An Interview with J. Robert Lennon

Photo by Lindsay France

J.Robert Lennon is the author of several novels, including Mailman (2003), Pieces for the Left Hand (2005), Castle (2009), and the forthcoming Familiar (all of which are discussed in this interview to varying degrees). He’s a musician in a band called Inverse Room (which we don’t discuss at all) and he teaches writing at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY (which is pretty cool).

I always end up reading Lennon’s books in memorable places. I was first introduced to his writing in the Best American Short Stories 2005, which I read in a hotel room overlooking the Tampa Bay while my wife took the bar exam. That story contained eight of the anecdotes that appear in Pieces for the Left Hand, which I later read in varying states of consciousness while suffering from the flu. The brevity of each piece actually made for perfect “sick reading” and I’m sure I developed some kind of Burroughsian theory about how the parts connected to the whole that I forgot as soon as the fever broke. I did re-read the book when I was well, for the record, but not before I picked up Mailman, which I had the pleasure of reading while visiting a friend in Ithaca and experiencing the real-life version of the book’s fictional setting in stark contrast with the narrator. I read Castle on a cruise (the former was much better than the latter). While Lennon’s books are diverse in content, his control over style and language makes writing look easy. Reading his books either enhanced my pleasant surroundings or distracted from their unpleasantness, and that’s something that not many storytellers can do. The way in which each book invites the reader into its world is probably why I could be just about anywhere and enjoy them. When Familiar comes out, I plan to read it somewhere entirely banal.

None of this has any actual bearing on the interview that follows, but it’s certainly why I sought out Mr. Lennon, who was kind enough to chat with me over email about crime fiction, Ithaca, Twitter, and more.


Ryan Rivas: Since you’ve got something of a crime novel in publishing limbo right now, I wanted to start off talking about genre. You’ve claimed to be a lover of crime novels, or at least hooked on them, but what draws you to them? What are your favorite aspects of these books?

J. Robert Lennon: I like that they’re limited—that they present familiar problems, for which you expect familiar solutions. There’s a particular thrill, then, when, rarely, a crime novelist innovates—it’s the breaking of the a time-honored contract. A couple of recent favorites, both of which I teach in my Crime Stories seminar at Cornell, are China Mieville’s The City and the City, and Tana French’s The Likeness.

RR: When talking about Castle, which uses elements of horror and suspense, you’ve cited Stephen King as an influence, but you also said you thought he could be a better writer. In addition to this, you’ve said of science fiction that the “conventions of the genre allow the writing to be less excellent” than you’d like. Do you feel that way about all genre fiction, that many of the stories that disappoint you are hindered by the genre’s limitations?

JRL: Yes, I do. When a lot of structure has been provided for you, it’s possible to get lazy and accept the structure as presented. The best writers in the genres use this as an opportunity to expend their creative energy elsewhere. In the case of Stephen King, I think he’s a genre unto himself—his extraordinary sales seemed to have convinced him he’s doing something right, and that he should leave well enough alone. But he’s smarter than the books he usually publishes, and I wish he would take twice as long to write them.

RR: You once gave a talk on restraints in writing at the Colgate Writers’ Conference that was more focused on limitations, or restraints, in literary works, like those of the Oulipo. Do you see a positive connection between limits and genre fiction? Kind of like old film noir, where directors had to work within the limitations of the Hays Code, and in doing so found new and creative forms of visual expression. Do you see this same potential in the limitations of genre fiction?

JRL: Definitely—that’s exactly how I like to look at the conventions of genre—as Oulipian limitations, ripe for subversion. My crime novel was pretty much a straight genre piece (maybe that’s why it didn’t get published—who knows) but Castle and Familiar, the new one, borrow from genres in what I hope are interesting ways. I am trying to use genre tropes as creative tools, rather than as plug-and-play story elements.

RR: When writing Castle and Familiar, how did you balance genre tropes with what is essentially a literary, character-driven story? Is this something you find yourself addressing in all your work, whether it’s while your first drafting it, or during revision?

JRL: I really do think I address it in all my work. Literary fiction has its clichés too, you know—the lovable educated white male loser, the frenetic and pedantic third-limited consciousness narrative, the child of immigrants who unlocks the family secrets, the workaday dramas behind the scenes of a famous life. There’s a million of ’em and it’s impossible to avoid leaning on them without even realizing it. Lots of these slip through my early drafts, and the revision process is in part an effort to start interrogating those choices.

RR: What will become of this crime novel currently pending publication?

JRL: It’s not being published, as far as I know. Maybe someday!

RR: A decent amount of your work is set in Nestor, your fictional stand-in for Ithaca, NY. Mailman is mostly set in the city and follows the very angry Albert Lippincott. I’m pretty sure Albert throws a fit in a version of Gimme Coffee. Castle is set more on the outskirts, which is vital to the creepy mood of the book. Still, the straight-laced, meat-eating narrator, Eric Loesch has an unpleasant encounter in a vegetarian restaurant in town. I loved these glimpses into “hip” Ithaca from the perspective of these outsider characters.

JRL: Well, Loesch never gets near Ithaca—I picture that book taking place further west of here—but you’re right, that’s the Gimme on Cayuga Street in Mailman. It was new at the time I wrote the book…I actually wrote most of an entire other novel, On The Night Plain, in Gimme’s predecessor, The Oak, on yellow legal pads.

I don’t really see either character as angry, though. Bewildered and disappointed, in the case of Lippincott, and in denial, in the case of Loesch. Neither man would ordinarily be inclined to hurt someone else—but Loesch has allowed himself to be forced into doing so, and Lippincott hurts himself. I’m not an angry person, but I’m kind of counterproductively intense, and prone to impulsiveness followed by highly self-indulgent remorse. So I suppose I’m exploring the ways my own personality quirks might express themselves in other people.

RR: If you could have a Michael-Douglas-in-Falling-Down-type meltdown in Ithaca, where would it be?

JRL: I’m in no danger of melting down, but I think it would probably happen in my car, just like it did in Falling Down. I loathe cars and am at my tensest and most frustrated while driving.

RR: From my brief experience, Ithaca is such a beautiful and easygoing place that the way Lippincott interacts with the city is comical. How do you experience the city, personally?

JRL: I quite love Ithaca, and had the advantage of living here for half a dozen years before I became a full-time Cornellian. So I still feel like a townie. My sense of Ithaca as an oasis from certain kinds of pain is very strong, and I feel that it has really supported and nurtured the things I do. My wife and I live on the outskirts now, on part of what used to be a farm, and I think that the neither-nor quality of this area—neither urban nor rural, nor even small-town, really—throws other kinds of American living into sharp relief. It’s an outpost from which to observe things.

RR: In addition to being un-hip, Loesch and Lippincott are both extremely unlikeable and sympathetic. They certainly avoid falling into the literary clichés you spoke of earlier. Is there a connection between these two characters in terms of what interests you about character creation?

JRL: I like weird, annoying people whom others find insufferable. The things other people find obnoxious about my friends, I am generally delighted by. This is not to say I am not close to many charming people, just that I’m often drawn to the very personality traits most likely to inspire self-disgust in their exhibitors. Indeed, many of my compliments are taken as insults. So, my fictional characters tend to reflect this. Like any writer, I write about those aspects of people I find most compelling.

RR: Despite the similarities between Loesch and Lippincott, your novels are really diverse in style and content. Earlier you mentioned your new novel, due out from Graywolf in October, called Familiar. What role, if any, does setting play, and what’s it about?

JRL: It’s about a woman who finds herself transported into a subtly different parallel universe. Ultimately, it’s about parenting. Setting is less important this time—though it mostly takes place upstate again. Really, though, it takes place in somebody’s head. And in between possible worlds.

RR: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that the brevity of each short in Pieces for the Left Hand was directly influenced by the sleeping schedule of your, at the time, young children. Now that the kids are older, did any aspects of your parenting life influence Familiar?

JRL: Sure—every parent wonders if the decisions they make have long-term effects. When things go wrong, we fear that we’re to blame. One of the epiphanies that Elisa, the protagonist of the book, has is that maybe, ultimately, she was a lousy mother. And maybe there was nothing she could have done to avoid that. And maybe that matters, and maybe it doesn’t. Most narratives about parenthood are intended either to reassure or horrify; I wanted to try one with ambiguous intent.

RR: On the Night Plain was published in 2001. Did you draft/revise Familiar with pen and paper, or have your methods of creation changed over time?

JRL: No, no, that was just an experiment—it was a 1940’s story and I wanted to use 1940’s technology to write it. It didn’t make much difference, ultimately. Ordinarily I like to use a computer for pretty much everything. I’ve heard people make a big deal about the importance of the physical act of writing, and maybe it’s useful for their own work, but in a broader sense I think that argument is full of shit.

RR: You’re certainly comfortable in the digital realm. You used to actively blog at Ward Six. You’ve got a free e-book of your Oulipian experiments available for download on your website. You’ve got a Twitter account… As a reader, do you prefer/seek out certain kinds of books on your e-reader?

JRL: Genre fiction I usually read as e-books, generally on the e-ink Kindle or the recent iPad, which finally has the screen resolution to satisfy my aesthetic needs. I read lots of student work on e-readers as well. If I’m going to teach a book, or think I’ll refer to it over and over, I’ll buy a print version. Most literary fiction, in other words.

RR: What’s your relationship with e-books as a writer? Do you still value print more, or would you be open to publishing a full-length work exclusively in electronic form?

JRL: I’m quite attached to print and will be sad if a novel of mine can only come out in electronic form. But about half the books I read are e-books, and I realize that my relationship to print is, frankly, sentimental. Deep down, it doesn’t matter much to me. The long-form story, told using language, will always have value; its delivery vehicle is not especially important, in the long run. I’m aware that this is not a popular point of view, even on Twitter.

RR: What’s your favorite, or least favorite, thing about Tweeting?

JRL: I love that it’s always there—people are always being funny and/or interesting, and I can always rely on that. What I don’t like is the impulse to read every tweet. It takes some effort just to breeze past a few days’ worth of tweets, if I’ve been busy. But I have to breeze past them, I just don’t always have time.

RR: Tell me what’s next for you in a Tweet or two.

JRL: I just got an idea for a big sprawling social comedy with a goofy sci-fi premise. I’ll take notes on it this summer and probably get writin

JRL: g when I’m on sabbatical next year. It is a swerve away from my recent stuff—we’ll see if I actually write it!