Parallel lives 

J. Robert Lennon on his new novel, fear and the good life

J. Robert Lennon is the author of seven novels, including Mailman and Castle, plus a collection of short stories, Pieces From the Left Hand. He's a graduate of the University of Montana's MFA program, a recent guest at the Montana Festival of the Book and he teaches writing at Cornell University. I talked to him over Gchat about his latest novel, Familiar, which came out this month—a surreal story about contemporary American life in which a woman finds herself in a kind of parallel universe. It may even be considered a horror story.

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  • Photo courtesy of Jenn Northington at WORD in Brooklyn
  • J. Robert Lennon

J. Robert Lennon: You in there?

Indy: Ha. Yes, I am in there. I am in the computer.

Lennon: OMG

Indy: Hello! How are you?

Lennon: I'm great! Just sent in the page proofs for Familiar, the new book, so I am relieved and happy.

Indy: Oh, what a feeling. Let's start by talking about your time at UM. When were you here? What were the circumstances that led you to an MFA? What sort of writer were you before the MFA, and how did it change you?

Lennon: I was a student there from 1993 to 1995, met my wife, the novelist Rhian Ellis, and we stayed there a couple years more. I got an MFA for the usual reasons—my favorite college class was a fiction workshop and my teacher suggested I apply to MFA programs. Montana was the only place I got in. I was not a terribly skilled or mature writer at the time. The main thing I learned there, though, was discipline—to write every day, and, most importantly, to revise. I'm no longer in a position to be able to write daily but I am a total pig for revision. My first drafts are crap.

Indy: Familiar is about a woman who stumbles into a parallel reality in which she's estranged from her children. To me, this is the saddest thing I can imagine. The ultimate life failure: to have a ruined relationship with your kids. (I don't have any kids—I'm guessing.) And you confirmed my suspicion that you were writing about your worst fears. To me, it's almost a horror story, just not in any conventional way.

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Lennon: A friend of mine just read it, and mentioned how sad it was. And my reaction was, "Is it? Damn, I guess it really is." Of course it is.

I do like your characterization of it as a horror story, though, and that is precisely how I've been describing it to people—a horror novel about parenthood. Not as horrifying as, say, Pet Sematary, but maybe less easy to dismiss as fantasy.

Indy: In your 2009 novel, Castle, it's clear we're dealing with an "unreliable narrator," but precisely how he is unreliable remains a mystery for much of the book. It's a source of much tension and intrigue!

Lennon: My editor and I worked very hard to keep the nature of [Eric] Loesch's unreliability consistent. He is not lying—but he is telling a highly self-serving narrative. There are things he needs to say, but he can't bring himself to do it, not for a long time. At first he will only allow his past to enter the story via other characters—e.g., the hardware store clerk who calls him "Soldier." But as the narrative wears on, he talks more openly about what he did, and what happened to him. The turning point is when he falls into the pit trap in the woods.

A colleague of mine at Cornell, a medievalist, told me, after hearing me read that bit, that this is a very, very old trope—you fall in a hole and remember things. Murakami's Wind-Up Bird Chronicle does this too.

Indy: I used to have these insane fears as an undergrad the night before workshop that I would show up and someone would have written the same story as I had, exactly—the way normal girls might worry about someone at the wedding wearing the same dress as them.

Lennon: A former teacher who shall remain nameless once told our workshop, "If you get a good idea, write it immediately, because somebody could steal it." NO! No, that is dumb.

It is one of the most popular questions I get from would-be writers, too. "Should I copyright my idea?" No, because your idea is worthless! Ideas are nothing. A book is something—it's real—and it won't be like anyone else's. In very much the way that two women are never going to inhabit the same dress in the same way. Hell, it might not even look like the same dress.

I'll tell you what: Dudes don't worry about wearing suits that ALL LOOK ALIKE. Because dudes are taught to think that their own personal special penis power will radiate out from them like glorious rays of man sun.

Indy: Would you like to tell me a little about your writing process? Life plans and dreams?

Lennon: Sure.

One: Usually in three- or four-hour shifts, when I am not teaching. I try to produce maybe a page an hour. It's all rather craftsmanlike—I get "inspired" sometimes, but inspiration is kinda bullshit most of the time. When I have time, I write—that's about the size of it. Sometimes it's goodish, sometimes it sucks.

Two: Get old. Read and eat and drink and hang out with my wife. Record music. I like my life; I just want to keep it going.

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