Q&A with New Creative Writing Professor Jonathan Lethem

On Apr. 22, Pomona College announced the selection of nationally acclaimed author Jonathan Lethem as the Roy Edward Disney Professor of Creative Writing. Pending the approval of the Board of Trustees in May, Lethem will begin teaching in Spring 2011. Lethem spoke by phone with TSL Managing Editor John Thomason about his future at Pomona.

The Student Life: Congratulations on your new position. In our last conversation, you told me that this was your first real job interview. How does it feel to have a 100 percent success rate?

Jonathan Lethem: [Laughs] That’s not a detail I had focused on, but now that you mention it … terrific. I’m enjoying this result in all sorts of different ways, and you reminded me of one more.

TSL: You’ve described your own college years as “overwhelming” and “mostly having to do with a collision with the realities of class.” In what ways do you think your experience at Pomona will be informed by your own college experience?

JL: That’s a great question and a challenging one to handle off the cuff. I almost want to write a whole essay for you about that, but I do think that one of things that’s made me so encouraged about Pomona—and so drawn there—is the testimony of the students I spent time with during those three days. I could feel that they had stepped into an atmosphere where they felt recognized and acknowledged and protected and, frankly, my experience when I went off to college in the early ‘80s was a very different time and place, and I think if some of that had been possible for me there … I might have had a different result. But it’s also very hard to know how I would have responded to a different environment. I was feisty. I was throwing out a lot of reactions to my first taste of … my first encounter with something outside of my parents’ sphere of influence. I grew up in a very eccentric, kind of bohemian lower-middle class family. I simply wasn’t prepared to make use of school at that point. So, as a teacher, what I’ve got to always remember to do is meet my students at the level and make an encounter for them that acknowledges where they’ve come from and what they need, and I’m hoping I can do that. What impressed me with Pomona is it seemed that the entire institution already had that kind of footing and was providing that kind of experience, so I don’t see it as an uphill task for me as a professor.

TSL: You spent many years in California in the ‘80s and’90s. Has this been on your mind as you prepare to return to this state? How?

JL: Of course my thoughts drift to my previous life in California. The comparison, it seems to me, has a very limited usefulness because I lived in the Bay Area for a decade starting when I was basically 20 years old…. That was a time in my life defined by a kind of unaccountable, starving-artist improvisational stance towards life. I was living day to day, happily so. I was free of family commitments, free of institutional commitments. I was in my early 20s when I first arrived there, and I was modeling my life on a vaguely understood impression of the Beat generation. [Laughs] So I’m a different person in so many ways, and this arrival—this return to California—couldn’t be more different. I’m happily defined by my family commitments. The platform for my return to California is this really strong, really exciting commitment that I’m making to the college. So I’ll be living about as different a life from my previous California life as can be imagined. But … I’m not a stranger to the place. I know things to like about California already, which is comforting in making such an enormous change.

TSL: What sorts of changes and adjustments will you and your family have to make as you move to Claremont? Do you have any regrets about leaving your native Brooklyn?

JL: I’ve actually spent my life kind of running away from Brooklyn as much as embracing it, the first decade in California being the outstanding example. But even since I came back East I’ve spent tremendous amounts of time in Europe [and] in New England. My wife and I actually spend chunks of the year in Maine, and I lived in Toronto briefly. A big part of The Fortress of Solitude was written while living in Toronto. People often imagine me with this kind of … un-ambivalent embrace of Brooklyn. Some parts of my writing are celebratory of this place, but a lot more of what I’ve written and a lot more of what I’ve experienced is kind of push and pull, where I thrive actually on exile from this place and contemplating it from afar … So on that level this is sort of exciting. It feels like I’m going to refresh my angle of view on my origins as a New Yorker, which have obviously kind of turned into … something I wear on my sleeve in my work. So I’m thrilled about the move. Claremont is undiscovered territory for me. I’m waiting to find out what it’s going to mean to me in the deeper ongoing sense that I relate to the places I’ve lived. The prospect for my family seems just wildly attractive. We’ve got young kids who need space and who need a backyard to run around in. It’s sort of the perfect change for the family at this point, and my wife is a filmmaker, so she’s excited to be in a place where she’ll have access to Los Angeles. That’s something that she’s wondered about for a long time.

TSL: What was the interim period like between applying for the position and learning that you’d gotten the job?

JL: I’ve been contemplating this and envisioning it for a while now, so I honestly am very grateful for the length of time that this chance has been in my sights, because it’s a huge change in my life and in the life of my family. It is something I feel fantastic about, I think, precisely because I had a lot of time to live with it…. There probably aren’t very many places where people are given such a gracious opportunity to warm up to a life change like this.

TSL: What do you look forward to most about the new position? What challenges do you anticipate?

JL: I have to say I feel like I’m one of those baseball players who just got signed to a new team…. I don’t really find that I want to make a lot of guesses until I’m prone to reach for platitudes about just how grateful I am [for] the opportunity and how much I’m looking forward to learning what it all will really entail. I don’t want to presume anything. The thing that defines this place for me and this change for me is the community I’m entering, the community of students and the community of colleagues, and really also the new home, which is a town which really looks like a beautiful place to move a young family. [English Department Chair] Kevin [Dettmar] at one point during the interview said, “So … you’ve been an outdoor cat, what is it that makes you want to be an indoor cat?” [Laughs] The answer—of course—the answer any outdoor cat would give is: “It looks really good in there.” I like the things I’ve seen. I’ve really enjoyed meeting everyone. I’ve really become a believer already in the kind of the magic circle that’s been drawn around Pomona College as a community of students and teachers, and so it really feels a privilege to be joining that.

TSL: What courses do you anticipate teaching next spring and beyond?

JL: Again, you catch me at a really early point, and I’m first eager to have conversations that I haven’t had about which of my many enthusiasms might translate into a course outside of fiction workshops. One of the great tantalizing conversations—or preliminary conversations—involved my saying, “What if I wanted to teach a class that involved showing films as well as reading books?” because I’ve been writing about film a lot in the last few years. I got an immediate, kind of gratifying thumbs up on that sort of thing, so I’m in the wild fantasizing stage of thinking about what I might teach and can’t guess yet which of those fantasies will cohere.

TSL: Do you anticipate any change in your work habits?

JL: Again, it’s kind of an exciting question mark. It’s just speculation. In very, very general terms, I’m expecting for this to be a place of great stability and continuity for me after some years where I’ve been book touring [and] traveling more than I’d like. I’m going to get to sit still, and that’s always good for my work. My work’s pretty resilient. It’s not something I worry terribly much about. I’ve written fiction in a lot of different places … and it seems to be, for me, a lucky constant that the work I do stays with me, travels well, and I’m expecting to have it thrive there. The exact nature of my work habits while I’m teaching at Pomona [is] going to be something interesting to discover, and I’m looking forward to it.

TSL: What projects are you currently working on or do you anticipate working on soon?

JL: I’m just underway with a kind of large, chaotic, exciting new novel set in Queens and Greenwich Village in the 1950s and early ‘60s, and it just consists of a huge amount of personal material and research material, and I’m basically in the stage where I’m just sort of trying to begin to make sense of it. So another large, at this point, unshapely novel that I’ll be trying to draw a circle around with a compass and figure out what belongs inside the circle and what to exclude.

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