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Interview with Jonathan Lethem

Today I am meeting with Jonathan Lethem, author of Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude and the new Roy E. Disney Professor in Creative Writing, to talk about moving to California, plagiarism and certain clichés that are old but true.

 Photo by Fred Benenson, source: Flickr

How do you find Pomona?
It’s been an incredible journey settling into the prospect of this new job. My immediate colleagues have been incredibly welcoming. I can already feel that the sense of community here is very strong. And I’m just discovering what the community of my students is going to be like. I went to the Coop Store today to buy a bagel and I saw some familiar faces. I thought, “This is real now. I am sinking deeper and deeper into this sense of community.” It’s really gratifying.
Was it a hard transition from New York to Southern California?
Don’t tell anyone in New York this but I’ve been trying to leave for a while. My family and I spent a lot of time in Maine and I had been fantasizing about moving out of New York and to this remote village for a few years… I guess this is not exactly a remote village, but it is probably a healthier escape hatch for me than Brooklyn.
I grew up in New York and it’s always inside me but I’ve made a life habit of running away from it. This feels like a new and exciting chapter of that story.
What are you focusing on in your creative writing fiction workshop this semester?
It’s an introductory workshop so for now I’m just getting a feel for what this particular group of students is going to bring to the table. Any workshop is determined by the quality and nature of the writing. I saw some great samples when I picked the group in the first place and we have our first two stories on the workshop table tomorrow.
You expressed some interesting ideas about influence and plagiarism in your essay The Ecstasy of Influence: A plagiarism, which is itself almost entirely plagiarized from other sources to explore the line between originality, influence and transformation. How do you feel about these ideas now, in retrospect?
It’s funny, I’m just thinking about that essay myself because I’m arranging to have it put in a collection in a book and it already seems very distant to me. Perhaps because it consists of so many other writers’ words, it seems distant from my voice, I just gaze at it as an artifact that someone else has created. I’m still very proud of it and quite in awe of the effort. [Laughs] You know, I’m a professor who never wrote a dissertation so I look at that thing and I feel that maybe it marks my secret graduation day: all the citations, all the cross-referencing I had to do to stitch that creature together. Speaking of which, I just agreed to do an event with the Pomona Student Union on February 9th called Chop Shop Art in which I will be talking about copyright issues.
What is the most important piece of advice you would give to young writers?
Well, it’s two words. It’s a cliché, and it’s banal: “Read, write.” In that order. You have to drink in material and make it a part of your normal pathways before you can possibly contemplate to do this work seriously. Be a voracious reader.

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