From his early bizarro science fiction to best-selling New York-obsessed novels like Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem dives headfirst into topics often ignored or disdained by mainline literature, whether alternate-reality conspiracy theories or genre fodder like sci-fi futures and comic superheroes. His newest, A Gambler's Anatomy, is about a Bond-like professional gambler—backgammon is his game—who also has brain cancer and possibly ESP, pursued by a once radical leftist but now nefarious billionaire childhood friend.
WW: The dissolution of 1960s radicalism seems to be a theme for you.
Jonathan Lethem: It's probably my own hurt spot. It's the world I grew up inside. I feel implicated in its loss. I'm really drawn to any flicker of it. I lived in Berkeley in my 20s; the place was so compelling to me. There was a trapped-in-amber quality; it spoke to me in a garbled way. I put myself in a position to recapitulate that arena of fear and desire—I'm old enough I can actually recall marching against the Vietnam War. That was as a little kid.
There's an old Leonard Michaels short story, "In the Fifties," in which a little boy throws marbles in front of police horses.
That was pretty much me—I wasn't the one doing that, but I was at the same protest. That piece was like a talismanic charm. I had it up on the wall while writing [my '60s anarchist novel] Dissident Gardens. Together with Anatole Broyard's Kafka Was the Rage, it's an astonishingly good snapshot of the state of New York counterculture on the door of the 1960s.
Are the funny character names—Garris Plybon, Madchen Alplanalps—a nod to Thomas Pynchon?
I was into strange names before I read Pynchon—I was already a fan of Philip K. Dick, and I associate them with Charles Dickens. It's very simple for me: I had trouble remembering character names. It's a place to develop meaning and interest, to elevate language that is neutral or flat. I'm part of the goofy names club. The world is littered with crazy names. They're really out there: Jordany Valdespin [of the New York Mets].
You got a rooting interest in the World Series?
I gave up in 1977 when [the Mets] traded Tom Seaver. My kids are really into baseball. They slip from one affiliation to the next. They were Dodgers fans when the Mets were eliminated. Now my sons are rooting for the Cubs. They're anti-curse. They don't yet understand that we're all cursed. I spent my entire life rooting against the Cubs.
You know what your next book will be?
It's probably going be set in a giant sand pit about a mile from where I live. There's this thing called the San Antonio Wash where the water is supposed to run down, so a lot of homeless people live there. I'm staring at my subject matter while standing at this airport.
Why is everyone listed as a doctor on your acknowledgements page?
The top four are legit. I had three medical doctors. But it's amazing. People will believe anything you say in the acknowledgements section. My publisher, my copy editors—no one said anything.
The only dalliance Rivka Galchen indulged along her path of Ivy League study (first as an undergraduate degree at Princeton and then as an MFA at Columbia) was to knock out a quick M.D. at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. She's since published a novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, and a short-story collection, American Innovations. Her newest book, Little Labors, is devoted to Galchen's experience as a new mother, which she describes in terms both visceral and wildly unfamiliar—describing the child as being like a puma or chicken, an animal loose in the house. ZACH MIDDLETON.
WW: You've written you found the topics of babies and mothers "perfectly not interesting."
Rivka Galchen: Babies can be misleadingly cute, which masks the strange power they have (even as their powerlessness is part of their charismatic power). But in literature—or at least in the literature that I have come across—they mostly come across as monsters, and mothers mostly come across as miserable. I think this makes sense, because that used to be the "secret" story—the official story was that it was all sunshine. But these days I feel, in certain demographics anyway, the official story has been reversed. Babies and motherhood are "officially" anti-intellectual and difficult, and the nuance that gets left out is the mystery, the strangeness, the gold, the little teeth.
Does your medical degree give you a different perspective on motherhood?
In medicine, there's a lot of emphasis—appropriately—on pregnancy as a healthy and normal state. There's a lot of emphasis on remembering not to think of it as a disease state. All of which is true. But once I was pregnant, I was interested in it as a kind of derangement. Food tasted different, but all my other sensations were different, too. Being in love is also a derangement. We don't have to think of derangement as negative; it's actually the beginning of art and philosophy.
Your references are incredibly diverse, from Japanese literature to I Love Lucy to Toni Morrison.
Sometimes I worry that literature hardly has a language in the culture at all. I grew up with very little literature, so it's natural to me for it to match up with cookie brands and syndicated television. And I like pulling literature into the net of overwhelmingly dominant pop culture. I feel like it makes little pockets where rare birds can nest, birds that wouldn't survive in the broader ecosystem.
Have things changed since your baby is a toddler?
She's now of a species that more resembles my own; there's less confusion and more sleep. I feel less intoxicated and associative, but more able to work.
You've written in a lot of different forms. Will you return to fiction?
I used to write interesting emails! I haven't written an interesting email for about three years. But probably I won't return to that form. But I do hope to return to the other forms.
Portland comics writer Matt Fraction was well-known for his Marvel Comics (X-Men, Hawkeye, Thor) and for his prolific, wisecracking Twitter account. But he didn't think his Chip Zdarsky-illustrated comic-book series Sex Criminals—the story of Jon and Suzie, a bank-robbing couple whose lovemaking literally halts time—would last more than a few issues. But since its first issue in 2013, it's become an epically popular crime saga that's also a soulful meditation on relationships and sexual identity. And Fraction became the rare comics writer to get interviewed on The Tonight Show. We talked to him about volume 3 of the Sex Criminals series, released this year. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON.
WW: What research did you do for this volume?
Matt Fraction: I talked to some mental health professionals, I talked to a few asexual friends of mine, I talked to some science people and just kind of thought a lot. But as much as there's research done and facts checked, a creative act is an act of empathy. I genuinely care about all of these weirdos that we write about.
There are a lot of meta-moments in this volume where you reference the fact that it's a comic book.
Comics are so resilient and versatile a storytelling medium, capable of so much more than what we tend to put them towards. If that's the part of the book that loses somebody, then it's not the book for them—if they feel that, "Oh, everything else is fine, but I don't like where he wrote, 'I don't want to write this scene because it's super-boring and we all know what's going to happen anyway.'" There's no reason that the narrative train is derailed.
This book questions the very premise of Sex Criminals by having Suzie lose interest in robbing banks.
It's not drama if there's not obstacles. I don't know what's a better obstacle to Bonnie and Clyde than if Bonnie ain't into it anymore. Two people figuring out that they're going to be with each other is one thing—"We're going to go out to dinner a lot, we're going to move in together." But what if suddenly Suzie's not into it? That's a big part of moving from a transitory to a long-term or permanent relationship. This volume is about, "What do we want? What are our goals? Not just for life, but what do we want out of each other, what do we want out of this relationship? Where do we want to grow as people?"
Kate Carroll de Gutes
The first book Kate Carroll de Gutes published is also the last piece of writing she ever worked on with her longtime mentor, novelist and poet (and Ovenbird books publisher) Judith Kitchen. Near the end of editing de Gutes' memoir Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear—which won the 2016 Oregon Book Award for creative nonfiction and the Lambda Literary Award—Kitchen passed away after over four years battling cancer. The collection of reverse-chronological essays deals with (among other things) de Gutes's divorce and accepting her "masculine-of-center" gender identity. De Gutes is already putting the finishing touches on her follow up book based on her blog the Authenticity Experiment, and is in planning stages for her third book about her mother's struggle with Alzheimer's disease. SHANNON GORMLEY.
WW: What was Judith Kitchen's role in the book?
Kate Carroll de Gutes: We both kind of knew that she didn't have a lot of time left. Judith's hand is all over that work. Judith—like two days before she died—she finished the edit on this, and she wrote me a big, long note about the changes that she thought needed to be made. I made some edits to the book after she died, and that was kind of the first time in nine years that I had done any work that she hadn't looked at. She's a huge [literary] figure, and she was my buddy, and she was my editor. So the loss of her was pretty significant for me. And that's partly why putting this [second] book together is so scary—Judith isn't in the world to bounce ideas off of.
How's it feel to have your first book so late in your career?
Of course, it's totally satisfying to have a book in your hands. The great gift of that was, the book came out in June of 2015 and my mom died in August. So I could put the book in her hand, and she was so thrilled for me and so happy that it happened. She kept saying over and over again, "I'm so happy that this happened before I died." I kept saying, "Me too."
You write a lot about how clothes have affected your gender identity.
It's evolving every time I get a nice new bow tie. Clothes were incredibly important to me, because as a teenager and as a young adult living with my parents, I couldn't ever dress the way I wanted to dress. So to finally be able to embrace that and embrace who I was, which is masculine of center—I identify as a genderqueer, butch woman—is incredibly liberating. I'm wearing a black shirt right now with French cuffs (so I have little cuff links) and a purple bow tie, and feel like myself. I finally feel like in these clothes, with these clothes, I'm myself. That identity was always in there. It just wasn't expressed.
GO: Wordstock will host 100 authors and up to 10,000 attendees at the Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Ave., and many other venues, including the Portland'5, Oregon Historical Society and Old Church, on Saturday, Nov. 5. 9 am-6 pm. $15-$18, free for guests under 18. For full details, including an author list and reading schedule, visit literary-arts.org.