Jonathan Lethem on Discovering “Worlds Within the World”
This Week on The Writers Institute Podcast, From the Archives of the New York State Writers Institute
Books are written in solitude, but writers do some of their finest work with crowds—in public talks, interviews, and events. The best moments from those strange, dramatic interactions often go missing, however: either they’re never recorded, or nobody will ever find the recordings. Fortunately, the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany has been methodically recording thousands of writers’ events since 1983, when it was founded by the novelist William Kennedy.
The novelist Jonathan Lethem listens here to recordings of his own New York State Writers Institute events over the past two decades. This propels conversation into wild places. It turns out that going into familiar moments—even listening to one’s own voice—can prompt discoveries. There’s a chance to find, as Lethem puts it, “worlds within the world.”
William Kennedy describes a similar discovery here. Going back as a journalist to his hometown of Albany, New York, was “a revelation,” he says. The city that once bored him became, to the writer in search of stories, a place of proliferating character, of drama—a world full of worlds.
You’ll hear in this episode the reward of applying mind to matter. Says Lethem: “We have tables and chairs and apples and cherries and shirts and pants and socks, but everything else seems to me pretty much up for grabs. Once you put subjectivity and consciousness in the mix, it all gets pretty strange.”
On this episode:
Jonathan Lethem (conversation with Adam Colman). Books: Motherless Brooklyn and The Arrest.
Samuel Delany (from the archives). Books: Dhalgren and Nova.
Ann Beattie (from the archives). Books: What Was Mine and Another You.
Denis Johnson (from the archives). Books: Jesus’ Son and Train Dreams.
William Kennedy (conversation with Adam Colman). Books: Very Old Bones and The Flaming Corsage.
Find out more about the New York State Writers Institute at www.nyswritersinstitute.org.
Jonathan Lethem is the New York Times bestselling author of nine novels, including Dissident Gardens, Chronic City, The Fortress of Solitude, and Motherless Brooklyn, and of the essay collection The Ecstasy of Influence, which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. A recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, Lethem has been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and the New York Times, among other publications.