A chat with Jonathan Lethem
Jonathan Lethem explains why he's giving away the film option for his new book, ''You Don't Love Me Yet,'' discusses New Line's purchase of an earlier work for actor Edward Norton, and drops hints about an upcoming Manhattan-based novel
With his new novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet, Jonathan Lethem is doing something unheard-of for a writer: he’s giving away the film option. On his website, the author of The Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn is soliciting pitches from any and all filmmakers until May 15. If all goes to plan, he’ll pick his favorite and, at no charge, send a young director off to make a film out of You Don’t Love Me Yet. Down the road, Lethem is asking to get paid two percent of the film’s budget, but only if a film version of You Don’t Love Me Yet actually gets a distribution deal. It seems like a generous move from an author whose previous fictions have been optioned so regularly over the years, but it’s in keeping with Lethem’s current obsession with the free exchange of ideas among artists, which he recently wrote about in a long, clever (you might even say booby-trapped) essay for Harper’s.
You Don’t Love Me Yet is a fast and expertly written read (here’s EW’s A-minus review) about a 29-year-old bass player named Lucinda, who works part-time as a call-taker on a ”complaint line” where people vent their gripes. One ”complainer” is so naggingly eloquent, Lucinda falls in love with him and — speaking of artistic appropriation — steals his over-the-phone musings verbatim and turns them into song lyrics. EW.com talked to the Brooklyn-born writer about the public domain, Edward Norton, and Lethem’s fondness for the arty post-punk band LCD Soundsystem.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How long have you been thinking about artists and the free exchange of ideas?
JONATHAN LETHEM: Before I thought about any of this stuff at all, I always responded with a lot of excitement, for instance, to pop art, with its appropriation of comic-book images, or early hip-hop sampling. I thrilled to that stuff. I knew that it just made sense to me. And when I encountered artists who did that kind of thing in text or in film — quotations readily accessed, or openly brandished influences — I thought, ”That’s great! That’s what I like, that’s what I do.” My own [work] is a conversation of sources. I’ve just always fallen by temperament on the side of public domain and free culture.
The great thing about giving away your option is that it greatly increases your chances of getting a movie made, doesn’t it?
Maybe, yeah. It’s like I’m shooting an arrow in the air, and I really don’t know where it will come down, and that’s a pleasure. It’s interesting to me. I don’t know what reply the world is going to give me back. But the one thing I do feel confident about is that it’s an essentially harmless one.
For the past couple of months on your website, you’ve listed stories and lyrics you’ve written that anybody can turn into a short film or a song. That’s fairly radical. Did it give you the idea for the You Don’t Love Me film option?
You know, I was hatching them both in parallel. One of the important parts of this is that the film industry prides itself on getting books before everyone else, and making deals before anyone’s ever read them. That happened to me — Motherless Brooklyn [Lethem’s 1999 novel about a private detective with Tourette’s Syndrome] was sold to New Line for Edward Norton before it was even published. But in this case it seemed important that this book be a book first, so there wouldn’t be any advantage to anyone with an inside line.
You probably could’ve optioned this ahead of time. If you could’ve, would you’ve?
I have no idea. It seems presumptuous to say, ”Oh, I just gave away something that I could’ve gotten X number of dollars for….” All but one of my previous novels have been optioned at some point, a couple of them several times, and this one — you don’t see anything that would keep it from being a movie, right? But who knows? One of the things I should emphasize is that I might end up walking home with my book and nothing happens, but that would be okay. Worse things have gone on. [Laughs] Some people have asked, ”But what if it never becomes a movie?” I think I’ve got some experience in that area. I think I’ll be able to handle that.
Who’s making The Fortress of Solitude movie?
Josh Marston, the guy who made Maria Full of Grace. He’s trying to move pretty quickly. There’s a screenplay that he and I and my wife wrote together, and we’re all pretty happy with it, and he’s getting a good response. So he’s in the trenches of financing, God bless him.
Any update on the movie version of Motherless Brooklyn? I interviewed Edward Norton a year ago, and he talked about how he transposed the time period of the book.
If there is, I don’t have it for you. I’ve heard word mostly just like this, from people who’ve spoken with Norton. I’ve never seen any pages, but yeah, I think there might be reason to think that he’s working on it again. But I just don’t know.
Let’s talk about the book. You’ve written a lot about music. Have you wanted to write a rock novel for a long time?
In Fortress of Solitude and some of my essays, I found a variety of ways to write about music’s deep affect on me, while trying to triangulate my own emotional response to a cultural meaning. This was a chance to do something different, to write about it from inside these characters in their late 20s who aren’t thinking really hard about how they feel about music, they’re just trying to become music. It was their yearning, pose-striking, youthful, aspirational energy that I think was really poignant to me. I remember that part of my life very fondly, precisely for the fact that we were all sort of full of shit.
Did you ever play in a band?
Not an instrument, because I’m really uncommonly pathetic at that. But I very, very briefly — I hate to even admit this — fronted a band where my singing could best be described as sub-Lou Reed atonal mumbling.
What was the band called?
That was one of our problems, that we didn’t settle on a name, but at one point we had the extremely ungainly moniker Emma the Crayon.
Wow. Who are you listening to now?
I don’t know, I’m a sort of jumble of enthusiasms, [given] the way the iPod causes you to climb up the ass of your own record collection. I’ve been listening to that No Thanks! ’70s punk box set, from Rhino. At the same time, I’ve been listening to the new Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. I like it. I think it’s a little more obnoxious than their first record, a little less lovable. But that’s okay. What else? It’s such a fragmentary time. Someone will send me some links and I’ll download some bizarre cache of calypso and get obsessed with that for awhile. But you know, I just discovered that LCD Soundsystem guy. I’m probably the last person in the world, but it seems like hot breaking news to me.
Last question about the book. Did you wanna write a shorter book after Fortress?
It’s a funny thing. People wanna understand my motivation. Any book would’ve been shorter than Fortress of Solitude, and probably any book would’ve been taken as some kind of ”palate cleanser,” as one reviewer called [You Don’t Love Me Yet]. I did want to shrug free from the mantle of Brooklyn for awhile. There’s incredible honor in the way that people have sort of been wanting to call me some sort of poet laureate of Boerum Hill or something. But it’s also really risky for an artist to settle in to any kind of authority like that, not that I don’t imagine I’ll come back to Brooklyn, or that I’m not immensely proud of the connection. Mostly it was time for me just to rediscover my sense of irresponsibility.
Critics sometimes call a book like this a palate cleanser as if that’s a bad thing, as if a novel has to be big to be interesting.
Well, it’s a hopeless role, and very, very fatal for a novelist to think that every time [they have to write a big book]. It’s sort of like Norman Mailer Syndrome, where you say, ”Hmmm, what do I write about now? Jesus Christ! Hitler!” I spend a lot of my time reading novelists like Muriel Spark, people who are very light on their feet, and their greatness comes not from an immensity, or some super-responsible subject matter, but from the perfect architecture of these slimmer novels they write. And the other simplest thing to say is, ”Hey, You Don’t Love Me Yet is a comedy.” And you wouldn’t want a bloated comedy.
What’s next for you now?
Well, I’ve got a big book again. [Laughs] It’s inevitable how you fall into the paradigm. Anyway, for better or worse, I’ve got a couple chapters of something sprawling and strange. Set in Manhattan, not Brooklyn.
It takes place in contemporary times, or old?
It’s contemporary, yeah. It doesn’t have that nostalgic cast of the Brooklyn stuff. I’m excited about it. There’s not a lot I can describe about it — it’s scraps at this point.
You’re also a huge movie fan. Seen anything good lately?
I had an astounding film-going experience earlier this month. I went to see the Out 1, this impossible French film. [Directed by Jacques Rivette in 1971, it’s 13 hours long.] It was absolutely stunning. I like immersive art, and it was just a great example of it. And it gave me great courage to write with a more open structure in this sprawling next book that I’ve got in mind.