Butler University students and faculty had the chance to experience an award-winning novelist’s work-in-progress Monday.
Jonathan Lethem read a chapter of his novel-in-themaking as the fifth installment of the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series.
The Reilly Room was nearly full of people wanting to hear what he had to say. The chapter he read from “The Gray Goose” focuses on the daughter of a disappointed communist in the late 1950s. The story depicts “a generation of bitter and confused people.”
Lethem is the author of nine novels and multiple short stories, among other works.
His writing has earned him a spot in an elite class of modern novelists. Courtney Alwine, a senior English and creative writing major, introduced Lethem.
“Lethem is a genius,” she said. “No really, he is. He was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, which is given for being a genius.”
Alwine said everyone should read Lethem’s work.
“I’m 92 percent sure he’s the greatest writer there is,” she said. “Reading his work instantly makes you a cooler person.”
Laura Gorski, a freshman music education major, said she decided to attend the event so that she could hear the words in the author’s own voice.
“I like listening to people read, especially their own work,” she said. “It was really interesting because you could hear the emotions that he was putting into his words.”
Jaclyn McConnell, a freshman theater major, agreed with Gorski.
“I really love English and I wanted to hear what someone who writes for a living has to say about it,” she said. McConnell also said that Lethem stood out from other authors.
“He was really passionate about it all,” she said. “There are so many things to read that I just can’t get into. “He made it impossible not to get into it.”
After the reading, Lethem answered questions from the audience about his sources inspiration and writing process. Kevin Vogel, a freshman music composition major, said he found the question and answer portion of the night to be especially interesting.
“I like hearing what other people’s creative processes are,” he said. “Especially when they are about telling stories.”
Lethem said it usually takes him two to four years to write a novel.
“[Writing] is a game for the tortoise not the hare,” he said. “I have no choice, I’m the tortoise.”
Lethem said that he doesn’t force himself to make a certain word or page quota per day. Instead, he promises to make writing a daily practice.
“It doesn’t matter how long I write as long as I stay there and stay connected to the work,” he said. Vogel said that even though he wasn’t asking specific questions, he found the answers beneficial.
“His answers really pertained to me even though I wasn’t the one asking the questions,” Vogel said. “Even when he was answering specific questions, he was able to focus and make it mean something for the entire audience.”
Lethem advised students in the audience to think through their decisions to be writers.
“If it’s painful, then it’s not worth doing,” he said. “You’ve got to be there because you love it.
“This is not a beautiful life to pursue.”
He also shared about his journey to becoming the type of writer that he is.
“When I was dreaming of being a writer, the writers I was reading were very conceptual,” Lethem said. “I started writing and was doomed, or maybe blessed, with a different temperature in my characters [than those writers’].
“The messy, passionate, human crap was going to get in the way and gunk up the concept.”
So Lethem decided to get on board with the naturally “real” style of writing and character building that he innately had.
Self-understanding, he said, was a product of the revision process. Lethem encouraged students not to underplay the role of revision in their work.
“Don’t think of it as drudgery. Look at revision as the work itself,” he said. “Really look at the words, take them in and feel them; encounter them completely.”
The next writer in the series is Elmore Leonard, a crime and suspense novelist.
He will speak at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 6 at Clowes Memorial Hall.