Writing is Easy, Revising is Hard
A Q&A with J. Robert Lennon
J. Robert Lennon is the author of the story collections See You in Paradise, and Pieces For the Left Hand, and seven novels, including Mailman, Castle, and Familiar. He holds an MFA from the University of Montana, and has published short fiction in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Playboy, Granta, The Paris Review, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. He has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, and his story “The Rememberer” inspired the CBS detective series Unforgettable. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, and The London Review of Books, and he lives in Ithaca, New York, where he teaches writing at Cornell University.
Name a childhood hero.
Name a work you wished you’d written.
Jonathan Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table. I’m very jealous of that book, which is weird and hilarious in a very particular way.
If you had to order your work by how successfully you completed what you set out to accomplish, what would that list look like?
It would be blank. Nothing turns out as I expect—that’s the way it should be!
Name a writer in history you would’ve like to have been a contemporary of and why.
Chekhov. I love his sensibility and wish I could have been his pal.
Name a work of yours whose reception you’ve been surprised about and why.
I’m still surprised that Jonathan Franzen is so widely read. He’s a brilliant writer, but not in a way I would have expected would find a wide audience. I’m glad he has, though.
Correct a misperception about you as a writer in fifty words or less.
I’m not aware of any! To be honest, I try not to read anything that seems like it might be a misperception… there’s nothing you can do, and it just makes you anxious.
Name a trait you deplore in other writers.
I don’t deplore other writers.
Name your five desert island films.
It would be a different list every day. Today, though: The Apartment, Schizopolis, Stalker, Fitzcarraldo, and Grey Gardens.
Name a book not your own that you wish everyone would read.
Bruce Duffy’s The World As I Found It. A favorite of my wife’s, which she introduced me to.
Name a book you suspect most people claim to have read, but haven’t.
If you could choose one of your works to rewrite, which would it be and why.
None, honest! That way madness lies.
Share the greatest literary secret/gossip you know.
Henry James was actually a man. No, seriously, I don’t know any gossip.
Name a book you read over and over for inspiration.
I’ve been through Crime and Punishment a few times—that’s a good one.
Name the writing habit you rely on to get you through a first draft.
Not thinking about what I’m doing.
Name a regret, literary or otherwise.
I wish I’d never let my kid have a Nintendo DS.
Name your greatest struggle as a writer.
Revising. Writing is easy, revising is hard—I’d say 90 percent of my mental energy as a writer is spent correcting my mistakes.
Name a question you get about writing to which there really is no good answer.
“What are they looking for?”
Name a question you wish you would’ve been asked.
“More coffee?” I never get tired of that one!