Anyone perusing the internet activity of J. Robert Lennon, English, would find an array of strange and disjointed queries. “If the government is tracking my web searches, they probably think I’m running an operation in my office,” Lennon says with a laugh.
The Internet, Google Maps, Everyday Conversation, and Other Unexpected Sources
Lennon conducts most of his research online, whether it’s looking up how to construct a bow and arrow for his survivalist ex-military character in Castle (Graywolf Press, 2010), figuring out how a steel and glass sculptor would make glass knives for his current project, determining how one would grow pot in a house (again for his current novel), or walking through virtual cities in Google Maps’ Street View to find a character’s home.
“Google Street View has changed fiction writing enormously. It doesn’t matter where in the world you’re writing about, you can at least tell what it looks like,” he says, though he adds the caveat that when writing about a culture that’s very different from one’s own, nothing can quite replace traveling and talking to people. For him, however, Street View has inspired a ghost story titled “Lancaster, California” and helped him pick a house in a Canadian town as the future home for one of his characters.
Lennon also locates much of his inspiration in his surrounding landscape. He describes his current project as “a skein of people’s lives intersecting in the middle of nowhere Upstate New York.” His latest book, See You in Paradise (Graywolf Press, 2014), a collection of short stories, features several pieces based in the area. And if you read his previous seven novels, you’ll find that many, for example, Castle, Pieces for the Left Hand (Graywolf Press, 2009), and Happyland (serialized in Harper’s Magazine, 2006), are set in Upstate New York.
Lennon is an advocate of writers drawing from different—and not typically literary—sources, be it eavesdropped conversations, genre fiction, music, blogs, or television. “That’s my hobbyhorse as a teacher here,” he says. “I’m not really trying to teach students to write, but to identify things in themselves that are different from other people. I want them to tease out the weird core of themselves and develop it into action.”
To do that, he encourages students to glean from “whatever stuff that people use to express themselves” and to use it “as fodder for psychological tics.” Lennon himself has found inspiration in video games and science fiction. His novel Familiar (Graywolf Press, 2012) features a parallel universe, plus the protagonist’s son is a game developer who makes a game that turns out to be about his family.
Why New York State?
Originally from a small town in New Jersey, Lennon moved to Philadelphia for college and then to Missoula, Montana, for his MFA at the University of Montana. From there, every move he made was to a smaller and smaller town, he says, until he landed in Ithaca, a place similarly sized to his hometown. He says he ended up in Ithaca simply because he and his wife liked the place.
As for New York State, Lennon says that he’s attracted to writing about it because “there’s lots of empty space, but there isn’t any that hasn’t been trodden on. People have lived everywhere, and we’ve been walking all over this place for years. There are layers and layers of history.” He adds that it’s an especially interesting place for a writer, because “people are eccentric and a lot of them come to this place.” The local newspapers alone have been a rich source of material.
Keeping the Mind Sharp
Outside of fiction writing, Lennon maintains a blog with a diverse assortment of posts: goofy product reviews of pens and office supplies, snippets of his latest favorite comics, screenshots of super short text message stories, expert rants on such topics as PDFs and typography. He is an avid tweeter. “It keeps my mind sharp,” Lennon says of such writing.
“It’s hard to put your finger on what makes a really good piece of writing good and what makes a failed piece of writing a failure.”
Teaching at Cornell, too, has sharpened his understanding of both his students’ and his own writing. Lennon teaches an undergraduate narrative writing workshop each semester and a graduate workshop every other year. In reading his students’ stories, he says he’s come to realize that he can’t just say that a story is or isn’t working; he has to understand and explain why.
“You realize a lot of preconceived notions that you have of what’s good in your own work is just as arbitrary as thinking other people’s work is bad,” he says. “It’s hard to put your finger on what makes a really good piece of writing good and what makes a failed piece of writing a failure, and it’s been interesting for me to have to justify my opinions.”
In doing research as a fiction writer, Lennon embraces a term his wife once called them: professional dilettantes. “I like that as a description for writers,” he says. “I love going to parties with writers—they always have super shallow knowledge of a zillion different things.”