Last May, I spoke with Jonathan Lethem at BookExpo America about his new novel, Dissident Gardens, his long-distance affection for New York City, and his obsession with New York Review Books Classics.
So tell me about the book.
Well, this book is kind of a family saga set in Queens. The central figure is a matriarch, a woman named Rose who has some DNA in common with my grandmother, who also lived in Sunnyside. But Rose is a passionately disappointed American communist. She was a believer that the revolution was going to come to the United States in her lifetime. And like a lot of people in her generation, she lived long enough to see the Khrushchev revelations about the Stalin purges and so forth, so it didn't go exactly as she'd planned. The nature of her disappointment and where those energies go give shape to what happens in her orbit, especially her daughter Miriam.
When you write a novel about your family, do you have to get permission? How does that work?
Oh gee, I've never asked anyone for permission. But I lucked out. It turns out for me to write about real people—which I do a lot—I also need, creatively, a strong necessity to mash them up like a DJ with some other stuff. I often take more than one real person and turn them into a character. It's confusing for anyone who knows any of those real people. But for me as a writer, I become enabled to do whatever I want.