An Interview With J. Robert Lennon

Parallax staff members talk writing and strange, short fiction stories with J. Robert Lennon.

J. Robert Lennon is the author of Pieces for the Left Hand.  He lives in Ithaca, New York, where he teaches at Cornell university.

Although his book Pieces for the Left Hand is fiction, the journalistic tone makes it read as nonfiction. In one hundred anecdotes, the narrator walks us through life in a small town in upstate New York, revealing the unsettling and strange in everyday life: questioning memory through a boy’s false recollection of his father’s chopped-off fingers, measuring loneliness by a deceased mother’s collection of teabags, exploring the bizarre tragedy of students trapped in a water pipe. Through these anecdotes inspired by the fictional narrator’s daily walks through town, Lennon adds an eerie yet philosophical layer to the flatness of everyday life. Parallax staff members Linnea Zagaeski and Evan Lytle discussed the writing life over email with Lennon.

“What inspired you to write this collection of short stories?”
When I started writing this book, I had a toddler, and my childcare “shift” coincided with his naps. He didn’t sleep for long—maybe half an hour—so I started thinking about writing projects that I could accomplish in that small amount of time. I wrote a few of these and liked them enough to do a whole book.
Why did you choose the story “Lefties” to base your title off of? Are you yourself left handed?
Yes, I am! I’ve always found the rhetoric about lefties being special to be kind of silly, so I decided to write a story about that.
Why did you write the introduction in third person? What effect did you want it to have?
My editor suggested that—she thought it would be interesting to frame the stories somehow. The character who narrates the stories isn’t me; he’s older and has a different kind of life. It took me 20 stories or so to understand this, actually. In the end, I almost think of this book as a novel about a guy who writes 100 stories.
Are some of these entries directly from a personal journal or diary, or based on true stories encountered personally or through friends?  If so, what was the process of developing them into fictional anecdotes like?  Are any of the anecdotes nonfiction?
They are all fiction. About half of them are inspired by details from my actual life, but I pushed them into fiction from there. “The Mad Folder” is the closest thing to nonfiction, I guess, though it really isn’t. Some of the stories are inspired by local news articles. In general, the fiction came in when I thought, “Hmm, wouldn’t it have been funnier if it worked out this way instead?” I don’t keep a journal or diary, for some reason.
Walking is introduced as part of the narrator’s writing process in the introduction to Pieces for the Left Hand.  There is a long history of writers who found walking integral to their creative process (Thoreau, Wordsworth, Joyce, Woolf, Stein, etc.), and recent studies reveal the benefits of walking for one’s creativity. What kind of role did walking play in your creative process as you worked on Pieces for the Left Hand?  Did you always see walking as integral to this narrator’s storytelling, or did you develop that idea after you had already started writing the anecdotes?
I walk a LOT. Like, four or five miles a day, when I have time. My head is pretty cluttered and I am extremely emotional and the walking calms me down and lets me think. Once I realized that the stories were being written by a character who was not me, I imagined him walking around near his house, which was not my house. Although, oddly, some years after the book was published, I moved pretty much into the house where he lives.
What kind of relationship do you want your reader to have with the narrator?
Oh geez, I don’t care. I suppose I intend for you to mostly like him but be a little skeptical of his motives, his judgments.
Did you want to raise certain questions with this work? If so, what kind of questions?  What questions were raised for you either while writing or when you went back through the collection?
No, I was pretty much doing this automatically, without any themes in mind. I imposed the sections later.
How many drafts did you go through on average for each anecdote?
Two or three. A few popped out just about how they ended up in the book. Some I had to really work over. Once I had the voice going, though, I could crank them out pretty efficiently.
Did you have any more anecdotes that you cut out during the editing process?  Why did you decide to organize them into the seven sections that appear in the book?
There were maybe ten more? Most of them were at the beginning, when I didn’t have the voice down yet. Once I had the voice, I didn’t write any rejects. My editor, again, told me to break it into sections. My original idea was the same idea that the 1980s post-punk band The Minutemen had for their most famous album, Double Nickels on the Dime: they should be read at random. (Now, in the digital era, you can shuffle the Minutemen album as they intended!) But my editor favored a little more organization. I still have mixed feelings about that, but it did enable me to write those little extra-short stories that introduce each “chapter.” Those were really fun to think up.
By the way, I play music as a hobby, and recorded an accompanying album of 100 really short songs, which is out there on the Internet. Also, I once recorded a cover of a song your teacher wrote. Your teacher is an awesome songwriter.
Thank you for reading my book!
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