Stillman's Maze

    Q&A with Paul Auster




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Q: In TIMBUKTU the main character, Mr. Bones, is an extraordinary canine who manages to tell us more about the human condition and about the nature of love than perhaps any other fictional character in recent memory. How did the idea for this book occur to you? What made you decide to use a dog as the narrator?

A: Well, the fact is I never know where my books come from, and I never go out looking for ideas. It all seems to happen in a way that has nothing to do with me. One day something is there that wasn't there the day before. If that something is interesting and compelling it tends not to go away. Generally speaking, I'm looking for a way not to write the book. Only something that is so powerful, forceful, and overwhelming to your imagination that you actually want to live inside this idea for months or years to come is going to hold up. So you keep pushing away at it, and if it doesn't fall down it usually starts to grow. Where this dog came from, I don't know. He was there one day when I woke up - he was there with this homeless poet, Willy G. Christmas, and my original idea was to use them as minor characters in a much larger book. The book was going to open with them, and when I began writing those passages I became so involved in these two, I got sidetracked from my original idea and decided to concentrate exclusively on Willy and Mr. Bones. Before I knew it, I was sucked up into the world of these two characters. I think of Mr. Bones, especially in the first half of the book, as a witness to Willy and the world of Willy G. Christmas. There is no more honest or sympathetic witness than a dog. Since Willy is not in contact with any human beings, the dog is the only one who can tell us what's going on.


Q: A starred Publishers Weekly review said: "In this brilliant novel, Auster writes with economy, precision and the quirky pathos of noir, addressing the pernicious ubiquity of American consumerism ... " Does the American dream have a dark side?

A: There's no question that the American dream has a dark side. The American dream is about several things all at once. It's about freedom, the idea of everyone being equal under the law. But, the American dream is also about money and the freedom to make as much money as one can. And I think that any society which is so completely overwhelmed by the notion of dollars is going to run into contradictions … Willy is a character who has set himself up in opposition to the dominant trends in American life. He's made himself an outsider on purpose. His thinking has been formed by the experiences of his parents, who lived through the holocaust, by a certain kind of 60s radicalism, which he never really abandons, and by a philosophical position of purity, generosity, and self sacrifice – ideals that he's not always able to live up to, but which he firmly believes in.


Q: How does TIMBUKTU fit into the body of your work as a novelist? How does TIMBUKTU differ from your previous novels, and in what ways is it similar to previous works?

A: I suppose, as with all my books, it seems to be part of everything I've done and yet somewhat different. I think this comes from a desire not to repeat myself. Each time I finish a book, I think it's the last book I'm ever going to write. If I manage to do something again, to write another book, it's only because in some way I've reinvented everything from the ground up. That's why each time I write a book it's as if I've never written anything before, because having written previous novels doesn't help you write this particular novel. And as you write the book, what you're actually doing is teaching yourself how to write this book. It's all or nothing. You're putting everything into this particular project … This book is much more nakedly about feelings. I wanted to try to enter a world in which passion and the intensity of emotion are the dominant subjects. TIMBUKTU probably has less to do with plot–very little happens in the book–but it has a lot to do with language, which is basically Willy's language and the way Mr. Bones interprets that language.


Q: Literary critics have noted how coincidence plays a large part in the lives of your fictional characters. One such coincidence led you to adopt a homeless dog. Can you tell us about that?

A: About five years ago, our young daughter started dreaming about having a dog. She wanted a dog more than anything in the world. (I have to say that at that time I had already started writing TIMBUKTU.) We began to investigate the possibility of buying a dog. We looked into all kinds of breeds, read books about it - became very informed. We wanted a dog that wouldn't shed, a dog that wasn't so big that he needed to be walked every fifteen minutes. We had decided on a particularly obscure breed of dog and were about to drive out to a kennel in Pennsylvania to buy it for hundreds and hundreds of dollars. One day my daughter Sophie and I were walking along 7th Avenue in Brooklyn, and we saw a woman standing on a corner with a dog on a leash. The dog had a sign around its neck which said, "Please adopt me. I need a home." And Sophie and I looked into the eyes of this very sick, skinny, frightened, completely ravaged dog and thought that there was some spark in those eyes that appealed to us and we decided to take him home with us. That's how Jack entered our lives.


Q: Do you know anything about Jack's history?

A: This is what we found out ... The woman worked for an organization in New York called S.O.S. --Save Our Strays. Apparently, there are dog lovers around New York who try to find homes for homeless dogs. In the case of our poor mutt, he was actually being kicked and beaten up by a bunch of bad men somewhere in Brooklyn at the moment of his rescue. One of the members of the organization happened to be driving by in his car and tried to save the dog. He jumped out of his car and ran over to break up the fight. The men then turned on this good samaritan and beat him up. He wound up in the hospital with a broken arm or broken collar bone. But he did manage to save the dog. The vet told us he was between 1 and 2 years old at the time. We don't know how long he had been living on the streets – but he was very sick, his stomach didn't work, his nose was cut, he had a bad fever. He was so scared that for the first week he couldn't walk up or down the staircase in the house. We had to carry him everywhere. Eventually, he settled in and has become a permanent member of the household. The name "Jack" was given to him by me because the hero of one of my very favorite books--The Unfortunate Traveler by Thomas Nashe--considered to be the first novel in the English language, an Elizabethan novel, published around 1597 — is Jack Wilton. And I looked at our poor dog and thought, this is "an unfortunate traveler."


Q: Was Jack an important influence on you as you became immersed in the writing of the book?

A: Jack was – I wouldn't say an influence, so much as – a great source of information for me as I was writing the book. Just being with this dog everyday has taught me so much about the world of dogs, the mind of dogs, the idiosyncratic quirks of dogs.


Q: When did you begin writing TIMBUKTU?

A: I began writing TIMBUKTU not long after I finished the novel Mr. Vertigo. In the summer of 1993. At that time I was also working on the screenplay for the movie "Smoke." Just as I had written the first page or two of what was eventually going to become TIMBUKTU, the business with the film heated up ... My life went off in a different direction and for the next two years I was completely submerged in the making of the two films, "Smoke" and then "Blue in the Face". But I was thinking about Mr. Bones and Willy and tinkering with the novel. More things happened, and from first sentence to last sentence it took me five years to complete one of the shortest books I've ever written. It was written in little spurts—a few weeks here, a month or so there. I kept getting caught up in projects. First Hand to Mouth, and then another film—"Lulu on the Bridge".


Q: Is there anything in this book which comes from your own life? Is the character of Mr. Bones based on anyone – human, or canine—from your life?

A: There's only one incident in the book that comes directly from my own experience. It's an incident that Willy talks about, having to do with his former college roommate, who is called Omster, or Amster. (Mr. Bones isn't quite sure how to pronounce his name.) Of course, that is a not so subtle reference to myself. The incident refers to my first trip abroad–to Italy in 1974 as a 17 year-old–and having been invited, through a complex chain of circumstances, to the house owned by the daughter of Thomas Mann, and meeting the widow of Thomas Mann, and then, after lunch, being led upstairs and shown an Irish setter, who had had a special typewriter made for him – there were big keys to accommodate his snout—who could actually type. Thomas Mann's daughter, you see, was an animal psychologist. It made such a deep impression on me that I never forgot it. TIMBUKTU turned out to be the perfect place to tell that little anecdote. Other than that, though, everything in the book is fictional—as far as I can tell. Neither Willy nor Mr. Bones seems to be based on anybody that I know … Again, this is how novels are written. You don't know where it's coming from and you don't know why these characters are inside you. And if you did know, you probably wouldn't have to write the book. You'd be a journalist, I guess. A journalist is someone who knows where his story comes from, but a novelist doesn't. That's why the writing of a novel is a great adventure for the writer. You are literally walking into the unknown and finding things as you go along. And that is exactly how this book was written.


Q: Does Mr. Bones represent the best that is in all of us?

A: I don't think Mr. Bones represents any particular moral qualities. What he has is what all dogs have—a purity of emotion and an intensity of attachment that all of us human beings respond to because we feel these things as well.


Q: Willy G. Christmas, Mr. Bones's master, has been described as a "poet-saint." In his last hours, Willy–homeless, sick, and friendless, except for Mr. Bones–is wandering the streets of Baltimore looking for his old high school teacher—the person who first encouraged him to write—so that he can give her his manuscripts. What does this say about the life of writers?

A: Willy represents the very heart and soul of what it means to be a writer. Obviously, in worldly terms, he's been a complete failure, but the fact is, he's in his mid 40s and he's been writing for his entire life. This is the only thing a writer can do. The ideas of success or failure eventually vanish, and what you're left with is the work. And Willy has made his work.


Q: Your wife is the writer Siri Hustvedt. Critics have commented on how there are references to Siri that show up in your work, and vice versa. Can you tell us anything about your life together as writers and how the marriage affects the fiction?

A: Contrary to what people might think, it's not a problem to live with another writer. In fact, it's a great boon to my life and, I think, to Siri's life too. We understand each other. We each know what the other is going through as we do our work and we each have a reader who can comment on the work we're doing. There's no feeling of rivalry, no jealousy, just true admiration on both sides. It's not a source of conflict. It's a source of harmony and understanding between us.


Q: You are also the screenwriter of "Smoke" (starring Harvey Keitel) and, most recently, of "Lulu on the Bridge" (starring Mira Sorvino and Harvey Keitel). How do you keep the screenwriting separate from the world of writing novels? Do you always know at the beginning that a story needs to be written as a novel, or as a film?

A: I think of myself as a writer, and I always will think of myself as a writer. Through a chain of events that I couldn't have predicted, I wound up working in film and found that it was something that I enjoyed a great deal. It was a new outlet for me and the idea of collaborating with people, learning about a new medium, a new way of telling stories has been an exciting adventure for me in these last four or five years. That doesn't mean I'm jumping into another film project right away. In fact, just the opposite, I'm working on the beginning of a new novel. But, if another idea comes to me that has to be a film, and I'm lucky enough to get someone to put up some money to do it, I would love to do it again.


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