Interviews

Paul Auster, The Art of Fiction No. 178

Interviewed by Michael Wood

 In 1985, after seventeen New York publishers had rejected City of Glass, the lead novella in The New York Trilogy, it was published by Sun and Moon Press in San Francisco. The other two novellas, Ghosts and The Locked Room, came out the next year. Paul Auster was thirty-eight. Although he wrote reviews and translations regularly and his prose poem White Spaces had been published in 1980, the trilogy marked the true start of his literary career.

   Auster has written about those prepublication years in Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure (1997). He studied at Columbia University in the late sixties, then worked for a few months on an oil tanker before moving to Paris where he eked out a living as a translator. He started a little magazine, Little Hand, and an independent publishing house of the same name with his first wife, the writer Lydia Davis. In 1972 his first book, a collection of translations titled A Little Anthology of Surrealist Poems, was published. He returned to New York City in 1974 and, among other ventures, tried to sell a baseball card game he had invented. In 1982, Auster published his first prose book, The Invention of Solitude, a memoir and meditation on fatherhood that he started writing shortly after his father’s death.

   Auster has published a book almost annually since the trilogy: In 1987 the novel In the Country of Last Things appeared. His other novels include Moon Palace (1989), The Music of Chance (1990), Leviathan (1992), and The Book of Illusions (2002). Auster was made a chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government in 1991 (he was elevated to an officer in 1997).

   The range of Auster’s work is remarkable—novels, essays, translations, poems, plays, songs, and collaborations with artists (including Sophie Calle and Sam Messer). He has also written three screenplays: Smoke (1995), Blue in the Face (1995), and Lulu on the Bridge (1998), which he directed as well. Oracle Night, his ninth novel, will be published later this year.

   The following conversation started last fall with a live interview at the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y in New York City. The interview was completed one afternoon this summer at Auster’s home in Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife, the writer Siri Hustvedt. A gracious host, he apologized for the workers who were installing central air conditioning in their nineteenth-century brownstone, then gave a brief tour: The living room is decorated with paintings by his friends Sam Messer and David Reed. In their front hall, there is a collection of family photographs. Bookshelves line the walls of his office on the ground floor. And, of course, on his desk the famous typewriter.

 

INTERVIEWER

Let’s start by talking about the way you work. About how you write.

PAUL AUSTER

I’ve always written by hand. Mostly with a fountain pen, but sometimes with a pencil—especially for corrections. If I could write directly on a typewriter or a computer, I would do it. But keyboards have always intimidated me. I’ve never been able to think clearly with my fingers in that position. A pen is a much more primitive instrument. You feel that the words are coming out of your body and then you dig the words into the page. Writing has always had that tactile quality for me. It’s a physical experience.

INTERVIEWER

And you write in notebooks. Not legal pads or loose sheets of paper.

AUSTER

Yes, always in notebooks. And I have a particular fetish for notebooks with quadrille lines—the little squares.

INTERVIEWER

But what about the famous Olympia typewriter? We know quite a bit about that machine—last year you published a wonderful book with the painter Sam Messer, The Story of My Typewriter.

AUSTER

I’ve owned that typewriter since 1974—more than half my life now. I bought it second-hand from a college friend and at this point it must be about forty years old. It’s a relic from another age, but it’s still in good condition. It’s never broken down. All I have to do is change ribbons every once in a while. But I’m living in fear that a day will come when there won’t be any ribbons left to buy—and I’ll have to go digital and join the twenty-first century.

INTERVIEWER

A great Paul Auster story. The day when you go out to buy that last ribbon.

AUSTER

I’ve made some preparations. I’ve stocked up. I think I have about sixty or seventy ribbons in my room. I’ll probably stick with that typewriter till the end, although I’ve been sorely tempted to give it up at times. It’s cumbersome and inconvenient, but it also protects me against laziness.

INTERVIEWER

How so?

AUSTER

Because the typewriter forces me to start all over again once I’m finished. With a computer, you make your changes on the screen and then you print out a clean copy. With a typewriter, you can’t get a clean manuscript unless you start again from scratch. It’s an incredibly tedious process. You’ve finished your book, and now you have to spend several weeks engaged in the purely mechanical job of transcribing what you’ve already written. It’s bad for your neck, bad for your back, and even if you can type twenty or thirty pages a day, the finished pages pile up with excruciating slowness. That’s the moment when I always wish I’d switched to a computer, and yet every time I push myself through this final stage of a book, I wind up discovering how essential it is. Typing allows me to experience the book in a new way, to plunge into the flow of the narrative and feel how it functions as a whole. I call it “reading with my fingers,” and it’s amazing how many errors your fingers will find that your eyes never noticed. Repetitions, awkward constructions, choppy rhythms. It never fails. I think I’m finished with the book and then I begin to type it up and I realize there’s more work to be done.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s go back to the notebooks for a minute. Quinn, in City of Glass, records his observations in a red notebook. Anna Blume, the narrator of In the Country of Last Things, composes her letter in a blue notebook. In Mr. Vertigo, Walt writes his autobiography in thirteen hardbound school composition books. And Willy G. Christmas, the demented hero of Timbuktu, has lugged his entire life’s work to Baltimore to give to his high-school English teacher before he dies: seventy-four notebooks of “poems, stories, essays, diary entries, epigrams, autobiographical musings, and the first eighteen-hundred lines of an epic-in-progress, Vagabond Days.” Notebooks also figure in your most recent novels, The Book of Illusions and Oracle Night. To say nothing of your collection of true stories, The Red Notebook. What are we to make of this?

AUSTER

I suppose I think of the notebook as a house for words, as a secret place for thought and self-examination. I’m not just interested in the results of writing, but in the process, the act of putting words on a page. Don’t ask me why. It might have something to do with an early confusion on my part, an ignorance about the nature of fiction. As a young person, I would always ask myself, Where are the words coming from? Who’s saying this? The third-person narrative voice in the traditional novel is a strange device. We’re used to it now, we accept it, we don’t question it anymore. But when you stop and think about it, there’s an eerie, disembodied quality to that voice. It seems to come from nowhere and I found that disturbing. I was always drawn to books that doubled back on themselves, that brought you into the world of the book, even as the book was taking you into the world. The manuscript as hero, so to speak. Wuthering Heights is that kind of novel. The Scarlet Letter is another. The frames are fictitious, of course, but they give a groundedness and credibility to the stories that other novels didn’t have for me. They posit the work as an illusion—which more traditional forms of narrative don’t—and once you accept the “unreality” of the enterprise, it paradoxically enhances the truth of the story. The words aren’t written in stone by an invisible author-god. They represent the efforts of a flesh-and-blood human being and this is very compelling. The reader becomes a participant in the unfolding of the story—not just a detached observer.

INTERVIEWER

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

AUSTER

About a year after I understood that I wasn’t going to be a major-league baseball player. Until I was about sixteen, baseball was probably the most important thing in my life.

INTERVIEWER

How good were you?

AUSTER

It’s hard to say. If I’d stuck with it, I might have made it to the low minor leagues. I could hit well, with occasional bursts of power, but I wasn’t a very fast runner. At third base, which was the position I usually played, I had quick reflexes and a strong arm—but my throws were often wild.

INTERVIEWER

Anyone familiar with your work knows you’re a fan. There are references to baseball in nearly every one of your books.

AUSTER

I loved playing the game, and I still love watching it and thinking about it. In some mysterious way, baseball provided me with an opening onto the world, a chance to find out who I was. As a small child, I wasn’t very well. I had all kinds of physical ailments, and I spent more time sitting in doctors’ offices with my mother than running around outdoors with my friends. It wasn’t until I was four or five that I was strong enough to participate in sports. And when I was, I threw myself into it with a passion—as if making up for lost time. Playing baseball taught me how to live with other people, to understand that I might actually to be able to accomplish something if I put my mind to it. But beyond my own little personal experiences, there’s the beauty of the game itself. It’s an unending source of pleasure.

INTERVIEWER

Baseball to writing is an unusual transition—in part because writing is such a solitary enterprise.

AUSTER

I played baseball in the spring and summer, but I read books all year long. It was an early obsession and it only intensified as I got older. I can’t imagine anyone becoming a writer who wasn’t a voracious reader as an adolescent. A true reader understands that books are a world unto themselves—and that that world is richer and more interesting than any one we’ve traveled in before. I think that’s what turns young men and women into writers—the happiness you discover living in books. You haven’t been around long enough to have much to write about yet, but a moment comes when you realize that’s what you were born to do.

INTERVIEWER

What about early influences? Who were the writers you were reading in high school?

AUSTER

Americans, mostly . . . the usual suspects. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos, Salinger. By my junior year, though, I began discovering the Europeans—mostly the Russians and the French. Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev. Camus and Gide. But also Joyce and Mann. Especially Joyce. When I was eighteen, he towered over everyone else for me.

INTERVIEWER

Did he have the biggest impact on you?

AUSTER

For a while, yes. But at one time or another, I tried to write like each one of the novelists I was reading. Everything influences you when you’re young and you keep changing your ideas every few months. It’s a bit like trying on new hats. You don’t have a style of your own yet, so you unconsciously imitate the writers you admire.

INTERVIEWER

Over the years, you’ve mentioned some of the writers who’ve influenced your work. Cervantes and Dickens. Kafka and Beckett. Montaigne.

AUSTER

They’re all inside me. Dozens of writers are inside me, but I don’t think my work sounds or feels like anyone else’s. I’m not writing their books. I’m writing my own.

INTERVIEWER

You also seem to have a fixation with nineteenth-century American writers. Their names turn up with surprising frequency in your novels: Poe, Melville, Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne—Hawthorne most of all. Fanshawe, the name of one of the characters in The Locked Room, comes from Hawthorne; In the Country of Last Things begins with an epigraph from Hawthorne; in Ghosts, Hawthorne’s story “Wakefield” becomes part of the structure of the novel; and in The Book of Illusions another one of Hawthorne’s stories, “The Birthmark,” is the subject of an important conversation between Zimmer and Alma. To top it off, in May of this year, you published a long essay about Hawthorne—the introduction to Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny by Papa, which was brought out by New York Review Books. Can you say something about this abiding interest in Hawthorne?

AUSTER

Of all writers from the past, he’s the one I feel closest to, the one who talks most deeply to me. There’s something about his imagination that seems to resonate with mine, and I’m continually going back to him, continually learning from him. He’s a writer who isn’t afraid of ideas, and yet he’s also a master psychologist, a profound reader of the human soul. His fiction was utterly revolutionary, and nothing like it had been seen in America before. I know that Hemingway said that all American literature came out of Huck Finn, but I don’t agree. It began with The Scarlet Letter.

But there’s more to Hawthorne than just his stories and novels. I’m equally attached to his notebooks, which contain some of his strongest, most brilliant prose. That’s why I was so keen on having Twenty Days published as a separate volume. It’s been available in The American Notebooks for many years, but in a scholarly edition that costs something like ninety dollars and which few people bother to read. The diary he kept about taking care of his five-year-old son for three weeks in 1851 is a self-contained work. It can stand on its own, and it’s so charming, so funny in its deadpan way, that it gives us an entirely new picture of Hawthorne. He wasn’t the gloomy, tormented figure most people think he was. Or not only that. He was a loving father and husband, a man who liked a good cigar and a glass or two of whiskey, and he was playful, generous, and warmhearted. Exceedingly shy, yes, but someone who enjoyed the simple pleasures of the world.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve worked in a number of different genres. Not only poetry and fiction, but also screenplays, autobiography, criticism, and translation. Do they feel like very different activities to you, or are they all somehow connected?

AUSTER

More connected than not, but with important differences as well. And also—this needs to be taken into account, too, I think—there’s the question of time, my so-called inner evolution. I haven’t done any translating or critical writing in many years. Those were preoccupations that absorbed me when I was young, roughly from my late teens to my late twenties. Both were about discovering other writers, about learning how to become a writer myself. My literary apprenticeship, if you will. I’ve taken a few stabs at translation and criticism since then, but nothing much to speak of. And the last poem I wrote was in 1979.

INTERVIEWER

What happened? Why did you give it up?

AUSTER

I ran into a wall. For ten years, I concentrated the bulk of my energies on poetry and then I realized that I’d written myself out, that I was stuck. It was a dark moment for me. I thought I was finished as a writer.

INTERVIEWER

You died as a poet, but eventually you were reborn as a novelist. How do you think this transformation came about?

AUSTER

I think it happened at the moment when I understood that I didn’t care anymore, when I stopped caring about making Literature. I know it sounds strange, but from that point on writing became a different kind of experience for me and when I finally got going again after wallowing in the doldrums for about a year, the words came out as prose. The only thing that mattered was saying the thing that needed to be said. Without regard to preestablished conventions, without worrying about what it sounded like. That was the late seventies and I’ve continued working in that spirit ever since.

INTERVIEWER

Your first prose book was The Invention of Solitude, which was written between 1979 and 1981. A work of nonfiction. After that, you produced the three novels known as The New York Trilogy: City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room. Can you pinpoint the difference between writing in the two forms?

AUSTER

The effort is the same. The need to get the sentences right is the same. But a work of the imagination allows you a lot more freedom and maneuverability than a work of nonfiction does. On the other hand, that freedom can often be quite scary. What comes next? How do I know the next sentence I write isn’t going to lead me off the edge of a cliff? With an autobiographical work, you know the story in advance, and your primary obligation is to tell the truth. But that doesn’t make the job any easier. For the epigraph of the first part of The Invention of Solitude, I used a sentence from Heraclitus— in Guy Davenport’s unorthodox but elegant translation: “In searching out the truth be ready for the unexpected, for it is difficult to find and puzzling when you find it.” In the end, writing is writing. The Invention of Solitude might not be a novel, but I think it explores many of the same questions I’ve tackled in my fiction. In some sense, it’s the foundation of all my work.

INTERVIEWER

And what about screenplays? You’ve participated in the making of three films: Smoke, Blue in the Face, and Lulu on the Bridge. How does screenwriting differ from writing novels?

AUSTER

In every way—except for one crucial similarity. You’re trying to tell a story. But the means at your disposal are utterly dissimilar. Novels are pure narration; screenplays resemble theater, and as with all dramatic writing, the only words that count are in the dialogue. As it happens, my novels generally don’t have much dialogue, and so in order to work in film, I had to learn a completely new way of writing, to teach myself how to think in images and how to put words in the mouths of living human beings.

Screenwriting is a more restricted form than novel-writing. It has its strengths and weaknesses, the things it can do and the things it can’t do. The question of time, for example, works differently in books and films. In a novel, you can collapse a long stretch of time into a single sentence: Every morning for twenty years, I walked down to the corner newsstand and bought a copy of The Daily Bugle. It’s impossible to do that in a film. You can show a man walking down the street to buy a newspaper on one particular day, but not every day for twenty years. Films take place in the present. Even when you use flashbacks, the past is always rendered as another incarnation of the present.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a phrase in The Invention of Solitude I’ve always liked: “The anecdote as a form of knowledge.” This is a very important idea, I think. That knowledge doesn’t have to come in the form of declarations, statements, or explanations. It can come in the form of stories. That strikes me as the guiding spirit behind the pieces in The Red Notebook.

AUSTER

I would agree. I look at those stories as a kind of ars poetica—but without theory, without any philosophical baggage. So many strange things have happened to me in my life, so many unexpected and improbable events, I’m no longer certain that I know what reality is anymore. All I can do is talk about the mechanics of reality, to gather evidence about what goes on in the world and try to record it as faithfully as I can. I’ve used that approach in my novels. It’s not a method so much as an act of faith: to present things as they really happen, not as they’re supposed to happen or as we’d like them to happen. Novels are fictions, of course, and therefore they tell lies (in the strictest sense of the term), but through those lies every novelist attempts to tell the truth about the world. Taken together, the little stories in The Red Notebook present a kind of position paper on how I see the world. The bare-bones truth about the unpredictability of experience. There’s not a shred of the imaginary in them. There can’t be. You make a pact with yourself to tell the truth and you’d rather cut off your right arm than break that promise. Interestingly enough, the literary model I had in mind when I wrote those pieces was the joke. The joke is the purest, most essential form of storytelling. Every word has to count.

INTERVIEWER

The most powerful story in that book would have to be the lightning story. You were fourteen years old when it happened. You and a group of boys went out on a hike in the woods, and suddenly you were caught in a terrible electric storm. The boy next to you was struck by lightning and killed. If we want to talk about how you see the world and writing, surely that would count as a fundamental moment.

AUSTER

That incident changed my life, there’s no question about it. One moment the boy was alive and the next moment he was dead. I was only inches away from him. It was my first experience with random death, with the bewildering instability of things. You think you’re standing on solid ground and an instant later the ground opens under your feet and you vanish.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about the National Story Project you did with NPR. As I understand it, they liked your voice and wanted to find a way to have you on the air.

AUSTER

It must have something to do with all the cigars I’ve smoked over the years. That rasping rumble in the throat, the clogged-up bronchia, the diminished lung power. I’ve heard the results on tape. I sound like a piece of sandpaper scraping over a dry roof shingle.

INTERVIEWER

It was your wife, Siri Hustvedt, who suggested that the listeners send in their own stories, which you would select and read on the air. True stories about their own lives.

AUSTER

I thought it was a brilliant idea. NPR has millions of listeners around the country. If enough contributions came in, I felt we would be able to form a little museum of American reality. People were free to write about anything they wanted. Big things and little things, comic things and tragic things. The only rules were that the pieces had to be short—no more than two or three pages—and they had to be true.

INTERVIEWER

But why would you want to take on such an enormous job? In the space of one year, you wound up reading over four thousand stories.

AUSTER

I think I had several motives. The most important one was curiosity. I wanted to find out if other people had lived through the same sorts of experiences that I had. Was I some kind of freak or was reality truly as strange and incomprehensible as I thought it was? With such a large reservoir of possibilities to draw from, the project could take on the dimensions of a genuine philosophical experiment.

INTERVIEWER

And what were the results?

AUSTER

I’m happy to report that I’m not alone. It’s a madhouse out there.

INTERVIEWER

What were some of the other motives?

AUSTER

I’ve spent most of my adult life sitting alone in a room, writing books. I’m perfectly happy there, but when I got involved in film work in the mid-nineties, I rediscovered the pleasures of working with other people. It probably goes back to having played on so many sports teams as a kid. I liked being part of a small group, a group with a purpose, in which each person contributes to a common goal. Winning a basketball game or making a film—there’s really very little difference. That was probably the best part of working in the movies for me. The sense of solidarity, the jokes we told each other, the friendships I made. By 1999, however, my movie adventures had pretty much come to an end. I was back in my hole again writing novels, not seeing anyone for weeks at a stretch. I think that’s why Siri made her suggestion. Not just because it was a good idea, but because she thought I’d enjoy working on something that involved other people. She was right. I did enjoy it.

INTERVIEWER

Didn’t it take up a lot of time?

AUSTER

Not enough to interfere with my other work. The stories came in slowly and steadily and as long as I kept up with the submissions, it wasn’t so bad. Preparing the broadcasts usually took a day or two, but that was only once a month.

INTERVIEWER

Did you feel you were performing a public service?

AUSTER

To some degree, I suppose I did. It was an opportunity to engage in guerilla warfare against the monster.

INTERVIEWER

The monster?

AUSTER

The “entertainment-industrial complex,” as the art critic Robert Hughes once put it. The media presents us with little else but celebrities, gossip, and scandal, and the way we depict ourselves on television and in the movies has become so distorted, so debased, that real life has been forgotten. What we’re given are violent shocks and dim-witted escapist fantasies, and the driving force behind it all is money. People are treated like morons. They’re not human beings anymore, they’re consumers, suckers to be manipulated into wanting things they don’t need. Call it capitalism triumphant. Call it the free market Economy. Whatever it is, there’s very little room in it for representations of actual American life.

INTERVIEWER

And you thought the National Story Project could change all that?

AUSTER

No, of course not. But at least I tried to make a little dent in the system. By giving so-called ordinary people a chance to share their stories with an audience, I wanted to prove that there’s no such thing as an ordinary person. We all have intense inner lives, we all burn with ferocious passions, we’ve all lived through memorable experiences of one kind or another.

INTERVIEWER

One of the most audacious features of your first novel, City of Glass, is the fact that you use yourself as a character in the story. Not only yourself—but your wife and son as well. We’ve already mentioned that you’ve written a number of autobiographical works, but what about your fiction? Do you draw on autobiographical material for your novels too?

AUSTER

To some extent, but far less than you might think. After City of Glass, there was Ghosts. Other than announcing that the story begins on February 3, 1947—the day I was born— there are no personal references in it. In The Locked Room, however, several incidents come directly from my own life. Ivan Wyshnegradsky, the old Russian composer who befriends Fanshawe in Paris, was a real person. I met him when he was eighty and saw quite a lot of him when I lived in Paris in the early seventies. The business about giving Ivan the refrigerator actually happened to me—in the same way it happens to Fanshawe. The same holds for the slapstick scene in which he delivers the captain breakfast on the oil tanker—inching along the bridge in a seventy-mile-an-hour gale and struggling to hold onto the tray. It was the one time in my life I truly felt I was in a Buster Keaton movie. And then there’s the crazy story the narrator tells about working for the U.S. Census Bureau in Harlem in 1970. Word for word, that episode is an exact account of my own experience.

INTERVIEWER

You’re telling us it’s true—that you really invented fictitious people and filed their names with the federal government?

AUSTER

I confess. I hope the statute of limitations has run out by now or I might wind up in jail for doing this interview. In my own defense, I have to add that the supervisor encouraged this practice—for the same reason he gives in the novel. “Just because a door doesn’t open when you knock on it doesn’t mean that nobody’s there. You’ve got to use your imagination, my friend. After all, we don’t want the government to be unhappy, do we?”

INTERVIEWER

What about the novels after the Trilogy? Are there any other autobiographical secrets you’re willing to share with us?

AUSTER

I’m thinking . . . There’s nothing that jumps to mind from The Music of Chance . . . or In the Country of Last Things . . . or Mr. Vertigo. A couple of small elements in Leviathan, however, and one amusing bit in Timbuktu—the story about the typing dog. I projected myself into the book as Willy’s former college roommate—Anster or Omster (Mr. Bones can’t quite remember the name)—and the fact is that I did go to Italy when I was seventeen to visit my aunt, my mother’s sister. She had been living there for more than a decade and one of her friends happened to be Thomas Mann’s daughter Elisabeth Mann Borgese, who was a scientist involved in the study of animals. One day we were invited to her house for lunch and I was introduced to her dog Ollie, a large English setter who had been taught how to type out his name with his snout on a specially designed typewriter. I saw it with my own eyes. It was one of the most preposterous and extraordinary things I’ve ever witnessed.

INTERVIEWER

In Leviathan, the narrator has your initials—Peter Aaron. And he’s married to a woman named Iris, which is your wife’s name spelled backwards.

AUSTER

Yes, but Peter isn’t married to Siri. He’s married to the heroine of her first novel, The Blindfold.

INTERVIEWER

A transfictional romance.

AUSTER

Exactly.

INTERVIEWER

You haven’t mentioned Moon Palace, which reads more like an autobiography than any of your other novels. Fogg is exactly your age and he goes to Columbia exactly when you did.

AUSTER

Yes, I know the book sounds very personal, but almost nothing in it comes from my own life. I can think of only two significant details. The first has to do with my father and I look on it as a kind of posthumous revenge, a way of settling an old score on his behalf. Tesla is a minor character in the novel and I devote a couple of pages to the AC-DC controversy that flared up between Edison and Tesla in the 1890s. Effing, the old man who tells Fogg the story, heaps quite a lot of abuse on Edison. Well, it turns out that when my father graduated from high school in 1929, he was hired by Edison to work as an assistant in the lab at Menlo Park. My father was very gifted in electronics. Two weeks into the job, Edison found out that he was Jewish and fired him. Not only did the man invent the electric chair, but he was a notorious anti-Semite. I wanted to get back at him for my father’s sake, to square the account.

INTERVIEWER

And what’s the other detail?

AUSTER

The night when Effing hands out money to strangers in the street. That scene comes straight out of something that happened to me in 1969—my meeting with H. L. Humes, better known as Doc Humes, who was one of the founders of The Paris Review. It was such a wild business, I don’t think I could have invented it myself.

INTERVIEWER

You wrote some memorable pages about Doc Humes in Hand to Mouth, another one of your autobiographical pieces. The book is mostly about your struggles as a young man to keep yourself afloat and it bears the curious subtitle of A Chronicle of Early Failure. What prompted you to take on that subject?

AUSTER

I’d always wanted to write something about money. Not finance or business, but the experience of not having enough money, of being poor. I’d been thinking about the project for many years and my working title had always been “Essay on Want.” Very Lockean, very eighteenth century, very dry. I was planning to write a serious, philosophical work, but when I finally sat down to begin, everything changed. The book turned into the story of my own problematic dealings with money and in spite of the rather dismal subject matter, the spirit of the writing was largely comic.

Still, the book wasn’t only about myself. I saw it as an opportunity to write about some of the colorful characters I’d met when I was young, to give these people their due. I’d never had any interest in working in an office or holding down a steady, white-collar job. I found the idea extremely distasteful. I gravitated toward more humble kinds of work, and that gave me a chance to spend time with people who weren’t like me. People who hadn’t gone to college; people who hadn’t read a lot of books. In this country, we tend to underestimate the intelligence of working-class people. Based on my own experience, I found most of them to be just as smart as the people who run the world. They simply aren’t as ambitious—that’s all. But their talk is a lot funnier. Everywhere I went, I had to struggle to keep up with them. I’d spent too much time with my nose buried in books and most of my coworkers could talk circles around me.

INTERVIEWER

Who is the source for Hector Mann, the silent comedian in The Book of Illusions?

AUSTER

He appeared in my head one day about ten or twelve years ago, and I walked around with him for a long time before starting the book. But Hector himself was fully formed right from the beginning. Not only his name, and not only the fact that he was born in Argentina, but the white suit and the black mustache and the handsome face—they were all there too.

INTERVIEWER

You invented him out of nowhere, but as we read your descriptions of his comedies it’s hard to believe he wasn’t a real silent star. He actually seems to have entered the world of film history. Do you have any idea of who or what inspired you?

AUSTER

I’m not sure. Physically, Hector Mann bears a strong resemblance to Marcello Mastroianni in Divorce, Italian Style, a film from the early sixties. The mustache and the white suit could have come from that movie, although I’m not certain. Hector also shares certain characteristics with Max Linder, the earliest of the great silent comedians. And perhaps there’s a touch of Raymond Griffith in him as well. Most of Griffith’s films have been lost, so he’s become a rather obscure figure. But he played a dapper man of the world—just as Hector does—and he also had a mustache. But Hector’s movements are crisper and more artfully choreographed than Griffith’s.

INTERVIEWER

The descriptions of the films are extraordinary acts of visualization in words. How did you go about writing those passages?

AUSTER

It was a question of striking the right balance. All the visual information had to be there—the physical details of the action—so the reader could “see” what was happening, but at the same time, the prose had to move along at a quick pace, in order to mimic the experience of watching a film, which is rushing past you at twenty-four frames per second. Too many details, and you would get bogged down. Not enough, and you wouldn’t see anything. I had to go over those pages many times before I felt I had them right.

INTERVIEWER

Hector’s films are an important part of the novel, but David Zimmer is the central character and when the novel begins, his wife and two boys have just been killed in a plane crash. It turns out that we already know David Zimmer from one of your earlier works. He’s Marco Fogg’s friend in Moon Palace. We also learn in that book that he was the person who received Anna Blume’s letter, which, in effect, formed the entire contents of other of your early novels, In the Country of Last Things. Fogg isn’t mentioned in The Book of Illusions, but there’s a discreet reference to him in the name of Zimmer’s second son, Marco.

AUSTER

I’ve known Zimmer for a long time. But he’s older now, and a lot has taken place since we last saw him.

INTERVIEWER

The Book of Illusions tells a very complex story, but at its heart, I would say it’s an exploration of grief. How do we go on living after a catastrophic loss? How do we resurrect ourselves after the death of someone we love? From a very different perspective, that was also the central preoccupation of Timbuktu, wasn’t it? Or let me put that question another way: do you think you could have written either of these books ten or fifteen years ago?

AUSTER

I doubt it. I’m well into my fifties now and things change for you as you get older. Time begins slipping away, and simple arithmetic tells you there are more years behind you than ahead of you—many more. Your body starts breaking down, you have aches and pains that weren’t there before, and little by little the people you love begin to die. By the age of fifty, most of us are haunted by ghosts. They live inside us and we spend as much time talking to the dead as to the living. It’s hard for a young person to understand this. It’s not that a twenty year old doesn’t know he’s going to die, but it’s the loss of others that so profoundly affects an older person—and you can’t know what that accumulation of losses is going to do to you until you experience it yourself. Life is so short, so fragile, so mystifying. After all, how many people do we actually love in the course of a lifetime? Just a few, a tiny few. When most of them are gone, the map of your inner world changes. As my friend George Oppen once said to me about getting old: what a strange thing to happen to a little boy.

INTERVIEWER

You quote that line in The Invention of Solitude.

AUSTER

It’s the best comment about old age I’ve ever heard.

INTERVIEWER

In Leviathan, your narrator Peter Aaron writes: “No one can say where a book comes from, least of all the person who writes it. Books are born out of ignorance, and if they go on living after they are written, it’s only to the degree that they cannot be understood.” How close is that to your own belief?

AUSTER

I rarely speak directly through my characters. They might resemble me at times, or borrow aspects of my life, but I tend to think of them as autonomous beings with their own opinions and their own ways of expressing themselves. But in this case Aaron’s opinion matches my own.

INTERVIEWER

When you set out to write a novel, how conscious are you of what you’re doing? Do you work from a plan? Have you figured out the plot in advance?

AUSTER

Each book I’ve written has started off with what I’d call a buzz in the head. A certain kind of music or rhythm, a tone. Most of the effort involved in writing a novel for me is trying to remain faithful to that buzz, that rhythm. It’s a highly intuitive business. You can’t justify it or defend it rationally, but you know when you’ve struck a wrong note, and you’re usually pretty certain when you’ve hit the right one.

INTERVIEWER

Do you jump around in the story as you write?

AUSTER

No. Every book begins with the first sentence and then I push on until I’ve reached the last. Always in sequence, a paragraph at a time. I have a sense of the trajectory of the story— and often have the last sentence as well as the first before I begin—but everything keeps changing as I go along. No book I’ve published has ever turned out as I thought it would. Characters and episodes disappear; other characters and episodes develop as I go along. You find the book in the process of doing it. That’s the adventure of the job. If it were all mapped out in advance, it wouldn’t be very interesting.

INTERVIEWER

 And yet your books always seem to be so lightly constructed. It’s one of the things you’re most admired for.

AUSTER

The Book of Illusions went through a number of radical shifts along the way and I was rethinking my ideas about the story right up to the last pages. Timbuktu was originally conceived as a much longer book. Willy and Mr. Bones were supposed to have no more than minor, fleeting roles in it, but once I started writing the first chapter, I fell in love with them and decided to scrap my plan. The project turned into a short lyrical book about the two of them with scarcely any plot. With Mr. Vertigo, I thought I was writing a short story of thirty or forty pages, but the thing took off and seemed to acquire a life of its own. Writing has always been like that for me. Slowly blundering my way toward consciousness.

INTERVIEWER

Can we go back to the phrase “a paragraph at a time”?

AUSTER

The paragraph seems to be my natural unit of composition. The line is the unit of a poem, the paragraph serves the same function in prose—at least for me. I keep working on a paragraph until I feel reasonably satisfied with it, writing and rewriting until it has the right shape, the right balance, the right music—until it seems transparent and effortless, no longer “written.” That paragraph can take a day to complete or half a day, or an hour, or three days. Once it seems finished, I type it up to have a better look. So each book has a running manuscript and a typescript beside it. Later on, of course, I’ll attack the typed page and make more revisions.

INTERVIEWER

And little by little, the pages mount up.

AUSTER

Yes, very slowly.

INTERVIEWER

Do you show your work to anyone before it’s finished?

AUSTER

Siri. She’s my first reader and I have total faith in her judgments. Each time I write a novel, I read to her from it every month or so—whenever I have a new stack of twenty or thirty pages. Reading aloud helps to objectify the book for me, to hear where I’ve gone wrong or failed to express what I was trying to say. Then Siri makes her comments. She’s been doing this for twenty-two years now, and what she says is always remarkably astute. I can’t think of a single instance when I haven’t followed her advice.

INTERVIEWER

And do you read her work?

AUSTER

Yes. What she does for me, I try to do for her. Every writer needs a trusted reader—someone who has sympathy for what you’re doing and wants the work to be as good as it can possibly be. But you have to be honest. That’s the fundamental requirement. No lies, no false pats on the back, no praise for something you don’t believe deserves it.

INTERVIEWER

In 1992, you dedicated Leviathan to Don DeLillo. Eleven years later, he dedicated Cosmopolis to you. You’ve obviously had a long friendship and respect each other’s work. What other contemporary novelists are you reading these days?

AUSTER

Quite a few—probably more than I’m able to count. Peter Carey, Russell Banks, Philip Roth, E. L. Doctorow, Charles Baxter, J. M. Coetzee, David Grossman, Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondaatje, Siri Hustvedt . . . Those are the names that jump out at me right now, but if you asked me the same question tomorrow, I’m sure I would give you a different list. Contrary to what many people want to believe, the novel is in good shape these days, as healthy and vigorous as it’s ever been. It’s an inexhaustible form, and no matter what the pessimists say, it’s never going to die.

INTERVIEWER

How can you be so sure?

AUSTER

Because a novel is the only place in the world where two strangers can meet on terms of absolute intimacy. The reader and the writer make the book together. No other art can do that. No other art can capture the essential inwardness of human life.

INTERVIEWER

Your new novel, Oracle Night, will be out at the end of the year. That’s just fifteen months after the publication of The Book of Illusions. You’ve always been prolific, but this seems to be some kind of record.

AUSTER

Actually, I started writing Oracle Night before The Book of Illusions. I had the first twenty pages or so, but then I stopped. I realized that I didn’t quite understand what I was doing. The Book of Illusions took me roughly three years to write, and all during that time I continued thinking about Oracle Night. When I finally returned to it, it came out with remarkable speed. I felt as if I was writing in a trance.

INTERVIEWER

Was it smooth sailing all the way through—or did you run into difficulties along the way?

AUSTER

Not until the end, the last twenty pages or so. I had a different conclusion in mind when I started the book, but when I wrote it out as originally planned, I wasn’t happy with it. It was too brutal, too sensational, and undermined the tone of the book. I was stuck for several weeks after that and for a while I thought I would have to leave the book unfinished. Just like Sidney’s story in the novel. It was as if I had fallen under the spell of my own project and was living through the same struggles as my hero. Mercifully, something finally came to me and I was able to write the last twenty pages.

INTERVIEWER

A moment ago, you used the word intimacy. That’s the first word that springs to mind in relation to this book. It’s an intensely intimate novel and possibly the most gripping work you’ve ever written.

AUSTER

I think of it as a kind of chamber piece. There are very few characters and all the action takes place in just two weeks. It’s very compact, tightly coiled in on itself—a strange little organism of interlocking parts.

INTERVIEWER

There are a number of elements you’ve never used before. Footnotes, for example.

AUSTER

Hardly an original idea, of course, but for this particular story, I felt they were necessary. The main body of the text confines itself to the present, to the events that take place during those two weeks, and I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of the narrative. The footnotes are used to talk about things that happened in the past.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve used drawings in a couple of your earlier books: the maps in City of Glass and the diagram in Mr. Vertigo. But in Oracle Night there are two photographs—of a 1937–1938 Warsaw telephone book. They’re extremely haunting and effective. How did you come to have that telephone book and what made you decide to include those pictures?

AUSTER

I went to Warsaw for the first time in 1998 and my Polish publisher gave it to me as a gift. There’s an Auster in that book, no doubt someone murdered by the Nazis just a few years later. In the same way, Sidney, the narrator of Oracle Night, finds the name of someone who could possibly have been a relative of his. I needed the photos to prove that the book really exists—that I wasn’t just making it up. The entire novel is saturated with references to twentieth-century history. World War II and the Holocaust, World War I, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Kennedy assassination. It’s a book about time, after all, and fleeting as those references might be, they’re an essential part of the story.

INTERVIEWER

Oracle Night is your eleventh novel. Has writing fiction become easier for you over the years?

AUSTER

No, I don’t think so. Each book is a new book. I’ve never written it before and I have to teach myself how to write it as I go along. The fact that I’ve written books in the past seems to play no part in it. I always feel like a beginner and I’m continually running into the same difficulties, the same blocks, the same despairs. You make so many mistakes as a writer, cross out so many bad sentences and ideas, discard so many worthless pages, that finally what you learn is how stupid you are. It’s a humbling occupation.

INTERVIEWER

It’s hard to imagine that your first novel, City of Glass, was rejected by seventeen American publishers. Now, twenty years later, your books have been translated into more than thirty languages. Do you ever stop to think about your strange career: all that hard work and patience, but finally also all that success?

AUSTER

I try not to. It’s difficult for me to look at myself from the outside. I simply don’t have the mental equipment to do it, at least where my work is concerned. It’s for other people to make judgments about what I’ve done, and I wouldn’t want to presume to have an answer to that question. I wish I could, but I still haven’t mastered the trick of being in two places at the same time.


Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.