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Parallel Worlds: PAUL AUSTER (Unabridged): Highlights from 20 Interviews (2009)

Highlights from 20 Interviews (2009)

Photograph by MARK MAHANEY


Monday, March 23, 2009

The following piece originally appeared in the third-annual 20 Interviews issue. Here we present the full unabridged interview, available exclusively on this site. Click here for more on 20 Interviews



Born in Newark in 1947, Paul Auster studied at Columbia University in New York and thereafter traveled to France. Though he earned a little money translating French literature while at the same time gradually establishing himself as a poet, steady income would prove to be elusive. After returning to the US in 1974, he worked a number of blue-collar jobs and wrote plays, essays, reviews and a relatively straightforward mystery novel under a pen name. At one point he even concocted a card-game version of baseball, but it failed to generate the fortune necessary to underwrite his ambitions.

Then, during a tumultuous period in his personal life, the poetry evaporated and a new form of writing began bubbling up. It so happened that Auster’s father died at almost the precise moment his son began to write prose. It was a morbid coincidence that could easily have occurred in one of the many novels to come, a body of work that has made Auster one of the most renowned and distinctive American authors of the last 25 years.

Auster’s books include the loosely connected metaphysical detective novellas that have been published collectively as The New York Trilogy (1985-86) — the novels The Music of Chance (1990), Mr. Vertigo (1994) and Oracle Night (2004) — and the memoirs The Invention of Solitude (1982) and Hand to Mouth (1997). He’s also written screenplays, most notably for Wayne Wang’s Smoke (1995), and worked as both writer and director on the films Lulu on the Bridge (1998) and The Inner Life of Martin Frost (2007).

Auster’s latest novel is Man in the Dark, which finds August Brill, a 72-year-old retired book critic and widower, enduring a long, sleepless night. Incapacitated following an auto accident, Brill occupies his thoughts by inventing a story set in a parallel America engulfed in a new civil war. Between fantastic reveries, he reflects on his own life in conversations with his granddaughter Katya, also newly widowed, her husband having died abroad in a manner so terrible that neither can talk about it.

Man in the Dark is Auster’s most overtly political novel since Leviathan (1992), but also very much a meditation on family. Auster spoke to STOP SMILING last summer at his home in Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife, the novelist Siri Hustvedt.

Stop Smiling: The beginning of Man in the Dark reminded me of the first line of your poem “Disappearances”: “Out of solitude, he begins again.” August’s “little story to keep the ghosts away” made me consider the primacy of being alone in the dark and its role as catalyst for creative acts.

Paul Auster: Some people tell stories out loud. Some write books in cafés, surrounded by crowds. But essentially, when you’re writing, you’re alone. I myself have never been able to write in public. I always have to be locked in a room somewhere. So in some sense this idea of a man in a room is for me an emblem of the man or woman thinking and telling a story.

SS: With parenting having played a significant role in your work, August’s nocturnal storytelling — both to himself and his daughter — also made me think about storytelling as a vital channel between parent and child. Did you make up stories for your kids?

PA: I think all parents do. I always have the feeling, strangely enough, that when I stopped writing poetry back in the late Seventies and made the shift to prose, a lot of it had to do with becoming a father. I think storytelling is something that unfolds over time, as opposed to, say, lyric poetry. And time is what the relationship between parents and children is all about. When you have a child, it brings you face to face with your own mortality in a way that is very invigorating, because you know another generation is going to replace you. I believe these kinds of thoughts engender stories.

SS: In The Invention of Solitude, you wrote extensively about your relationship with your father, who’s evoked as an almost supernaturally distant man. But he told you stories, didn’t he?

PA: Every once in a while he would. They were far-fetched, extravagant adventure tales, and he himself was always the protagonist. I was so small and gullible that I believed him. Stories about prospecting for gold in South America, sliding down mountains and fighting off bandits, taking care of his donkey. They were very vivid. I think in some way, when he took the time to tell me these stories, I felt closer to him than in any other moment in my life as his son.

SS: It’s nothing to note that your novels frequently feature writers for protagonists, but what I think is really interesting is the fact that, in a more general way, you seem compelled to draw out the storytelling capacity in all kinds of people, something particularly evident in the NPR story project that resulted in I Thought My Father Was God. Even in Man in the Dark, when August is with Katya he’s telling stories about his life or, toward the end, even suggesting they write movies together.

PA: I believe we’re all telling stories to one another all the time. Even at the most rudimentary level jokes are stories, and people love to tell jokes. Gossip is of course a form of storytelling, and people are always hungry to hear the latest dirt on people they know, or even people they don’t. We still exist in an oral culture. I think we forget that because we’re so bombarded with electronic media. People still talk, and when they talk they tell stories. It’s a natural function of conversation and being human.

SS: I must confess that, the more we interact via technology that encourages us not to be articulate in our writing, the more I worry that our ability to tell stories out loud also suffers.

PA: It’s possible. But I think it’s more complicated than that. When I was young I had various jobs, most of them blue collar jobs. I never wanted to work in an office. So most of the time — and this is particularly true of my time as a merchant seaman on an oil tanker, back in 1970 when I was 23 years old — I was with people who did not have higher educations. Most hadn’t even finished high school. But I discovered, much to my shame, that they could talk circles around me. So quick, so alert, so witty, so inventive. While I, who had my nose in books all the time, was tongue-tied next to them. I was very impressed with their abilities. I’m not saying that the language they used was the most ornate or sophisticated, but they knew how to tell stories. So I wouldn’t underestimate people who don’t read a lot. On the other hand, yes, there are big problems in education today and children aren’t writing very well. You compare an ordinary educated person of the 19th century with an ordinary educated person of today and the difference is astounding. You read letter from the Civil War, for example, not by artists or scholars but just soldiers writing home, and some of it is very eloquent and moving.

SS: The mere mention of Iraq, torture, President Bush, the erosion of civil liberties, and the notion of a new civil war in America is, of course, more than enough reason for people to want to comb Man in the Dark for political commentary. But it seems like August’s storytelling is itself a sort of political statement, a way of saying that the imagination cannot be so easily corrupted, controlled, confined or colonized. Do you see the storytelling impulse as a form of political action?

PA: To tell you the truth, I wasn’t thinking about that. But now that you mention it, I’m pleased you had that response. If we believe in the idea of democracy that means we believe in the worth and dignity of the individual — and that means everybody. It means acknowledging that everybody has an inner life that’s as rich and active as yours and mine. And novel writing is essentially telling the stories of people. People with inner lives. So, in some sense, one can say that writing is a political act. An earnest reader of fiction will feel closer to his fellow human beings because of the experience he has of living inside other people.


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