By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Apr 02, 2007 at 5:30 AM

Perception is everything and no one knows that better than Brooklyn-born author Jonathan Lethem. The author of six novels, a collection of essays and at least three books of short fiction, Lethem has been so pegged as a Brooklyn author that few -- including us, obviously -- can resist focusing on the fact that his latest novel is set in Los Angeles.

"You Don't Love Me Yet," just published in hardcover by Doubleday, follows bassist Lucinda Hoekke and her band as they try to get their act together, musically and personally. The result is a smart and funny book about music, art, plagiarism and sex.

"Everyone has short memories and the Brooklyn books are so prominent, so everyone is professing to be shocked that I've abandoned Brooklyn," says Lethem, whose most acclaimed novels, "The Fortress of Solitude" and "Motherless Brooklyn" were set in his native New York borough. "But it's really just two novels out of the previous six that stake that claim on Brooklyn turf."

After spending his formative years on the east side of the Roebling’s bridge, Lethem headed out west and spent most of the 20s in California. So, it should come as no surprise that, in reality, more of his work is set there than in Kings County.

"It depends on how you depend on how you interpret some of the early ones," he laughs. "’Girl in Landscape’ is set basically on some combination of Mars and Arizona. But there's a thinly disguised Bay Area in 'As She Climbed Across the Table,' there's a not at all disguised, slightly seedy, slightly futuristic Oakland in 'Gun With Occasional Music.' So, actually, in terms of place, my first identity was I was kind of a Bay Area writer and that appears in my second novel, too."

In the new book, Lucinda Hoekke is a bassist in an indie band with the handsome vocalist Matthew -- her on-again/off-again boyfriend -- reclusive, cineaste guitar and songwriting talent Bedwin and drummer-by-night/sex-shop-employee by day Denise.

When she needs a job, Lucinda signs on at the gallery of her ex-boyfriend Falmouth who’s launching a complaint line as an art project. Manning the phones, Lucinda encounters an intriguing repeat caller and their phone relationship changes everything for her.

Soon her life is turned upside down and her band has a bevy of ace songs and a gig playing at an art "happening" where eager record execs clamor for the band’s attentions.

Thanks to the fact that "You Don’t Love Me Yet" is set in L.A. and focuses on a musician and her band, many have jumped to the conclusion that it is a music industry novel. But it certainly doesn’t read that way and Lethem is quick to quell that misperception.

That's totally ludicrous," Lethem says. "This book doesn't pretend, I hope, or even promise to be incisive about Los Angeles or the rock and roll industry.

"That's the funny thing; people keep saying, 'oh, you've written a book about the music industry,' I think because it's in L.A. and these guys are in a band, but they don't penetrate that world at all and there's nothing about them that's really in the rock and roll milieu, in fact, they're more like the art students or people with literature degrees that pick up instruments and try to be in a band. This is a very character-driven piece."

"You Don’t Love Me Yet" also touches on plagiarism and content borrowing in art, a subject that Lethem -- the son of respected painter Richard Lethem -- wrote about in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine.

The book’s success and accessibility does in fact ride heavily on the backs of Lethem’s characters, which are finely drawn and feel entirely real, especially to anyone who has ever struggled to hold together a group of eager, but struggling, musicians.

The fact that Lethem’s L.A. feels real, too, is perhaps a little lucky for him.

"L.A. is a little bit strange to me and it's a bit of a stunt, I guess, for me to set a book in a place that I don't really know that well," he admits. "I have a passing curiosity about L.A. and I've spent some time there, but I'm much more setting this book in a kind of fanciful Los Angeles of my own projections.

"It's really a kind of a pipe dream, in a sense, L.A. gives sense in a way almost to a Shakespearian forest that these characters are lost in. That provided me with a sense of surprise in my own operations as a writer."

So, in a sense it was freeing to get out of Brooklyn after the success of "The Fortress of Solitude"?

"It was good to not be working from this sort of bogus authority of you know, 'Oh, I'm the Faulkner of Brooklyn" and I'm going to keep writing about the history of this place,' " Lethem says. "It's very uncomfortable for a writer to be given too much authority, so I sort of shrugged off all of that with this."

Eager to ensure that the entire package of "You Don’t Love Me Yet" emits the proper story-related glow, Lethem selected a picture of himself -- taken years ago -- for the front cover. The younger Lethem cops a serious stare –looking a bit like Richard Hell -- as he sits on a bed next to a Gibson guitar leaning against the wall.

"’You can see I'm carefully not touching the guitar," he says, laughing. :"What I love about that picture is that it's so humiliating. Youthful poses are so naked and with the fact that I'm not touching the guitar, there's a sort of fear of music quality to it.

"I wanted the thing to look kind of like a 7" single when 7" singles were the thing."

That said, it seems pretty safe to assume that the 40-something Lethem was never a musician himself.

"Barely," he says, "nothing worth talking about. What I have done and I'm continuing to do on my Web site now is write lyrics that people have turned into songs. And I've had friends in bands and I'm a fan and these are the kind of musicians (in the novel) who if they'd gotten a little further along could have easily been in my record collection but they're fannish people themselves, they're as much wannabes as they are the real thing."

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.