what not to 'wear'

Jonathan Lethem on America, Robert Mitchum, and Very Bad Interviews

The author of The Feral Detective chats ahead of his Houston appearance.

By Ryan Pait November 7, 2018

In Jonathan Lethem’s newest novel—touted as his first detective novel since 1999’s Motherless Brooklyn—a young woman named Phoebe Siegler abandons her metropolitan media career to go on the hunt for a friend’s daughter in the Wild West. She enlists the help of Charles Heist, the feral detective himself. The two become embroiled in a conflict between two warring factions called the Bears and the Rabbits, and Phoebe must reckon with her frustrations over Donald Trump’s impending inauguration and her burgeoning feelings for Heist.

On Monday, November 12, Lethem will headline the third evening of Inprint’s 2018–2019 Margarett Root Brown Reading Series with Gary Shteyngart. We caught up with Lethem to talk about hologram Robert Mitchum, audiobook narrators, and election mania before he visits Houston.

Charles Heist seems like the sort of character that Joan Didion would’ve profiled back in her Slouching Towards Bethlehem days.

(Laughs.) I love that!

He’s so that type of person, and at one point Phoebe actually name-checks Didion, which made me happy. What inspired Charles Heist?

Oh boy. There’s layers and layers of references that I could cite. One baseline condition is that I’ve always been interested in the image of the feral child and ferality as an idea. It’s really specific, but also really elastic and strange because it encompasses superheroic figures like Tarzan and Mowgli, as well as victimized children who are kept in closets and denied the experience of language or social culture.

I’ve also made no secret of the fact that I’m into cowboys in a kind of embarrassing way. I like large westerns, I like John Wayne—but I also find him horrible at the same time. I grew up on the East Coast, and for a long time, that was just an archetype or an image: John Wayne striding through Monument Valley, this craggy, hairy man in open space. What did that mean? What was that all about? As I got older, I realized that this was an allegorical figure that was saying something about the idea of America, about freedom and the frontier and what it meant to seize control of this land and “civilize” it. And it was often men of violence and men of genocide that were “civilizing” it, making it what we see today.

Heist comes out of this thinking about the West, and the cowboy, and that image: the hardboiled detective as a cowboy or knight in the urban frontier. And then again, he’s like a joke. A joke about the Marlboro Man, or Clint Eastwood. There’s a joke early on where Phoebe lays eyes on him and is like, “Finally I see what Meryl might’ve seen in Clint. It never made sense to me before.” But I think that Heist is kind of a cipher—the book is puzzling over him. Phoebe is trying to figure out what she feels about him, and she’s doing that work on behalf of the reader and behalf of myself.

The book is set during a very specific period of time—Phoebe feels unmoored by Donald Trump’s election and his inauguration. Was the setting something you had in mind from the get-go, or something that developed over time?

I was just going to write the book in a more or less timeless present. I didn’t have any interest in anchoring it to cultural events when I was conceiving it. And then the election came along and just sort of kicked me sideways, like it did to so many of us. My way of coping was to just throw it into the book and see what that looked like. I was afraid that nothing would make sense anymore. So I decided to just set the book during the time period when I was writing, to set it during the inauguration and see what happens.

It works for Phoebe as a motivation. You understand why she’s spiraling out so much, and then it’s funny when she gets caught up in current events when she’s in a stressful moment. Like when she’s in the middle of all the violent drama halfway through the book and yells at everyone and says, “DID YOU F***ERS EVEN VOTE?”

(Laughs.) Yeah. In a way, the book was accidentally about that stuff even before it happened. I was thinking about this condition of going off the grid and the idea that the American reality was unbearable, and that you would look for an exit door. The whole thing about Phoebe asking people who they voted for—she’s actually asking people who don’t consider that a very urgent question. They might not even be aware that there was an election. For her, that’s stunning to consider. The search for another frontier hiding inside the American desert, another place to reinvent society—that desire isn’t born in a vacuum. It’s born out of a sense that we’ve exhausted the present American reality. 

I saw before I started reading the book that Zosia Mamet narrates the audiobook version, and it was so easy for me to picture her as Phoebe while I read. Did you get any say in picking the audiobook narrator?

There’s an interesting backstory. Because Edward Norton is filming Motherless Brooklyn and my publisher wanted to associate the two books and because I have access to Norton, they were like, “Will you ask him to do it?” And I thought that would be pretty great. So we tried, but Norton is editing the movie right now and is deep in the editorial suite every day for 10 hours, and he just couldn’t do it by when they needed it to be done. So then my publisher asked what our fallback position was, and I said it should really be a woman. We started throwing names around, and Zosia’s name came into it really quickly. I thought that would be incredible, and she would be fantastic. And she gratified our fantasy on that. It was just very lucky.

I was just picturing Shoshanna from Girls going on a bender, and it was great. Thinking along those same lines, who could be a great Charles Heist?

I’m bad at this game because I’m so engaged with old movies. I always think of dead people instead of viable actors who are the right age. Robert Mitchum? I’d love to see Robert Mitchum at the age he was when he did Night of the Hunter as Heist. But who would be him now? Who do you have?

I kind of felt like it should be a British actor doing an American accent, but I also really like the idea of it being hologram Robert Mitchum. 

That would be good! It probably should be some really genteel actor who’s getting roughed up—that would be kind of fun, seeing someone do the guttural thing. The other way to go is someone who could do a semi-autistic He-Man who’s good to look at. There’s a part of the character in which he can’t really talk. I keep coming up with a steady stream of people who I’m sure the people in the Hollywood casting game would say, “He would’ve been good 20 years ago.” I’ve lost his name—but the dude who plays Strider in Lord of the Rings.

Viggo Mortensen! Yeah.

Viggo Mortensen! He would’ve been good. He’s got that little scar on his face. He would be perfect. I’m sure a Hollywood casting agent would be like, “You’re too late for Viggo Mortensen.” They’d want someone younger.

Phoebe says that part of her job at NPR was “prepping the one-sheets that made interviewers sound like they’d read books they hadn’t read,” which made me laugh.

Yeah… (Laughs.) You get interviewed enough, and you know the difference. And a lot of radio hosts are very, very good at what they do. But they do it at a rate that pretty much ensures that they’re going to be working from a tip sheet.

So after reading that, my question was: What’s the worst interview you’ve ever had about one of your books?

Well, I’ll tell a story that’s sort of unfair because it involves translation problems. One of the interesting things that happens on book tour is that you go to Europe and find yourself answerable for American reality. So you’re asked big questions about the president, current events, and it leads you into some strange situations.

I happened to be in Italy on tour very shortly after 9/11. It was intense. Everyone was feeling for New York and America in a very different way. I lived through 9/11 in relatively intimate proximity. It was something I was talking about quite a bit. There was a live radio interview, and you’re always nervous about going live on the radio in another country, because what if there are translation issues? But the people who were getting me set up said the host was a superstar, and her English was great—there’d be no need for simultaneous translation or interpretation. She would ask me questions in English, and I’d answer, and they’d take it from there.

So I relaxed and the red light blinked, and the woman’s first question was, and this is verbatim, “What did you wear on 9/11?” And I froze! She wants to know what I was wearing on 9/11? I don’t know! And there was this dead air. And then she heard herself and caught her mistake and said, “Where were you on 9/11?” (Laughs.) I came really close to trying to describe what I was wearing on 9/11 live on Italian radio. That was the worst moment.

Jonathan Lethem/Gary Shteyngart, Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series. Tickets $5. Cullen Performance Hall, 4300 University Dr. 713-521-2026. More info and tickets at inprinthouston.org.

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