When Jonathan Lethem (the author of Motherless Brooklyn and many other books), who works at his craft every day, is so upset he doesn’t want to write, something is very, very wrong. And that’s exactly what happened when Donald Trump was elected president. “Everything seemed horrible, and I felt like I couldn’t write, and that no novel—or any idea of a novel—was going to be adequate to the way reality suddenly felt.”
Luckily for us, he figured out a way to channel his anger and despair about what was happening in Washington. “I suddenly realized that if I told this story [that was already in the works] from the point of view of a woman who was pissed off, that I could put these feelings into the book,” he says. “It would become not just a way of coping, but it would drive the story. So, I created a female narrator, Phoebe, who was even angrier about Trump than I was because she was a woman. So, I wrote The Feral Detective story [Ecco, Nov.], but I also used it as this container to pour in all of my angst about the brave terrible new world we were looking at, and then I wrote it faster than I’ve ever written a book before. It was like a magic carpet ride.”
The story is set in the 10 days leading up to Trump’s inauguration and the 10 days following. During this time, Phoebe, who quits her job as a New York Times op-ed editor to help find a friend’s missing daughter, ends up in an off-the-grid enclave in the California desert, where the young woman is caught between warring tribes of outcasts who have lived for years off the grid.
The subject matter is one Lethem fans will recognize. “If you think about the way I grew up in Brooklyn and my book, The Fortress of Solitude, an urban feral child is a motif in my writing. I was always attracted to the feral child as a literary emblem—from Tarzan to Mowgli to Werner Herzog’s movie, Kaspar Hauser.”
The author has been a BookExpo attendee for years; his first experience, in the 1990s, was as a bookseller from Moe’s Books in Berkeley, though he’d just published his first novel. “I worked in bookstores all through my 20s, when I was writing but not yet published, and I was knocking on the doors of agents and editors. I still feel like a bookseller, so when I get to BEA and see this clan of people devoted to the thing that I care about most, I’m actually pretty moved. I like partying with booksellers, and I like still pretending that I am one.”