Jonathan Lethem, an American writer, is the author of nine novels, five short story collections and numerous essays. His 1999 novel, Motherless Brooklyn, won a National Book Critics Circle Award and his 2003 book, The Fortress of Solitude, was a New York Times bestseller. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Lethem discussed his craft and writing influences with Michael Williams, Director of the Wheeler Centre.
Lethem was born into a creative family and was formally trained as an artist and sculptor before becoming a novelist. Lethem said that because his father was a painter, the act of ‘making stuff’ was normalised for him as a child. On the benefits of such an upbringing, Lethem said that becoming an artist or writer wasn’t perceived as being an esoteric or defiant choice; seeing his father work also gave him an insight into how consuming and demanding genuine artistic effort is.
During his formal artistic education, Lethem says he was ‘reading all the while’, and identified with books at a deeper level than with visual art. At 15 or 16, he was sure of being a novelist, and had an image of himself 'throwing off the garb of being an artist, superhero-like', and becoming a novelist.
Lethem described his first four books as ‘acts of carpentry’, which were ‘crowd-sourced’ by his literary influences. He ‘settled on a few key favourites’, he said, and described his first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, as an amalgam of Raymond Chandler and Phillip K Dick. Later, in response to an audience question, Lethem also mentioned Michael Frayn, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Graeme Green and Shirley Jackson as recent reading interests.
On the topic of his prolificacy, Lethem, who is currently writing his tenth novel, said that he hopes to write 15 in total in his lifetime. Without giving names, he remarked that ‘most of the best writers wrote quite a lot,’ adding that readers reap the benefits of authors with large oeuvres. ‘I think writing a lot makes you a better and more interesting writer,’ he added.
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