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Festival of Books: Jonathan Lethem talks about the unknown and his fiction being fact-checked

Lethem

Kicking off the Festival of Books' banquet of panels at USC's Bing Theater on Sunday, novelist Jonathan Lethem spoke about the occupational hazards that come with melding contemporary cultural references with richly drawn fiction.

In a reply to a question from moderator and L.A. Times staff writer Carolyn Kellogg on the Internet's impact on readers' investigation of his work, Lethem described the curious situation that resulted when the notoriously detailed fact-checkers from the New Yorker magazine called him with a concern about an excerpt from his 2009 novel, "Chronic City."

Referencing made-up band Zeroville (which itself is a reference to Steve Erickson's novel of the same name), the piece referred to the band having never played the iconic New York CIty punk club CBGB.

Citing a Zeroville record review available online, the fact-checker advised Lethem that Zeroville had in fact played CBGB. Of course, the review was written by Lethem and was just as fictional as the band in this case, but the novelist relished the idea of his fictional worlds colliding.

"In this case I don't mind being wrong," Lethem playfully replied to the fact-checker. "In my book they didn't play CBGB, but I know they did, it's OK."

FIrmly linked with his New York City roots in "Chronic City" as well as novels "Motherless Brooklyn" and "The Fortress of Solitude," Lethem doesn't worry that the multitude of cultural touchstones coloring his recent works could leave his writing feeling dated. Citing Charles Dickens as an influence, he said he hoped these minute details not only helped plunge readers into Brooklyn but serve a curatorial role. He compared his nods to other works of fiction, music and film to filling a shelf at home with favorite objects in expectation of having guests. "I hope people come over and see all this stuff," he said.  

Speaking about some of the advice he's given since moving to the West Coast as a creative-writing teacher at Pomona College, the Brooklyn-born Lethem advised that the trepidation that comes with writing fiction is what defines the work. "Waking up every day totally baffled, that's the condition of the novelist," Lethem said. "I don't know what I'm doing today, I must be doing the right thing."

-- Chris Barton

Photo: Jonathan Lethem in his office at Pomona College. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times

 
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