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Parallel Worlds: PAUL AUSTER (Unabridged)


SS: How conscious were you of readers sniffing around for political subtexts while writing this book?

PA: I think there is a strong political component to this book. And I think it was generated by the 2000 election, which for me was one of the great scandals of American history. We watched Al Gore get elected president and then we watched it get taken away from him through legal and political maneuvering in an outrageous Supreme Court decision, which was in some sense a legal coup. And I’ve lived these past seven and a half years with this eerie sense that we’re not in the real world anymore, but a parallel one. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Bush wasn’t supposed to be president, there wasn’t supposed to be a war in Iraq — there might not have even been a 9/11 if Gore had been elected. So I think this sense of disconnect is what inspired the story within the story, the one that Brill invents for himself.

SS: Don DeLillo once said that it is the writer’s job to be against the establishment, to take a stand against the government.

PA: I agree with Don. If you remember the epigraph from Ralph Waldo Emerson that appears in my novel Leviathan: “Every actual state is corrupt.” I believe this. Some states are worse than others, but the fact that there’s always room for improvement should keep us on our toes. We have to be alert to the hypocrisies and contradictions and corruptions in our society. Everyone should. But I think a writer has the duty to do that.

SS: Do you feel that writers and poets still have an influence on public discourse?

PA: In America, writers have no power at all. It’s a moment in which we are in abeyance, perhaps forgotten forever as the great tide of history sweeps us away. We have a culture of such deep anti-intellectualism that the majority of people mistrust intellectuals. The ridiculous arguments that have been proposed during the presidential campaign about Obama being an elitist because he’s articulate and has read books and even written books, and went to good colleges and universities, is absurd and frightening. George Bush went to Yale, after all. He comes from a family of immense privilege and wealth. Why does he get to be the good ol’ boy? And poor Obama, who grew up broke, struggling, with a broken family, is labeled an elitist. The world is upside down when you get to this point.

SS: Is it safe to say that your frustration with your country and its current role in the world was one of the key instigating forces for this novel?

PA: It’s something that’s been brewing inside me for a long time. And then there’s the terrible story of David Grossman’s son. As you may have noted, the book is dedicated to David and his family. And to Uri, who was killed in 2006 during the brief war with Lebanon. David’s a very close friend, a man I admire tremendously as a writer and as a human being. His loss has been absolutely intolerable. He’s the only man I know who’s lost a child to a war, and so his story was very much burning in my mind as I wrote the book, too.

SS: Man in the Dark has a narrative structure that catches you off guard, with the story within the story, about a man who must kill the person who created him, seeming to dominate until about two-thirds of the way through, when it suddenly disappears in a flash of violence.

PA: It’s true. The book takes a sharp turn. You shift from all the things that have been going on in Brill’s head to Katya’s entrance, and then their long conversation about Brill’s marriage to Katya’s grandmother is a very intimate business. He’s got his imagination firing away, but he’s also got this daughter and granddaughter, and his memories, and it’s all part of one big whole. I think, too, that the films that he and Katya discuss early in the book are about intimate situations, and somehow this notion of family is already coming to life as they discuss the films. Brill even pauses at one moment to consider a film they haven’t yet discussed, Tokyo Story, the quintessential film about families. And then, too, there’s the story of Brill’s sister and the Newark riots, and that’s the moment where family, war and politics all come together. I took that story from real experience. The character who is Brill’s sister is actually my mother and my stepfather was the Gil character. I altered things, but essentially it’s about a night in July 1967. My mother and stepfather took me out to dinner in New York. We got into the car, and my stepfather was about to drive me back to my apartment when the squawking sounds came through the radio about the disturbances in Newark. We drove straight into Newark, straight to City Hall, and I saw Hugh Addonizio, the mayor, praying at his desk. What happened then is just as I tell it in the book. You can’t make up this stuff. You had to have been there.

SS: Would you sat that the promise of a story is sometimes more interesting than the actual following through? I think about Borges, his method of alluding to infinite story possibilities and those possibilities themselves being a completely independent source of marvel.

PA: No, I’m interested in following them. That’s what I live for, the actual doing of it, not just thinking about it. But with regard to the unconventional structure, well, I don’t want to write conventional books. My mind doesn’t work in conventional patterns. I have to follow my nose. Or as one friend once put it, a poet friend: “When they’re expecting oranges, give them apples.”

SS: I want to ask you about this strange relationship between Man in the Dark and its immediate predecessor Travels in the Scriptorium. They’re very different from each other yet both feature this notion of someone literally writing the world into being. Is this an idea you’re deliberately trying to explore through a variety of different angles?

PA: I think of these two books as a diptych. As you said they don’t really resemble each other, but they have a lot of similarities. Both take place in a limited space — a room — and in a limited period of time. In Travels it’s one day, in Man in the Dark one night. Both of the protagonists are old. And I think the second book really was an answer to the first, in my own mind at least.

SS: How consciously do your novels function as explorations of certain themes or ideas that concern you?

PA: I’ve never sat down and said to myself that I want to write a book about something. I don’t look for ideas — they find me. It’s usually something bubbling up out of my unconscious. I can’t really track the origins. I’ve never even been able to witness myself having an idea, pinpoint that moment or see the synapse in the brain when this thing is taking place. Nothing particularly interesting is happening, and suddenly, from one moment to the next, there’s a thought in your head, an idea for a story. If this material keeps surging up and compelling me to pay attention to it, then I begin to get interested. It’s more a matter of opening your mind than forcing anything, and it’s a proper state of openness that I think allows this material to come floating in. And then I have to start organizing it. And in every case the book I have in my head when I start writing it is different than the book I finish. Many things happen in between. Every day you discover something new.

SS: Is it safe to assume you don’t create outlines or take a lot of notes before you start?

PA: Very little. I sometimes will jot down chronologies. The order of information is very important in writing a novel. I don’t write in chunks or jump around in the story. I write from the first word to the last. Each sentence is somehow dependent on the sentences that preceded it. So an outline could be for me: Brill in his room; Brick in the hall; then a break; talks to Katya, et cetera. I have an idea of those passages in my head, but it’s not until I sit down and write them that they become embodied.

SS: What do you generally find are the things you absolutely need to get started? Do you need an image?

PA: I usually need a title. A couple of times I’ve changed titles, but I seem to need one in order to begin. The title somehow organizes my thoughts for me, keeps my feet on the ground. That’s crucial. And sometimes, just for fun, I make up titles for books I’ll never write. I have whole lists of them sitting around in various notebooks.

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