I’m drinking wine with Paul Auster. I’m drinking wine with Paul Auster. The I’ve-been-translated-into-thirty-languages Paul Auster. Inducted into the American Academy of Art and Letters. VP of PEN. Finalist for PEN/Faulkner. Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay. A Prince of Asturias award winner, an award that this year’s Nobel winner for Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa, has also received. Paul Auster, the man who has been struck by lightning and lived to tell the tale, seriously. In short: deep, deep water.
Yet despite it all, here we are, both enjoying anonymous by-the-glass wine (he’s Sauvignon Blanc, I get Nero d’Avola – he might have me beat in baseball geekiness, but he’ll never win in wine) in a cozy Brooklyn cafe populated entirely of mothers and their toddling toddlers, all of whom seem bent on wrecking my attempt to preserve the moment in audio.
SUNSET PARK, Auster’s eighteenth work of fiction, never mind his translations, essays, books of prose, screenplays, films, memoirs, autobiographies, and lyrics – is a reader’s delight. The reading experience (and I’ll leave the book reviews to the professionals) can be likened to when you see something that you take for granted, something that appears common, yet upon further inspection you see that this example (be it a shoe, suit, car, watch, fountain pen) is the product of serious craftsmanship. Read it for yourself when the book is released on November 9th. So without further ado, let’s plumb the mind and see what we find…
KC: What was the genesis of SUNSET PARK?
PA: Dispossession. That was the idea that started it. I was walking around for quite a while with an image of a man getting booted out of the place where he lives, just kicked out, thrown onto the street. And that little kernel of an idea grew into the book.
KC: Did the financial situation we find ourselves in today happen before this idea?
PA: Well, I had this idea for awhile, and then suddenly I look around and it’s happening to millions of people. Millions of people are losing their homes. Astonishing epidemic. It just seems to get worse and worse… [long pause] So anyway, that’s the germ of the book. And then from there, I began to think of the book as I was writing it, as a story of houses and homes.
KC: The house is very much a character.
PA: Houses. Physical houses, the structures that people live in, and then the home as family. So the book is dealing with both simultaneously.
KC: Well you seem to have pulled that off; I got that right off the bat. I’ve read a few books before that deal with a house. Have you read Danielewski’s HOUSE OF LEAVES?
PA: I have that book. I kind of flipped through it. I need to sit down and read it.
KC: Well I only mention it because, like the house in SUNSET PARK, the house is a character, but also the canvas for the entire work…
PA: You want to read the best book about a house ever written, you need to read George Perec’s LIFE: A USER’S MANUAL, do you know him?
KC: No, only that I know of him, but haven’t read any of his works.
PA: Know him. He was a genius, THE young post-war French genius. He was the one who famously wrote an entire novel without using the letter “e” – you ever heard about this?
KC: I have heard of that. And I can’t even wrap my mind around it.
PA: It was an excellent translation - which also faithfully omitted the letter “e” - anyways, he was part of a group called Oulipo, a group of writers who dealt with all kinds of constraints. Like, let’s write a book with only the vowel “e” or a book without the use of the vowel “e” – something to that effect. And they had this fantastically funny device they created, called the S+7 method, which would be to take, say a sonnet, and look up every word in the sonnet, and look up every word seven entries ahead in the dictionary for each given word, and Clark Coolidge, you know Clark Coolidge?
PA: He’s a friend of mine, back when Maya Angelou read the dreadful poem for the Clinton inauguration, called “On the Pulse of Morning” – Clark was so outraged by this poem that he wrote an S+7 method parody of it, which turned out to be “On the Pumice of Morons” – it was hilarious. Anyway, Perec’s book, which is an immense book, a masterpiece, takes place in one building in Paris, and the book treats every single person in the building. It’s fabulous, it was the last book review I ever did, in 1987 in the New York Times Book Review. I praised this thing to the sky. But you should look into it. And if you like that book, then there is a little book W, OR THE MEMORY OF CHILDHOOD also written by Perec. Anyway, the house. The house that I describe in the book…
PA: Exist-ED. In my wanderings around Sunset Park, I walked down this street and stumbled upon this anomalous wooden structure that looked like something from the prairie - Texas or Kansas – like the house from The Wizard of Oz, and I thought, well, this is the very sort of place where a gang of young people could pull this off, because it was on the end of a very remote street in a downtrodden neighborhood. It turns out that the house has since been demolished. A couple of weeks ago I was doing an NPR interview where they like to go to the places, even though you can’t see them, being radio after all, but we visited the street and it’s a vacant lot now with a little fence in front of it. It’s kind of sad. I wish my imaginary people had been real enough to have taken possession of the place.
KC: I really wanted to see that house. [Long pause] Typical. Well, moving on. How do you describe Bing’s role in everything?
PA: Bing’s role?
KC: Yeah, he’s more than just the messenger, the switchboard, right?
PA: Well, a pivot. I think in the book he’s the connection to Miles and the family, and he’s the connection to Ellen and Alice and all the others. But in the end they all are connected.
KC: I was curious about his role specifically, because it seemed to be more of an awkward situation than all the others.
PA: Well, he’s playing the double agent really, with a clear conscience. Though he never tells the parents what Miles has been doing.
KC: I don’t know if reflective is the right word, but it seems like there are a lot of passages and situations that were kind of book-matched to one another…
PA: For example…
KC: Like the relation with Miles and Pilar, the forbidden fruit, then you have the confession with Ellen and Ben. Was that by design? To me it really added harmony to the whole thing.
PA: Perhaps, yes, there could be something to what you say. In neither instance do I find the relationship perverse, in any way. I mean Pilar is seventeen years old, and in X amount of days she will be eighteen. A lot of girls at seventeen are really quite mature…
KC: Some at forty can be infantile.
PA: Exactly. She’s a very intelligent person, and it’s really a matter of how many more ticks on the clock before this is not an issue.
KC: That makes for a nice timing device.
PA: Yeah, it just worked out that way. Everything fell into place. And with Ben, well he’s a strong, healthy, athletic, sixteen year old boy, and what else do sixteen year old boys think about? He’s the one who makes the move.
KC: And then the onus is on her…
PA: Well, she’s brave about it, she keeps her mouth shut. She doesn’t tell on him, she doesn’t even burden him with it. Fragile and nutty as she is, she has this core of integrity in her that I admire a lot.
KC: I think the fragile and nutty are usually that way.
PA: [laughs] Well…
KC: Unless they’re completely unhinged. In addition to that scenario, there was the baseball reference with Herb Score that was reflective, a sort of parallel with the grandfather.
PA: All this stuff is happening, almost as I was writing the book. Many things coalescing simultaneously, Herb Score’s death, the financial meltdown, the house of cards – it was out there in the world. Lucky Lohrke’s death – now the weird thing is, and you understand how improvisatory writing is, Lucky was still alive when I was writing this, but he died before I finished it. He died in April of ’09. I was well into the book by then.
PA: Mark Fydrich died while I was writing this book as well.
KC: How did you feel about that?
PA: Horrible, horrible. Because I loved Mark Fydrich, you’re too young to remember him.
KC: I really… I loved the reflective nature, how everything seemed pretty complimentary, how the ideas were reinforced in this introverted way. It wasn’t – and I mean this in the best possible way – it wasn’t like it was tightly woven, it was more like chain-link. Everything was compartmentalized, but in perfect succession.
PA: Each thing is separate, but connected, yes. I like that.
KC: Okay, I’m glad I was on the mark there.
PA: [laughs] No, I don’t write “tightly woven” books, I never have.
KC: Was Mary-Lee a play on Meryl?
PA: No, I just liked the sound of the name.
KC: Okay, just checking. All of the stuff about PEN true?
PA: Everything is true.
KC: I haven’t had the chance to do any research on that, such as the hacking into their databases and whatnot.
PA: Oh no, it’s all true – I’ve been secretary and vice president of PEN. I know these people, and I give thanks to them in the book, but I’d been working on that program for years. I did go in and talk to them at length, to find out the full picture of what was going on with Xiaobo - now he got the Nobel Prize, but this of course predates all that. No, it’s all true. There are a lot of documentary aspects to this book, the baseball references are real, the PEN references, even the film and the house.
KC: That all helps to anchor everything for the reader, right?
PA: Sure. I’ve never written a book in the present tense – it is really a book about now, the American air, in the minute. Most of my books, in fact most novels, are told in the past tense. But this is the first time I’ve done this, this is the first time I’ve written from multiple points of view. So it was a bit of a torture for me, an invigorating one. I wrote it in record time. I was on fire with this one. I finished it in five months. It just all came together. Usually I’m slow, eking out a page a day, but this one came much faster.
KC: Why do you think that is?
PA: I don’t know.
KC: Were you enamored with the style, the characters?
PA: I have no idea. Philip Guston, the great American painter once said “A life of suffering for a moment of grace”, well maybe this was a moment of grace for me. I didn’t have to second guess this book at all. Everything was always there. Each character was always there.
KC: Now were these characters you’ve had in your mind, and you thought you’d use them when the right story presented itself?
PA: Yeah, Ellen I think about. I’ve actually been thinking about writing a whole novel about Ellen. Never really got to it, then I brought her to this book…
KC: This brings up a really good question, and I think a lot of writers struggle with this: When you have a really good character, do you sacrifice the character for a book, relegating the character to a supporting role? Do you feel like you left a lot of Ellen out of SUNSET PARK?
PA: Ahhh, I don’t know. If I felt a burning need to go back to her I’d do it. I have no compunction about reusing a character. I’ve done it before, I’ll surely do it again.
KC: So you still have a lot more Ellen left?
PA: I think so… Not at the moment, but something might happen.
KC: Still some un-turned corners there.
KC: I did have a question about this whole paralysis of Miles. Was it due to the trauma specifically, or was it due to his education of life, as in “this is the way it is” so why bother? Or is it a little from column A, a little from column B?
PA: If you want to really give a deep psychoanalytical reading of Miles, one might say that it happened in his infancy. His mother didn’t want him. She was an incompetent mother, she didn’t hold him correctly. And then she disappeared. He was brought up by a loving nanny. He was in a sense abandoned. Those first two years she was gone, and that was too late. You’re a father, you understand. By two years of age, it’s too late. He wasn’t smothered with love, I think all healthy children are smothered with love.
KC: He needed to have that assurance that no matter what, he could go to them.
PA: Yes. Life is too hard, you must be absolutely surrounded by love in order to face life.
KC: You have to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you can go to them no matter what.
PA: Yes. And even though his father raised him, you know, a father isn’t a mother. Father’s don’t have the same role, especially early on, they become supremely important later on, five, six, and beyond. So I think that’s the explanation, and then you couple that with the horrible accident that took place, and he shuts down. He feels as if his whole life is a mistake, he shouldn’t have been born. And in many ways he’s a wonderful person. He’s very intelligent.
KC: He’s capable of a great amount of love.
PA: The way he attaches himself to this girl, I have this feeling that he’s going to get better as life goes on for him. I have hope for Miles.
KC: No question. Even throughout the book there seemed to be a positive upswing, not just because of Pilar, but there was a “time heals all” thing too.
PA: He’s just sick of himself, sick of the game he’s been playing. As he tells his mother at their dinner, he kept going and he didn’t know why he was doing it anymore. And Miles is one of these magnetic people. He walks into a room and everything stops. He’s portrayed as being very good looking, but again, that’s not enough.
KC: There are a lot of good looking people that are absolute bores.
PA: Right. He’s the good-looking silent guy, therefore he becomes a mirror for other people’s feelings.
KC: And that’s what people love about the Miles’ of the world. Everyone loves mirrors.
PA: [laughs] True.
KC: So we’re always curious about the process. What is your writing process? Give us an idea of your daily routine as well as your project-length process.
PA: It’s pretty dull. But all writers’ lives are dull. How can it be exciting, sitting in a room? So what is my routine… I wake up in the morning, I go downstairs and have a minimal breakfast, usually some orange juice and a pot of tea. Read the New York Times, fairly thoroughly - depends on the day. And then I go off to a little apartment I have in the neighborhood about two blocks from my house.
KC: Every author I’ve talked to has a separate office, a distinct and physically removed place from their home where they can write.
PA: Really? Interesting, interesting.
KC: And I don’t personally possess one, but I find that I have to get out of the house, even if I just come out to a place like this, where I have all of this grey noise…
PA: Well, see I live with a writer, a great writer, and the two of us together in the house is not a good thing, workwise. [laughs] We used to do it, but it is better for her and for me to go out.
KC: So do you have “the view of the cinder block wall” sort of thing at the office?
PA: Well, it’s pretty Spartan in there. The workroom actually looks out on the backyard, the fire escape, and a little untended garden of tangled weeds. My only companions are the squirrels that hop around on the fire escape.
KC: You have some pretty brave squirrels in New York I’ve seen. I saw a woman actually get mugged of her muffin by one.
PA: Listen, they carry guns here, you think Texas is bad…
KC: One jumped on my knee in Union Square and was like “hey, where’s my food?” and then went off to the next guy. So you mosey down there by like what, nine or ten?
PA: It all depends. Depends on the day.
KC: So you don’t force yourself to some rigid schedule.
PA: No, no. But I wake up pretty early. I am in there by nine o’clock, generally. I have a little kitchen with a refrigerator, so I always have my lunch there. And then I don’t do anything but write. There’s no television, no computer… no distractions.
KC: You still write on the typewriter, right?
PA: Well I write by pen, longhand, first – and then I type it up every day, paragraph by paragraph.
KC: It seems like so few write by hand anymore.
PA: Oh, I know plenty who write by hand.
KC: And I think the best stuff comes when you least expect it, and you jot it down. I was taught early on in school that taking notes, the physical action of writing it down, helps to reinforce the idea in your mind, something you don’t get from typing.
PA: Well for me the whole act of writing is very physical. I can’t think with my hands on a keyboard.
KC: In the Lethem interview you talk about that, how you can actually hear what the word sounds like as it scratches out across the paper.
PA: Yeah, the ink is coming out, it’s as if the ink is coming out of your body.
KC: Is that the pen you write with? [nods towards Auster’s ball point Mont Blanc]
PA: No, this is a treasured object, a gift from my daughter. I write with an Aurora, an Italian fountain pen, the flow is very good with those.
KC: You go through a lot of ink? This one [I show my pen] dumps ink on the page.
PA: No, I use cartridges. I find they are less prone to accident, more efficient. So anyway I write in my notebook, I write and write until the paragraph is where I want it. That is the unit of composition.
KC: So you don’t move forward in the process until the graph is nailed down, except for maybe an outline, well, DO you outline?
PA: Minimally. The whole book could be in half a page. This book would be Miles, Florida… you know it’s all in my head. I don’t need this thing to remind me of the chronological order of things. I’ve always written this way, from the very beginning. It is a unit of breath and thought, each paragraph is a unit of composition unto itself.
KC: And most of us read that way, we read the graph, then we pause, we reflect, and we move on.
KC: It’s the pause, the bite, the mouthful.
PA: Yes. And I don’t write short paragraphs. So, when I get tired of writing for the day, I leave and go home. It all depends - some days it’s three, some days it’s six. It all depends on what that day brings.
KC: From everyone I’ve talked to, only one deviates from that, he insists on an almost punch-clock regiment. Whereas others are like, if it ain’t coming, it ain’t coming.
PA: Yeah, that’s a bit much. And I don’t throw a lot of stuff out. I tend to editorialize inline, while I write. I attack the paragraph and the page, but there’s not a lot of alteration afterwards.
KC: This is the opposite of Spanbauer.
PA: Yeah, well, that works for him, then great. But not for me. There’s a music in your head when you write, and the effort every day, when you write, is to capture that music. Get the music in your head on the page. So that’s my day as a writer. Then I go back home and we do what everyone else does.
KC: So directing and screenwriting. Are you done with that, is it something you want to revisit?
PA: Well, I’ve done it four times…
KC: Seems like the popular thinking is that if you are going to write screenplays, then write screenplays, and if you are going to be a novelist, then write novels.
PA: Well, you know, you should do what you want to do. I made a film in ’06, came out in ’07, the tiniest film imaginable.
KC: Tiniest film imaginable?
PA: Well, four actors, shot for under a million dollars, shot in Portugal, and it had a minimal release here, one theater in New York, and it’s on DVD. THE INNER LIFE OF MARTIN FROST. But I feel happy about the film. I loved doing it and I would do it again but for two reasons. 1) I don’t have an idea for a film, and 2) I think the state of independent film is so dire right now, even if I could raise the money, I doubt it could get distributed. I mean, I had New Yorker Films distribution for my last one, and they’re gone, they went under. This great company that for forty-five years put out some of the best films, they couldn’t survive. So I don’t know, I don’t know if there is any point in spending two years of your life to do something that no one is ever going to see.
KC: Chris Cleave said writing a novel is so much more fun, you have no constraints, no budgetary concerns, it’s just you and the page.
PA: Yes, yes. But you see he’s just a writer, he’s never directed. Directing is just the most thrilling job in the world, I have to say. You’re involved in ninety-nine things at once, and they are all interesting. And when you see it all click - it’s wonderful. The business is disgusting, but the actual work is wonderful.
KC: But that’s everything art, right?
PA: [laughs] Yeah.
KC: So you are still amenable to the idea…
PA: Well, we’ll see.
KC: So what kind of advice do you have for writers?
PA: None. Well, the only advice I ever give to young writers is “don’t do it.”
PA: I say that very sincerely. Because what is to gain from this? A life of loneliness, poverty, and frustration. That’s pretty much what you are guaranteed. If anything other than that happens… it’s just a roll of the dice. And I say don’t do it. And if a person is determined to do it, then they will do that in spite of my advice, and that means they are a born artist, and they need to do it. Because the only reason to do it is because you feel the need to.
KC: Doesn’t that also statistically guarantee a little more success on their end if they are compelled for reasons other than fame and fortune?
PA: Well I don’t think that far ahead. [laughs]
KC: So don’t do it.
PA: Don’t do it. Get a real job.
Paul Auster lives in Brooklyn and cannot be found on Twitter or Facebook.