May 2012

Jonathan Lethem

[Author, Bookseller]

micro-interviewed by Peter Andrey Smith

This issue features a microinterview with Jonathan Lethem, conducted by Peter Andrey Smith. In addition to being the author of Motherless Brooklyn (1999), Fortress of Solitude (2003), and Chronic City (2009), Jonathan Lethem is a seller of other people’s books. He’s long supplemented his income as a writer by working in used-book stores; it’s the only job he’s ever had. Lethem currently co-owns Red Gap Used Books in Blue Hill, Maine, with André Strong and Marjorie Kernan. Like the title essay of his latest collection, The Ecstasy of Influence (2011), his shelves are a patchwork of collections and influences.

Microinterview with Jonathan Lethem, Part I

THE BELIEVER: You once interviewed Paul Auster for the Believer, and, in the spirit of appropriation, I’d like to ask you the first question you asked him: what were you doing before I arrived at your bookstore today?

JONATHAN LETHEM: I was devouring fish-and-chips and a frosty soft-serve chocolate shake from our local fried-fish emporium, The Fishnet. Before that, I was doing real editorial grunt-work: proof corrections on Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis. One of my fates in life is to be a slave of various dead authors. Philip K. Dick probably never did proof corrections in his life; he was a notoriously sloppy writer. And here I am, giving over weeks of my summer to try to make sense of these scrawled lines that he wrote in these manic, overnight bouts. So yeah, I hit send on the whole shaggy mess just before getting over here, so I’m celebrating with a chocolate shake.

BLVR: If I were to look around the bookstore, would I find much Philip K. Dick?

JL: We have a few of his books. They’re actually some of my favorite books in the world because they’re talismans, simultaneously, of my discovery of his writing and my own interest in a certain eccentric kind of book collecting. His publishing history is a strange one—a lot of his first editions are paperback originals. Very ephemeral items publishing-wise, barely more than a notch above a comic book or a porn magazine. Some of his canonical books now in the Library of America—acid-free, in beautiful bindings, and they will be forever, or for as long as anyone cares about the twentieth-century American canon—were first published in these really sleazy editions, the opposite of acid-free—these were acid-laden pages, 90 percent pure-acid pages.

BLVR: Is that what first attracted you to them?

JL: Absolutely. And the covers were painted by these guys who hadn’t read the inside. They just painted sexy women with three breasts or monsters from the id, no matter what the story might actually be about. We’ve got a few; there’s one still on the shelf, Dr. Bloodmoney, Ace edition. One of his greatest novels. The price on the cover is 40 cents.

Microinterview with Jonathan Lethem, Part II

BLVR: When did you first start collecting books?

JL: It really begins with my walking into a shop, one that’s a big part of my life history: Brazen Head Books, on Atlantic Avenue. I was fourteen, and the place was a really strange amalgam of a puppet theater, a moving company, and a used-book store. It was run by these two guys, Michael and Larry. They took me under their wing and I became a simultaneous triple apprentice to all three enterprises. I’d help them with the moving jobs. I’d do special effects—I mean, lighting the flashpots and so forth—and collect the tickets at the puppet shows. And I helped Michael with the bookshop. He became this guru for me. I read what he told me to read, and I took my pay home in used books. Michael was the first person to make me see how, for the used-book seller, the store’s an extension of your collection—things flow in and out of your home and onto the shelves in an uncanny, unpredictable way. Though you treasure your books, there’s also this pleasure you have in having this sort of public interface, a space where the books don’t yet belong to someone else, but could. You’re showing them off and also implicitly setting them free at the same time.

BLVR: So becoming a bookseller was a big part of your education?

JL: It was my college, all the way down the line. The books I read from my mother’s shelves, and then out of Michael’s shop, the books I read through my high-school years, and what should have been my college years—I basically kissed off a formal education in favor of a bookseller’s autodidacticism. I took the transmission of the shelves. It meant that my interest in contemporary writing was always subject to a ten- or fifteen-year time lag. In the mid-’80s, I didn’t even know that Pynchon and Barthelme and Coover and Richard Brautigan were not “the happening thing” anymore. To me, they were still breaking news. I preferred old stuff and found it more relevant. I dislike new books. It’s like drinking wine that’s not ready. When my first novel was published, Gun, With Occasional Music, I insisted the jacket be made to look like it was old. The gimmick was that it was going to look like a pulp paperback, even though it was a brand-new hardcover. I wanted to be a writer like Philip K. Dick, or Charles Willeford, or some others I revered who’d been published only in these disreputable, ephemeral ways, and who you could find only in used-book stores. I wanted to be out of print before I was even in print.

Microinterview with Jonathan Lethem, Part III

JL: I have a lot of shelves now, but the state people found me in—including my wife when we first met, nine years ago: I had such a terrifying number of books in a one-bedroom apartment on the third floor that some people were worried that the building was going to fall down. Everything was full of books. The bed wasn’t a bed; it was boxes of books with a mattress on top. I also had this artifact that was growing like a Star Trek salt monster. A pile of books engineered so it would stay together in the middle of the living room, a mound that just kept growing. I had gotten to a point that if there were certain books I needed for reference—books that I knew were in my own living room, somewhere in the inaccessible inner layers of the mountain—I’d make a triage decision, leave the apartment, go to the bookstore, and buy a new copy. I’d begun purchasing second copies of things I not only knew I owned, but could point to where they were. Somehow the defining crime, though, is if your kitchen cabinets are full of books. More recently, thanks to Red Gap and owning two shelf-laden homes (a rambling farmhouse in Blue Hill and a ranch house in Claremont, California), I’ve found significant alleviation. But that’s not to say I don’t have my own books on the shelves at Red Gap and about forty cartons of books in the attic.

BLVR: Besides collecting more books that you already own, how do you go about acquiring books?

JL: Any time I’m in a new place, the question is “What are the bookstores like here?” I was in Ann Arbor to do a visiting-writer gig last March. It’s a good bookstore town. It’s a college town, and commercial real estate is not cost-prohibitive, so there are some good storefront shops that have loaded up over the years. The greatest thing you can ever hear from a bookseller when you walk in is “Well, if you’re really interested, you could look in the basement.” This was what the bookstores were like when I was a kid in New York. You’d beg and plead to get into the basement, where they had layers and layers of accumulation, things people hadn’t been looking at for a long time. In Ann Arbor, I hit two of these shops where they were like, “Well, there’s more lit in the basement.” Music to my ears. I think I shipped five or six cartons of books home. The kinds of books I like to read aren’t all in print, many are out of print, and you don’t lay hands on them easily. At least before the internet you didn’t. So if I saw something that I remotely thought, I might want to read that, and I don’t know if I’ll ever see it again, the answer is to buy it. You have to buy under those circumstances.

Microinterview with Jonathan Lethem, Part IV

JL: I’ve been an advocate against the view of the writer as a partitioned genius hanging in conceptual space, or up on a mountain, a bringer of Promethean fire, some unique transmission that comes out of nowhere. I prefer the opposite view—that writers come from somewhere. They read things, and they think about them, and they incorporate other people’s thoughts. Reading and writing are the same thing; it’s just one’s the more active and the other’s the more passive. They flow into each other. And in the same sense, making books has always felt very connected to my bookselling experience, that of wanting to draw people’s attention to things that I liked, to shape things that I liked into new shapes.

I’m basically a curator. If I write an introduction to G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, or a liner note for the Criterion disc of Preston Sturges’s Unfaithfully Yours—what is that except the same thing I was doing as a twenty-year-old, working, organizing, grooming the lit section at Moe’s Books in Berkeley, making it full of books I cared for? In a way, that essay is a bookshelf. If you took every one of the sources I quoted in “The Ecstasy of Influence,” you’d have to build a pretty large bookshelf to line them all up. It’s literally an anthology of writings I cared about, writings that flowed into me, then flowed literally onto the page.

Microinterview with Jonathan Lethem, Part V

BLVR: From what I understand, you’re a writer who writes exclusively in front of the screen.

JL: I don’t have a lot of paper in my immediate work environment, except when I’m doing things like checking these godforsaken proofs. Yet I’m making a book and I’m going to care immensely about what words get bound in the pages, and I want the object to look good. I won’t believe in it and it won’t be real to me until there’s a finished book I can hold. The computer is the way I’m making it. I think of the books I write on a sculptural level. I was an art student. That’s what I did before I realized I was going to write, and I still think about the physical properties. I visualize the length of a book, the proportions of a book, in material terms. For better or worse, I’m attached to talismanic things.

BLVR: Near the end of Chronic City, Perkus Tooth ends up with an excerpted passage stuck to his cheek. Am I going to find that your books are missing pages from where you literally excerpted certain passages?

JL: I don’t cut up books. I’m really anxious about this. I hate underlining—even in pencil. I’m like: just remember what was important to you. This is where I’m like a bookseller in that way. Don’t fuck up the book. I hate libraries for the way they put stickers on things. I don’t approve of folding over pages, or of writing in books. God, forget scissors—that’s beyond the pale.

Peter Andrey Smith is a freelance writer, an enthusiastic collector of ephemera, and a lifelong devotee of faits divers. He lives in Maine.

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