A Connoisseur of Clouds, a Meteorologist of Whims: The Rumpus Interview with Paul Auster

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I don’t know why I write. If I knew the answer, I probably wouldn’t have to.

Paul Auster is an incredibly prolific author, whose style is as distinctive as it is dynamic. In his 15th novel, Invisible, which hit the shelves last week, Auster traverses the streets of both New York and Paris examining the anxiety, complexity and malaise that accompany urban life. It is the story of Adam Walker, a young and brilliant second-year student at Columbia, and his relationships with a series of characters including a mysterious and treacherous Frenchman named Rudolf Born, Walker’s older sister Gwyn (with whom he has an incestuous affair, which she later denies), a young woman named Celine, and Jim, a classmate from college—decades later—who becomes Walker’s confidant, and the novel’s keeper.

I have been in hot pursuit of an interview with Paul Auster for over a year now though I’m glad it took this long, because Invisible is truly indicative of what makes Auster a master of his craft. Invisible may be my favorite Auster novel to date, and for all its complexity, it is overall a beautifully written and utterly involving story about confusion, obsession, experience and love—in all of their various forms.

The Rumpus: What were you doing before we met today? What is a typical day in the life of Paul Auster?

Paul Auster: Well, there are two kinds of typical days. There’s the typical day when I’m writing a novel, and there’s the typical day when I’m not. I just finished something new, so I’m unemployed again so I had a pretty lackadaisical day. When I’m writing a novel I stick to a rigid routine. I get up between seven and eight, I have orange juice and tea, read the paper then I go off to a little apartment I have in the neighborhood where I work. I stay there until five or six. It’s a very Spartan environment. I don’t even own a computer. I write by hand then I type it up on an old manual typewriter. But I cross out a lot—I’m not writing in stone tablets, it’s just ink on paper. I don’t feel comfortable without a pen or a pencil in my hand. I can’t think with my fingers on the keyboard. Words are generated for me by gripping the pen, and pressing the point on the paper.

Rumpus: You’re a very prolific writer. You’ve published works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, translation, critical essays and screen plays. When and how did you decide that you wanted to be a writer, and what do you recall as your earliest formative reading experience?

Auster: For one reason or another, I became a passionate reader when I was very little. As soon as I could read, I wanted to read. By the age of 9 or so, I was writing little poems—don’t ask me why, they were wretched, wretched, awful little things—but I enjoyed doing it and I graduated to writing short stories. When I was twelve years old, in the sixth grade, I wrote a long short story, and the teacher of the class let me read out loud to the other students in the last five or ten minutes of every day of school, so that was my first public work. It was a mystery story about someone hiding pearls in a typewriter. I don’t know where I came up with the idea, I probably stole it. I remember doing drawings of all the faces of the characters too…ridiculous. But as I got older and entered my adolescence, I got more serious about all this. The biggest book for me, when I was fifteen, was Crime and Punishment, which I read in a kind of fever. When I put it down, I thought, if this is what novels are then I want to be a novelist. But there were a few little ups and downs in my thinking. I remember I thought I should become a doctor, even though I had no talent for science whatsoever. Then of course, until I was about sixteen, I thought I might have a shot as a major league baseball player. But once I hit my full adolescence I lost all interest in that. I discovered, in rapid succession, books, girls, alcohol and tobacco, and I’ve never turned back. Those are the four things I’m most interested in, still to this day.

Rumpus: You’ve got a new novel out, Invisible. In part two of Invisible, one character says to another, “Fear is a good thing. Fear is what drives us to take risks and extend ourselves beyond our normal limits. Any writer who feels he is standing on safe ground is unlikely to produce anything of value.” What kinds of risks do you take as a writer, and when is the last time you truly felt you were not standing on solid ground?

Auster: I never feel I’m standing on solid ground, and I do write with a certain kind of trembling fear. As a poet or a novelist or a painter, you are pushing yourself all the time, always looking for a new way to approach something, challenging yourself and never, never trying to write the same book twice. You challenge yourself aesthetically, morally, psychologically. You go into terrain that can be very uncomfortable, and you have to do it with a certain boldness. You can’t shrink from the task, but that’s what makes it all so interesting. Otherwise, better to do another job. With Invisible, the structure is very strange, it’s very risky, as was Man in the Dark. That one loops in on itself, then takes a sudden right-turn about two-thirds through so it didn’t have the ideal classical structure of a novel. As does this new one; it just breaks into pieces by the end. There are not only two male narrators, there’s a female narrator at the end of the book as well. I thought that was risky, but organic. It’s the way the story seemed to demand being written. Then there’s the business that takes place in part 2…which was territory I’d certainly never even gone near and it was difficult. But I wanted to do it in a very open and honest way, and it was demanding emotionally. I don’t even know where it came from. So much of what I do comes out of my unconscious, and if I feel it’s the right thing to do I just go with it, but I can’t gauge it. There’s no scientific measurement to say whether it’s right or wrong, it’s intuition. It felt right for this troubled young man, this passionate, intelligent young man.

Rumpus: Do you have a particular process, or do you find that you invent a new process with each new book you write?

Auster: It’s new, it’s always new. I am very scared at the beginning of each book, because I’ve never written it before. I feel I have to teach myself how to do it. The tone of every book is slightly different; there’s a music that each has that is distinct from all the others, and even the new book that I just finished—it’s shaped differently from anything I’ve ever tried before. There are very long sentences, sentences that are three pages long, but it just felt right. There was some sort of inner cadence that I was trying to create and I felt that by using long, rolling, run-on sentences it gave the book more propulsion.

Rumpus: You seem to have a fascination with writers, and they tend to play very central roles in your novels. Sometimes it seems like you explore the act of writing as a form of therapy, as if writing about something somehow makes it more real, gives it more meaning. But you also write about writing as a compulsion, as a tool that can unlock dark, difficult parts of the unconscious that you might not even know exist. Aside from a career, what role does writing play in your life? In short, why write?

Auster: I don’t know why I write. If I knew the answer, I probably wouldn’t have to. But it is a compulsion. You don’t choose it, it chooses you. And I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody. When young people say I want to be a novelist, I’d say, think very carefully about it. There will be very few rewards, you probably won’t make any money, you probably won’t become famous, and you will spend your whole life locked up in a room by yourself worrying about how to survive. You have to have a tremendous taste for solitude. I think all writers are a bit crazy; Damaged souls, incapable of doing anything else. On the other hand, when I am writing, even though it’s hard and I do struggle often, I am happier than when I’m not writing. I feel alive. Whereas when I’m not writing, I feel like your common every-day neurotic. I feel that the act of writing, in and of itself, is a tool towards probing that which you wouldn’t without that pen in your hand. It’s a strange, almost neurological phenomenon, and the words seem to generate more words—but only when you’re writing. You can’t do it in your head. There are certain phrases in books of mine, and I don’t know where they came from, or how I was capable of thinking up these formulations. It’s only in the heat of composition that these things occur to you.

Rumpus: So solitude is healthy for you?

Auster: Up to a point. I wouldn’t want to live alone. I like having my wife Siri to talk to and share things with, but our days are spent apart, each one, alone in a room.

The Rumpus: You’ve worked as a translator, and you are obviously very sensitive to language, and you do often write about words themselves as being particularly important in and of themselves. Are words simply a vehicle for expression, or can they be the inspiration?

Auster: It can be both, and it shifts. I sometimes feel that my goal as a novelist would be to write a novel in which the language was so transparent that the reader would forget that language was the medium of understanding. Of course that’s not possible, but it’s some sort of idealized goal. To see right through it, into the matter itself. Other times, the material of the words becomes the very subject of what I’m doing. In Timbuktu, there’s a schizophrenic homeless poet rambling to his dog these long monologues, and it’s all about the language; the careening of free association. It depends.

Rumpus: I’ve read in several places that you are heavily influenced by Herman Melville. In Moby Dick, the narrator Ishmael is decidedly unreliable. As readers, we don’t know who he is, or where he came from, and are given nearly no history of him at all. Similarly, in Invisible, and some of your earlier work, your narrators are unreliable as well, playing with the notion of what truth is, and whether or not it can be qualified. When you craft your characters, do you endow them with histories? Do you always know exactly what forces drive them? Do you have emotional relationships with them, and why are some of them so opaque?

Auster: My characters, I find them as I’m writing. It’s quite incredible how fully realized they are in my mind, how many details I know about each of them. I don’t think about the stories so much, as the characters themselves. They live on, and they are almost as real as I am and you are. I was very touched when, about a year and a half ago, I was in Denmark out by the water. I was very moved to see that the name of the boat was Hamlet—an imaginary character becomes so important to people, we think about them so much that we name a ship after them. The imaginary lives on in the real.

Invisible is the most complex book of mine, in terms of narration. But in Man in the Dark, as August Brill says at one point, “the real and the imagined are one.” Thoughts are real, even thoughts of unreal things. It goes around and around. Once you accept the fact that the inside is also part of the outside, all bets are off. It’s a bit like a flashback in a movie. Even if someone later says that it didn’t really happen, you’ve seen it, and you are convinced by it. With a character like Adam Walker, whether these things happened or not, you read it and you’re convinced by it. Everything else is secondary.

Rumpus: So much of your work is centered in and around cities. Cities are unique because they are purely human constructions, but at the same time incredibly isolating. Can you explain your involvement with cities, as a construction, as well as New York City as a real place.

Auster: Actually, I’d like to talk about space first. It’s about space—there are rooms and houses, there are streets and cities. A lot of this is tied to the body, which is tied to the unconscious. In my books, there are a lot of people stuck in rooms. Or, conversely, out in the wide open. It seems that, in a funny way, when people are cooped up in rooms they are freer than when they are wandering about in the world. Someone like Nash in The Music of Chance—he hits the road and nothing but trouble follows. Or, as I keep quoting in the Invention of Solitude, Pascal says, “All the unhappiness of man stems from one thing only: that he is incapable of staying quietly in his room.” Now cities—I’m attracted to them, and I have a special attachment to New York…it’s my place. In Invisible, I wrote about Paris a little bit—another city that is very close to me, because I lived there. Only once before, in The Locked Room, my narrator goes to Paris and runs into a lot of trouble there. So it was interesting, in my mind, to revisit Paris of forty years ago. But luckily a lot of things are still there unlike New York, where nearly everything from forty years ago is gone now. The hotel described in the book is a real place, and I did stay in that room in 1965. But the place is long gone, completely gutted and turned into an apartment building. It cost $1.40 a night to sleep there. And the mattresses really were U-shaped. It was creepy, but interesting. Walker, about that room, said, it was so awful, but it was the room for poets—those who have to battle just to survive and not go into a suicidal depression. Rooms matter a lot, rooms in cities particularly. But I’ve also enjoyed writing about openness too, and wandering around. I started exploring this early on, but in the Invention of Solitude, when I was talking about S. the composer, really you can’t imagine how small his room was, but he had it all organized—it was like Robinson Crusoe. It was his own little world, his microcosm. I was overwhelmed when I saw that a man could live this way, and actually be happy. It made a big impression. In my life, I’ve lived in very different kinds of places—very tiny rooms when I was young. And you do learn to cope with it. The funny thing is, as you begin to inhabit larger places, it’s very interesting how quickly you adapt to your space. What seems enormous at first becomes natural after a few weeks.

Rumpus: Brooklyn is, as it has always been, a creative hotbed for writers. What about Brooklyn do you like so much? What inspires you about this borough?

Auster: I’ve been here for thirty years now. My mother grew up in Crown Heights. First they lived in Brighton Beach, and my mother had asthma. The doctor said she has to go to a higher place. My grandfather said, ok we’ve got to move then. He took out a map, and he said, “Crown Heights, that’s it! High up there, we’ll go to the heights!” My daughter was born in the same hospital that my mother was born in. Brooklyn has a bit of everything—some of the most beautiful things in America, and some of the most wretched, ugly, impoverished things. In Blue in the Face, there’s a Brooklyn jazz musician who said, “Brooklyn’s got everything. We’ve got high lands and low lands, we got swamps and mountains, we got people from all over the world, every color, every race. The only problem is we don’t know how to get along.” But, I think we get along better than most heterogeneous communities around the world. It’s better than Belfast or Jerusalem, right?

Rumpus: What now, what’s next?

Auster: I guess I’m unemployed again. But I’m still ruminating on the novel I just finished. I’m still under the spell of it. I wrote the last pages at the end of August, but then there was the typing, correcting. I think I was done three weeks ago.

I’ve written books that have taken me fifteen years, from first sentence to last, and some that only take three or four months. But I have a new rhythm now. Up until the Brooklyn Follies, I knew what I wanted to write next—a backlog of books in my head. But after that, the drawer was empty. It was as if I plucked my last four books out of thin air, with long gaps after writing, five, six, seven months. But after something crystallizes, I can write ferociously and write novels in six months, which in the past would have taken me two years. When I start, I have a feeling for the characters, and maybe the shape of the story. Sometimes I might even have the last sentence in mind. But, no book I’ve ever written has ever ended the way I thought it would. Characters disappear, others come forward. Once you start writing, everything changes.


Juliet Linderman is the managing editor of the Greenpoint Gazette in Brooklyn, New York. More from this author →