You can thank three people for Jonathan Lethem’s The Feral Detective: Raymond Chandler, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Donald Trump.
Okay, let’s backtrack. This California-set detective novel has plenty more influences, and was in development before any of those figures entered Lethem’s mind. And yet it unmistakably bears the DNA of each as a finished product — in the nightmarish post-2016 election setting, the hardboiled plotting, and the epic sense of space which enhances its vivid, almost mythic desert atmosphere. Or at least, it’s clear by the time Lethem explains why.
The Feral Detective is Lethem’s 11th novel overall, and first detective novel since his breakout Motherless Brooklyn (1999), which won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Fiction — and is set to become a movie next year, directed by and starring Edward Norton. (Feral is also in development for a feature.) His new book centers on Phoebe, a disgruntled young New Yorker who feels, in the aftermath of Nov. 9, 2016, like she’s living in hell. She seeks out Charles Heist — the novel’s titular P.I., and a peculiar loner — to help her find the missing daughter of her best friend. Together they dive deep into the Southern California desert, uncovering a disturbing conspiracy and bumping into an eclectic cast of creatures along the way.
EW caught up with Lethem about how the book changed after Trump was elected president, the choice to return to the detective genre, and just why his influences this time around were so varied. Read on below. The Feral Detective publishes Tuesday — yes, Election Day! — and is available for pre-order.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This novel evoked many great authors for me. Can you talk about some of your early influences here?
JONATHAN LETHEM: Some of it really originates with my circling back to living in Southern California, on the edge of the Inland Empire for the first time. I’ve had a lot of different East-West experiences and different versions of reactions to that kind of American space. Moving to Claremont, which is kind of on the doorstep of the desert — the suburban conundrum that just goes by the name Inland Empire — I started reading Chandler and Ross McDonald in a different way. I started to see them as documentary writers who were really fascinated with the way life is conducted in this landscape. Especially some of the late Ross McDonald novels, where he traverses the lot of the Southern California region and writes about the ecology — oil spills and hill fires.
How did that feed into you choosing to get back into the hardboiled detective genre?
Being in the desert, you feel like you’re on the front lines of water wars — there’s apocalyptic possibility. It’s real for everyone right now. I love the way Ross McDonald was able to, in those late novels, encode some of his interest in what was in some ways the beginning of the eco crisis that we’re still in. That just seemed really alive to me. And then of course there’s the hardboiled twist. I kind of learned to write by pretending to be Raymond Chandler. It’s why my first novel ended up being a very unembarrassed homage to that style. There’s some part of me that was wanting to reconnect with that source, just on a language level. Those two things moved me really strongly that way.
When you mentioned how these writers were like documentarians, I of course thought of when you set this: right after the 2016 election. You capture a very specific, familiar feeling there.
I was setting up to write this book before that election. It’s kind of typical for me: I ruminate for years on material. I started thinking about how many archetypal fictional characters that are kind of rumbling around in my brain — like Tarzan and Mowgli. The image of the “feral child” has always been interesting and attractive, like a puzzle to me. And writing about urban feral children was a way for me to write about my own coming of age; Fortress of Solitude is sort of about a 1970s New York dystopian-urban feral child. [Laughs] I latched onto this. I smashed it up in my mind with things I was thinking about: the hardboiled voice and the power of the desert and the way I was beginning to relate myself to that landscape. I realized they could all be one kind of thing, I was really excited about that. That was all moving along in my brain and feeling like it might be very promising — before Trump was elected.
And then, kind of like every other human being on Earth, and certainly a lot of other writers that I know — maybe every other writer I know — life felt undone on the morning after the election. That included any prospect of writing anything that’d matter. My novel suddenly looked kind of paltry. I felt paralyzed with despair and confusion. But I think I was lucky in a way: Some of the things I’d been exploring in this novel were sort of accidentally a vehicle for this. For one thing, the book was already trying to talk about a crisis in gender relations at some level. Even further, I thought, Phoebe is this sassy, unhappy, disgruntled runaway New Yorker. Who better to say what I was feeling? Really, she had a lot more reasons to be angry than I did, because she was a woman. I just let her do the talking. If I gave her the job of saying how pissed off she was around the inauguration, then maybe I could write a book after all. So my project sprang back to life. I decided right then, when I was beginning it, the days before the inauguration — what if I just captured how it feels for this 10 days, before and after the inauguration? What if I tried to take a snapshot? That animated the whole project. It turned out that my book made enough sense anyway to be written.
This is a novel about gender in a lot of ways, absolutely. But I do wonder, in light of that, how you chose to approach the sexual tension between Heist and Phoebe. Were you worried at all about misstepping, of striking the right balance?
Even though I said, “I see this thing as a vehicle for thinking about gender,” the minute I say that, in a way, I’m already astray from the truth of how I go at my storytelling. I’m fixated on, “Who is this person? Who’s Phoebe? How does she feel, how does she think? Who does she meet, how do they strike her?” I stay entrenched in stuff that’s intimate and personal and eccentric, and comes out of my own peculiar sensibility or the lives of people I know or observations that have wandered into my mind. I don’t think of myself as answerable to some kind of theoretical or categorical concerns. That’s to say: At some point, I noticed, “Yeah, this is a lot about gender.” But it didn’t make me think, “Now I better back up and do some due diligence.” It made me think, “Okay, what does Phoebe think?” One of the things that most interests me in the book isn’t between the men and the women, it’s between the women and the women — Phoebe running into this older, tough hippie crowds and trying to figure out, “What did you do right and what did you do wrong with the men? Why are you this way and why are the bears that way? What happened?” It was an area of real exploration. It wasn’t about conceiving of things in terms of categories.
So, broadly, how did you conceive Phoebe? Why choose this character to the center this story?
Goofy answer: One of the things I have always thought about the really classic hardboiled story is it’s like a sonnet. It has these really precise moments and events that have to occur. One of the fundamental ones is the female client has to walk into the office of the detective. That instigates the whole story. What happens after that, everyone knows, is that the female kind of goes off camera and the detective has been triggered. He goes off and does stuff. I always thought, “What would happen if you walked out of that meeting but stayed with the client?” She’s basically been told, “Wait for me to call,” so what if I wrote the scene of the client who has to go twiddle her thumbs and wait for the detective to call. It just seemed funny to me, and I realized I’d never seen that done.
The more substantial answer: It’s Phoebe’s story. By picking her — the New Yorker landing in the desert from far away — I was letting myself tell the story from the position of someone who needed to learn. It’s kind of like Henry Fonda at the beginning of My Darling Clementine, when he looks around and he says, “What kind of a town is this that I’ve come to, anyway?” [Laughs] It’s such a good way to tell a story if someone is trying to read the lay of the land, not taking things for granted. Phoebe was fantastic because she was intelligent, opinionated, and yet also a total naif in this new world that I’d dropped her into. It could cover my own naïveté. I could wonder about everything along with her.
Let’s turn to the desert landscape for a minute, which you write to so vividly. There’s a spareness, too — what was the thinking there, in the way you realized it?
In the years that I was getting ready to write it, I read my kids all of J.R.R. Tolkien. Then we started reading Phillip Pullman’s trilogy. I know that doesn’t seem like an obvious point of reference — those trilogies are giant, enormous canvases. But what I reconnected with in Tolkien — and it’s true in Pullman too — is that a lot of the narrative is just about figures crossing space. Tolkien: It’s like a long walk! The whole book is just a trudge. Because I was personally relating myself to the desert, this new place I’d come to be interested and was living on the edge of, I suddenly started to think there’s something so elemental in that narrative idea. It’s really exciting to just watch characters try to explore or chase one another across these enormous spaces. Or, the message that I received from Tolkien and Pullman was: “Keep it simple, stupid.” It’s just really cool to find somebody in the desert.
You’re a prolific writer, but from my perspective, you’re consistently working in different genres and with different character types. Is that intentional on your part, to stay fresh?
I guess I’m just omnivorous. My explanation for the meandering choices I’ve made is that I do it out of love. I’m excited by different things at different times, and I like to see what happens when I smash some of them together. I always figure you’re going to repeat yourself helplessly — definitely, 11 novels in, I can see unmistakably ways in which I just keep rehashing certain things. I’m never going to stop writing about them. But given that that’s going to happen, why not try to do really, really different things? Partly for the sport of seeing how you end up being yourself, no matter what you try. [Laughs] Why not try the opposite? Then you can laugh at how you’re always coming home anyway.
Your first detective novel, Motherless Brooklyn, is going to be a film next year helmed by Edward Norton. The same producers have acquired The Feral Detective. Your work has notoriously eluded Hollywood. What’s the feeling as that appears to finally be changing?
The simplest answer is disbelief. Even Motherless Brooklyn was optioned almost 20 years ago. And before that I had options on my earlier novels. My first novel was optioned the way these two were: right as it was published, in 1994! I’ve been living with unmade movies as a fundamental state of my being. [Laughs] I get to talk about these projects and meet filmmakers and have people expect there to be movies. So the fact that there may very well be a movie next year is something I’m still learning to believe in. The timing is weirdly exquisite. It’s sweet to see Motherless Brooklyn and Feral Detective get bundled together in this excitement: the same studio, one film coming out when the book is very new. The two can talk to each other. I see resemblances with Feral Detective and other books of mine; it’s not like Motherless Brooklyn is the only one it can be put in conversation with. But the hardboiled nature of them, the way in which I’m playing with that motif, does make them a little bit like kissing cousins. It’s pretty fun. Of course, the real answer is: Check back with me in a year.