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Paul Auster: “I also happen to have strong political opinions, when circumstances require it”

(Mary Morris) Midway through “The Brooklyn Follies”, Nathan’s nephew Tom asks him about his work in progress, “The Book of Human Folly”, and Nathan responds that he is “charging ahead with no end in sight,” that each story he writes seems “to give birth to another story and then another story and then another story.” Would you say that this in the_brooklyn_follies_bookcoversome way describes your own process in writing this book, one story giving way to another, and perhaps your process as a writer in general? Is that somehow a description of your own self?
Possibly, although in this particular case I conceived of this book as a whole. It’s not a linear novel in which one episode or narrative thread generates another. “The Brooklyn Follies” has been brewing inside of me for a long time before I started to write it, well over ten years.

But not the ending, of course, which is based on more recent events.
Not the ending, no. Things always change after you begin. But, I would say, taking the long view, it’s quite possible that one book seems to have generated another book. I tend to think of each book as a response to the proceeding one. In some sense I try to annihilate what I’ve done before, go against it, start all over again.

Are you in some way posing a question in a previous novel that you are answering in the next?
No, it’s more of a dialectic, I think. If one book is a kind of chamber piece, like “Oracle Night” was, then the next book has to be more symphonic in scope. If one book is linear in the sense that, say, “The Music of Chance” is linear—it’s a story that goes from A to B to C all the way to the end—then the next book, “Leviathan”, is going to be a labyrinth. More structurally complex. You don’t want to keep playing the same piece over and over again.

Is that an intentional decision, to annihilate the ones that come before? Or is that just the way your mind works when you come to the next story?
I think it’s just an instinct. It’s a matter of self-preservation more than anything else.

But, in a way what you’re talking about here is the form of the work, less than the substance. Because, I think, thematically the links in your work—the role of chance and coincidence, the mysteries of the self—are quite strong.
True. Although, again, there’s really quite a wide range. If you take the extremes of my work, say a book like “In the Country of Last Things”, as compared to “Timbuktu”, they seem to have nothing to do with each other. But, in the middle, of course, there are many overlaps. I’m perfectly willing to agree with that.

There seems to be a very strong fable-like tradition in some of your writing such as “Timbuktu”, “In the Country of Last Things”, even “Moon Palace”, “Mr. Vertigo”, of course. By the same token, there’s kind of a noir feeling that some of the books have. “The Book of Illusions”, I think, had a little bit of that as well as “The New York Trilogy”. How do these two extremes of the lighter, more childlike and the darker, less innocent, play out in your work?
I tend to think of it as a narrative spectrum, different ways of telling a story. Some of the books are quote unquote more realistic than others. For example, this new book is very much grounded in the everyday. There’s nothing fantastical about it. But, then, of course, I’ve written other books that are more fabular, more metaphorical. I like working in different modes. I don’t want to feel stuck, to delude myself into thinking there’s only one way to approach the world.


► Paul Auster: “I’m a writer, but I’m also a citizen”

So, in other words, you’ll make a decision to try comedy—because in many ways, “The Brooklyn Follies” is strongly comedic. Whereas “The Book of Illusions” is very serious.
It’s a dark book. “Oracle Night” is also a dark book. But, as Billy Wilder said—and I had this in my mind while I was writing this story—when you’re feeling really happy, that’s the moment to write a tragedy. And when you’re feeling low, do a comedy. And I’ve been feeling so bad about America, and Bush, and the war, and all the terrible things we’ve got ten ourselves into, that I’ve tried to keep my spirits up by writing a comedy.

Yet your comedy ends with a very dark vision, doesn’t it, of 9/11.
In essence, I think of “The Brooklyn Follies” as a hymn to the ordinary, a hymn to the beauty of everyday life. The mystery and joy of being alive.

And all of life’s exuberant possibilities?
That’s one way of putting it, and then, yes, our lives are overshadowed by tragedy, cataclysms, historical upheavals, murders, deaths, wars. That’s the context. We live and suffer and make countless mistakes. We grumble about our problems, and then something monstrous happens, and we understand how lucky we were to have those problems.

We’re talking about the writer’s perception of the world beyond himself, and, perhaps, a sense of social responsibility: Bush, Iraq, 9/11, all the things that we’ve been embroiled in in the last few years. By the same token, in the novel, Harry has his Hotel Existence, and there’s the whole philosophical discussion of imaginary Edens and a sense of the need for an inner refuge. In the novel when you talk about Poe there is this need to create a safe haven for oneself as a writer. How do you balance those two parts of yourself—the part that is deeply engaged in the world and the part that needs extreme solitude to work?
I’m a writer, but I’m also a citizen. I’m both, and I also happen to have strong political opinions. When circumstances require it, when I’m asked to do something or say something or write something, I do it—as a citizen. I don’t think my work is overtly political. I’m interested in politics, yes, but more deeply about simply what it means to be alive. That’s what my books are about.

But, look at a book like “In the Country of Last Things”. It’s a book about what it means to be alive, but it also gets to the heart of how we live in society.
It’s a book about a collapsing society.

And “Leviathan” too.
Of course. Yes. I’ve even thought of “The Music of Chance” as a kind of political parable about power, with the building of the wall and the imprisonment of these two luckless people. But there are different ways of approaching it. It’s not overt, even in “In the Country of Last Things”. There’s scarcely a word about politics in that novel. It’s about how one lives in a kind of chaos.

It’s a parable in the way, “Waiting for the Barbarians” by John Coetzee is a parable. But, what about the whole question of the writer being engaged in the world in some way? Do your views and your feelings move into action? Or is it all in the texts, in the writing?
I’ve written a few political pieces over the years. I’ve spoken out at various times over the years. I’ve marched in demonstrations—is that action?

“I always write in sequence. If I’m stuck, I just stop. Sometimes I have to stop for two weeks”

Yes, that’s action.
Okay, so that’s action. But, by and large, I spend my days alone in my room trying to write stories.

Is that your imaginary Eden? Your Hotel Existence?
Perhaps. I’ve certainly been there a long time now. And I don’t have any great urge to leave it, so it must be a pretty good place for me.

You’re a writer who’s very visible in the world. You have a lot of demands on you. How do you keep that safe haven for yourself? Is that hard to do, keep the world away?
It’s a juggling act.

To be true to your imagination?
Siri calls me Dr. No, because I turn down nearly every request. And then, occasionally I’ll accept and go off and do something. And then, you know, one has a commitment to one’s publishers. You can’t just ignore them. They’re making big efforts to try to get your books out there. And to be a snob about it and say I don’t want to dirty my hands with any of this journalistic nonsense, I think it’s a bit unfair. On the other hand, you have to draw the line. So I try to pick my spots, do enough to keep everybody happy, but not so much that I feel exhausted and overwhelmed by it.


 With director Wayne Wang (on the left) and Harvey Keitel on the set of “Smoke” (1995). “I’m interested in film, not in adapting novels, but actually making original movies”, says Paul Aster

The room you work in—there’s a reference in here to Poe’s philosophy of furniture, and that whole question of creating that whole dream of perfection. Can the world call you? Are you completely isolated when you’re working?
Over the years, I’ve worked in different places, under different circumstances. I used to work at home, in whatever little apartment I happened to be living in. Then, a number of years ago, when our daughter was born, and we were living in a fairly small place, there was simply no room for me anymore. She needed a room, and so I didn’t have one. That’s when I got that little studio, which used to be across the street from where you lived. I worked in there for quite a few years, probably eight to ten years. I liked it there. Then we moved to this house, and suddenly there was room for me to work here. I did that for a number of years. And then, we started doing work on the house. There was so much commotion here—the doorbell was ringing every five minutes, the phone was ringing, the interruptions never stopped. I was so distracted that I decided to go back to my old system and work outside of the house. So, last winter I rented an apartment in the neighborhood. I’ve been going there ever since, and I’ve enjoyed it a lot. It’s very quiet. There’s no fax. I don’t have email, as you know… I have a phone, but only a few people have the number. When it rings, I know it’s something important.

In her book on boxing, Joyce Carol Oates compares the writer to the boxer. She says, “the writer, like the boxer, is always redefining the parameters of self.” Do you find yourself doing that, like when you leave this world and go to that room where you work? I think about your characters because you have a lot of characters who are alone in rooms, observing the world, especially in “The New York Trilogy”.
I don’t know. Do I redefine myself? I don’t know.

Not redefine, but just carve out that space.
I just think of it as an adventure. I never know what’s going to happen next. You keep discovering things. And as you discover things about the story you’re working on, you discover things about yourself, too. I don’t start books blindly, I have some sense of what I want it to be; and then, when I start, things start to change. No book I’ve written has ever turned out the way I thought it would when I began.

We’ve talked before about your process and heard you say that you write one sentence and then the next.
I always write in sequence. If I’m stuck, I just stop. Sometimes I have to stop for two weeks. I don’t know what to do. I know the story, and yet things that I thought were good before I started writing turn out to be bad, and things that had never even occurred to me pop up while I’m writing and then I begin to adjust and shift and change everything. When I started writing ‘Mr. Vertigo, for example, there was no Mrs. Witherspoon. She came up when I was a few weeks into the project, and I realized I needed this character. She became quite a significant force in the novel. But she wasn’t born until after I started writing.

Were there any surprises in “The Brooklyn Follies” as you were writing it? You said it was a book you’d thought about for many years. For example, the ending must have surprised you at some point.
I had different endings in mind earlier. Then, that changed. I’m trying to think . . . this book, no, things didn’t change that much.

Harry is quite a character in the book. Did you know him before?
Harry was a character I had been walking around with for a long time. You see, originally, this book was going to have Willy and Mr. Bones in it who, of course, became the characters in “Timbuktu”. It had an entirely different configuration. It was a third person novel. There was no Nathan at the time. But there was Harry and Tom. And then, there was going to be Mr. Bones. Willy was going to die. In the original story, Tom’s sister has committed suicide in Baltimore. Tom goes down to Baltimore to fetch his niece, and while he’s walking along on the street with her, he comes upon Willy and Mr. Bones. Willy gives his long speech and dies, and they take the dog with them. Mr. Bones was going to be with Lucy and Tom throughout the story.

So, in a way, you took this one story and pulled it apart into two novels.
Yes. The first chapter was going to be identical to the first chapter of “Timbuktu”. Then it was going to move on to Tom, and suddenly the book would take a sharp turn. After I started writing it, I realized that I loved these two characters. I felt they deserved a book of their own. So I scrapped the big book and wrote a little poetic novel instead. Then it took me years to figure out how to bring back Harry and Tom and the rest of that story—Lucy and Aurora, and all of those characters that I’d had in my head. It just took a while.


The story Sidney is writing about Nick Bowen in “Oracle Night” (Henry Holt 2003) originated as an idea for a film Auster was going to do with Wim Wenders

Is it difficult for you to jettison something or put it aside? Is there a place where the novels and stories that might see the light of day in another time go?
The funny thing is that very few things get lost forever. For example, in “Oracle Night” there’s the story that Sidney is writing about Nick Bowen. That story originated as an idea for a film I was going to do with Wim Wenders way back in 1990. Wim wrote to me and said he was reading my books. He wanted to do a project together, and we met and became friends. It was his idea—Wim’s. He said, Let’s take the Flitcraft story from “The Maltese Falcon” and use that as our premise. I sat down and wrote out an outline of the story, which is pretty much what you get in “Oracle Night”. It’s very similar, up to a certain point. There was a denouement that is not in the novel. But the backer who was going to put up the money for the film disappeared, and we never made the film. So I had these pages, these handwritten pages, in my drawer for how many years? Eleven years, twelve years. And I kept thinking about them, kept hoping that one day I would be able to do something with them.

If I can throw in a personal aside, my new little novel, Revenge, was a subplot in a much bigger novel that I put aside, and that’s the piece that stayed with me.
But that often happens.

The part where Nick Bowen winds up locked in the underground telephone book museum—which is, I think, one of my favorite moments in that novel—is when Sidney realizes that there’s absolutely nowhere to go with that character, that that’s the end of the story. He can’t do anything to take care of it.
Yes, he’s blocked, he’s stuck.

Was that in the film? Or was that a writerly decision.
In the film there was a resolution at the end. I used material from that story, but I recast it for the novel.

Let’s talk a little bit about your relationship to film. You’ve been a director, you’ve written for film quite a bit, you had novels made into films. I think “The Brooklyn Follies” has a very cinematic quality, almost scene to scene.
I don’t, actually. I tend to think of my books as movie proof. One novel was turned into a film, of course, “The Music of Chance”. But that was years ago. I’m interested in film, not in adapting novels, but actually making original movies. I got lured into it by Wayne Wang in the early nineties, and we had a great experience making two films together, “Smoke” and “Blue in the Face”. We weren’t just writer and director, but co-filmmakers.

You directed “Blue in the Face”, didn’t you?
The whole film was shot in six days. For two of them, Wayne was sick and not on the set. The other four days, we directed together. There was so much to do, and we were working at such high speed. Then I did “Lulu on the Bridge”, and after that I went into hiatus. I figured that I wouldn’t make any more movies, that the adventure was over. But you should always watch what you say, what you predict. Last spring, while I was working on “The Brooklyn Follies”, I was asked to write a screenplay for Patrice Leconte, the French director, in English, to be shot in New York. After I finish a novel, I usually go into a slump. I walk around confused, disoriented and depressed for several months. I thought if I took on this project and began immediately after I finished the novel, it might be good for me. So, I did it with a collaborator, a young French writer who lives in New York, a young woman I’ve known for years. Céline Curiol. She’s turned into a wonderful writer. Her first novel is about to be published. She’s perfectly bilingual. She had been working as a journalist for French radio, earning pennies. And I thought, well, I’m not that eager to do this, but if I collaborated with her it might be fun, and she could earn enough money to quit the radio and write her next book. We started in late September, early October, and we worked very hard for two, two and-a-half months, and now it’s done. Everyone is pleased with the results. They’re not going to shoot until next year, but it was an enjoyable experience, and it got me thinking about movies again.

“Hemingway says all American literature comes out of one book: ‘Huckleberry Finn’. I disagree vociferously. ‘The Scarlet Letter’ was really our first important novel”

It got you out of the slump, too.
Yes. I found it invigorating. And then I went to France in November—after we had finished the first draft of the screenplay. I did a little reading tour around the country, and I was thinking, what do I want to do next? Do I want to start on a new novel, or what? I realized that there was a film project that had been in the back of my mind for quite some time, and I decided to try to pursue it. So, that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve written another screenplay. It’s now finished, and I’m trying to put together the cast. Peter Newman, who worked on all my previous films, will be the producer. Assuming we can find the money.

Are you going to direct again?
That’s the plan.

So, do you see yourself now as sort of both a novelist and a filmmaker?
No, I’m still a novelist who occasionally makes films. I guess that’s it. I’ve written four novels in the last six and a half years, and now I feel I need a change of scenery. To get out and work with other people again. I’m looking forward to it.

On those days in your studio—you said that sometimes when something is not going the right way, you said that you can be stuck for two weeks. How do you get unstuck, and what do you do during those two weeks? Do you walk? Do you—
No, I usually keep trying. I go in and I write.

You’ll stay.
I’ll say, is this the next sentence? And then I’ll work on a passage, and I’ll realize, no, it’s not. I’ll throw it away and start again, and then just keep hacking away at it until the wall crumbles. When I was younger, these were the moments when I’d panic and feel that everything was disintegrating around me. That the whole project was a failure and I’d never write another word for the rest of my life. The one good thing about getting older, and I can’t think of too many good things about getting old, is that I don’t panic anymore. I realize that eventually, if the book is worth writing, I’m going to find the way to write that next sentence.

Michael Cunningham once said to me that half the time he feels like a poseur, or just a complete fraud in his writing life, and the other half he has delusions of grandeur. And then there are days in between where he actually gets things done. Do you have those kinds of swings of your own? Or do you try to keep—
No, I don’t think of myself as either a poseur or someone with an inflated sense of himself.

More like a bricklayer?
Not even a bricklayer. I’m just so damn interested in what I’m doing that I don’t think about myself. The day flies by, six, seven hours pass in the blink of an eye.

And all the time you’re scribbling?
I’m scribbling, or walking around the apartment, thinking about the next sentence, the next word.

Reading? Would you do any reading during that period, or no?
Almost never. Sometimes, when I eat my little meager sandwich for lunch, I might read something.

You have a little lunch?
There’s a kitchenette in the apartment, so I prepare some food for myself.

It sounds almost monastic.
It is. It’s very simple, but it’s bright, and this has been a great change. The old studio was dark; it was on the ground floor of the apartment building. My place here was on the garden floor, dark. I think it had something to do with Siri changing her study. Last year she took over a bigger room upstairs, and it’s so bright and peaceful there, I think there was a sense of envy, to work in such a beautiful—

You don’t seem to be someone who experiences envy.
Well, not envy, just admiration. I decided that I wanted that, too. The apartment I rented is on the top floor of a four-story brownstone. There are two skylights, and lots of sun pouring through.

I’ve often thought of you as a dark writer and this is probably one of the first—well, “Moon Palace” has a lot in it too that I thought was funny. Well, look, this is a truly comic novel. Does the light affect you in any way? Do you think that the change in environment had any . . .
No, because this was always going to be a comic novel, even when I was working in my dingy basement.

So, the inner space and the outer space are not necessarily having a conversation.
No. Not really, no. Because, when you’re working, the environment is not the room you’re in, it’s the page that’s sitting in front of you. That’s the universe you’re living in.

You write a lot about notebooks. There’s “The Red Notebook”, of course, and there’s the notebook in “Oracle Night”. Is the notebook important to you? Do you go and buy a special notebook for each book?
No, I tend to be very particular about them. I like a brand of French notebook called Clairefontaine, which has very nice paper, and I always work with a fountain pen or a pencil. With the pen, the ink doesn’t blot.

I often write with pencils. Mechanical pencils. I like them. I generally use a pencil when I’m not sure of what I’m doing, so I can erase. Clairefontaine is very good, but I have other brands, too. Whenever I go to a foreign country, I buy notebooks. I have Norwegian ones, German ones, French, Italian. But I only use quadrille lines. You know, squares, graph paper.

Oh really? Graph paper?
I can’t write on a traditional—

A straight line, like a cahier?
No, always with the rectangles.

That’s somewhat of a fetish.
I suppose.

The character in “Oracle Night” is obsessed with his notebook—the one he buys in the store that then is gone. There’s no more of this notebook. And that notebook has magical powers.
He feels it does, but that doesn’t mean he’s right.

He feels he cannot write. I’m always interested in the autobiographical in your work and how it comes into play. For example, in “The New York Trilogy” there’s the character Paul Auster. But he virtually has nothing to do with you.
No, nothing. I was trying to make fun of myself. Everything he says is stupid. Someone said just the other day that you should take your work seriously, but you shouldn’t take yourself seriously. I think that’s a very good rule.

Outside of “The Invention of Solitude” and “Hand to Mouth”, is there an autobiographical element that comes into play in your fiction?
Very little. I think because I’ve written autobiographical work, non-fiction, and I would include “The Red Notebook” in that, I haven’t felt the compulsion to recycle my life into my fiction. Nearly everything is imaginary. A few things that I can cite on the fingers of one hand. In “The Locked Room”, working as a census taker, that’s based on my own experience. I did exactly what the character in the book does. I made up people. I was encouraged to do this by my supervisor. What else? Also in “The Locked Room”, the old Russian composer Ivan Wyschnegradsky was a real person, a friend of mine. I used his name. He was dead by the time I wrote the book. A man I cared about greatly. The whole story about the refrigerator that Fanshawe gives him is taken directly from my own experience. And in “Leviathan”, Iris, the character that Peter Aaron marries is of course loosely based on my wife, Siri.

Iris is the heroine of Siri’s novel, “The Blindfold. And, of course, Iris is Siri spelled backwards.
Exactly. I was using the character from “The Blindfold”. I thought of it as a transfictional marriage, that my character married her character. Rather than Paul marrying Siri, it was Peter marrying Iris.

I like that. Let’s talk a little bit about your relationship to Brooklyn, since this is “The Brooklyn Follies”. Kafka had Prague, Dostoyevsky had St. Petersburg. Many writers draw strongly from a sense of place, and a place can even become a character. I have two questions about sense of place. One is, you moved in “The New York Trilogy” to this book, which is really, I think, not about Brooklyn—you don’t even describe Brooklyn—but it’s based here, perhaps more than any other novel, I think.
It’s about the spirit of Brooklyn.

That’s right. The complete serendipity, these wacky characters, the people you might meet on the street. The coincidences that can happen in this neighborhood. There’s that great line, the first line in the book. I love that line.
I’m glad you like it. “I was looking for a quiet place to die Someone recommended Brooklyn.”

It reminds me of that famous line from the film Casablanca. “I came to Casablanca for the waters . . . I was misinformed.” Anyway, if you live in Brooklyn, you appreciate Brooklyn, and your opening line is somehow perfect for this place. Do you feel as if this book might enter some kind of oeuvre of novels set in Brooklyn?
I have no idea. I don’t think about those things. But I have to say that the bpm in the book, the Beautiful Perfect Mother, was based on a real character. I used to walk my daughter, Sophie, to school, on Carroll Street. And every morning across the street there was this beautiful woman with her two kids. She fascinated me. I never spoke to her, I don’t know who she is. But in my mind I started calling her the Beautiful Perfect Mother. And so she becomes the bpm, Nancy Mazzucchelli. After Sophie went to middle school, I lost track of this woman and didn’t see her for years. Oddly enough—and these things happen to me all the time—just as I was writing the chapter in “The Brooklyn Follies” where the bpm is introduced, I saw her again. Walking down Seventh Avenue toward the F train. The bpm, in the flesh, looking as beautiful as ever. She was all dressed up in a very attractive way, going off to do whatever it was she was going to do. I thought, dammit, here she is and I’m writing about her and she doesn’t even know it.

Were you tempted to go up and say, you’re a character in my next book?
No, not at all. But anyway, Brooklyn. We made “Blue in the Face”, which is all about Brooklyn. “Smoke” is set in Brooklyn as well. “Oracle Night” is set in Brooklyn. This book is set in Brooklyn. “Ghosts” is set in Brooklyn.

And there’s a Brooklyn moment in “Moon Palace”. Doesn’t he go to the Brooklyn Museum?
Absolutely. With his eyes closed.

Your work is deeply rooted in American literature. Of course there’s fellow Brooklynite Walt Whitman. In this book your influences seem to be particularly the American transcendentalists. Are those among your strongest antecedents?
I think so. I keep going back to them. As you know, a couple of years ago, I did a preface for a Hawthorne text. It was an excerpt from his notebooks, a very fascinating fifty or sixty page passage that I think is one of the most remarkable things in American literature. Nobody knows about it. It’s buried in the “American Notebooks”, which I recommend to everybody. It’s one of Hawthorne’s great works. It’s equal in power to Kafka’s diaries. Fantastically interesting, beautifully written, both personal and also philosophical, and so many ideas for stories that he jotted down and never wrote. People tend to think of Hawthorne as an ornate, complex stylist. But the prose in the “Notebooks” flows like water. It’s extraordinarily alive.

Why do you think that was?
He was writing for himself. It was more notational. But he wrote so well that he couldn’t help but write good, musical sentences. Anyway, in 1851 Hawthorne and his family were living in the Berkshires. He’s already published “The Scarlet Letter”. “The House of Seven Gables” is about to come out, and Sophia, his wife, gives birth to their third child, Rose. In July, she went to West Newton to visit her parents with their oldest daughter, Una, and the baby, leaving Hawthorne alone with his five-year old son, Julian. So he writes this piece in his notebook called “Twenty Days With Julian and Little Bunny” by Papa. I think it’s the first account in Western literature of a man taking care of a child alone. It’s very funny, and also moving. This was the moment when Hawthorne and Melville were becoming friends, so Melville is a character in this story as well. I thought it deserved to be published separately, as a little book. The New York Review did it a couple of years ago. I wrote a preface, which I think is more than half the length of the text. I loved going back into Hawthorne—his mind, his life, his work. I feel very close to him. Our sensibilities, our personalities, our whole way of being, are very similar.

Can you elaborate on that similarity?
There’s is a fabular aspect to his writing that I’m very drawn to. And I think his combination of shyness and affability is similar to mine.

Did you name your daughter after his wife?
In “The Locked Room”, Sophie is married to Fanshawe. Fanshawe, of course, is a character from Hawthorne’s first novel. He wrote “Fanshawe” when he was about twenty-three. After it was published, he felt so mortified that he bought up every copy he could find and burned them. But enough copies survived so that we still have the book. For me, Fanshawe became the name or the image of a writer who turns against himself. And that’s why I gave that name to the character in the book. His wife, Sophie, is based on Sophia, Hawthorne’s Sophia. And we named our daughter Sophie, after the character in the novel. So indirectly, she’s named after Sophia Hawthorne.

When did you discover Hawthorne, and when did the connection begin?
I started reading Hawthorne seriously after college. I never took an American fiction course in school. I mostly studied Renaissance and sixteenth and seventeenth century literature in English, French and Italian. Though I was technically an English major. I wasn’t doing modern stuff at all. I was reading it, but not studying it. So, when I moved to Paris in my early twenties, I started reading Hawthorne. I read “The Scarlet Letter” when I was about twenty-four. It absolutely knocked me over. I think it’s the first great American novel. Hemingway says all American literature comes out of one book: “Huckleberry Finn”. I disagree vociferously. “The Scarlet Letter” was really our first important novel. It deals with all the questions that have plagued American life since the beginning.

More than “Moby-Dick”?
“Moby-Dick” is different. “Moby-Dick” is a genetic sport. It doesn’t fit into any category, and it doesn’t resemble any novel written before or since. It’s a towering work of genius, but I don’t think it has engendered anything. It just stands alone as a perfect crazy book that continues to obsess us. But “The Scarlet Letter” bore children. I can’t imagine “The Great Gatsby” without it, for example.

Okay, do the math for me.
The small, jewel-like novel about a society, and the hypocrisy of that society, and the delusions of that society.

And the human foibles that shape it.
There’s also Thoreau. If we’re talking about American writers, we mustn’t forget him. I can’t think of an American writer who has written better discursive prose. You watch how, in “Walden”, which he worked on, and worked on, and worked on, how the sentences move one into the other, through these leaps that are absolutely brilliant, that take your breath away.

It’s actually a very modernist book, in a way, isn’t it? It’s sort of like Hemingway before Hemingway. The theme is of the sentences and the prose.
There are so many phrases from that book that have become part of our everyday discourse. “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.” Among others.

I think Hawthorne and Poe have a similar surreal edge to them. And in a way, Melville and Thoreau both are kind of writing about America. They’re more rooted in the culture. It’s interesting to me that these four writers have had this kind of deep impact on you. I feel that those two threads come together in your own work.
It’s possible. I’ve never thought about it in those terms, but it’s possible. But there are so many other writers that I’ve read who have had a big impact on me. It’s hard to disentangle them.

What about foreign writers? What about Kafka?
To me, Kafka is the giant of the twentieth century. I go back to him again and again and again. The stories, the novels, the diaries, the letters. Everything. I just read a very interesting biography of Dora, his last mistress. That’s where I got the story of the doll, which is in the new novel.

Oh, I love that story. I was going to ask you about the story of the doll because it figures in “The Brooklyn Follies”.
It’s a remarkable story. Dora was the one who told it.

Do those letters exist today?
No, but in that biography it was mentioned that at some point announcements were published in the newspapers attempting to track down the little girl Kafka wrote those letters to. But they never found her. The letters are lost.

Tell the story.
It’s so moving to me.

Also, contextualize it in terms of “The Brooklyn Follies”.
It’s a story Tom tells his uncle Nathan while they’re driving to Vermont. They’ve been talking about all kinds of things, mostly about writers and literature. Tom gets onto the subject of Kafka, who died of tuberculosis when he was not yet forty-one. In the last months of his life, he finally found the courage to break away from his family in Prague. He moved to Berlin and began living with Dora Diamant, a young woman he’d fallen in love with. It was 1923, 1924, a bad time politically and economically. Hyper-inflation, riots, food shortages. Kafka and Dora lived in a quiet place, a little outside of town. Every afternoon, they would take a walk in the park. One day, they’re in the park and they see a little girl in tears. She’s about four years old. Kafka walks up to her and asks her what’s wrong. She explains that she’s lost her doll and doesn’t know what to do. And Kafka, without missing a beat, says to her, Don’t worry. Your doll went away on a vacation. And she says, How do you know that? And he answers, She just wrote me a letter. The girl asks to see the letter, but Kafka says he left it at home. But, if you come back tomorrow, he tells her, I’ll give it to you. So Kafka goes home and actually writes the letter from the doll. Dora said that he worked really hard on it, trying to get the prose just right. That’s extraordinary enough, I think, but Kafka went on doing it for two or three weeks, every day another letter from the doll, which he would read to the girl in the park. It cured her of her misery. And here you have this dying man, this genius of a writer, with just a few months to live, devoting his precious time to helping a little girl he barely even knows. What a person he must have been. It breaks my heart to think about it.
You know, I think about this story, which is an incredibly moving story, but also, thinking about it in connection with your work. I think of the Willie Mays piece in “Why Write?” where you are going to a baseball game to see Willie Mays when you’re, what, eight years old, and at the end you’re in a situation where you’re face to face with Willie Mays, so there’s nothing you want more than his autograph. And no one has a pen or pencil. In a way, it’s kind of an anti-story to the doll story, right? So I’m wondering if it doesn’t touch you in a deep way because—and of course the important part of the Willie Mays story is that from then on you carried a pencil.
I did, I really did.

And you still write with a pencil.
Yes, a pen or pencil. But I started that when I was eight. I didn’t want to be unprepared, after all.

But there is a reason why this doll story touches us all as writers.
It’s because it’s for one person. It’s not for publication. It’s not for anything but to help. Even if it’s a little, four year-old girl.

Nathan, your hero in this new novel, is aging, mortal. He has ailments. Does he represent a character from a new phase of your life?
Undoubtedly. In fact, I was talking to my British editor at Faber & Faber, Walter Donahue, not long ago and he said, you know, these last novels are all part of a group. I call them the books about wounded men. Starting with Willy, and then onto David Zimmer in “The Book of Illusions”, who dies of a heart attack, or one assumes he does—he’s had heart attacks in the past, and he’s dead when the book is published. And then we have Sidney, who’s a young man, but very badly hurt and ill, and Nathan, who’s recovering from cancer.

Despite it’s comic nature, there are also a deeply moral issues in this novel, aren’t there?
There are many dark passages in this book. It’s not slapstick. It’s tough. People suffer. Crazy things happen. And yet, finally, most of the characters in the book are a little better off at the end than they were in the beginning. And that’s how I would define comedy as opposed to tragedy.

I have a final question along those lines about people being a little better off at the end than they were in the beginning. Given the world as we know it right now, are you hopeful for the future? How do you feel about what’s ahead for America, for the environment, for the world?
Right now, all these things look like disasters. And any one of them can do us in. We truly have the worst government I’ve experienced in my lifetime. The fact that this, this person was reelected is so appalling to me, I can barely talk about it. At the same time, I don’t believe that Bush represents the majority of the American people. And in the end, unless America really destroys itself—which is a possibility—there’s going to be some kind of counter-balance in the next years, after he leaves office. We’ll correct a lot of the mistakes we made. America always tends to go toward the middle, and now we have extremists running the government.

So you have some hope.
Well, if you don’t have hope, how can you get up in the morning?

From Purgatory (Leconte 2005)
(The conversation took place at Paul Auster’s house in Park Slope, Brooklyn, on February 11, 2005. Transcription by Sophie Ernst)


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