At some point in his career, novelist Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude) realized that he didn’t need to shy away from writing about pop culture in his books. (Though, as he says, “I don’t even like the term pop culture. It’s culture!”) He realized that having his characters engage with the songs and albums and movies that surround them would ground the work, rather than date it. In his latest book, The Ecstasy of Influence, Lethem grapples with his cultural obsessions — Philip K. Dick, James Brown, Bob Dylan, J.G. Ballard — in a series of essays that prove he is as compelling a critic as he is a novelist. Lethem spoke to TIME about the movies that have most influenced his work over the years.