Author Ben Lerner discusses his new book, ‘The Topeka School,’ ahead of visit to Lawrence
Author Ben Lerner knows his way around Topeka — he grew up in Kansas’ capital city and went to Topeka High School. But until recently, he hadn’t set any of his novels there.
That changed with his newest novel, “The Topeka School,” which places one of his recurring characters — a writer named Adam Gordon — into an environment reminiscent of Lerner’s high school years. Lerner will be visiting the Lawrence Public Library at 7 p.m. Saturday to discuss the book.
“The Topeka School,” which was released Tuesday, follows Adam, who appeared in Lerner’s earlier novels “Leaving the Atocha Station” and “10:04,” as he struggles with his identity during his time in high school. Lerner said many of the events of the novel draw from his own life — for instance, Adam’s parents are both clinical psychologists, just like Lerner’s parents, Lawrence residents Harriet and Steve Lerner.
“One thing that inspired me to write the book was becoming a parent, as I started to remember — or rather, imagine — my childhood from my parents’ perspective,” Lerner said.
Raven Book Store owner Danny Caine, who helped organize Lerner’s visit, said Lerner is well-known as a writer of “autofiction” — a genre that blends autobiography and fiction.
Caine said Kansas readers would appreciate the local color of “The Topeka School,” but that the novel speaks to broader political and social issues, as well.
“‘The Topeka School’ will be recognizable to not only us Kansas folks, but anyone who’s paying attention to how the current era is wreaking havoc with truth and language,” he said.
Copies of the book will be available for purchase at Lerner’s visit, and Lerner is expected to be available for autographs after his talk. The event is free and open to the public.
Prior to Lerner’s visit to Lawrence, the author discussed his new book with the Journal-World. The following interview has been edited for length.
What is “The Topeka School” about, and what inspired you to write it?
Lerner: The novel follows Adam Gordon, a senior at Topeka High in 1997. His parents are both psychologists at an internationally renowned psychiatric clinic. On the one hand, he’s very much their son: he’s a star debater and an aspiring poet. On the other hand, he’s desperate to pass as a “real man” in the macho culture outside the household, where emotional talk is often considered a form of weakness. He’s also one of the seniors who starts bringing the outcast Darren Eberheart — who is Adam’s dad’s patient, something Adam doesn’t know — to the senior class parties. This has disastrous results.
The book is a family saga, but it also wants to be a window onto some broader cultural issues facing us today — especially the ongoing crisis of identity among white men, which is one of the things I believe has brought us (President Donald) Trump.
In addition to fiction, you also write poetry. What are the challenges of writing in two different forms, and what attracts you to both?
Lerner: I actually feel like I have little control over what I write — that I have to discover what’s writable more than I can decide in advance to compose a certain work in a certain way. Poetry remains the center for me in so many ways because my friends and heroes are poets. Poetry for me is a way of placing the language under extreme pressure, exploring even the smallest particle of sound.
Both your mother and father are clinical psychologists, but they’ve also done creative work. Your mother has written books on psychology, and your father is a musician and a filmmaker. Did your parents’ endeavors have any effect on your career?
Lerner: I’m very close with my parents, and they are always early readers of my work. That’s even more true than usual with this book, since it involves me writing about — and as — fictionalized versions of them in places. I also think that writing a novel has some similarities to being a therapist in that you’re trying to be attuned to patterns, to relationships as forms, and to the significance of speech and silence.
How do you feel about returning to the area for your upcoming event?
Lerner: I love visiting Lawrence. My whole family was just here a month ago. I am always mortified to have to read my work in front of people I know.
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