you hadn’t used that title. The connection wasn’t how I found energy for that song. I found the energy in having two musicians in my office. The connection to the story was why you thought you were there.
BA: That’s funny, because for these songs answering other people’s work, having that initial kernel is so important to me. For me the most difficult thing with a song—because you’re trying to compress so much into so little space—is where to start a story. What details can you glean from the world that will be both universal and very personal? Having these places to start…it’s so much easier than starting with a blank page.
JL: It wasn’t what I needed. I can do characters and stories anytime. I’m not driven to make the songs particularly character- or narrative-driven. In fact, I’d rather they sound like songs. Like you, Walter thinks he’s coming for that, for my storytelling tools. And I come back at him and I’m like, “Seems like an opportunity to make a cool song.” Often he likes the results, but he always says to me, “We’re not really telling a story, are we?”
BA: So Walter takes from you the thing that you are an expert at, story and character. And you take from him the thing that you have been super clear that you feel like you can’t do, which is the melodic and musical side of things. And you come up with something new, and possibly unrelated to a story at all. Do you feel like projects marrying narrative and music like this are doomed from the start? Or are they worth exploring because it’s very hard to do well?
JL: Well, you know, even the word “doomed” sanctifies these collaborations with a kind of grandeur that might be self-flattering. The correct term might be “deeply unnecessary.” But then again, a lot of art is deeply unnecessary. And doomed. The thing we’re fooling around with is. It’s easier for you than for me to feel like our collaboration is connected to the source of your work. For me, knowing I’m no musician, it can’t be the center of my activities. So the feelings I have about it are a perverse mingling of pride, fascination, and embarrassment. But it was really fun and lively.
BA: It’s not your work.
JL: It’s not my work. And I’m sure it’s only sort of your work.
JL: OK, well, then I’m helping you do your work. That’s nice.
BA: So, “Pending Vegan,” for example: that song we wrote has no real relation to the story to you, and if it weren’t called “Pending Vegan” then it would just be a song about a dog who kind of wants to eat his master?
JL: Its best qualities float free of the association with the story. What makes it live isn’t, “Oh my God this song is a cipher for some particular short story.” I don’t believe that their interactivity is important. Basically they met somewhere in midair, kissed, and then landed in different places. That’s actually typical: there are always strange associations and legacies attached to things.
BA: For me, the stream of influence, the fact that one piece of art inspires another piece of art is fascinating. But, yeah, the art has to stand on its own.
JL: Its existence is the reality. As to all this backstory, there are a lot of people who’d never be as interested as you might hope. Most people would just say, “The song’s OK, now shut up, already!”
Jonathan Lethem is a bestselling author and occasional songwriter. His latest work is a book of short stories titled Lucky Alan.