—from “The Cottage on the Hill” (Unstuck #1)
J. Robert Lennon is the author of seven novels, including Mailman, Castle, and the forthcoming Familiar, and a collection of short stories, Pieces for the Left Hand. He teaches writing at Cornell University.
Interview by Molly Laich
[Note: This interview was conducted over Google Chat.]
J. ROBERT LENNON: You in there?
UNSTUCK: Ha. Yes, I am in there. I am in the computer.
J. ROBERT LENNON: OMG
UNSTUCK: Hello! How are you?
J. ROBERT LENNON: I'm great! Just sent in the page proofs for Familiar, the new book, so I am relieved and happy.
UNSTUCK: Oh, what a feeling. When does it come out?
J. ROBERT LENNON: First week of October. Will be touring a bit then, including to Missoula.
UNSTUCK: Speaking of which: I wanted to ask about your time at the University of Montana. When were you there? What were the circumstances that led you to an MFA? What sort of writer were you before the MFA, and how did it change you?
J. ROBERT LENNON: I was a student there from 1993 to 1995, met my wife, the novelist Rhian Ellis, and we stayed there a couple years more. I got an MFA for the usual reasons—my favorite college class was a fiction workshop and my teacher suggested I apply to MFA programs. Montana was the only place I got in—I was not a terribly skilled or mature writer at the time. The main thing I learned there, though, was discipline—to write every day, and, most importantly, to revise. I'm no longer in a position to be able to write daily but I am a total pig for revision. My first drafts are crap.
UNSTUCK: In workshop, did you work on short stories or novels?
J. ROBERT LENNON: Both. My first attempt at a novel was about a rock band that that has to deliver a baby from Seattle to Philadelphia. It was really bad, and people told me so. I also ended up workshopping the first few chapters of what would become my first novel, and that went rather better.
UNSTUCK: Since we brought Familiar up, let's talk about the new book! The novel is about a woman who stumbles into a parallel reality in which she's estranged from her children. To me, this is the saddest thing I can imagine. The ultimate life failure: to have a ruined relationship with your kids. (I don't have any kids; I'm guessing.) And you confirmed my suspicion that you were writing about your worst fears. To me, it's almost a horror story. But not in any conventional way.
J. ROBERT LENNON: A friend of mine just read it, and mentioned how sad it was. And my reaction was, "Is it? Damn, I guess it really is." Of course it is.
I do like your characterization of it as a horror story, though, and that is precisely how I've been describing it to people—a horror novel about parenthood. Not as horrifying as, say, Pet Sematary, but maybe less easy to dismiss as fantasy.
The book started as a way of exploring the weird feeling of driving on the highway after September 11th—I was supposed to be on a book tour, and it was all cancelled, and I had to drive a rental car home to Ithaca, because the airports were closed. When we were living in Missoula in 2002, I wrote about 40 pages, then gave up. Finally I went back to it in 2009, printed it out, deleted the file, and started over, retyping it all into the word processor. And this time I didn't stop. Over many drafts, it became more about parenting and less about the sci-fi conceit. I think my recent work is more about metaphor, and works more by evocation rather than description, if that makes any sense. I think I'll be returning to the social realism for the next book—a comedy, I hope. But I always think everything's going to be funny, and then it turns depressing.
By the way: I'm reading your movie review of Damsels in Distress—my wife liked it pretty well. I like Greta Gerwig. But I've never really been able to wrap my mind around Whit Stillman. I always find myself wishing that Hal Hartley were directing his movies instead.
UNSTUCK: That's sort of like how every time I listen to Elvis Costello I wish I were listening to Tom Petty.
J. ROBERT LENNON: Ha—yes.
UNSTUCK: Thanks for reading. I wish I'd reviewed Battleship instead. Rihanna as a naval officer, LOL. But anyway. It's interesting that the sadness wasn't at the forefront for you while you were writing the book. It did sort of sneak up on me as well. I was overcome with grief when she sees Sam and— but I shouldn't give things away.
Have you written from a woman's point of view before?
J. ROBERT LENNON: I have written from a woman's POV before, and I'm always a little surprised when people are surprised by it. It seems to me that writing from the other gender is a Writing 101 skill. I mean, if you can't imagine what it's like to not be yourself, you're in the wrong line of work. That said, I do usually write male characters, and I've never devoted an entire novel to a woman character before. Most of one, but never the whole thing. I felt at home in this one, though—do you think it's a persuasive feminine perspective?
UNSTUCK: I do. I found her to be unsentimental and I enjoyed the idea that she had suddenly given up the impulse to wear makeup. I agree that writers should be able to write from other perspectives, but I don't agree that it's an entirely symmetrical switch. I mean— I think it's slightly more challenging for a man to write as a woman than for a woman to write as a man. It's a complicated theory supported by my cursory studies of psycholinguistics, briefly summarized by saying that man is sort of the default stance, and as such all humans are better at slipping into a man's world.
J. ROBERT LENNON: I suspect you're right about that. And I suspect it's also easier for a male reader to accept a male character written by a woman, in part for the same reasons. Because hell, why wouldn't she be writing about a man? It could be that the bar, then, is set higher for a man trying to write from a woman's perspective—but, on the other hand, we get congratulated for doing it a hell of a lot more often, and more effusively, than women writers do for writing about men.
UNSTUCK: One more question about Familiar, maybe. You mentioned abandoning the more sci-fi-ish elements in an earlier draft, but it's not all gone. It engages with elements of sci-fi in the way Elisa becomes involved in parallel worlds discussion boards and whatnot. But it seems to me the novel is just itself and doesn't concern itself very much with genre considerations. Do you agree? Is this a luxury of someone who has written multiple novels?
J. ROBERT LENNON: I think it's a luxury of somebody who grew up reading tons of genre fiction, and is writing in an era where genre-blurring fiction is not only acceptable but à la mode. I can't get Stephen King, sci-fi, and crime fiction out of my head. Sometimes I don't bother to try. I think this is even more common among writers younger than me—all my undergrads at Cornell are members of the Harry Potter generation, and I have been getting lots and lots of literary fiction with insidious genre-borrowing in it. I like this a lot.
Yeah, there is lots of the parallel worlds stuff in here, but in earlier drafts it was there more for its own sake, and now it is there as something for Elisa to ponder. It's a vehicle for exploring character now—and for exploring the vicissitudes of family life. I am glad you regard the novel as merely being itself—that's my intent, and I think I needed to let it find itself before I could start trying to make it any good.
UNSTUCK: Let's "shift gears" a second. There's your Unstuck story, "The Cottage on the Hill," about a cottage that seems to morph via mysterious circumstances, and your novel Castle, that is about a lot of things, but much of the action has to do with home repairs. Do these stories have anything to do with one another? I get the feeling that they were maybe written around the same time or are born of similar experiences or ideas.
J. ROBERT LENNON: Well, the Unstuck story came after Castle, but I will tell you what, I am obsessed with houses. They are so powerful. I dream about them constantly—I think most people do. That story came from a dream, in fact—I was out of town with my son, at of all things a Rubik's Cube solving competition, and in the hotel we were staying in I dreamed about returning over and over to this cottage that is different every time, but still the same, in that dreaming you-just-know-stuff sort of way. I spent the drive back to Ithaca trying to remember it all, and then wrote the story with only a small amount of narrative structure inserted to hold it all together. I ought to teach a course on books about houses. There are so many good ones.
UNSTUCK: Tell us about a few! What books were helpful to you in writing Castle? (But then I have another question about Castle, so contain yourself.)
J. ROBERT LENNON: Well, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is wonderful. But I mostly think of Castle as a Stephen King novel. Whereas the biggest influence on Familiar is probably Tom McCarthy's Remainder—another book about the mysteries of cognition.
UNSTUCK: Not to be illiterate, but it reminded me a little of the film Cast Away.
J. ROBERT LENNON: Sure, I'll buy Cast Away! The first two thirds, anyway. I used to characterize my earlier book On The Night Plain as "A Coen Brothers western." This was before there actually were Coen Brothers westerns.
UNSTUCK: What I admired most about Castle was how close we were to the protagonist’s changing moods, perspectives. I think the book is psychologically deft. (I have an undergraduate degree in psychology, so, you're welcome.) It's clear we're dealing with an "unreliable narrator," but precisely how he is unreliable remains a mystery for much of the book. It's a source of much tension and intrigue! And I liked very much the white deer.
J. ROBERT LENNON: White deer: yes! They’re a staple of central New York writers. They live behind the fence at the old Seneca Army Depot. They are strange and beautiful.
My editor and I worked very hard to keep the nature of Loesch's unreliability consistent. He is not lying—but he is telling a highly self-serving narrative. There are things he needs to say, but he can't bring himself to do it, not for a long time. At first he will only allow his past to enter the story via other characters—e.g., the hardware store clerk who calls him "Soldier." But as the narrative wears on, he talks more openly about what he did, and what happened to him. The turning point is when he falls into the pit trap in the woods.
A colleague of mine at Cornell, a medievalist, told me, after hearing me read that bit, that this is a very, very old trope—you fall in a hole and remember things. Murakami's Wind-Up Bird Chronicle does this too.
UNSTUCK: I was telling somebody about Familiar and they said it sounded like Murakami's latest book.
J. ROBERT LENNON: Well, I was a little dismayed when I learned that Murakami's book was about parallel universes... but it turns out to be utterly different. I must say I wasn't wild about 1Q84—it should have been shorter, among other things. I ordinarily like Murakami a great deal, though.
UNSTUCK: I used to have these insane fears as an undergrad the night before workshop that I would show up and someone would have written the same story as I had, exactly—the way normal girls might worry about someone at the wedding wearing the same dress as them.
J. ROBERT LENNON: A former teacher who shall remain nameless once told our workshop, "If you get a good idea, write it immediately, because somebody could steal it." NO! No, that is dumb.
It is one of the most popular questions I get from would-be writers, too. "Should I copyright my idea?" No, because your idea is worthless! Ideas are nothing. A book is something—it's real—and it won't be like anyone else's. In very much the way that two women are never going to inhabit the same dress in the same way. Hell, it might not even look like the same dress.
I'll tell you what: dudes don't worry about wearing suits that ALL LOOK ALIKE. Because dudes are taught to think that their own personal special penis power will radiate out from them like glorious rays of man sun.
UNSTUCK: Would you like to tell me a little about your writing process? What you're working on next? Life plans and dreams?
J. ROBERT LENNON: Sure.
1) Usually in three- or four-hour shifts, when I am not teaching. I try to produce maybe a page an hour. It's all rather craftsmanlike—I get "inspired" sometimes but inspiration is kinda bullshit most of the time. When I have time, I write—that's about the size of it. Sometimes it's goodish, sometimes it sucks.
2) A short story about a graduate student in anthropology, then a talk about stylistic and plot extremes in fiction for the Colgate Writers' Conference, which is in a few weeks. Then a literary crime novella that I have extracted from a failed 2009 novel. Then I start taking notes on this big social comedy I want to write.
3) Get old. Read and eat and drink and hang out with my wife. Record music. I like my life; I just want to keep it going.
UNSTUCK: Your work can be dark sometimes. It deals with broken relationships and families, domestic life gone wrong, but with hints of the supernatural. I think there's a natural impulse, maybe particularly among readers who are also writers, to try to find the real-life connections between the author and the horrors he expresses. But you seem fine. I mean, not psychologically tortured or crazy or a bad parent or whatever. What can you say about the relationship between the author and his work?
J. ROBERT LENNON: Yes, it's true that I am a functional person with a happy family, and I count myself lucky. And it is luck—I don't pretend otherwise. But the collective consciousness of my household is very dark. I think that all of us have tried different ways of channeling this energy—into personal projects, rather than towards our regard for one another. I am deeply proud to already see the family illness finding its way into my older son's Twitter feed, for instance.
Let's face it—the more love there is in your life, the more you have to lose. And the more ways there are to lose what you have. I love extravagantly—the people around me, the work I do, the things I enjoy. And it opens me up to all manner of hurt. But what's the alternative, you know? Hiding from it? Writers don't have to go out in the world and do exciting things, but we can't shy away from strong emotion in our minds. Perhaps this is why so many of us become alcoholics, or suicides. There's no room for denial or aversion.
It hasn't escaped my attention that the stuff of mine that people seem to like the most is the stuff that seemed at the time of writing to be the most personal, the most trifling, the least obviously marketable. I try to tell students this—don't try to write something acceptable, try to write something that expresses your obsessions. This is hard for some writers, who are embarrassed by, or dubious about, their obsessions. But it's important to break through that wall. Your self is the only thing you have that nobody else can give to the world. That pure, unrefined ore—that's the stuff.
I believe in earnestness and honesty and in expressing strong emotion, both on and off the page. Never try to be classy. There, that's your pull quote: Writers, don't be classy!
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Molly Laich is an Assistant Editor at Unstuck. She reads and writes in Missoula, Montana. Tweet her (@MollyL) or visit her blog at mollylaich.com.