J. Robert Lennon is one of the most interesting writers around. Not only is his prose gorgeous, but his books are strange, eerie and unsettling in the best of all ways. FAMILIAR, his latest, about a woman who may or may not be leading parallel lives, just knocked me out. Adjectives like "genius," "brilliant," and more bubble up to the surface here. I don't know him, but I actually was thrilled to meet his wife in cyberspace about two years ago when I wrote a blog post about one of my favorite novels of all time, her AFTERLIFE.
The author of six novels (Light of Falling Stars, Mailman, The Funnies, On the Night Plane, Castles, and Pieces for the Left Hand), Lennon also teaches English and creative writing at Cornell. Thank you, thank you so much for coming on my blog and letting me pester you with questions!
I love books that cast you in this eerie, unsettling world where reality and non-reality blur. Elisa could be in a strange new world, or she could be suffering delusions, and the whole novel juggles this uneasy balance. How difficult was it to keep the reader off-centered?
Not too difficult, because I was off-centered while writing it! I honestly didn't know whether I was going to come down on the side of making it a "real" parallel world, a psychotic break, or something else. In the end, I enjoyed the uncertainty and decided that this was part of what the book was about. So I committed myself to not knowing.
As someone who loves anything that even vaguely smacks of quantum physics, I have to ask you about the parallel universe theory that crops up in the novel. What was your research like? Do you think such a thing is possible scientifically?
Well, Brian Greene not only believes it's possible, he believes all the possible universes exist, and are out there. I initially heard him talk about this on the radio show Radiolab, then I read his book on the multiverse. I read a few other books, too, and grabbed some more fanciful stuff from the internet. The science here is wonky, but based in present research--for instance, the vibrating flange experiment at Caltech which Elisa encounters is a real thing.
I also wanted to ask about the gaming details in the book, which were fascinating. You play or did you research? And what was the research like on that?
I'm interested in gaming, but don't really have the time to play many games. (This will change during my upcoming sabbatical, I hope: Portal 2 at last!) My kids are interested in games, though, and have done some hobbyist coding of simple ones, and this got me thinking. As research, I read Tom Bissell's terrific book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, and a lot of Silas's rhetoric about games consists of things Bissell argued, filtered through a rather arrogant and cynical fictional consciousness. Tom also proofread the game section for me and suggested changes, most of which I made.
Elisa’s second chance turns out to have surprising ramifications. Was this all planned out before you began to write or did it happen organically? And what’s your daily writing life like?
This is the least preconceived book I've ever written. Most of the stuff in it that's any good arose naturally during the many rewrites I did. My daily writing life is nonexistent at the moment, as I'm teaching and promoting the book--but on breaks I try to write a few pages daily. I've mostly been writing short stories this year--weird little things between 4 and 12 pages long. When I'm off from work, I generally write in the mornings and do other things in the afternoon--reading, taking photos, hanging out with my family, playing music.
Your wife Rhian Ellis wrote a novel AfterLife that I blogged about a while ago as being one of my favorite works of all times, that’s been reissued by Nancy Pearl. What’s it like being in a household of writers?
It's great. Rhian is my first and best critic, and we talk about books and writing every day. Our kids are great readers, too, and they are beginning to join in the conversations. Collectively, we have the approximate earning power of, say, a third-rate liquor store, but we have a good time together.
What’s obsessing you now?
Rock and roll! I'm in a band for the first time in many years--it consists of four writers and a lawyer. I don't want to speak too soon but this may figure into some writing I may be doing.
What question did I totally forget to ask?
A lot of people ask how teaching writing affects my writing. The answer is, I'm not sure. Teaching is time-consuming and emotionally demanding, but it also puts me in a position to have interesting discussions about books with energetic young people every day. On balance, it's a good way for a writer to pay the bills. As long as we have to have bills!