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One On 1: Writer Jonathan Lethem Puts Passion To Print

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Growing up in a commune in Brooklyn, a parent's early death, escaping New York and then a successful return home are just a few of the chapters that make up the novel known as Jonathan Lethem's life. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" profile.

Jonathan Lethem is all about words, as he is an award-winning, best-selling author. But at the beginning of the process, he is also interested in numbers, as in the number of pages a book will require.

"This idea is going to be 375 [pages], 440, or whatever. And it’s something that you feel, it’s like sensing the dimensions of a room even though the lights are off," he says.

Lethem's work defies categorization, mixing the ordinary and the surreal. Young boys in Brooklyn find a magic ring, detectives mingle with talking kangaroos and the action takes place on the Upper East Side and outer space.

It all comes from a small studio tucked away in an industrial building in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, not far from where Lethem grew up and where he currently lives with his wife and young child. It's where Lethem, a self-proclaimed "grind," confronts and is excited by daily uncertainty.

"The earlier books can't help you and the 150 pages can't help you write the 151st," says Lethem. "You still need to discover something new every day sitting there you need to discover something new or you are finished."

The earlier books, particularly "Motherless Brooklyn" and "The Fortress Of Solitude," have made him a star in the New York literary world and beyond, and helped him win a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called "Genius Award."


For his most recent book, "Chronic City," Lethem created a rather unusual book tour, reading the entire work from start to finish through eight appearances,

Lethem says when he finishes writing a book, there is understandable relief, but also, in his words, "a weird sense of exile."

"If you like them, and I always do like my characters, it’s like a whole group of people you kind of sneak off and hang out with every day," says Lethem. "And suddenly that world is shutting down. It’s closed to you."

How does Lethem conjure up his characters? He likens himself to a method actor, putting his mind into the existence of another person.

"That's what I do for a living. I sit here and I play roles," he says. "I make up stories about people who I shouldn't know anything about, but I presume to."

For example, the protagonist of "Motherless Brooklyn" is a detective with Tourette syndrome. Lethem created the character after learning about the condition.

"It seemed to be holding up a mirror to some little obsessive part of what I do. In fact, it reminded me of my writing habits," says Lethem. "I already loved to fool around with language.... I thought what if I were like that, for a novelist you are halfway home. The minute you begin to identify with something unexpected or outside yourself, you're doing the work of creating a character."

Lethem says it wasn't fate that brought him back to live in his old neighborhood, but rather word of mouth on a good apartment. He says the two books in which Boerum Hill plays a major role, "Motherless Brooklyn" and "The Fortress Of Solitude," were largely written out of town.

"There is something in me that sometimes thrives in exile from this place," says Lethem. "In the writing, I feel that I’m dreaming my way back to these places. By losing them, they become a bit more precious to me."

How connected is Jonathan Lethem to Boerum Hill? At the Invisible Dog Art Gallery, there is a mural inspired by one of his novels. But the connection goes much deeper.

Lethem grew up on Dean Street with a painter father and political activist mother. He says his house was one of a number of communes on the street.

"My parents were both bohemians and leftists. We had a lot of young people drifting through, living in different rooms in different points," says Lethem.

Boerum Hill was a predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood.
Lethem says his parents were proud of their participation in the civil rights movement and identified with the idealism that race no longer mattered. But such idealism was not shared by some of Lethem's schoolmates.

"I was the first to try to persuade them and myself and everybody that, 'Hey, we worked this out. It's good.' I didn't have that power to not be bullied and be mugged," says Lethem.

He says the daily negotiation of street life was a school and a theater of its own.

"Along with being terrifying, strange, it was sometimes amusing. It was always provocative," says Lethem. "It made all of us going through that into little social scientists in a strange way."

His education at home stemmed from watching his father paint.

"Seeing his scrutiny of the canvas in front of him, showed me possibilities for concentration and devotion in my life," says Lethem.

Despite what Lethem calls a "loving relationship," his parents divorced when he was young. He describes his mother as an "interpersonal dynamo," who died when he was only 14 years old. It took him almost 30 years to write about it directly.

"I had to come to an emotional juncture where I could face it, but I also think I was wary of writing about this until I was expert enough to do it justice in all its excruciating nuances," says Lethem.

He says going to the old High School of Music and Art on 135th Street allowed him the opportunity to breathe.

"All of the kids that I went to high school with bore the scars of their own neighborhoods and their own divorcing parents," says Lethem. "And all the rest of it that was characteristic of growing up in that era."

He attended Bennington College in Vermont for a year, dropped out, moved to northern California and said goodbye to New York.

"I had grown up here and that was enough. The chaos, the static, the aggressive energy was something best put behind me," he says.

During his 10 years away from the city, Lethem became a published author. Yet Lethem missed aspects of New York.

"There were things about New York that I’d never replaced. A sense of belonging, a sense of engagement, a sense of vitality on the streets," he says.


Lethem is best known for his novels, but he was a comic book fanatic as a kid. So he's written a new version of the old comic book "Omega The Unknown."

He also tried his hand, unhappily, at screenwriting.

"When I write a novel, I'm the director, I'm the cinematographer, I play every part. I'm making it all come to life for you," says Lethem. "Collaborative process is interesting, but I will admit to being a bit of a tyrant."

Lethem is in his third marriage and has a child. He says in the past the work consumed him to the detriment of what he calls "taking care of ordinary things."

"I think I balance that better and better, but I don't envy the people who are waiting for me to figure those things out," he says.

In 2006, Lethem interviewed one of his musical heroes for Rolling Stone Magazine -- Bob Dylan, whose album title "Bringing It All Back Home" is perhaps an apt description for Lethem's relationship with his past and present neighborhood, Boerum Hill.

"I often felt even as I was trying to put it behind me, that I was given advantages by being from the Brooklyn streets," says Lethem. "That put me light years ahead of some of the kids I knew. i was so much more versatile and self-aware and my irony was so much more refined at an early age. I remember often feeling sorry for the kids from the suburbs.

"That was the predominant feeling, even if it was a survivor's delusion," continues Lethem. "That was mostly how I experienced it."

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