Paul Auster’s Dirty, Devouring New York
Talking Trump, civil rights and riots with the author of 4321
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Paul Auster is an iconic Brooklyn writer, popular in Turkey and Germany, New Zealand and many other places. Famous since the New York Trilogy in the ‘80s — City of Glass, Ghosts, The Locked Room — Auster has now published over thirty books. With his 1995 film Smoke, Auster became a symbol of New York at its best: welcoming, liberal, good-humored. Over the phone, Auster is a thoughtful and gregarious interviewee, ever embodying these qualities.
4321, his first novel in seven years, clocks 866 pages. It follows four alternative lives for protagonist Archie Ferguson, Newark-born in 1947 (Auster’s birthplace and year, too). Peppered with important twentieth century American history, from JFK’s assassination to the ’68 Columbia University protests. Auster remains an advocate for the Big Apple. “Dear, dirty, devouring New York,” 4321 puts it.
We discussed Auster’s process, solitude, traumatic history, and the joy of reading. And, pre-Inauguration, Trump and the rise of authoritarianism.
Alexander Bisley: Just before Trump’s election you said: “I’m scared out of my wits. Everyone I know is on the edge of a nervous breakdown.” Here we are.
Paul Auster: Here we are. It’s happened. I was hoping against hope that it wouldn’t. But I had this terrible feeling that the polls were wrong and I think it was Brexit that opened the door to another way of thinking for me. And when that vote was announced, I thought to myself: “It’s possible Trump could win.” I never could shake that feeling and lo and behold it’s happened.
AB: Much as New York is one of my favorite cities, people like Trump and Giuliani are symbols of its dark side.
PA: It seems like Giuliani’s gone crazy. He’s becoming a fire-breathing maniac. At the Republican convention; he was shrieking that Hillary Clinton could be but the end of civilization as we know it, something to that effect. I think he’s so far out now that Trump didn’t even want him in the cabinet.
AB: Marine Le Pen and her vile family will get help from the fascist Russian tsarist this year.
PA: I don’t think the National Front will win but then again, I’ve been wrong so many times recently that I’m not gonna guarantee it by any means.
AB: Conservative candidate Francois Fillon is bad (and a Putinista), too.
PA: Yes. So, my beloved France is in trouble too.
AB: In one of your memoirs you wrote about 1968: “The year of fire, blood and death.” You said that unfortunately your protests at Columbia University, featured in 4321, accomplished not much.
PA: Not much of anything. Looking back on it all now, especially from the vantage of today with what’s been happening in the country, tumultuous and wrenching as those times were, we were engaged in a huge war that was tearing apart the country. It was a moment of tremendous racial conflict in the United States. The civil rights movement started in earnest in the fifties, slowly, by around 1960 was picking up steam. I think pretty much by 1965 the Martin Luther King view of civil rights changed in America and the non-violent approach was over. I think that famous Selma — Montgomery march was the last hurrah of the civil rights movement which united black and white people together in the effort to change the laws of the country. After that things became much more fractured.
The black power movement started, a new kind of black nationalism was in the air, divisions between blacks and whites deepened, rather than improved, leading to a tremendous, wrenching chaos in the late 1960s. Riots in many cities, and the Newark riots are in the novel too because that’s the town I’m from, and I was there. I know what happened in Newark in 1967.
(And then, of course, the next year was the Columbia protests, where I was a student. Now in the book, the Ferguson who goes there, he’s working as a reporter on the Columbia Daily Spectator. Which was the student newspaper which covered the events very well, with great professionalism. I myself was not a reporter for the Spectator. My character is, but that’s not autobiographical.)
Still though, despite all this hurt that was going on, and all the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of young men who were over there in Vietnam and the tens of thousands who suffered and were killed, I had more hope about what was going on because it was a movement against the war. There was still a big, organized effort in the country, even despite of the conflicts, for improvement in race relations.
I’m praying that young people get involved again, because without them we’re gonna be going down a very dark road indeed.
We’ve had little moments recently where I’ve thought some new kind of mass movement is brewing, for example the Occupy Wall Street moment a few years ago, but things have fizzled out. I think Trump is going to unleash, perhaps, a new era of youthful activists. I’m praying that young people get involved again, because without them we’re gonna be going down a very dark road indeed.
AB: Obama’s facile leftists critics should consider the unprecedented scorched earth opposition he’s faced from the Republicans.
PA: That’s right. That’s a good way to put it. Well OK his opponents got what they wanted [elegiacally], now let’s see what they do.
AB: Toni Morrison was wise when Bush and Cheney were elected in 2004. She wrote: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
PA: I wholeheartedly agree. Artists must go on making art and we must all do what we can do and also to hold leaders responsible and accountable. And that’s our job, and we have to do it.
AB: The traumatic history in 4321, like Trumpism, reminds me of that enduring line from William Faulkner’s: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
PA: I’ve always been amazed in America that we don’t have a museum of slavery. Why don’t we have it? Why shouldn’t it be there? Maybe in every city in the country a museum of slavery, just to know how this country started and on what it was built. And why not a museum everywhere of the American Indian? How they were massacred by the whites who came here…there’s this desire always to put a pretty face on it all and ignore the past, and so I agree with Faulkner wholeheartedly. It’s not past, it’s here. It’s with us now.
AB: How do you remain productive? T.C. Boyle told me: “Well most artists generally produce more art prior to death than after death.”
PA: It’s a very funny comment. I like it very much [laughs]. Yeah, of course. Listen, with this book, this big, big book, I didn’t do anything for three years except write the book. I turned down invitations to travel, to do interviews, to do readings. I more or less stopped all of the subsidiary activities that writers can do if they’re of a mind to do them, and I thought I have to just sit in a room and do the book because I wanna live to finish it. I’m at this point now where it becomes a question. I’ve outlived my father now by almost four years. He died suddenly of a heart attack at 66 and now I’m pushing seventy, and I must say passing through that 66-year old boundary was a strange experience for me, to have outlived him. And so, I know my days are numbered. Maybe I have a year, maybe I have a day, maybe I have ten years or fifteen years? I don’t know. But the odds are getting worse. Every time I wake up in the morning the odds are stronger that the next morning I won’t wake up in the morning, if you understand what I mean.
AB: Only as old as you feel, Paul.
PA: Yeah, well today I feel really old [laughs].
AB: Salman Rushdie praises how you explore how lives can take different directions, an idea you develop in 4321. Do you think about how Paul Auster’s life might have turned on moments?
PA: Doesn’t everyone? I think this is one of the things that binds us all together. We’re constantly, especially when you get to a certain age, we’re constantly imagining and thinking back: What if I turned right instead of left? What if I have said yes instead of no? How would things have changed for me? What if I had not met that person and married her or him? What if I had a child who was damaged in some way, how would that change my life? What if my child did not get run over by a car when he was four years old? All the things that are possible to think about, which gets back to what we were talking about earlier, the imagination. You don’t have to be an artist to have an imagination. Every human being has one. We think about these things, not every minute, but at moments of reflection we do, and I think this is the urge of this big novel. What if? I’ve been thinking about this question all my life.
AB: Any regrets?
PA: Of course, everyone has regrets. We’ve all done things we wish we hadn’t done. But then again as I say in the novel, the narrator says, you know the pain of it all is you can only be on one road at any given moment, you can’t be walking on all four, or twenty, or fifty. You can only be on one road and that becomes the story of your life. I think to live with bitter regret about the things you’ve done is not a very satisfying way to live, because as long as you’re still breathing, there’s today and tomorrow to look forward to as well. And if there’s something you truly regret having done, well, there’s still a possibility of not precisely undoing that, but at least making sure you never do that thing again.
AB: Starting with The Invention of Solitude, I feel you’ve always understood solitude.
PA: What I was trying to do in The Invention of Solitude, especially in the second part, the second half called The Book of Memory, was to prove in a sense that we’re all inhabited by other people. We’re made by other people. So even when you’re alone, the very fact that you can say to yourself: “I’m alone,” means that you’re not alone because the word “alone” was taught to you by other people. You learn language by interacting with other people, no one creates a language by himself or herself. You see how physically you might be isolated from other people, but the fact that we can think even when we’re alone is a product of our having been born out of the body of a woman, raised by other people and taught how to become a human being by other people. So, it’s very complex. It’s not simply loneliness.
Solitude is a neutral term, it seems to me. It means you’re not with anyone else physically at that moment. Whereas loneliness has all kinds of sad connotations to it. It seems to imply that you’re pining for contact with others and don’t know how to find it.
You have to really have a taste for being alone to be a writer.
You have to really have a taste for being alone to be a writer or a painter, I suppose, or a composer, anybody creating art. You have to enjoy it. You have to feel very fully alive when you’re alone in your room, painting your painting, or writing your book. So not everyone is cut out for that. Most of us don’t want to do that. That’s why when you look at the numbers, statistically there are not that many artists comparing to all the other people in the world. Even though you sometimes think that everyone’s a writer or everyone’s a painter.
AB: Something you’ve referred to, most famously in your classic film Smoke, is the story of Mikhail Bakhtin smoking pages of his own work. Do you have any notable authorial habits?
PA: I’ve stopped smoking as of about two and a half years ago, after doing it for fifty years, but I’ve switched over to electronic cigarettes. So, I vape and it’s been a good way to cut out tobacco from my life, which I needed to do, just as a matter of preserving my ever-diminishing body.
AB: Being a New Yorker, have you ever met Trump?
PA: No, no, no, [laughs] I’ve never crossed paths with him. I don’t think I’ve been within a thousand yards of him at any time in my life.
AB: People worry Trump will shoot down the first amendment.
PA: The first big questions will be how quickly are they going to try to pass legislation to undo things that have been in place in our society for decades. And then how much pushback will there be on the cabinet appointments, whether they will all be rubber stamped in and approved, or if there’ll be battles. I just don’t know how this is going to play out yet. By the time this piece is published we’ll probably know some answers.
AB: Do you think you could write fiction about this election?
PA: Sure, anything is possible, but seems to me that it’s too soon. You can’t fictionalize something that is still playing itself out. I know we’re gonna be jumping over many years, but this is the prime reason why the new novel I’m publishing is mainly dealing with events that are forty, fifty and sixty years old. I think it takes that long to understand the consequences of what’s happening at any given historical moment. I mean you look at War and Peace, one of the great novels of the 19th century. Tolstoy published it in 1870, but the material he’s writing about took place in around 1810 to 1815, that’s the scope of the book. So, it takes, I think, all this time before you can really write about it. Even the Civil War in the United States, which, remarkably enough, did not produce a lot of very good literature. The very best book, The Red Badge of Courage, that small brilliant novel by Stephen Crane, didn’t come out until 1890, which is a full 25 years after the war was over. I don’t know how anyone can possibly write a novel about this election at this point yet.
AB: 2008’s Man in the Dark is set in the aftermath of 2000?
PA: Yes, my poor protagonist lying in bed with a bad leg, and he’s unable to sleep, is making up stories and one of them is about an imagined civil war in the United States after the 2000 election. I’ve always looked at it as an illegal coup, the Supreme Court handed to George W. Bush the election. I was always appalled that America just rolled over and let it happen when it was so clearly illegal. And I’ve never gotten over it, to tell you the truth. And so much damage has been done to the country and the world because of that horrible decision by the US Supreme Court.
AB: You say that you believe written stories will continue to survive because they answer an essential, current human need.
PA: Yes, I agree with that. Because books have no practical use, because they really are useless in some way, when you compare it say to someone putting in a toilet in the house or any of the thousands of occupations people have to keep society on its feet. It’s easy to forget art, it’s easy to push it aside. But, in another way, try to imagine life without stories. Try to imagine life without music or theatre or films or dance, and it becomes such a grey landscape that it would be pretty difficult to live in it I think. Almost impossible.
It’s easy to forget art, it’s easy to push it aside. But, in another way, try to imagine life without stories.
It’s not that every single work of art is valuable. But we need these great armies of people trying so that there’ll be some things, or even quite a few things, that will be worthwhile and will satisfy people’s hunger for excellence and beauty. We do need beauty in our lives.
AB: So, you’re writing from your home these days?
PA: Yes, we have a house in Brooklyn. We’ve been here for almost 25 years now. It’s an old house. It has four stories. It’s a narrow house but it’s tall. Siri has a study on the top floor and I have a study on the bottom floor. There are two floors between us, during the day we rarely if ever talk. When we finish our work in the late afternoon that’s when we become a couple again, and we start talking and doing the things that other married people do. But during the day it’s the powers of silence here.
AB: Do you ever write to music?
PA: No. Silence. I need quiet. When I listen to music, I want to listen to music; it’s never background for me.
AB: Do you still write by hand?
PA: I have a fixation on a certain kind of notebook that I write in, with quadrant lines, squares, graph paper, I get them in France whenever I’m there. I write everything by hand. Most of it with a fountain pen, sometimes with a pencil. I work on a paragraph again and again and again until it seems to be coming into shape. Then I go to my old manual typewriter and I type it up.
That’s how I’ve written all my books. I don’t jump around the way some writers do. I write the first sentence and then the second, and then third, all the way to the last one in the book. I don’t work with an elaborate plan. I have impulses, ideas, inclinations, stories, all these forming as I’m working on it. I discover things in the act of doing them. This is at times so frightening because you have no idea what the next sentence is going to be, but at the same time it’s thrilling to be on that adventure.
Generally, I write at home. Other people seem quite happy writing in public parks, cafes, restaurants, on trains, buses, airplanes. I can’t do that. I need to be alone and somehow holed up in my little bunker and that’s where I feel freest and best able to think.
AB: Do you have any writer’s tips for avoiding the distractions of modern life?
PA: Well, I don’t have a cell phone or a mobile phone, however you want to describe these things. I decided at certain point early on and I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to be so reachable. I figured that if people wanted to get hold of me, they’d find a way. So, I’m free of that. I don’t do email. I don’t have a computer. I have just refused the digital revolution. I live as a dinosaur. But I do have ways of participating. I have a young woman who helps me out with various things and she fields emails for me, and I do have a fax machine, so when she gets them, she faxes them over. But it gives me time to reflect on what I want to say and not feel that I’m in this constant whirl of messages and responses to messages, which most of us now seem to take as a normal part of life. It’s too frenzied for me. I need the quiet and the slowness of the old ways.
I watch my dear wife so overwhelmed by all the things that come into her computer every day, and most people seem frazzled by it rather than happy and so I thought if I could save myself that aggravation I will. If I had another kind of job, then needless to say, I would have to participate.
AB: A good quote from The Brooklyn Follies: “Reading was my escape and my comfort, my consolation, my stimulant of choice: reading for the pure pleasure of it, for the beautiful stillness that surrounds you when you hear an author’s words reverberating in your head.” Still?
PA: Yes, of course. Isn’t that the joy of reading? We’re talking about novels, and then poetry, writing as art. But we also read history, biography, science, all kinds of other things that could be enrapturing. Well-written history, well-written biography can ignite the mind in the same way that good fiction can.
AB: I thought there was a prescient comment in Smoke when Augie says, kidding on the square: “Three or four years it’ll be illegal to smile at strangers on the street.”
PA: That’s right. I have an interesting thing to tell you about just this kind of interaction. As you know I live in Park Slope, Brooklyn and I’ve been here for a long time and this neighborhood I feel is a bit like living in a small town. You get to know everybody. Even though I’m not a particularly talkative person when I go into shops, I’m not silent either, and I’ve built up friendships or warm relations in any case with people who run restaurants or stores of various kinds. Last March, it was still very cold out and I went into my stationery store where I buy all my supplies here in Park Slope. After Donald Trump’s berating of immigrants and all this hatred he poured on the people who were not born in this country and live here, I go into this stationery shop. It’s owned by a man born in China. His assistant is a man born in Mexico and the cashier is a woman born in Jamaica.
We’ve had some nice conversations over the years. I walked in there eight months ago, and it was a chilly day outside and my nose was running, but I wasn’t aware of it. I was up at the counter to pay, and instead of telling me “Your nose is running,” she just plucked out a Kleenex from her box of tissues and reached across the counter and wiped my nose for me. And I found it so kind and so gentle. Some people would object, wouldn’t they? They’d say: “She has no right to touch me without my permission.” I didn’t feel that at all. I thought it was an act of real friendship and kindness.
AB: What might surprise readers about 4321?
PA: Boy, I have no idea. It’s so hard for me to step back and look at myself from the outside. The books are written from within, and I don’t know how people respond to them. I know that over the years many people have loved my books, other people have despised them.
AB: In your memoir Winter Journal, you recall your formative years as a young poet in Paris, engaging the young professional named Sandra who recited Baudelaire to you and introduced you to the Kama Sutra?
PA: It was one of the most extraordinary nights of my life, to run into this young person who was a prostitute in Paris but she also knew French poetry by heart, and so I put it in the book because it was so memorable. So unexpected, so extraordinarily wonderful, that this should have happened to be. People might not believe it, but I swear to you it’s true. It really happened, just as I wrote it.
AB: You’re translated into over 40 languages now, including your beloved French.
PA: French is the only language I have any mastery over, except English. I can comment on the manuscripts that come in with the translations of my books and they do send them to me. I read them carefully and I also make suggestions, but I can’t do that with any other language. I’m at the mercy of the skill of the person translating the book and I truly cross my fingers and hope that they’re doing a good job but I don’t have the ability to read German or even Spanish well enough to have anything useful to say to the translators.
AB: Obviously, you’ll be looking forward to taking 4321 to Paris?
PA: Yes, eventually. It’s not coming out right away, not for the whole year after the English version. Interestingly in Germany, they’ve hired four translators and so it’s all done, it’s printed now. And so, it will be coming out simultaneously in German and in Dutch, they’ve done a quick job of the translation as well. In other countries, it’s gonna be more in the middle of the year. And then, eventually, France. I think January of 2018.
AB: Another thing that I admire is that you’ve been versatile over the years. What interests you now, in addition to opposing Trump?
PA: I will find it eventually. I’ve written all these novels, yes, but I’ve written five autobiographical books also. And then I’ve written essays. Translations. I don’t do that much anymore but there are translations in the new novel, particularly the Apollinaire poem which I worked on with great happiness I must say. Over the course of about a year I kept going back to it and refining the translation till I thought it worked. I’ve written movies, I’ve directed movies, I’ve put together anthologies a few times. I don’t know what’s next.