Issue 167, Fall 2003
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 Spaceshad 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.
Let’s start by talking about the way you work. About how you write.
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.
And you write in notebooks. Not legal pads or loose sheets of paper.
Yes, always in notebooks. And I have a particular fetish for notebooks with quadrille lines—the little squares.
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.
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.
A great Paul Auster story. The day when you go out to buy that last ribbon.
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.
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.
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?
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.