Paul Benjamin Auster is an author and poet who has gained acclaim over a diverse 30-year career, in which he has published many volumes of poetry and essays as well as 20 novels, now widely translated. His work also extends to the translation of the work of foreign writers, including French writers Stéphane Mallarmé and Joseph Joubert. He is arguably best known for his three experimental detective stories, collectively referred to as The New York Trilogy ("City of Glass," 1985; "Ghosts," 1986; "The Locked Room," 1986). His latest novel, "Invisible," was released by Henry Holt and Co. in October 2009. His first marriage was to the writer Lydia Davis in 1974; his second to the novelist and essayist Siri Hustvedt in 1981. He has two children, Daniel and Sophie, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Big Think Interview With Paul Auster
Question: What did you aim to achieve with your new book that you'd never achieved before?
Paul Auster: It's a difficult question. As you say, each book is a new book. I've never written it before and I feel that I have to teach myself to do it as I'm doing it. This book evolves in a very organic way. I wasn't sure about where I wanted to go, what I thought was going to happen. I had the beginning in my head, but then as I began writing, more ideas came to me about how to continue the book. I think it's the first time structurally that I've ever had more than one narrator in the book, there are actually three in this one. But what I hope to accomplish? I don't know. It's for you to tell me, I really don't know. You get grabbed by the story, the characters, the language that you want to embody somehow on the page, and then the rest is done in a kind of trance, and so it's hard for me to say what I want to happen. Just something important for the reader, something memorable, I suppose. In the same way it was memorable to me to write it.
Question: Which of your books has been the most challenging?
Paul Auster: The most challenging project I've ever done, I think, is every single thing I've ever tried to do. It's never easy. Some things get written more quickly than others, but I can't really measure degrees of difficulty. I think probably I struggled most, had the most difficulty completing things, writing something to my friends, especially when I was young, I was starting out. And then there would be many false starts, many abject failures that depressed me to no end. And as the years went on, I became a little more comfortable with the prospect of failure as part of the routine of writing, the whole business of it.
What changed for me over the years, I think is this, early on, when I was writing a novel and I got stuck, and every writer gets stuck at certain points, I would go into a kind of panic, thinking the project is over, I don't know what to do with it, and go through some very tormented times. Now, in my old age, when I come to these moments, I say to myself, "If this book needs to be written, if it's something valuable, if it has the power that I think it might, then I'm going to figure it out, and all I have to do is be patient." So sometimes it's a matter of taking a couple of days off, sometimes a month off, which happened with this new book, “Invisible,” I took about six weeks off, just to meditate on what I wanted to do with it. And then lo and behold, you're rolling again. And I don't know this happens, but I think it's so much a matter of the unconscious telling you what to put on the page. And if you're listening and relaxed enough to be able to listen, it will happen.
Question: Should writers live abroad and then return home, as you did?
Paul Auster: Yes, I did leave America, it was the very end of 1970, early '71, so I was turning 24 years old. I had finished my college studies at Columbia, I had mercifully gotten a very high lottery number in the draft, so I knew I wasn't going to be drafted. And I just, first I went off, I got a job working on an oil tanker, I was a merchant marine for about six months. Somebody I knew had a connection, I could get the job, and I just wanted to get away from New York for a while, get away from the academy, and live out there in the world with other people. And I enjoyed my stint on the ship, I have to say, I learned a lot.
When you're sailing around the world, there aren't a lot of opportunities to spend money, so I saved up, and when I got back to New York, I thought, well, I think I want to leave. This is the time of the Vietnam War at its height. I had been swept up in political movements of the '60's as a student, but I knew I wanted to be a writer. And I was writing all through it, but not as much as I wanted to, and I thought if I got away, it would do me some good. I knew French, I had been to France before, couple of times, and so that was the logical place to go. And I thought I would stay for a year, and I wound up staying for three and a half. Because as you know, one thing leads to another and you get caught up in another kind of life. For me, it was a very fertile time. I think, I went to France thinking, I think I'm a writer, I suppose I'm a writer, but I'm not 100% sure. When I came home, three and a half years later, I was convinced that this was what I was going to do.
It also gave me a new perspective on America. I think it's a very good thing to leave your country and look at it from afar. Try to look at it through the eyes of other people and I was suffocating here at the time. Because, you know, the war was pressing down on everybody all the time, there was almost no room to think about anything else. And by removing myself, I gave myself space to breathe again and just find out exactly what it was I needed to do.
So yeah, I would recommend it. Life is so much more expensive now than it was then. I could do it very cheaply then. But I suppose if you have enough wherewithal financially, then it is a great thing for a young person to do. Better to do it young than old.
Question: What aspects of literature are untranslatable?
Paul Auster: You know, I haven't translated anything in many, many, many, many, many years. I guess the toughest things in translations are word play, which can never be reproduced exactly. And so what I would try to do would be if I couldn't duplicate the word play in a passage, try to do something else somewhere else in the work.
I remember there was a poem by Arp, the painter, that I translated, I was about 19 or 20 years old. And I remember coming up with the phrase, "smothered and poppa'd" and I was very pleased with that, I remember at the time.
But I did two kinds of translations. I translated poems out of love and I translated later prose books to make money, it was a job. So I translated a lot of very mediocre things that no one would ever want to read. But it put some food on the table, a few beans and maybe a few grains of rice. But I can't really remember any particular passage that daunted me so much that it stuck with me all these years later.
Question: How do you make metafiction appeal to people who don't write fiction?
Paul Auster: Well, I don't think of myself as a metafictional writer at all. I think of myself as a classic writer, a realist writer, who tends to have flights of fancy at times, but nevertheless, my feet are mostly on the ground. I'm just interested in the process because talking about writing in the book is talking about thinking, finally. Talking about how you tell the story because that really is what it's all about. So I've never been afraid to, how should I put it, expose the process as I'm doing it because everyone who reads a book knows that it's a book, you're holding it in your hands. So you know it's an artifact. You know that it is not so-called reality. So who's kidding whom? And I think it's just something that can be incorporated into the telling of the story, is how you tell the story, why you tell the story, who's telling the story. And all this becomes pertinent.
But I don't, I've never thought of myself in the line of say, John Barth or Robert Coover, who were doing these kinds of things, you know, a generation ago. My stuff is much more down to the ground.
Question: Why do detective stories appeal to so many literary writers?
Paul Auster: Well, you know, I don't really think of myself as having written detective fiction. I've flirted around the edges of it, in the New York Trilogy, only there, those three books. And I don't know if you know the origins of “City of Glass,” it's actually an interesting story. I started out in life as a poet, I was only writing poetry all through my 20's, it wasn't until I was about 30 that I got serious about writing prose. While I was writing poems, I would often divert myself by reading detective novels, I liked them. And there was a period when I read many of them. I absorbed the form, and I liked it, it was a good one, mostly the hard-boiled school, you know, Chandler, Hammett, and their heirs. That was the direction that interested me most.
At one point, very broke, very desperate, I actually wrote a detective novel under another name, trying to make some money, a book I wrote in six weeks. So, I'm writing “The Invention of Solitude,” the year is about 1980, I'm smack in the middle of a book, almost towards the end of it. And the phone rings at my desk, I pick up the phone, and I say, "Who is it?" And the person says, "Is this the Pinkerton Agency?" Well, the Pinkerton Agency, for those who don't know, is a very famous detective agency. In fact, Hammett worked for them. And I said, "No, no, wrong number," and I hung up. And the very next day, I got the same call, "Is this the Pinkerton Agency?" And I said, "No, wrong number," and I hung up. But as I hung up the second time, I said to myself, "Why did I do that? Why didn't I pretend I was the Pinkerton Agency, find out who the caller was, find out something about the case, and just, you know, get involved in it in some way." And that was the inspiration for “City of Glass,” the first book of the New York Trilogy, which begins with a caller asking for the detective, Paul Auster. And of course, the character is a man named Quinn, he's not Auster at all. He gets the third call, I never got the third call. And he says wrong number twice, but the third time he plays along, and then the whole thing starts. So my excursion into this form of detective fiction actually was inspired by a real event.
Question: What's your most personal work?
Paul Auster: The most deeply personal of my works are the non-fiction works, the autobiographical works, because there, I'm talking about myself very directly. “The Invention of Solitude” in particular, which is the first prose book I wrote and published. And I was quite young, I had just turned 30 when I wrote this book, and yet it stands for me, to me now, as somehow the bedrock of everything I've done since. And I guess the question is, how do you talk about another person? It's really almost impossible. How do you penetrate the mind and the soul of another human being? And even more daunting, how do you penetrate your own mind and your own self? We're very opaque to ourselves, I think, and self-knowledge is difficult to come by.
On the other hand, all my novels are very much directly related to my inner life, even though I'm inventing characters, even though it's fiction, even though it's make-believe, it nevertheless is coming out of the deepest recesses of myself. But it's such a way, and so unconsciously, that it's difficult for me to articulate how it's happening and why I might be fascinated by a particular thing at a particular moment. But there it is, you know? If it seems compelling, you follow it. And then in following it, more things occur. It's a process of accumulation, I think.
Question: Philip Roth says books are dying. Is he right?
Paul Auster: Philip has been talking like this for decades now and the fact is, he keeps writing books and people keep reading them. And I just, I disagree strenuously. Human beings need stories and we're looking for them in all kinds of places, whether it's television, whether it's comic books or movies, radio plays, whatever form, people are hungry for stories. Children, I mean, think of your own childhood, how important the bedtime story was. How important these imaginary experiences were for you. They helped shape reality and I think human beings wouldn't be human without narrative fiction.
Okay. Perhaps, you know, the market, the way things are moving, fewer people are reading novels than previously. But still, if you walk into a bookstore, there are thousands upon thousands of them there. And they wouldn't be in print unless somebody was buying them. Libraries are crammed with novels as well, and people are reading them. And I don't think it's ever going to dry up because two, the novel is such a flexible form. It's not like a sonnet, it's not fixed. You can do anything you want with it. It's just a story that you tell within the covers of the book. But all bets are off, there are no rules. And that's why I think the novel is constantly reinventing itself.
And society continues to reinvent itself. Every historical moment needs the stories to be told about it. So much as I admire Philip Roth, I just think he's wrong about this.
Question: How will literature change in the Internet age?
Paul Auster: Well, I know it's changing already, or at least there are new things that have been happening. But it even goes back 10, 20 years now, hypertext, Bob Coover doing all these things with computers and multiple narrators of stories, multiple authors of stories, I should say. I don't know. I don't know. I'm not a man deeply interested in technology. It eludes me. I confess I don't even have a computer, I don't have a cell phone. But I did read recently about a new digital magazine doing very short stories that people can read on their telephones, maybe this is interesting, maybe not. I think people are trying out ideas with the new technology and it's too early to say where it's going exactly. But again, whether it's digital or paper, it doesn't matter. It's words that somebody is reading and getting an experience out of that reading. That's all that really matters.
Question: How can someone read like a good writer?
Paul Auster: Well, again, we get into very murky territory here because it's all a matter of taste. I mean, I have the writers that I care about most, the writers that I think are the greatest of the past and of the present. But my list would be very different, perhaps, from yours. But I guess the important thing for young writers is to read, read the good ones. And I suppose by that, I mean, the ones who've withstood the test of time. You know, the great ones. Hawthorne, Melville, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Kafka, Dickens, that's where you're going to get the most, I think. And when you see how, you know, brilliantly they do things, Flaubert, you know, all the names that we know. But they're there for a reason, because they really are the best writers. And I think you have to learn from the great ones.
Question: What's the most common trap beginning writers fall into?
Paul Auster: Common trap, I suppose a kind of an egotism, self-importance, inability to look out of themselves, and I think it's important to look very closely at the world, everything happening around you, and sometimes for young people it's difficult to do that.
And the other thing is to, to get too attached to some of the things that you think are clever that you're doing. I think cleverness has its spots, its place in the world, perhaps, but the burning need to do it is what makes for good work. The wish to do it doesn't really help you. It's when it's absolutely necessary.
So when I talk to young writers, I mostly tell them, don't do it. Don't be a writer, it's a terrible way to live your life, there's nothing to be gained from it but poverty and obscurity and solitude. So if you have a taste for all those things, which means that you really are burning to do it, then go ahead and do it. But don't expect anything from anybody. The world doesn't owe you anything and no one is asking you to do it. And I suppose it's this feeling of accomplishment that young people feel sometimes is that, "Well, of course my book should be published! Of course I should be able to earn a living out of this." Well, it just doesn't work that way.
Question: What's changed the most about New York City in the time you've lived there?
Paul Auster: Well, I've been here a long time. My grandparents lived here, so I've been coming into New York since I was an infant, my whole life. I didn't start living here when I was 18, when I went to Columbia. And accept for those years in France and a couple of years living upstate New York, I've been in New York City the whole time. So probably of my 62 years, probably at least 55 or 56 of them have been lived here.
The New York of my childhood was a very gracious place, I thought, unthreatening and comfortable. It was the old New York, the New York of middle class people. And then by the late '50's, things started to disintegrate. Businesses closed up, the middle class fled to the suburbs, New York became poorer and poorer and more and more dangerous. And there was a period, I would say from the, say, mid '60's into the '80's, when New York was a threatening city to be in. Still with its charms and its great advantages over just about any other place in the United States, but not always an easy place to live in. And now, in the last 10 or 15 years, New York seems to have been rejuvenated. It's become, again, a very wealthy city, which has its advantages and disadvantages, its good points and bad points.
I think that I mourn the passing of places, the disappearance of things that were touchstones for me for many years and then you turn around, and suddenly, the place is gone. So things are changing in New York all the time, and I must say, I've become a little wistful for things that have disappeared.
Question: Is New York in ascent or decline?
Paul Auster: I think it's going in both directions at the same time. The funny thing is, New York was the first modern city in the world. And now it feels very old. You go to a place like Paris, since we were talking about Paris, Paris has completely revamped its infrastructure, it feels modern, it's a high-tech city, everything works. You know, the subways are beautiful, the streets are clean, there aren't any potholes anywhere, it functions. New York is falling to pieces. And I think we need vast, vast works to fix the place up. I know, people are trying, but, you know, I live in Brooklyn and I go over the Brooklyn Bridge frequently and they're repairing that thing all the time. It's a constant job.
And then, there's been all this new building in New York. So part of it looks pristine and as if we're living in the 23rd century, and then big parts of New York feel like the 19th Century.
Question: What will the city be like in 50 years?
Paul Auster: 50 years? It's hard to guess. Because it all depends on who's planning things. When you think about the Robert Moses era, and Jane Jacobs, if you know who I'm talking about. Well, Robert Moses, he was the, you know, the planner for the city, he wanted to level Greenwich Village, this was back in the '50's, and put a big highway right through it, just knock all the buildings down. Jane Jacobs, an activist, urbanist, fought it, got a lot of support, and this was blocked.
So, by that much, you know, the Village was almost razed to the ground. Maybe this is going to happen in the future, but probably not. We now have landmark commissions and so on and preservation. So I don't think everything is going to be destroyed, but a lot is going to disappear, a lot of buildings that we treasure now. Watching, you know, years ago, Penn Station be demolished, it was one of the most beautiful public spaces in the city, gone, for this wretched Penn Station we have now that no one likes. It's painful, it's very painful.
Question: What keeps you up at night?
Paul Auster: What keeps me up at night? Anxiety. Anxiety, the inability to go to sleep, it's quite literally that. But I know you're talking metaphorically. What used to keep me up at night was the fact that I didn't know how I was going to pay the rent. Now that I can pay the rent, I'm worrying about people I care about, you know, the people I love. The little aches and pains of my children that I, my family. That's always first.
And then these blistering ranting inner monologues one has about the state of the world, mostly about politics, mostly about the, you know, the stupidity of our culture and how easily things could be fixed and nobody does anything about anything. So those things keep me up.
Question: What is one of your typical rants?
Paul Auster: Well, I mean, okay, something that has just been, you know, in everyone's face now for the last month, healthcare in the United States. It seems to me so irrational that we haven't been able to figure this out, for 60 years there have been plans proposed and the idea that healthcare should be a profit-making business makes no sense to me. Once we abandon that idea and just say that healthcare is a right for every human being, I think we could develop a system that would be equitable. I mean to say, we have public libraries, public parks, public schools, these are not making profit, they're there to serve people. And I think health is a similar kind of issue.
But living in this capitalist society, where, you know, money trumps everything every time, there are huge numbers of people just won't accept this, so it drives me nuts. I just feel it's irrational, that's all.
Recorded on November 5, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen