Jonathan Lethem, the celebrated American writer best known for his novel The Fortress of Solitude, has had a busy year, releasing his latest, Dissident Gardens, and serving as a juror for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Here, he reflects on the influences that have shaped him as a writer.
When you started to write, which writers did you revere?
The first writer who stepped out from behind the text and I thought, Oh! there’s a writer there, was Lewis Carroll. I identified with the maker of the language – not Alice, but Carroll. Because it was so conceptual, there were so many language games and reality shifts, and I thought, Someone’s making all this! But when I was really trying to start to write, and identifying what kind of writer I wanted to seem like, my two gods were strangely similar and totally disparate: Kafka and Philip K. Dick. When I first set out, I thought everything I would ever want to do on the page would remind people of both those guys, or at least one of them. And then I began to flesh that out with some other people who wouldn’t seem too far removed, Borges and Calvino. What you can hear in that list is that I was really into things that were coolly conceptual, where the atmospheric unreality was very deliberate and prominent. And you don’t hear anything about prosaic life, or mimetic textures. I was reading other things, but I didn’t identify with them for the longest time. It took me a long time to realize my own temperature was a lot hotter.
Did you imitate any of them?
Sometimes, of course, absolutely. I found both of them easy to imitate and totally perilous to imitate at the same time. I could see how I could start to make really bad, blurry photocopies of their stuff, but it was going to look as bad as that sounds.
What is the most dangerous influence or type of influence for a young writer?
Failing to identify outside of the present. The best thing about my coming of age as a reader is that I was, for whatever reason, fixated on used bookstores. I never even went into new bookstores. I didn’t even know there was a contemporary literary reality. The idea that you should somehow be able to sustain yourself on the rolling crest of the wave of what’s new seems disastrous to me. Old books. You’ve got to be into old, weird books. Things that are not being talked about that you make your own. Of course, my answer presupposes what I deeply believe to be the case, which is that the life of a writer extends directly out of their reading lives, and to overlook that is impossible.
Which perhaps unexpected book(s) share a commonality with Dissident Gardens? What would you think of as its distant cousins?
The Irish/Canadian emigre chapter in the book is, in my mind, an overt homage to Brian Moore, who does things with identity and coming of age that have influenced me secretly for a long time. I’m not trying to manifest it more directly, like, Will you finally please notice that I love Brian Moore! I also care immensely for two novels specifically about Communist women by famous female writers, but not their famous books: Paula Fox’s The Western Coast, and the last and unfinished book by Christina Stead, called I’m Dying Laughing.
Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?
I am obsessed with the sentences of the great Freudian Adam Phillips. I think he’s editing the complete Freud, commissioning new introductions. His great mission is to connect Freud to the tradition of the literary essayist. And in that same cause, he writes his own extremely psychoanalytically informed essays on all kinds of crazy subjects. His first book, or the first one I knew of, was called On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored. He’s a masterly writer of sentences. You have to just stop and marvel at the way they twist. I recommend him to anyone.
This interview has been condensed and edited.