Wait, which thing?
I don’t know, all of it.
Yeah, no, sorry. I truly have no idea. I will say that it feels strange to actually ask myself, in public, that question, which of course I ask myself silently more than any other. Why did you just say that thing? What were you thinking? Why did you hit send? Are you an idiot? Are you out of your mind? Don’t you know that you can never take that back? You’ll always be the guy who did that. Your past is like a big wheeled cart, towering with reeking garbage, that you’ll have to haul behind you for the rest of your life, and it only ever gets heavier.
Jesus, dude, relax.
Right, no, of course. Deep breaths.
So, this interview format. It’s tricky, isn’t it.
It’s an opportunity to say certain things about yourself that you want known, because you’re proud of them, while appearing to be asked by some external authority. It’s inherently a kind of narcissistic exercise, isn’t it.
It really is.
And you opened yours with a self-flagellating riff that, ultimately, must actually be something you want exposed to the world.
So you’re proud of your flaws, and more importantly, your recognition of them.
Remember when you told your friend that you were starting therapy, she laughed and said, “Oh man, you’re going to be good at therapy.”
It wasn’t a compliment.
That’s why you liked it. You kind of get off on being taken down a peg, don’t you.
Perhaps. But this is supposed to be promoting our book. Our new book. See You in Paradise.
Yeah, I guess. So, ahhhh, this book, it’s what, it’s stories?
Don’t play dumb.
It’s stories about, what? Hapless dudes? Failures? Isn’t that what you’re afraid you are, an obsessive chronicler of white male heterosexual loserdom?
That is a fear of mine.
That you’re one of those unimaginative hacks who can’t stop writing about hairsplittingly subtle first-world anxieties, the cognitive dissonances of the privileged majority?
Okay, I’m being too harsh. What do you think of this book, really? Do you think you’re funny?
Yes. I am actually rather proud of this book. And I think I’m kind of funny. Humor is a weird thing, though. Writers of explicitly comic fiction, who sell themselves that way, are choosing a hard road. Humor is so unpredictable, so untranslatable, and so easy to poke holes in. “This book is not funny.” There. Condemned forever. So, I’m afraid to try too hard with the humor, insofar as I want to be loved more than anything else in the whole world. Also, I think my work is ultimately more concerned with despair. You’re never going to finish something of mine laughing. I like to put a smile on your face, then smack it off.
What does that say about you?
You tell me.
I think it’s a defense mechanism. You don’t have the confidence to be serious, and risk having your seriousness rejected. Instead, you try to make people laugh, then quickly change gears, so as to catch them off-guard. It’s a neat trick, but it’s a trick, isn’t it.
It’s all a trick, though, right? Writing?
Nice dodge. Maybe. Are there writers to whom you feel a kinship, whom you think are doing what you do better than you do it?
Dana Spiotta, Lydia Davis. George Saunders of course. In terms of personal presentation, I am massively impressed by Rachel Kushner, who gives an awesome reading. I’ve rarely laughed so hard at a literary event as I did listening to her read from The Flamethrowers, which I didn’t realize was comedy until that point.
So you aspire to be stealthily comic?
Yeah, I admit I like that idea. I’d like to be known as a serious writer who is funny.
But you don’t regard yourself as a serious person, do you.
No, I am definitely not a serious person. The utter ridiculousness and ultimate meaninglessness of life is never far from my mind. This probably limits me artistically but it makes being alive much more pleasant. It’s freeing.
You’re a hedonist, is what you are.
I’m probably the most socially presentable hedonist in the world, but yes. Writing is a big part of that. I am one of those insufferable writers who likes writing. That’s why I do it. It is fun.
Anything you like lately that isn’t books?
I played the videogame Gone Home last night and liked it pretty well. My wife brought this weird ouzo soda home and that’s good, too. My kids are great. I like cats. Have you ever noticed how cute they are? They just don’t give a fuck!
A nice woodstove fire, that’s something I recommend to all readers. Serial, the new This American Life podcast, is ace. Bananas—after all this time, bananas are still totally solid. The new Fender silverface Custom Deluxe Reverb amplifier is awesome. Way nicer than the blackface reissues—darker-sounding, and with a better speaker, too. Clean sheets—you can never go wrong with those. Fall leaves. Outlier slim dungarees. Having Christmas lights in your house year-round.
Are you going to regret doing this?
I already do.
J. ROBERT LENNON is the author of two story collections, Pieces For The Left Hand and See You in Paradise (published this month by Graywolf Press), and seven novels, including Mailman, Familiar, a