INTERVIEW WITH JOHN ROBERT LENNON
John Robert Lennon is the author of six novels, including Light of Falling Stars (1999); The Funnies (2000); On the Night Plain (2001); Mailman (2003) of which Andrew Ervin, in the Washington Post, said “'Masterpiece' would be an exaggeration, but only a small one”; Happyland, which was the first novel to be serialized by Harper's in fifty years (2006); and his most recent release, Castle (2009); as well as the short story collection Pieces for the Left Hand: 100 Anecdotes (2005), which Scott Bradfield in The New York Times called “succinct, perplexing...Borgesian in its convolutions.” He is an assistant professor of English at Cornell University and lives in Ithaca with his family.
Interviewer's Note: I met J. Robert Lennon at the Colgate Writer's Conference last summer where I was impressed by both his incisive inventiveness and his humor. This interview was conducted via email over the course of a few weeks in the early autumn of 2009. Inspired by an article Lennon had written in the LA Times and a talk on writing with constraints he gave at Colgate, we decided to use the form of lists: two columns run side by side, one comprised of my questions, the other incorporating what one does in between writing.
— Chanelle Benz
1A. On your blog, Ward Six, which you run with Rhian Ellis and Ed Skoog, you wrote:
“Early in my career I got a terrible review—one of the first generation of Amazon customer comments, in fact. This is what it had to say about my first novel: ‘It just goes to show, you can't polish a turd.’
“Ouch. But you know what? You can polish a turd, sometimes to a high sheen, so it doesn't even seem remotely like one anymore. And if you put your mind to it, and if you grew up Catholic, the entire polishing process can be kind of interesting. At least it is for me—or has become thus, after many years of forcing myself to do it. Art is flawed, and the sooner you accept that, the sooner you can get to work burnishing those flaws into something new and better, that stands on its own, independently of you and your dumb ideas.”
For better or for worse “you can't polish a turd” has been in my head for days (it strikes me as very NJ). How and at what point do you decide when something is worth polishing or truly flushable?
JL: In my case, pretty early on—stuff that is irredeemable usually never makes it into a complete draft. The first novel I wrote made it that far before I gave up...another failed novel made it perhaps to page 50? And my documents folder is lousy with the corpses of unfinished stories.
The thing is, I really like flawed novels when other people write them. Sometimes the stuff I remember most intensely about other writers' work is not from their best-known and most successful books, but from the orphaned ones, the ones that didn't sell, or didn't really work. I respect the notion of a writer making the best of an impossible situation, and I feel as though I'm doing it all the time. Indeed, fictional conceits that lend themselves well to being perfected are often not especially interesting. I'll take Moby-Dick over The Scarlet Letter anytime (I have no beef with Hawthorne, but Melville's mess is more to my liking, ultimately).
1B. How many times in answering this email did you ”polish a turd”?
JL: None—this email is pure gold. ;-)
2A. That's appealing—books that shouldn't work but do, books that are a mess or break the rules but are somehow bewitching. It brings to mind writers like Salman Rushdie and Angela Carter who favor eccentric, dense wordplay but arguably avoid overwriting. How would you define overwriting or know it when you see it? And as a writer and a teacher how do you avoid it and/or get your students to avoid it?
JL: I think overwriting is the tendency not to exercise judgement in the accretion of detail. I've never objected to elaboration in writing—I only object to its gratuitous application. The eye and the ear of a reader want to go to certain places; the overwriter forces them to pay attention to elements chosen not for their importance to the story but for their significance to the writer. When the prose itself accidentally becomes the subject, that's when overwriting happens—unless, of course, it's a story about language.
2B. List some favorite books that shouldn't work but do, that could, perhaps, be seen as overwritten but escape that somehow:
JL: The fantasy novels of China Mieville spring to mind. These are big, thick, science fiction adventures that at first seem to be bogged down in overwrought prose. And then suddenly, it all makes sense—there's a busy, baroque order to them that, in spite of myself, I end up loving. Joyce's Ulysses is another, obvious, example—you can barely make out the story through the torrents of idiosyncratic writing. But then you give yourself over to it, and it takes you away. I suppose every good book is an exception to some rule or another—this is why good writing teachers don't waste their time outlawing stuff. A student will always find a way to break the rule successfully—indeed, that's what it means to be a good writer.
3A. I'm so glad that your book Pieces for the Left Hand has come to the U.S. this year. I think every word in each of the 100 anecdotes is precisely placed. In particular, I love “The Names, Almost” and the one you chose to close with, “Brevity”. I get an image of you building a pyramid of words like a house of cards, or maybe taking one away piece by piece like that game Jenga. I'm completely in the narrator's world but it also feels perfectly crafted, which I think is why it felt so satisfying for you to end with a haiku:
Tiny Upstate town
Undergoes many changes
What was the process of creating it like for you?
JL: Yes, ending with "Brevity" was a statement about writing the book—I like the notion of testing how much you can strip away from a story without eroding its essential story-ness. It turns out you can remove quite a lot. Of course, a long story is a completely different animal. I was quite adamant about calling them "anecdotes" as opposed to some other designation—Michael Koch at Epoch was one of the first editors to publish them, and he hated that word—he ended up calling them "fictions," I think. But there is nothing wrong with an anecdote! It's how most stories get told, out in the world. It assumes nothing, an anecdote; it's just pure narrative.
The actual circumstances of the writing are quite prosaic—most of it was written when my older son was a toddler, and he was taking half hour naps in the afternoon. I was just trying to accomplish something in what little quiet time I had, in those days. After a few months of this it occurred to me that I was actually writing a book.
3B. List of games you sometimes play while you're supposed to be writing:
JL: The last couple of books, I haven't been playing any games—just reading on the internet about cameras and photography, or alternately music and music recording. But I'm a devotee of MAME, the vintage arcade-game emulator, and spent pretty much all of Mailman and Happyland playing Mr. Do. Also Jr. Pac-Man, a surprisingly obscure game that is much, much harder than Pac-Man. The main reason I stopped is that I've been using the Linux operating system on my laptop for a couple of years, and MAME is kind of fiddly on Linux.…Anyway, there are more than enough other distractions out there.
I do kind of miss Mr. Do, though. Those old games are great, very minimalist and symbologically eccentric—they are sort of the Beckett plays of the gaming world.
3.5B. I must admit I favor Ms. Pacman over Mr., but I don't think I've ever encountered Jr.
4A. I'm interested in how being involved in other artforms might play into one's writing, especially the performing arts— like how Weldon Kees played jazz, made experimental films, and had paintings hung next to de Kooning and Picasso, and how the rhythm and language of those mediums worked their way into his poetry. I know you're in a band, Inverse Room; do you think your music manifests in your writing?
JL: My other interests—music and photography—inform and influence my fiction, to some extent, but for the most part they're the product of an excess of desperate creative energy that I lack the patience to plough entirely into my fiction. These days, I'm trying to calm myself down and stick to one thing for longer periods of time, but I don't know how much success I'm going to have at that. My next novel is about a photographer, though, and I wrote (but never tried to publish) a novel about a rock band.
At any rate, I'm a hedonist at heart, and I get a lot of pleasure out of these things. I am never bored. And I suppose that, in this day and age, it's useful for a writer to have a few skills in other media. There—that's ample justification for buying myself a Minimoog or Leica M9, don't you think?
4.5A: Wow, even on the same day?!
4B. List of songs you to listen to pre-writing (or during):
JL: Forget about it! I can't listen to music when I write, or even on the same day I'm going to be writing. The stuff sticks in my head and I can't shake it loose. It's very disruptive to my concentration. I know a lot of writers who need a soundtrack—my wife is one of them—but music draws too heavily from the same part of my brain the writing is coming from.
The weird thing is, the older I get, the less music I seem to be listening to. When I want to be musical, I go play or record some music. The same goes for books—I read less literary fiction these days, and more magazines, web sites, and genre novels. I think this is bad, but I'm not quite sure why.
In any event, I'm looking forward to the new Flaming Lips. I probably won't get it until my novel's done, though.
5A. I've been wondering what it would be like to be married to another fiction writer—not that I have anyone in mind, but how is it being married to another writer? Having met your wife once and read your blog, I do know that she is pretty brilliant.
JL: Well, I wouldn't necessarily want to be married to some random other writer, but I certainly enjoy being married to Rhian. Nobody in our house ever questions anyone else's need to go off and be by themselves and think...and sitting around all day making shit up in your head is regarded with respect and admiration. In addition, Rhian is my best critic, by a long shot. She does not mince words and wants me to make things as good as they can be. My own instinct is to just finish it and ship it out, so if there's anything of mine you regard as good, you can thank her for it. I'm a terrible critic for her, though—I just think everything she does is amazing and am probably no help at all.
5B. List of the best literary couples, even if they weren't best together:
JL: Well, Paul Auster and Lydia Davis were married for years. They aren't anymore, but wow! A household of very interesting talents. Leonard and Virginia Woolf spring to mind, a great editor and one of the best novelists in English, ever...and I am very fond of our friends, the poet Ed Skoog and his wife, the short story writer Jill Marquis. They are great people and two of my favorite writers. I am also fond of the poet Mark Doty and his husband Paul Lisicky, the memoirist and novelist...wonderful guys and superb writers. Oh yeah, and Lee Smith and Hal Crowther—I interviewed them together once—they are a hoot!
I've had people tell me that they can't believe two writers can live together. But what other kind of person wants to be married to a writer? You have to really, really dig your spouse for it to work, though—most people don't want to hang around with theirs all the damned day long. I do, but I'm funny that way.
6A. So if she is your ideal critic, what would your ideal reader be like?
JL: To be perfectly honest, I have no idea. The only person anywhere near being an ideal reader is me, since I write this stuff primarily to amuse and edify myself. But even I am not that good a reader, because I change my mind about everything so quickly. Every time I meet somebody who has read something of mine and is willing to confess to actually liking it, I am totally shocked and delighted. This probably sounds disingenuous, but it isn't.…It's just that writing is such an idiosyncratic, private pleasure, and it's impossible for the writer to know how it will translate for others. This can lead to a lot of bitterness, if you think you should be well loved but aren't; or to pleasure and surprise, if you assume you appeal to no particular taste, and turn out to have attracted a small audience.
Readings, I'm more comfortable with, as I like being social and getting up in front of people. At a reading, people want personality, and I enjoy trying to present one. But publishing gives me the willies.
6B. List of favorite readings:
JL: I love to hear George Saunders read, and especially to hear him answer audience questions. His sincerity and charm are off the charts. I heard Alice Munro give a really good reading, and Mark Doty, who I mentioned earlier, brought the house down at Cornell a couple years ago. So did Toni Morrison just recently. Junot Diaz puts on a good show, too. I have heard good readings of stories and poems I don't especially like, and I have heard great writing diminished by poor readings. Reading aloud and writing are two separate and quite different skills, and not many writers have both. But when they do, a reading can be a great experience.