Talking politics and unicorns with author J. Robert Lennon
Some books just grab me, and I become one of those well-meaning, perhaps annoying, literary evangelists who tells everyone I meet, “You have to read this!” Such was the case when I discovered J. Robert Lennon‘s brilliant story collection Pieces for the Left Hand several years ago. Set in upstate New York and made of up 100 “anecdotes,” each about two pages long, the book is funny, unsettling and simply mesmerizing. I’ve been a huge fan since.
Lennon’s most recent novel, Castle, which comes out in paperback on Tuesday, similarly blends matter-of-fact style and morbid spirit, but is much more ambitious in its themes. It is about Eric Loesch, a middle-aged man who returns to his hometown in rural New York to buy 612 acres of land. When he discovers that a small portion of the land does not belong to him, and finds a castle built on that plot, details of his traumatic childhood and military service begin to resurface. (Read the New York Times' enthusiastic review of Castle and Pieces for the Left Hand here.)
Early in the novel, Loesch says: “People, in my long experience, want to talk. They may believe they wish to keep secrets, and they may believe that they are capable of doing so. But the truth is that secrets exist to be revealed; and it is usually very easy to find the combination of words that will cause them to emerge.” By the end of the book, the ominous undertones of this statement come to the forefront, and readers may be left with a bit of PTSD.
Q: Of your works that I’ve read, this book is the most political. Did Castle come specifically out of the Bush Administration and its torture policy, or had you previously been interested in the military and the psychological wounds that it can inflict?
A: No, I used to be pretty apolitical. I’m a Democrat, but I never got particularly angry at Reagan and Bush 1, though I didn’t like their policies. Then, like a lot of people, I got kind of radicalized by the Bush years, and was quite worked up about the war. I tried several approaches to writing about it, most of which failed miserably. It’s hard to write about political things in a literary way. Even now, when people don’t like Castle, it tends to be because of the political content. But I had to do it.
You get into the head of protagonist Eric Loesch, writing a minutely detailed first-person account. But as the story progresses, the reader realizes that Loesch has concealed or repressed some vital information. What were the challenges of writing in the voice of an unreliable narrator? Did you struggle over how much to reveal, or when and how to do so?
It was tricky–he started out as an amnesiac, then evolved, over many drafts, into a liar, and then simply a guy who was telling himself a story that he needed to hear. The narrative is self-serving; it leaves out a lot and accidentally reveals a lot more. Loesch has a pedantic, almost infantile way of speaking–it was a challenge to strike the right balance.
I think it’s funny that the cover of Castle features the silhouette of a mysterious white deer (an animal that figures prominently into the novel), and in the author photo on the back flap you’re wearing a shirt with the silhouette of a white unicorn. Do you have a special fondness for mystical white creatures? Is there any story behind the shirt?
The shirt is an in-joke for some internet friends–I spend a lot of time on a private messageboard for off-duty musicians, fooling around and telling jokes. And that’s our t-shirt. But, believe it or not, I never noticed the connection between the unicorn and the deer!
This may be an impossible question, but what is your favorite sentence that you have written? It can be fiction, essay, love letter, whatever.
I think maybe that is impossible. The most important sentence I’ve written must be the text I sent last week to the Joint Chiefs of Staff; I believe the exact wording was “The leaves are turning. Omar is at large. Execute Project Sigma Tangent.” If this sounds like nonsense, just wait a few weeks. Events will make everything clear.
What is your favorite sentence that someone else has written?
A line from my wife’s [Rhian Ellis] novel After Life: ” ‘I love cake,’ I lied. “
What are you currently working on?
I finished a novel about a documentary filmmaker, then shelved it. It didn’t work. Now I’m writing a book that involves a parallel universe. What with Lost wrapping up, somebody has to fill the gap. I have some new short stories coming out, too, in The Paris Review and Salamander.
Check out his latest story, “The Impossible Man,” from The Paris Review‘s Spring 2010 issue. Enjoy!