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Jonathan Lethem

AKA Jonathan Allen Lethem

Born: 19-Feb-1964
Birthplace: Brooklyn, NY

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Author

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Gun with Occasional Music

Jonathan Lethem is an author of speculative fiction best known for his novels The Fortress of Solitude, Gun, With Occasional Music, Motherless Brooklyn, As She Climbed Across the Table, Girl in Landscape, and Amnesia Moon. Some of his better known short fiction includes the novella "The Wall of the Eye, The Wall of The Sky". Described by The Washington Post as "the hottest young author in the science fiction field", Lethem was also the only novelist named by Newsweek to their "100 People for the New Century" list. He is also a past editor of Paradoxa and Fence Magazine. Along with Carter Scholz, he is the author of the cult classic Kafka Americana.

Born in 1964 in Brooklyn, New York, Jonathan Allen Lethem was raised, along with his brother Blake and sister Mara, in what Lethem calls a "hippie-Utopian" atmosphere. His mother, who died when he was only 14, was a native New Yorker, from Queens. His father had moved to New York from the Midwest and was an artist, specializing in oil painting on canvas. They lived in a relatively poor, "borderline" multi-racial neighborhood, and although Lethem's parents advocated racial equality and color blindness, neighborhood kids had a different take on life. He thus he endured quite a bit of racial bullying, although ironically he attended a Quaker Sunday school, which emphasized non-violence. In his spare time he devoured Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Fyodor Dostoevsky.

As a teen Lethem attended the High School for Music and Art in NYC. He painted, in a style he describes "glib, show-offy, usually cartoonish". Although he principally tried to follow in the footsteps of his painter father, he found himself branching out into other artistic pursuits like film making and writing. He also produced his own zine, The Literary Exchange, which featured both artwork and writing, and he wrote a 125 page novel, Heroes. The novel was never published, but much of the material reappeared later in more polished form in Fortress of Solitude (2003). His reading interests had meanwhile turned to Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard, Stanislaw Lem, as well as Kingsley Amis, Raymond Chandler, Jack Kerouac, and Franz Kafka, to name but a few.

After high school he entered Vermont's Bennington College where he majored in art, again following his father's influence. Lethem was poor about attending classes, feeling that his prior background cancelled out their necessity, and while still in his first semester he dropped out. He had meanwhile begun another novel, Apes In the Plan, named for a line from a Devo song. He did make another try at Bennington, but found he had soured on being a painter, and on the privilege that seemed to allow many of his classmates to buy their way into an art career, in stark contrast to his own family which had chosen poverty in pursuit of art.

In 1984 he hitchhiked to Berkeley, California, an experience which informed his Amnesia Moon. Once arrived in the Bay Area he supported himself by working in various bookstores, including Moe's Books, a Berkeley bastion for rare and used books. He meanwhile turned more and more to writing, generating the basics of what would ultimately become his first three novels, and published his short fiction whenever possible. Finally, in 1995 he achieved his first novel-length publication, Gun, With Occasional Music. The publishers, Harcourt Brace, were sufficiently impressed with the quality of his prose to issue it in hardcover, with Lethem given direction of the cover art. "This euphoria carried me a certain distance," Lethem recalls, "then I began to want to make a living."

The resultant novels have been characterized, if they can be characterized, by a tendency to draw elements from different genre traditions and combine them in new ways, all in service of his own strangely surreal creations of plot and character. The upside of this approach has been a series of stories that are fresh and surprising, slightly surreal, full of the challenge to perspective that characterized the work of Philip K. Dick. The downside is that fans of one novel often hate his other novels. His Gun, With Occasional Music for example incorporated the sort of hardboiled detective feel typified by Raymond Chandler, but by contrast his Girl In Landscape combined science fiction elements with elements of the western, creating an entirely different feel that many readers found extremely dissatisfying. Hearing readers explain why one particular Lethem novel is "his best" is similar to asking what style of fiction each one favors.

Jonathan Lethem currently lives in Brooklyn. In addition to writing he participates in various writers' workshops and conventions. Twice divorced, he now lives with girlfriend Amy Barrett, filmmaker and freelance journalist. Lethem's brother, Blake, attained brief notoriety as a graffiti artist after painting a mural used as a backdrop for presidential candidate Howard Dean. Their sister, Mara Faye Lethem, is a photographer and a former columnist for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Sister: Mara
Brother: Blake Lethem
Wife: Shelley Jackson (div.)
Wife: Julia Rosenberg (m. 2000, div.)
Girlfriend: Amy Barrett

    High School: High School for Music and Art, New York, NY
    University: Bennington College, VT (dropped out)
    Professor: Creative Writing, New York University
    Professor: Creative Writing, Pomona College (2010-)

    John Kerry for President
    MacArthur Fellowship 2005

Author of books:
Gun, With Occasional Music (1995, novel)
Amnesia Moon (1996, novel)
The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye: Stories (1997, collection)
As She Climbed Across the Table (1998, novel)
Kafka Americana (1999, collection, with Carter Scholz)
Girl in Landscape (1999, novel)
Motherless Brooklyn (2000, novel)
The Fortress of Solitude (2003, novel)
Men and Cartoons: Stories (2004, collection)
The Disappointment Artist: Essays (2005, collection, non-fiction)


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