AN INTERVIEW WITH PAUL AUSTER
"When novelist Paul Auster was invited to become a regular contributor to National Public Radio, he hesitated because he didn't want to write 'stories on command.' 'Why not solicit stories from listeners?' his wife, Siri Hustvedt, suggested. And so Auster asked for succinctly written true stories, and within a year, he received more than 4,000 submissions. He's read them all, some on the air, and selected 179 of the best and most representative to create a unique and unexpectedly affecting book. Here are clearly written and simply told stories 'by people of all ages and from all walks of life' that Auster, his wonder and respect palpable, organized into 10 intriguing categories: animals, objects, families, slapstick, strangers, war, love, death, dreams, and meditations."
Dan Epstein Interviews Paul Auster
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3AM: What was it like when you first met some of the people who wrote some of the stories?
PA: You know how it is when you talk to people on the telephone and you always attach a body to the voice in your head. Then when you have the occasion to meet that person in every instance youíre wrong. That was true with the National Story people. I had imagined them all shorter, taller, fatter, thinner, younger or older. Thatís what was so wonderful about meeting them. They defied all my expectations.
3AM: What were their reactions to meeting you?
PA: I think they were happy to meet me: I encouraged their work and published it. They were excited by the project and without exception honored and pleased to be involved. Itís hard to define the project itself.
3AM: Should one read the book (I Thought My Father Was God -- And Other True Tales from NPR's National Story Project) in one sitting?
PA: I donít think a person can. I would recommend reading it straight through. I did try to organize the book so that with the stories in sequence, something happens as well.
3AM: Was it hard to narrow it down to 179 stories?
PA: It was hard but not as hard as one might think. Out of the 4000 that I started with there were only about 300 or so that I considered at all. It was matter of whittling down that group. I thought getting 300 pretty good stories some exceptionally good was a good ratio. Something like 7 percent.
3AM: I think there are plenty of book publishers that would agree with you. Itís an amazing coincidence that the stories were almost evenly split among men and women.
PA: Itís just the magic of statistics. I had no idea. I donít know how the 4000 would break down. The geographical distribution was quite amazing as well.
3AM: How broad was that?
PA: 42 different states plus Washington D.C.
3AM: Were you surprised by the quality of the stories?
PA: Yes, I have to admit (laughs). I didnít know what to expect in the beginning and when the first submissions started coming in there were several very good ones. They just knocked me out. I thought ďMy goodness, thereís so much more writing ability out there than one would expect.Ē
3AM: What is your personal favorite among the ones published?
PA: There are some that I gravitate towards. I like very much the one that is the title story, "I Thought My Father Was God". Whatís wonderful about that story is how the last paragraph pushes into another realm altogether. I liked very much how cinematic that last paragraph is. Itís a little boy looking through a pair of binoculars at his friendís house across the street. He sees a taxi pull up in front of the house. A tall skinny sailor walks out and itís his uncle coming home from the war. He sees his grandmother come rushing out of his house and throws herself into her sonís arms crying. Itís a beautifully-written thing.
3AM: What kind of stories have you received since September 11th?
PA: The same kind of material has been coming in. People are very attached to their memories. I have gotten a few things about the attack, but not that much. I think it's way too soon for people to start writing about it. We have to digest it.
3AM: Why have you stayed in Brooklyn all these years?
PA: I like it here. Itís a comfortable part of town to live. The neighborhood is very mixed and tolerant. Itís like living in a little town. The first week after September 11th, the neighborhood really pulled together in a beautiful way. We lost a lot of firemen from our station. Twelve out of thirty were killed. The first Friday after the 11th there was a candlelight procession in the neighborhood. Started out with one or two hundred people and grew to about two or three thousand. Very emotional. I was carrying a candle and some wax dripped down to my shoe, some of it stuck to my shoelace and I still have it. Every time I look down at my feet I think about September 11th and those dead firemen and all that weíve been through.
3AM: I read that you really enjoyed Mad magazine when growing up. What drew you to that?
PA: I think it was the spirit of subversion that the magazine had and making fun of the ridiculous things in American culture that one begins to awake to at the age of 10 or 11. I found sympathetic thinkers in that magazine.
3AM: In 1961, You narrowly escaped being killed when a fellow summer camper was struck and killed by lightning, what was that experience like?
PA: I think that was one of the most important experiences I ever had. I think it really shaped my thinking about the world in ways that I was never even consciously aware of. But as I look back I understand how important it was to me. How fragile and fluky the world is. One minute youíre standing next to someone, the next heís dead.
3AM: After high school you traveled through Europe working on a novel, would you have been able to write that novel in America?
PA: Well, I didnít manage to write it in Europe, so I probably wouldnít have been able to write it in America either because I wasnít ready.
3AM: Neither of your parents attended college, did you ever think of not going?
PA: Yeah, I was torn about it in a way. But it was just youthful rebellion more than any kind of intellectualism. I was devouring books and already thinking of myself as an emerging writer. But Iím glad I did go.
3AM: How did you decide to become a merchant seaman?
PA: My stepfather was a labor lawyer and among his clients was the Seamanís Union. I asked him if he could swing a job for me. Heís the one who did it. You canít get in without a connection, itís a closed system.
3AM: Itís been said that your life is broken into two periods: before and after 1979. What happened that year?
PA: For a year or two, I hadnít been writing much at all. Up until then most of the work I had been doing was poetry and translation. By 1978 I felt I had been running into a brick wall with my work and a moment came when I just stopped altogether. I thought I wouldnít write anymore. At the beginning of 1979 I had a kind of breakthrough and started writing again. The first piece I wrote was prose and not poetry. Strangely enough, the night I finished that prose piece, about 10 or 15 pages, my father died. I found that out the next morning. I began in a few weeks writing a book about him and that led to all the work Iíve been doing since.
3AM: What was it like to reveal intimate and embarrassing details of your fatherís life?
PA: I wasnít thinking of it in those terms, I was trying to tell the truth. That was the only thing that mattered.
3AM: I read that you and Wayne Wang [his collaborator on the film, Smoke wouldn't be doing any more work together.
PA: It doesnít look like we will.
3AM: That must be very disheartening.
PA: It was a sad conclusion to a great partnership. What happened was that he wanted to make a new film [The Center of the World]. It was his idea. He wanted to do it with a very low budget on digital video. He had all the financing in place but just an idea. Then he came to me and my wife [author Siri Hustvedt]. I was reluctant to do it, it wasnít a subject I would have tackled on my own. But out of friendship I wanted to help. Siri and I sat down and wrote a script that I thought was really quite good. In the end I was pleased with what we had done given the restrictions that had been imposed on us. But then as the filming went on, Wayne went in a different direction. The film just took off in ways that I didnít like very much. So we took our names off the screenplay. Itís really not our work. These things happen in movies all the time
3AM: Whatís the difference between making movies and writing novels?
PA: Iím hard pressed to think of one similarity. I guess the only thing in common is that youíre telling a story. But the means in which you tell that story is so different that you canít compare the experiences at all. In one youíre sitting alone in a room and in the other youíre working with fifty or more people everyday.
3AM: Why do you think Lulu on the Bridge didnít get theatrical distribution in the United States? [Change the Lulu on the Bridge pic]
PA: Yes, it was only released on video and DVD in the United States. But in other countries it came out theatrically. Iíd rather not go into it in detail. But it's all business. It was a complicated business screw up. But there was nothing I could do about it.
3AM: What was it like being on a Cannes jury?
PA: Enjoyable in some ways, and exhausting in others. We watched a lot of films. We had meetings constantly. Some of the debates became quite heated. I enjoyed it for sure. But I donít know if Iíd want to repeat the experience.
3AM: With the New York Trilogy, what made you start writing in the detective genre?
PA: They really arenít detective stories at all. They refer to the genre, but they go off in very different directions. I like mystery stories. Theyíre fundamental narratives. Even in City of Glass, every sentence counts. All books should be that way but theyíre not.
3AM: Why does chance play such a role in your novels?
PA: From the knowledge that I have, I am exploring the world as best as I can. You asked before about standing next to someone struck by lightning, well if that doesnít seem like an act of chance I donít know what does!
3AM: Whatís next for you?
PA: Iíve finished another novel, which will be published next September called The Book of Illusions.
3AM: Thank you very much.
PA: Thanks Dan.