Interview with Paul Auster

Posted by Goodreads on November 1, 2010
Paul Auster defies easy categorization with his genre-bending body of work. Although his 1982 debut, The Invention of Solitude, was a memoir, Auster has developed his reputation as a writer of fiction, specifically of what many term "metafiction": stories concerned with the telling of stories. His best-known work, The New York Trilogy, is a collection of linked stories that remains a touchstone both for that type of collection as well as for detective writing. City of Glass, the final volume in the trilogy, was even adapted as a graphic novel. In his latest work, Sunset Park, the New Jersey-born writer illuminates the 2008 economic collapse through the eyes of a group of young squatters and Miles Heller, an Ivy League dropout who photographs objects left behind by evicted families. Blogger, book reviewer, author interviewer, and "above all a reader," Bethanne Patrick spoke with Auster on behalf of Goodreads.

Goodreads: Sunset Park brings to mind other makeshift communities in novels, such as T.C. Boyle's Drop City. What does your Brooklyn squat represent?

Paul Auster: These kids, my characters, are hanging on by a thread. The book is about many things, and one of them is this house in Sunset Park where four twentysomethings are squatting. It's a story about houses and homes. Literal, physical houses and then the home as the idea of a family. It's astounding how many people have lost places to live in recent years. It's an enormous social problem, confronted in my book by these young people who simply don't have enough money to live, even though each of them has something they're trying to accomplish. Except, perhaps, for Miles.

GR: Why do you think these younger characters are having such a difficult time?

PA: The thing that is so tragic about America today is that young people who go to college, unless they're from extremely wealthy families, have to take out student loans. The great tragedy, therefore, is that young people who have been very educated start out life in debt. People in debt tend to be frightened people. They're afraid of losing their jobs, their livelihood—that's not a good way to begin life as a whole. For example, my character Alice is still in school, graduate school, and she's scrambling desperately. She doesn't know what to do. She has no income, and she can't rely on her parents back in the Midwest—they have nothing.

GR: Let's talk about one of the locations in the book that is important: Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery, a national historic landmark. In 1860, its popularity as a tourist attraction rivaled Niagara Falls, and it inspired the creation of New York City's Central Park.

PA: Green-Wood, founded in 1838, was the weekend spot of preference for working-class families, and why not? It's a bucolic spot in the middle of urban New York that's beautiful, rather grim. Just when you think you're entering necropolis, you find a space that's tranquil, beautiful, restful. There are so many amazing people buried there, literally a roll call of American industry and ingenuity, including Henry Ward Beecher, Leonard Bernstein, Horace Greeley, William Steinway, and on and on...

GR: Your characters in Sunset Park, young and old, related by blood and not, form their own sort of community, don't they?

PA: I hadn't thought of that, but that's an interesting point. I wrote the book placing most of the action inside the heads of the followers; the event becomes part of what they're thinking about. I've never written a book like this, with multiple points of view all in present tense. It has a feeling of theatricality, as if these characters are actors in a play rather than chapters in a book and each character at a different spot.

GR: Now for a few questions from our community. Goodreads member Kirstie Shanley would like to hear your favorite story about another author.

PA: I do have a beloved story about another author that I believe is true, and I hope is true, because of how I feel about that author. I used the story in my novel Brooklyn Follies. It is, I believe, a true story: Kafka and his last lover, Dora, were walking in a Berlin park together and came upon a little girl crying because she had lost her doll. Kafka told her that he knew for a fact that the doll was fine, because he had had a letter from her. When the girl asked to see it, he told her he had not brought it with him but would return the next day with the letter. Thus began a series of elaborate letters from the doll posted from various locations. It's a wonderful story, not least because it shows such compassion on Kafka's part.

GR: Goodreads member Anton Roe wonders how much you are influenced by your wife, the novelist Siri Hustvedt (and in turn, how you influence her). How much do you share during the writing process?

PA: Siri and I have been together for 30 years and have shared our work with each other from the very beginning. As I write my books I'm reading them out loud, carrying pages home, eagerly awaiting her comments. She's brilliant. I don't think there's a comment she's made that I haven't taken to heart over those years. Conversely, I read everything she writes, in her finished draft.

I think in order to do this kind of thing, number one you have to have total faith in the other person—believe in that person's project, and be completely honest. You can't just pat the other on the back. We do our thing separately but we share it.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits? Goodreads member Susan recalls that you've said you always write in notebooks. She asks, "Can you talk a little more about your writing process and your notebook collection?"

PA: There was a Monty Python sketch that showed Thomas Hardy writing in front of a live audience, and when he'd finish a sentence, they'd all cheer. Then he'd cross out a sentence, and they'd all boo or sigh. That's about as exciting a life as it is for a writer: You write sentences, and you cross out sentences.

My day begins as all days begin for every human being. You wake up—if you're alive, you wake up—pot of tea, read the paper, then walk to the little apartment three blocks away where I have my separate writing spot. It's very Spartan here, nothing to do but work. I spend as much time as I can writing each day, which usually means from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.—basically a 9-5 schedule. Some days one has more stamina, you're more on fire, it's a marathon so you have to pace yourself.

I do have a few unusual writing habits—I'm a dinosaur now. I write everything by hand and type it up on an old manual typewriter, an Olympia 1961. The one time any serious damage was done to it was when my now-33-year-old son was two, and he snapped off the return arm. I had to take it to a shop that was very much like the Hospital of Broken Objects in Sunset Park.

I can say this, I've never been able to compose on a keyboard. I need a pen or a pencil in my hand, feel that it's a very physical activity. When I write, words are literally coming out of my body.

I'm very particular about my notebooks, and 95 percent of the time they are the same kind of notebook: They're made in France and are very tall—Clairefontaine brand, 24 x 32 centimeters. They're filled with pages of graph paper, which I like, as my handwriting is rather small.

I tend to buy notebooks whenever I travel. I have Norwegian notebooks, Japanese notebooks, Australian notebooks. I write with a fountain pen, and over the years I've experimented with many different kinds of fountain pens, but for the past decade or so I've been using an Italian brand called Aurora. I do write with pencils, too, and those are always Pentel mechanical pencils with 0.5 leads. I told you I have small handwriting!

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

PA: The recently dead—quite extraordinary how that generation, what we sometimes call "The Greatest Generation," has recently disappeared from the scene. I think only Gore Vidal is still left of those writers; the list is so long I don't want to bore you with the usual suspects.

Charles Dickens had a big impact on me, as did Kafka, Joyce, Beckett, Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Flaubert, Shakespeare.

GR: Do you have any favorite books or authors? What are you reading now?

PA: J.M. Coetzee, Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie are all writers I'm very keen on, and all people I know. Their work is important to me. I discovered Georges Perec in the late 1980s and have found great pleasure in reading him as well as that new but lost star that is Roberto Bolaño. I'm also planning to reread some Vargas Llosa in honor of his Nobel Prize.

GR: Goodreads member John asks, "Who are some of your favorite young writers?"

PA: Some of my favorite younger writers are Rick Moody, Richard Powers, and the late David Foster Wallace.

Interview by Bethanne Patrick for Goodreads. A journalist and book reviewer in the D.C. metro area, she is also managing editor and host of The Book Studio.

Learn more about Bethanne and follow what she's reading.

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Comments Showing 1-14 of 14 (14 new)

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message 1: by Rauf (new)

Rauf I love the fact that he has a thing for notebooks :)

message 2: by Printable Tire (new)

Printable Tire I just looked up the Monty Python sketch- very funny!

message 3: by Susan (new)

Susan L. Thanks to Bethanne Patrick for the great interview and to Paul Auster for his lengthy and detailed answer to my question! It's also great to see that we like and are inspired by many of the same writers.

message 4: by Bookeraj (new)

Bookeraj I enjoyed this interview, I' m big fan of Austers work.

message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

Auster's books are wonderful. I can't wait for Sunset Park.

message 6: by Eliza (new)

Eliza I like Paul Austers books.He is a master of fantasy-just love his Moon Palace. I hope I can also enjoy reading Sunset Park .Greetings Eliza

message 7: by Ilmy (new)

Ilmy im still new member here,, please help me to enjoy it.....

message 8: by Karal (new)

Karal I just finished reading Moon Palace; it was haunting, audacious, intuitive, brilliant look at connections, memory and ends at the beginning..

message 9: by Printable Tire (new)

Printable Tire WTF SPAM Accounts on Goodreads? Are you serious???

Numerologyanswers good

message 11: by Poorbo (new)

Poorbo bcat I love the fact that he has a thing for notebooks :)

message 12: by Poorbo (new)

Poorbo bcat Thats outstanding...

message 13: by Foshanbishop (new)

Foshanbishop good

message 14: by Crimescene (new)

Crimescene Cleanuptucsonaz good

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