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J. Robert Lennon
J. Robert Lennon is the author of a story collection, Pieces For The Left Hand, and seven novels, including Mailman, Castle, and Familiar. He teaches writing at Cornell University
What gave you the idea for your latest novel, FAMILIAR?
I got the idea driving home when I was stranded at a Midwestern airport on September 11, 2001—the roads were filled with dazed travelers, and I felt as though I'd been thrown into a parallel universe. The following fall I tried to evoke that feeling in a couple of chapters, but it didn't work out. It was nearly ten years later before I returned to the book.
The reader never really knows whether Elisa is living in more than one universe - though I felt that towards the end we were being steered toward a psychological rationale for what happened to her. Did you know when you were writing the novel?
I wrote under the assumption that the parallel universe was “real,” but I cared less and less the further I revised. I'm officially on the fence now.
An eight page long video game, which to some extent reflects Elisa's own experience, is at the heart of the novel and seems pivotal to the narrative. There could be many interpretations of this and I wonder if you could offer some clues as to your intentions.
Part of me was just delighted to let a novel hinge on a scene of a middle-aged woman playing a video game. I suppose what it really means, though, is that our lives derive meaning from narrative, whether it's ones that we devise for ourselves, or ones we read, watch, or otherwise experience.
The parallel universe is a brilliant device for exploring the nature of grief and the effects of bad parenting but I wonder to what extent you believe in the possibility of alternative worlds?
The current science says they're real—an infinitude of them. But, as Elisa learns in the book, you can't go to them. You're stuck here. Literally, that is. Metaphorically, I suppose, is a different story, which is why we bother reading novels at all. Or having children.
In a piece in Salon.com, you called the majority of contemporary literary fiction "mannered, conservative and obvious". Would you agree that this is due partly to novelists (and publishers) responding, as Will Self puts it, to "their readers' desire for the old cosy certainties by turning their backs on the experimental truth and taking refuge in the apparent harmony of the past"?
Well, that's a rather uncharitable way of putting it. I'd say that life is hard, for most people very hard, and whatever imaginary stories they're going to make up, or enjoy, are likely to be more comforting than they are challenging. There's no shame in that—we all want some certainties that will get us through the day. And even those of us who choose the often-unrewarding path of trying to look beyond them usually fail. Contemporary fiction is largely unremarkable because most of human endeavor is largely unremarkable. But we live for the exceptions, or at least the potentiality for them. The tragedy of fiction writing is the impossibility of reliably achieving those exceptions. When you hit on one, you usually have no idea where it came from. Yet without all the pointless striving, you're never going to stumble across it.
I won't, at risk of being referred to your blog, ask about your literary influences, but I'd be interested to know what else gets your writerly juices flowing
Ha! Thank you for sparing me that question, and for asking this very good one in its place. The answer is, turning my back on writing for a few days, or weeks, or months, and carrying on an illicit affair with some other endeavor, and then coming back. “I remember this,” is what goes through my head, when I open up the .doc file and recall that writing is among the most satisfying of the things that I do, even when I do it poorly, which I'm afraid is usually. I need to pretend to spurn it in order to love it fully.
You say you like to read sci-fi and mystery amongst other things. Do you have any favourite books or authors you would like to recommend to our visitors?
Sure—in SF and fantasy, lately, I like China Mieville, Kelly Link, Robert Charles Wilson, Kim Stanley Robinson…in crime and mystery, Richard Stark, Sjowall and Wahlöö, Tana French, and of course Ruth Rendell. As the traditional publishing world dissolves, the distinctions of genre mean less and less, and I think that's a good thing. Many of these writers blur those boundaries every day.
J. Robert Lennon

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