Jem Lester wrote such a charming bio for himself, that I am stealing it here: Jem was a journalist for nine years and saw the Berlin Wall fall in 1989 - and though there, he denies personal responsibility. He was also the last journalist to interview the legendary Fred Zinnemann, before the director died. He denies responsibility for that too.Jem has two children, one of whom is profoundly autistic, and for them he accepts total responsibility. He lives in London with his partner and her two children. Shtum, won the 2013 PFD/City University Prize for Fiction.
Thank you so much for being here, Jem.
Shtum is an astonishing book about a father caring for his autistic son—an experience you share. What was it like putting the story on paper? Did anything surprise you as you wrote?
Parts of Shtum were certainly difficult to write, especially those passages/scenes that dealt with the less dignified elements of dealing with a non-verbal, autistic child such as Jonah. I am the father of a beautiful non-verbal boy myself and it was always in my mind whether I had the right to construct such a portrayal. Many of the behaviours exhibited by Jonah, were based on the reality of my life, with my son and over years it becomes normalized. So it was both painful and revelatory to see it on a typed page and then to witness people’s reactions to it. The passage I found the hardest to write was Ben’s speech to the educational tribunal, which he attempts in Jonah’s voice. I have to admit that I had never tried to get into my son’s head, but felt it was a crucial part of the book. In the end I wrote it in a single take and not a word has been subsequently changed. What surprised me was the ease with which Georg’s voice arrived and how pivotal that was to the dynamic between the three generations of men.
Your novel is so much about the bonds we share, and what we do for love, and in the novel, the parents separate to give Jonah, the son, a better chance at being properly educated. Ben is forced to be in a household not just with his son, who doesn’t talk, but with his father, too—and he doesn't communicate with him, either. But what struck me so much was that Ben is really the one with the problem. Can you talk about that please?
Ben is stuck between resentment and impossible redemption. He is unable to see through the fog of mistrust that follows him round and approaches every relationship certain that he will be betrayed – that’s a devastating place to be. He had a difficult childhood with Survivor parents, whose experiences shut them off from him emotionally and he was his mum’s carer until she ran off. So, really, he is a classic second generation Survivor. His resentment toward his father is all encompassing because he still can’t escape the necessity of his financial help; while his opportunity for redemption by being a perfect father, is stymied by Jonah’s autism. It’s not so much that he has never grown up, but more that he never had a childhood. It was one full of inappropriate responsibility that he rebels against when he feels it’s enforced. Georg on the other hand knows his own faults, while Jonah doesn’t recognize that he has any. Ben is not likeable for a large part of the book, but that is the character’s reality.
What also struck me is that the novel is also very emotional, veering from rage to humor to heart-wrenching sorrow. What was that like writing that? Could you get up from your desk and walk away from it?
I am always looking for the punch line – in my writing, as in my life. I grew up in a blackly comic, Jewish family where nothing was out of bounds. What I recognis\ze is the use of humour as a safety valve, resorting to the joke as a way of avoiding the pain. However, I found that the pain stayed with me throughout the writing process, affecting my own mood quite dramatically (and not in a good way). It was hard to get away from, but worse was the revision process, during which I would make little commando-like incursions into the manuscript, fix the problem and get the hell out as quickly as I could…
What kind of writer are you? Do you scribble on legal pads, or only use your trusty computer?
I’m a thinker, a planner and a dialogue writer. I can spend weeks or even months thinking my way through an entire book, before writing a word of prose. This can be unnerving – especially for my agent and editor – but what it means is I’m confident when I start to write. And when I do start to write I begin with dialogue, because I’ve found that it is the best way into a character. A confrontation, lament, internal monologue, whatever it takes to get the character to open up and tell me about his/herself. As for the planning, I usually have three or four notebooks on the go at any one time and they’re full of chapter plans, timelines, flow charts, narrative maps and lines of dialogue. Also, I don’t necessarily write chronologically, dipping into a later scene, or writing the ending – depending on the mood I’m in on any given day.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I’m currently obsessed with avoiding all news of Brexit, because I’m too angry and upset about it to function unless I ignore it. I suppose it’s because I was eight when the UK entered the then ‘Common Market’ and I have grown up feeling and identifying as a European. It’s left me feeling embarrassed when I visit Spain (which I frequently do) and deeply unsure of where I want to live. Leaving the EU, for me, is something of a grieving process. I don’t know if there’s a book in it me, but it is driving me mad. I’m also obsessed with where my own son will live when he reaches nineteen (he’s currently approaching seventeen) as officially he is no longer ‘a child.’
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
What question? How about who is your current favourite American author? Easy: Michael Chabon, who I met and interviewed when he was in London to promote Wonder Boys well over twenty years ago.