When Literary Games Get Personal

Known for bending genres and playing with the paradoxes of identity, Paul Auster explains what anchors his novels in the personal and the real.
  • Transcript


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.

Recorded on November 5, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen