Winter 2019 /Fire & Water/

Consider the Feral

Novelist and Professor of Creative Writing Jonathan Lethem discusses his new book, set in California’s Inland Empire.

Pomona College Professor Jonathan LethemThe motif of feral children was in critically acclaimed novelist Pomona College Professor Jonathan Lethem’s index of writing ideas for many years. There was the concept of urban feral children in New York City. Archetypal fictional characters like Tarzan and Mowgli. Real-life stories of feral children. A Pomona College course he designed on animals in literature had a portion devoted to the idea of the feral. All things feral fascinated him. So, a feral child of a different kind was born: the book The Feral Detective. This wild detective-book child was local-born, with the story set in the surrounding Inland Empire, the mountains and the desert region (what Lethem calls “the scruffier east”). He took the feral even farther, exploring desert-dwelling communes and creating two off-the-grid communes, the Rabbits and the Bears, that he writes about in his book.

Pomona College Magazine’s Sneha Abraham sat down with Lethem, the College’s Roy Edward Disney ’51 Professor of Creative Writing and Professor of English, to talk about the conception, birth and growth of the book and more.

PCM: Where did this idea of a feral detective come from?

LETHEM: I’d been sort of creeping around this idea of “the feral,” thinking there might be something there for me to write about, but it was hard for me to get a handle on it. Then I had this idea which, like a lot of my best ideas, sounds ridiculous at first. “Oh, a feral detective? What would that be? What would that consist of?” It was just a phrase at first. But I thought, “I’ve written before about strange figures who occupy the detective’s role in a story. What would it mean if someone who’d grown up as a feral child became a detective?” Even that wasn’t quite a plan yet, more an inkling. It took thinking about the protagonist, Phoebe, a New Yorker who gets involved with this detective and hires him and is the reader’s surrogate for meeting this character—only then did I realize I did have a book that would work. It took coming up with the narrator for it to click into place. As well as my growing interest in this local terrain that I’ve come to live in.

I’ve been in Claremont now not quite a decade, but it feels increasingly vivid to me. I’ve begun traveling east, into the desert areas, and puzzling over the way life occupies that landscape. One day I felt I knew enough; I’d been stirred enough by the local environment to write about it in a way that would be meaningful. I believed I knew how to make the setting click into place with the characters. The final part of the book’s genesis was a strange and in many ways unhappy circumstance, but it became crucial as well. Just as I was planning to start writing—I’d been assembling my materials—Trump was elected. I felt disarranged—a sensation many people felt, I think. For a moment, my work appeared quite useless. Again, I suspect other people might identify with the sensation: “Why do I do the things I do? This is more or less a joke.” And then I realized that this book could be a pretty good vehicle for describing some of those feelings, that Phoebe herself could give voice to that kind of anxiety.

PCM: Do you go to the desert often?

LETHEM: More and more. As a New Yorker the whole West was mysterious to me. California was a fantasy and an image that I knew from the movies, and desert spaces seemed very imaginary. I knew them from looking at Western movies, set in Monument Valley or perhaps Pioneertown. It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I even crossed the Mississippi River. At that point I moved to Berkeley, where I lived for 10 years, and began to have a relationship to the actual Western space. It’s not just a fantasy, but the fantasies pervade it. California and the West are places of myth. They’re implicated in the ideology of westward expansion, the frontier. I started traveling sporadically, in my 20s, to Arizona and some of the Utah Canyonlands. I suspect Claremont is a disguised desert. It’s all dressed up with these trees, but all you have to do is cross Claremont Boulevard and look at the Wash, and look at the way Upland is more yellow and scraped, to imagine how Claremont ought to look.

Increasingly, I was curious to get a sense of Rancho Cucamonga and Riverside and places farther east. I became interested in the Mojave and Joshua Tree in the last few years and started to realize that it was speaking to me. I was beginning to peel away my mythic response to the desert spaces—which has to do with the movies and American history—and just the weird planetary intensity of figures in open space and start to see that it was also a social or a cultural space, that in weird scrappy ways people had made lives out there. There were intimate histories that I could perceive. So I started spending time less in the Joshua Tree National Park than in the town of Joshua Tree and the other towns around there, Landers and Yucca Valley. And finding it really compelling for what it did to my head, but also for what I was beginning to observe—the way other people occupy that space. It attracts artists and weirdos—like myself—because there are certain automatic libertarian freedoms. Nobody’s going to bother you. People go there to just be whoever they want to be.

PCM: Live their lives on their terms.


PCM: Do you remember your first trip to the desert?

LETHEM: Well, my first real trip to the desert was with my then-wife, in the early ’80’s. Her grandparents lived in Globe, Arizona, an old mining town. We drove with her family—this is a long time ago—and on the way did some Canyonlands, visited Zion and Bryce and Coral Pink Sand Dunes. It was extraordinary for me. All I’d done before was drive Route 80 and drive across Wyoming and Utah, across the salt flats. But that was to get across it. This was to go to it, and that was different. And then staying in Arizona for a week or so and taking walks in the desert, meeting a scorpion on the patio.

PCM: Are these desert-dwelling groups that you describe in the book, the Rabbits and the Bears, real kinds of groups?

LETHEM: The Rabbits and the Bears are kind of a distillation. I’m quite interested in the history of intentional communities and communes in American life, and I think it’s an underappreciated, under-described part of the history of the West. Many people did come and create and make attempts to live in some different kind of configuration. Just under the surface of the history of a lot of localities is some group that came to make a new world, to found a small utopia. And there are some communes that are loosely comparable to the back-story that I gave the Rabbits and Bears. They’re not necessarily in the Mojave Desert. The desert is actually a fairly unlikely place to try and live the way they’re living—in that sense it’s fantastical. More typically, groups set up somewhere where there’s a little more arable land and shade available. The Black Bear Ranch was a point of reference. Its history intrigued me because there were such utopian aspirations, as well as such comically disappointing results. But people did also persist; they kept trying to live that way even when things went disastrously badly.

This circles back to the idea of the feral child. One of the forms of ferality that interests me—and that people are writing about in the form of memoirs and fiction now—is the children of, basically, hippies, or seekers from the Aquarian generation who went into wild spaces, rural spaces, and tried to live off the grid or to homeschool or non-school their kids. Some of those children from the ’60s and ’70s have begun testifying about the weirdness and wildness of their upbringing. So I was thinking about Detective Heist, one of my main characters, as being a product of that very real legacy. But my specific commune—and where I located it—is my own invention.

PCM: This is a return for you to the detective novel. Why the return and what was it like to come back to it?

LETHEM: Well, it’s a replenishing source for me. When I discovered my appetite for reading and then my ambition to become a writer, I really loved a lot of the hard-boiled writers—that first-person, private-detective style that you associate most strongly with Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald and Dashiell Hammett. I read many different things, but this was one of the key sources for me. I recognize now, when I look at my earliest writing, how things began to coalesce for me best when I used that voice as a template. Even if I didn’t have a detective in the story, I used that hard-boiled style. That romantic but also cynical first-person voice was incredibly versatile for me; it helped me learn to tell stories. I came back to it in the middle of my writing life with Motherless Brooklyn very satisfyingly. It became a vehicle for transforming my writing at that point; I used it to write about growing up in Brooklyn for the first time.

So it was a talismanic approach for me. In some ways, as I set out to write about Southern California, a subject that was increasingly rich and meaningful to me, but also overwhelming, and then to try to capitalize on this notion of the feral child—these were intimidating prospects for me. I didn’t know how to handle them. But just as writing about growing up in Brooklyn was intimidating to me, and writing about the neurology of Tourette’s syndrome was intimidating to me—difficult things to get onto the page—the detective story had given me a way to do it. It carved out an approach that was familiar and that I could handle. There’s a formal quality to writing a detective story that’s quite sturdy. It’s almost like you’re a poet reaching for the sonnet form. You always know where you are in this kind of story. So I thought that if I used this sturdy generic apparatus, maybe then I can handle all this crazy material that I’m thinking about and pour it into this nice strong vehicle.

PCM: How does one situate oneself in the perspective of the opposite gender? How does that work? What’s that process like?

LETHEM: If I approached it on the terms that your question suggests, as a kind of categorical task—“I am a man; I’m going to try to write as a woman”—I’d flinch immediately. It would seem forbidding, and impossible. Instead, I don’t think of Phoebe as representative or categorical, I think of her as an individual. My job isn’t to figure out a gender other than my own; my job is to figure out who Phoebe is. She’s my character, particular and distinct, and I need to believe in her before I can write the first word. And I was lucky in this. Phoebe made sense to me relatively quickly. I don’t know how that luck comes to you—certainly sometimes it doesn’t. In this case, when I wondered “Who is this person?” I had answers. I felt her. Obviously she was made up of pieces of myself and of people I know, including women I know, and made up partly also of other people’s fictional characters. There are those recognizable ingredients, but the ingredients coalesced into someone I had unique access to. When that happens, you realize that if you didn’t have the courage to write her down, write her thoughts down, Phoebe wasn’t going to exist. So I was now obliged to make her live on the page. By making this individual connection, you overcome the intimidating prospect of writing across difference.

PCM: Do you ever dream your plots or characters?

LETHEM: Oh, yeah. My dream life is frequently implicated in generating the raw imagery, the baseline ideas for a novel or story. Sometimes I’ll also dream about books as I’m writing them, and that will shape or transform the project. But, in many ways, once the books are in progress, they’ve become lucid dreams. They’re waking dreams. So they don’t need to be in my sleep life anymore. The dreams are most useful before I’ve produced any evidence of the book, and in them I feel the reality of a new book insisting itself upon me.

PCM: What’s your emotion when you know your work is complete?

LETHEM: There’s an initial exultation. But the question’s tricky because the meaning of “complete” is tricky. With each book, there are several finishings. There’s the day you write the words “The End.” And you think, “There it is. It’s done.” And then there’s the day you get over your infatuation with having written the last page, and you go back and you look at the beginning, and you’re like, “Oh, there’s a lot of work to be done here.” So there’s revision. Then there’s another finishing that comes when you’ve revised it to your initial satisfaction. And then you hand it over to early readers and to your editor, and you’re humbled—all sorts of questions are raised. And then you think, “Oh wait. I wasn’t done.” And so there’s yet another finishing. Beyond that, in a kind of diminishing but important way, in the production process first you’re given copyedits, and there you find things you want to change. And then you’re given proofreading, and you panic and you find things that still need correcting.

And so, finishing is a kind of … what is it? Zeno’s paradox. You’re always half-finished. And then you half-again finish. But still, there’s that day that you write the words ‘The End,’ when you write the last page. Because I’m superstitious, I think, “Oh, God. OK. I won’t die with this book as an unfinished project. It won’t be a Kafka book. It won’t have no ending.” So, no matter how many errors are still in it, at least if someone reads it, they’ll get to an end. I feel like I’ve delivered the goods. And I’m also just excited and, usually, very in love with the book in that initial feeling of finishing, before anyone else’s assessment can get between me and the thing.

Invariably there follows, shortly after, a kind of postpartum confusion. It’s not really a deep depression, but there’s a sort of “lost” feeling of “Oh, wait. I had this organizing principle. Every day I woke up knowing I have to advance this cause.” The way soldiers can be nostalgic for war because after they come back, life is no longer simple. They’re no longer clear on what they’re supposed to do every day. So I’m often surprisingly distressed or unmoored by finishing, and then the only answer to that is to find something else to work on.

PCM: You dedicate the book in part to the late Professor of English Arden Reed? Why Arden?

LETHEM: Arden was important to me even before I was hired, on my first visit. He made an impression on me. He reached out. He was such a defining presence in our department. He quickly became one of the people in my life that I wrote to impress. And he also showed me a portion of the desert, because I got to stay with him and his partner in New Mexico, where they had an extraordinary home, their second home, a kind of a desert compound that they had built themselves. And so there was also a material resonance, because his love of that desert space spoke to my interest in it. He passed away as I was writing the book, so the dedication just seemed a natural result.

PCM: What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

LETHEM: Well, the simplest advice, which everyone gives, is this: You must just read and write inordinate amounts and allow yourself to be consumed by those tasks without being in a rush to publish or to see results. It’s typical to write for 10 years before you’re getting results that would matter to readers. Being patient with that is very challenging, but it’s important. And reading constantly, to fill up the well with different sources and different structural models for how it’s done.

But the other thing I advise is to remember to play with different forms. Do different things. Don’t lock down into one idea, thinking “Oh, I’m meant to be this sort of writer. I’m going to just bear down on this one style, or premise, or genre of work, until I break through.” In the apprentice phase when you’re beginning, you have an uncommon freedom. You need to make use of it and try things that don’t seem typical to you, or even seem funny or awkward. Just experiment a lot with forms and styles and tones.

Try to surprise yourself a lot. Diversify. Because you might find what you really want to do in that mode of play. Many people—and this was true for me—don’t end up exactly the sort of writer that they first visualized they’d be. Their writing teaches them that they have other strengths or other tendencies or other desires which are shrouded, initially. But it’s only by being polymorphous and playing in the realm of writing that you’ll uncover these things.