Novelist Lethem discards his cape to mentor students
Jonathan Lethem imbues his novels and short stories with a superhero mythos — in his latest novel, Fortress of Solitude, two Brooklyn boys use a secret ring to conjure Aeroman, an airborne do-gooder who defends their neighborhood. It’s hardly surprising then that students of Temple’s graduate program in creative writing worship Lethem with a reverence usually reserved for swashbuckling, summer-blockbuster-type superheroes.
They’ll have an opportunity to not only meet, but also learn from, their idol when Lethem comes to campus on Oct. 4–8 to ingest, evaluate and inform student works as the program’s visiting writer for the fall semester.
“Graduate students in the creative writing program will be able to talk with Lethem one-on-one throughout the week — they’ll get to know the human that lives beyond the book jacket,” said Jena Osman, director of the graduate creative writing program. “The conversations that arise from these visits are crucial to the students’ understanding of what it means to be a practicing writer today.”
To Sonia Vora, a second-year graduate student, Lethem’s legend is equal parts Lenny Kravitz, literary Superman and Serena Williams — Kravitz because he has a rocker’s visibility in the literary world, Superman because his stories leap off the page in a single bound, and Williams because his Herculean talent and skills are dizzying to a neophyte writer.
“Anytime a writer of his ability looks at your work … it’s like taking a tennis lesson from Serena Williams,” said Vora, who is writing a historical novel set in India. “She might crush you if you were playing against her, but what would you give for her to offer you a couple of pointers?”
At 40, Lethem is a leading name in contemporary literature, and for every book received with critical plaudits, his celebrity mounts. In 1997, Newsweek included him on its “100 People for the New Century” list, making him the only novelist to crack the roster. Lethem’s novel Motherless Brooklyn won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2000. His upcoming work, The Disappointment Artist, a collection of literary criticism and essays, is scheduled for release in March 2005. All these feats add up to an author “still clearly on the rising side of his career,” according to Vora.
“That level of prominence is very exciting to an apprentice writer — especially knowing the kind of access we’ll get to him,” said Vora, who looks forward to encountering Lethem’s techniques for character development and narration. “To even know that I’m going to meet him makes me want to be a better writer — not just someone who gets technically better while at school, but who is more ambitious in the kind of writing I do, in the topics that I tackle and the language that I use.”
Smriti Jaiswal, a first-year graduate student from Nepal, hopes to better understand Lethem’s oft-feted prose, a style that combines lyricism and authenticity.
“More than anything else, I wish to learn about technique from Lethem,” Jaiswal said. “I want to learn the logical steps of thinking — if there are any. I want to know if a writer also has to be a mimic man, what hones the ear and how important the ear is to the pen.”
Each semester, Temple’s creative writing program invites an accomplished novelist or poet to campus for one-on-one mentoring with students. During the visit, the writer typically offers a public reading, sits in on classes and gives a lecture about the craft.
Temple is one of a handful of schools, including Stanford University, Brown University and the University of Alabama, that have hosted Lethem for fiction workshops.
“The wonderful thing about a program like Temple’s is the exposure to world-class artists,” said Vora, who gained factual and stylistic advice for her novel about the Partition era in India from the spring 2004 visiting writer, Anita Desai. “We can see them at the free library and other readings, but here we get to eat with them, talk to them and, most amazingly, have them read our stories.”
It’s during moments like these that Lethem ceases to be Superman and becomes an everyday Clark Kent.
Lethem’s public reading, part of the program’s Poets and Writers Series, is set for Thursday, Oct. 7, at 8 p.m. at Temple University Center City (1515 Market St.). His lecture, “Love Your Writing Self, or How To Be A-Mused,” is Wednesday, Oct. 6, from 9:30 to 11 a.m. in Anderson Hall, room 821.
- By Ted Boscia