Jonathan Lethem, bestselling author of “Motherless Brooklyn” and “Fortress of Solitude,” among others, is no stranger to artsy environs, even when they border the atypical. In Ann Arbor this week, Lethem already entertained the University community with a fiction reading on Monday, but there’s still time to take advantage of a public reading today. In a piece of narrative nonfiction he shared with the University community during his Monday reading, he recounted his childhood exposure to nude models in his father’s art studio with the clarity of his retrospective intuition.

Zell Distinguished Writer in Residence: Jonathan Lethem

Tonight at 5:10 p.m.
Helmut Stern Auditorium
Free

“Our house was very communal and arts-oriented,” Lethem said later in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “It had a nuclear family at the center, but there was always a wide variety of characters around.”

Lethem’s bohemian, late-’60s upbringing in the Boerum Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn was a profound influence on his writing career and the beginning of a lifelong affinity for artistic communities like Ann Arbor.

“I haven’t traveled much in recent months, what with two little kids and a permanent job,” Lethem said. “But coming to a town like Ann Arbor for a week-long affair seemed a natural fit, much better than the typical one-day stop.”

By “permanent job,” Lethem is referring to his prestigious new position as Pomona’s Roy Edward Disney Professor of Creative Writing, a post previously held by the late writer David Foster Wallace. The professorship is the culmination of a 20-year writing career that encompasses an eclectic array of themes ranging from nonfiction argumentative essays to science fiction, with a Rolling Stone feature on Bob Dylan thrown in there somewhere along the way.

“I originally planned to be an artist like my father, but I was talented in only the most boring ways when it came to painting and drawing,” Lethem said. “I saw a lot more potential in writing.”

The structure and worldview of Lethem’s fiction is highly autobiographical, informed by the “collapsing utopia” he observed during his countercultural upbringing. But even more relevant to his work are his controversial views regarding plagiarism.

In an argumentative essay titled “The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism,” Lethem argues that every idea, no matter how “pure” or “original” it may seem, is derived from the work of some predecessor.

“There are a few obvious egregious behaviors that we can all agree constitute plagiarism,” Lethem said. “But those are the far side of a very wide variety of cultural participation that’s perfectly legitimate.”

Lethem is unashamed when it comes to walking his talk. As a self-described “borrower” of sorts, he finds a wealth of inspiration in the writings of his favorite science fiction author, Philip K. Dick.

“My first two or three novels were pretty much raw, shameless imitations of his style,” Lethem said.

Even so, Lethem’s writing is a conglomeration of such a wide variety of cultural influences that it can easily stand by itself as unique and engaging. Lethem stressed the point that all artists — no matter how celebrated they may be — are human beings, limited by a finite number of themes, words and forms of expression. In his mind, the key to being a good writer is finding the proper balance with the resources available.

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