Paul Auster is an American author whose books have been translated into more than 40 languages. The recipient of several awards for both writing and film directing, Auster has penned numerous novels, autobiographical works, volumes of poetry and essays. Blending elements of postmodernism, metafiction and existentialism, he has established a distinctive niche in contemporary literature with books like “The New York Trilogy” and “Moon Palace.” He visited Yale this Tuesday as part of the Schlesinger Visiting Writer Series to read extracts from his work. WKND sat down with Auster to talk about reading too much, misdialed calls and the “disease” of writing.
Q: Let’s start with writing on writing. Some of your characters are writers who try to find meaning in their lives through writing. Do you see them as reflections of yourself?
A: Those characters are writing in different areas and in different ways. In any case, they are a way to think about how to be alive, I suppose. I think that’s the function they serve. It’s not that I follow their literary careers or anything like that. Their writing reflects a state of inwardness and self-questioning.
Q: Given the characteristically experimental nature of your writing, to what extent do you consider yourself connected to the past or to some literary tradition?
A: I feel very connected to older forms of literature. The greatest inspiration for me, the thing that I think about most often, is fairy tales. In fact, most of the time I don’t think of myself as a novelist so much as a storyteller. The writers I most care about are the 19th-century Americans. Yes, there are things that I like very much from the 20th century, but nothing as much as Melville or Hawthorne or Thoreau. These writers have had much more to say to me than the others.
I wouldn’t categorize myself in any way whatsoever as “experimental” or “traditional.” Every book demands its own form. I am not someone who says to himself, “Well, I will write a sonnet today. Fourteen lines and a certain rhyme pattern.” Nor am I someone who says, “I will sit down and write a book about the state of man’s anxiety in the early 21st century.” Books begin in much more concrete ways. A character will flip through my imagination; somebody will do something and will trigger off a memory that will trigger off a thought. Little by little, clusters of images and words swirl around in my head and then they congeal and come together. Then something starts to form.
It’s all very hard to talk about in any articulate and coherent way because I don’t really know what’s happening. Nor have I ever witnessed the birth of an idea. I have never seen, or felt, or quite understood how something will get into my head. One moment there is nothing, and the next moment there is something. It’s a quantum leap. There is no thread linking the nothing to the something. It’s all very bizarre. I have been thinking about it all my life, and I have never understood.
Q: How do you write after that initial spark of an idea?
A: Most of my books are improvisations. I have a general idea of what I want to do, a sense of where I think the story is going — a feeling for what we might call the drift. But I can assure you that not one of the books I have published so far has ever turned out the way I thought it would when I started. Something different has always happened. The book takes on a life of its own as you are working on it; it tells you what it wants to be. You, as the writer, are the instrument of the process and you are trying to listen to, more than dictate, what’s happening. That’s why writing is such a great adventure for me.
I really don’t know when I sit down every morning exactly what I will be doing that day. There are writers who map out their books in advance and sometimes write quite extensive outlines of what’s going to happen in the novel. And then they doggedly go through it day by day, page by page, and reproduce in a more elaborate form what’s in the outline. I can’t do that. I think it would be very dull, and I would lose the excitement of not knowing. On the other hand, when I was younger and very confused about how to do any of this, I thought that was what you had to do. I thought you had to know it in advance. It was the plague of going to a very good school [Columbia] and reading too much literature and literary criticism. Of course, it had a great impact on my education, and I have learned so much, but at the same time, it held me back. If you want to become an artist, you have to learn everything you possibly can and then you have to do everything you possibly can to forget it. And the things that you cannot forget will form the foundation of your work.
Q: Does your method of improvisational writing change when you work on autobiographical pieces?
A: Each of my five nonfictional books is a different approach to autobiographical writing. They are all very bizarre. They don’t fit any conventional form, and they are certainly not memoirs. The material is known to me, but the shaping of it is just as difficult as shaping a novel. The effort to write a good sentence is the same effort whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction. In a novel you are free to invent, but at the same time, once you set up the boundaries of the work you are engaged in, you have to stick to them. You can’t go past the boundaries — then you destroy what you are trying to do. In nonfiction, you are circumscribed by the truth, with a capital “t.” The truth, in this case, is things as you remember them as clearly as possible, because often you misremember or make a mistake; it is at least not to write down anything that is a conscious mistake or distortion of what you think is the truth. That’s one of the pacts you make with yourself and the reader.
Q: In a past interview you have claimed that “unless it’s absolutely urgent, there’s no point in writing.” What do you mean by urgency?
A: It’s a personal urgency. It’s about whether you really need to do this. Whether your life will be possible if you don’t do it. It’s all coming from so deeply within that it is really the unconscious that is telling you what to do. That’s why it’s difficult for me to discuss my own work.
Q: On what grounds do you see the books in “The New York Trilogy” as “urgent?”
A: They are very short books, but they were the product of years and years of thinking and writing. When I started as a published writer, I was publishing poems, translations of poetry, essays, and critical pieces. But back when I was an undergraduate, the burning ambition of my life was to write novels. And I had around a thousand pages of manuscripts of books that I started but didn’t finish. They all later became real books, when I got older and was able to sift through the material that I have been obsessed with during that time. They became “City of Glass,” “In the Country of Last Things,” and “Moon Palace.” I was working on versions of these works throughout my college years but never in a way that satisfied me.
But when I finally found the courage to go back to fiction, when I was around 33, I still had those notebooks in which I had written the earlier drafts. And I just lifted up some passages from them. Some things I had written at the age of 21 are more or less the same in “City of Glass,” for example. I have grown up to the degree that I could pull all these things together in a more coherent way.
Q: In “The New York Trilogy,” why did you choose to manipulate the genre of the detective story? What about that genre appealed to you?
A: I was working on my first prose book, “The Invention of Solitude,” and the telephone rang. I picked up the phone, and the person on the other end said, “Is this the Pinkerton Agency?” The Pinkerton Agency is the oldest and most famous detective agency in America. And I said he had the wrong number and hung up.
The next day, more or less the same time in the afternoon, the same thing happened and I hung up again. When I hung up that second time, I said to myself, “Why did I do that? Why did I not say that this was the Pinkerton Agency? Maybe I could have found out what this person wanted and what the case was.” About a year later, when I sat down to start writing the book, that turned out to be the incident that triggers all the action. Someone calls Quinn not for the Pinkerton Agency but for the private detective Paul Auster. And on the third call, Quinn says, “Yes, I am Paul Auster.” I wanted to remain true to the inspiring event which had to do with detectives, and I stuck with it.
Q: What attracts you to the paradoxical and the uncanny, which we frequently encounter in your work?
A: I am really interested in ambiguity. Things in life are not always so clear. I am talking not only about phenomenological questions, but about moral, psychological, and even judicial and political issues. Everything tends to collapse into a state of ambiguity. And some conflicting truths somehow coexist. These are the things that interest me the most, because this is how I think we really live.
Q: You have written a lot about the nature of language and its impact on human life. Why?
A: Language gives us the world, but it also takes it away from us. We constantly live in this duality.
Q: Yale is teeming with aspiring writers. Is there any golden advice that you would like to give them?
A: Don’t do it. You are asking for a life of penury, solitude, and a kind of invisibility in the world. It’s almost like taking orders in a religious sect. Writing is a disease, it’s not anything more than that. If a young person says, “You are right, it would be a stupid thing to do,” then that person shouldn’t be a writer. If a young person says, “I don’t agree with you, I will do it anyway,” alright, good luck! But you’ll have to figure it out on your own, because everyone’s path is different.