The poet Ben Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, about a neurotically selfish American poet in Spain, was one of 2011’s smartest sideways social critiques — and perhaps its unlikeliest critical hit (James Wood called it “subtle, sinuous, and very funny”). The more mature (and still neurotic) protagonist of his new novel, 10:04 (out September 2), is a Brooklyn author considering fatherhood and his own mortality. Lerner describes this episodic meditation on the New York life — within the book itself — as “neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them.”
Why did you make 10:04 so self-consciously semi-fictional, and how semi-fictional is it?
From the beginning, this was a book about how fictions become facts and vice-versa. I do consider this a work of fiction — plenty of events and characters are made up — but it does occupy that flickering edge.
How about a few specific facts: Did your first novel sell 10,000 copies, did you really get a “strong six figures” for this one, and were you really inspired to write poetry by Peggy Noonan?
It sold more than 10,000 copies. I did get a big advance, though much less than what the narrator gets. The Reagan Challenger speech (that Noonan wrote) was an early experience of poetic rhythm — but I don’t think it was as big a deal for me as it was for the narrator.
You’ve reviewed Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, which is also not-quite-fiction — like other recent novels by Teju Cole, Tao Lin, and Sheila Heti. All of these writers are doing work similar to yours, floating in between memoir and fiction. Why is such work popular right now?
I think those are all very different writers, but they probably share a sense that, since your life invariably becomes material for your art, it’s more interesting to incorporate that relation explicitly into your work than it is to conceal it.
The author in the book is motivated to defy the lit world’s expectations of his second novel. Do you feel that’s what you’ve done in 10:04?
I think he’s more baffled by the lit world’s expectations. I personally have no sense of what expectations the readers of Leaving the Atocha Station have or had. But I made the reception of the first book a theme in the second — kind of like the way Don Quixote encounters the first volume of Don Quixote in the second volume.
*This article appears in the August 25, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.