Stillman's Maze

    Unpublished interview with Paul Auster




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I'm not sure how you found this page; you could have accidentally stumbled across the link on the Stillman's Maze graphic, you could have read about it in the source code of the top page, or someone else could have directed you here. Anyway, this is an unpublished interview that I did with Auster for my thesis on the New York Trilogy. Please do not reproduce it; Auster has been a little touchy about the possibility of me publishing this to the web, so if this link becomes too well known I may be forced to remove it. Otherwise, enjoy.

Interview with Paul Auster
21 February 1993

Paul Auster greeted me at the door of his tiny studio in New York City wearing a red flannel shirt over a black turtleneck and black jeans. His manner was relaxed and congenial, not at all the dour individual who stares out at you from the back covers of his novels. He looked much younger and healthier—almost robust—than he does in his pictures—no dark circles under the eyes in person.

The studio was spartan in its furnishings: a desk, a couple of steel bookshelves, a filing cabinet, and a small stove. Despite the fact that it was midday, the blinds were closed and the single, bare overhead bulb was on. A haze of smoke from his Camels, which he chain-smoked, hung over the room. He offered me a cup of tea and we sat down to begin our discussion (the first five minutes are lost due to technical difficulties).

Chris Pace: When you first published the Trilogy as separate volumes, there was a little picture on the title page of City of Glass and Ghosts. It didn't appear in The Locked Room or in the Penguin edition of the entire Trilogy. Did you have anything to do with that?

Paul Auster: No, it was the publisher and he forgot to put it in the third volume. It was simply an omission. I don't know. He made this little design, he did it himself. He put it in the first two, then forgot the last one.

CP: He did it himself? So it wasn't you that did that?

PA: No, no.

CP: Because in the class where I first read City of Glass, we traced Quinn's route on pages 142 144 on a map of New York City, and the resulting shape looks something like the picture on the title page.

PA: Oh, is that so? Well, he just made a mistake.

CP: So you didn't have anything in mind when you were making him have that route? You weren't tracing out any shape?

PA: No, no.

CP: I was wondering, because you had Stillman tracing out those letters earlier in the book. I thought that this might have been another message written on the streets with someone's footsteps.

PA: I know, I know. In fact, quite a few people have mentioned this, and have worked out that picture, but it doesn't add up to anything.

CP: The Trilogy reminded me in some ways of Nabokov's Pale Fire in that both books seem to be reminders to critics that their interpretations of novels are not necessarily any more valid than those of the so-called "average" reader. Nabokov did so by openly mocking a critic, while you accomplish the same thing by building a complex structure that defies the attempts of a critic to wholly "solve" it. In fact, you had a quote in the Mississippi Review interview with Larry McCaffrey and Sinda Gregory that discusses what I mean. You commented on those critics who think that your works are governed too much by chance by saying that: "In some perverse way, I believe they've spent too much time reading books. They're so immersed in the conventions of so-called realistic fiction that their sense of reality has been distorted."

PA: You understand what I'm talking about, don't you?

CP: Right. I thought it was a comment on how the critics expect everything in a novel to work a certain way.

PA: That's right. Because reality is something we invent. We have different lenses for viewing the world, and every culture does it differently. I would say that since the 18th century, we've put this a rational machine to work in deciphering the world, and it produces certain kinds of stories. And these stories are, so to speak, "realistic," when in fact they're not, they're just another interpretation of reality. And my view of the world is, I think, quite different from most people's, and therefore the stories I write are going to seem strange to these people who are stuck in some other way of looking at the world. The funny thing is that, in the end, I'm not interested in literature at all as an artifact. I'm just trying to rediscover the real world, the real world that I live in, no matter how fantastic or crazy or uncontrollable it might seem.

CP: This seems related to what I am discussing in my thesis, what I call the "tyranny of artifice." I am trying to show how your fiction, particularly the Trilogy, strains against the conventions of literature by allowing your characters to realize that they are characters, and then to make the decision to escape from the work of artifice and somehow create their own reality. In fact sometimes it seems as if you're setting your readers up for a certain conventional ending, but then you deny all possibility of that ending. For example, in Moon Palace, I have always felt that if that novel had been written by a more conventional writer, Fogg would have found Effing's paintings at the end, and they would have been the literary mechanism which would have produced his growth.

PA: Oh, I see what you mean.

CP: But you just completely close off that avenue by having him discover that the cave where the paintings are is now completely submerged. You don't let him live like a character in a book. He has to realize that his life is not going to have a pat ending like a book would have, but that instead he has to do something inside himself, that the change has to be something from within.

PA: That's right. And so the end of the book is the beginning of his life. Something has happened, he's been through a lot, and he's on the point, I would say, of getting ready to grow up.

CP: That's what I felt like with a lot of the Trilogy, too. Particularly in The Locked Room, when the unnamed narrator seems almost to take creative control at the end of the book. Especially in that section when he's in the bar in Paris, and he starts to name things; he does that creative act of naming.

PA: Yes, but he's also crazy. He's lost his wits entirely. He's outside of himself; he's collapsing. And so it's creative in one way, but it's madness in another, and he's really lost it by then. But I would say that most of my books are open-ended books. The last sentence doesn't really close off the story. It seems to open onto another space. In The Music of Chance, the book ends before the end. It just stops. In In the Country of Last Things, she [Anna Blume] is leaving, you don't know where, or what's going to happen. In City of Glass, Quinn just evaporates out of the book; in Ghosts, Blue leaves. But in The Locked Room there is a closure, much more so than maybe any other book I've written. And Leviathan is filled with blanks and unanswered questions, and by the end you're pretty much uncertain about everything. Because the narrator in that book is not very smart. He's dense, and he misses everything. He's very earnest, and he's trying very hard to give a truthful account of everything he knows, but he doesn't know enough, and everyone else is smarter than he is—he's three steps behind all these other people. So there is a definite openness. But you know, the Trilogy and In the Country of Last Things and Moon Palace were all written simultaneously. They all bounce off of each other. Moon Palace and In the Country of Last Things I worked on for years, they were started earlier than anything else. I was your age, just a kid, but I couldn't ever get a grip on either one of those books. I lugged around the manuscripts for years. I couldn't get rid of the books, but I couldn't write them either. I was in that middle stage. Finally I did it, but I started all over again with both. The original Moon Palace was enormous; it would've been three times the length it is now. There were lots of bits in it that I stole and used in City of Glass. Everything from the name of the hero—Fogg's name was originally Quinn—to all the business about the steps and the Tower of Babel, all that was in some early version of Moon Palace. And even the conversation about Don Quixote, that was also in Moon Palace, and I thought: "Well, the book is dead, and I'll just squeeze out the few things that seem okay and use it in this other book I'm writing." But it got me back into the earlier book. It's all very complicated.

CP: My take on The Locked Room was that somehow Fanshawe was controlling the narrator, that he was almost like an author in the way he wrote his friend's life for him after a certain point. After the narrator gets the manuscripts, it seems like Fanshawe knows what's going to happen. Fanshawe makes remarks to this effect—he knew that the narrator was going to marry his wife, adopt his child, and take care of the manuscripts. And so I felt like when Fanshawe and the narrator have that final meeting in Boston where the narrator takes Fanshawe's last notebook and just destroys it, that the narrator is taking the control away from Fanshawe. The narrator realizes that, to a certain extent, he has been a character of Fanshawe's, and he decides to take back his own life. You talk a lot in that book about how biographies are also works of fiction, because the biographer can't include the whole truth, one can't capture the essential thing in someone's life. I almost feel like, after that weekend in Boston, the narrator does go back and write that planned biography/work of fiction about Fanshawe in order to take back the authorial control that Fanshawe for so long possessed. He's gone back and encased Fanshawe in this work of fiction which is now become The Locked Room.

PA: Yes—or maybe he's come back and written the Trilogy—all the books. But I think what he [the narrator] finally realizes is that he's never going to solve anything, that there is no answer to this "friend," this other person, and I think he accepts the fact that he can live with ambiguity. Therefore he doesn't want to be under the spell of this person anymore, and he tears up the book and goes back to New York.

CP: I relate these incidents very much to an author's control of his characters. Also in Ghosts, where Black and Blue are just sitting and looking at each other, and Blue starts to get the idea that Black/White (if that's who it really is sitting across the street) is actually controlling him, that Black is somehow writing book in which Blue is a character. For example, when you say that there is "nothing but a man sitting alone in a room and writing a book. That's all there is , Blue realizes, and he no longer wants any part of if. But how to get out? How to get out of the room that is the book that will go on being written for as long as he stays in the room?"

PA: Yes. But a friend of mine once said, when he read that book, that it's a parable about reading. It's a parable about reading a book. It recreates the steps in the process one goes through in reading a novel. All of this is very interesting to me, because I never think of any of it, and I can't tell you how blindly all these books are composed. I don't really have any great answers for you about it. Whatever you say is probably going to be interesting and maybe not too far off from the truth, but it doesn't mean I'm aware of it when I'm writing. It all comes out of some unconscious buzz, and I don't really know what I'm doing. If it feels right, I do it, and if it feels wrong, I tear it up and start again. It all has to do with an emotional state you get into, certain kinds of images that grab you and feel powerful and convincing. If you, as a writer, really understood it all, you'd be blocked, you wouldn't be able to do it, and you wouldn't even feel the need to do it. Because you're just groping along, you're asking questions, you're going off into places you haven't been before, and you don't have a map. But that's what makes it interesting. If you knew where you were going in advance, I don't know why you'd bother to take the trip.

CP: How would you define a parable?

PA: A parable. How would I define that? I suppose a parable—that's a good question—a parable is an exceedingly thinned out story, something boiled down to essentials so that when you read it, no matter how concrete it might be, it reverberates with a mythic quality. That's what a parable is for me. But the only book I've written that falls into this category is Ghosts.

CP: Really? Because both in the introduction to the McCaffrey and Gregory interview and on the Faber & Faber [Auster's English publisher] paperback jacket, The Music of Chance was described as a parable.

PA: Well, I called it a fairy tale, which is different from a parable, completely different.

CP: How are they different?

PA: Well, a parable has more to do with thought than experience, and a fairy tale has all to do with experience. Kafka's parables, for example. He takes a thought about something that can't be articulated in any rational way and embodies it in a very brief story with characters—fleshing it out. But that flesh is so transparent, and so flimsy, that it's not real, and it doesn't even pretend to be real. A fairy tale has more blood in it because it comes from the unconscious.

CP: Would you describe any of your works as fairy tales?

PA: The Music of Chance, I think. But as I said in that interview, I didn't know what I was doing. I thought I was writing a perfectly realistic book, and it was only when I got towards the end—I mean literally the end, the last twenty pages—that I understood that, no, finally, this story has the shape of a classic fairy tale. It dazzled me, to see how stupid I'd been.

CP: Have you read the article by Alison Russell, about Deconstructionism in the Trilogy?

PA: Is she the one who talks about Derrida? That was sent to me, and I started looking at it, and I must tell you that my only response was to laugh. And I laughed, and I read a few pages, and I laughed some more, and then I put the thing away and never finished it. Because the fact is I've never read a word of Jacques Derrida, I don't know his stuff at all. I know who he is and basically what he writes about, but it is of so little interest to me, and my work comes from a place so different, that I was just astonished. But that's what a lot of criticism is at the highest level. It's taking somebody's system and taking somebody's book and glomming that book onto that system to see if it works out. But it [the article] is more about Derrida than about me.

CP: Have you ever read Nabokov's Pale Fire?

PA: Years and years ago.

CP: It's about the same type of thing, about critics imposing their personal systems onto works of art. Have you read Italo Calvino? He's an Italian writer.

PA: Yes. A couple of books. I'm not a big fan.

CP: That interesting, because personally I find a lot of interaction between Deconstructionist theory and yours and Calvino's explorations of the nature of language and meaning in your novels. They all seem to elucidate and enlarge upon one another.

PA: It's possible. For me, he's much too pictorial a writer. I get bored with it.

CP: You like narrative.

PA: He's brilliant, there's no question about it, it's just that his sensibility is not one I'm attracted to. The same is true of Borges, another name that comes up often. I don't like him very much at all. Nabokov made a very accurate comment about Borges: reading his work, he said, is like walking up to an amazingly beautiful house. You can't get over how beautifully constructed it is, and then you open the door and realize that it's just a set, a blank, a facade with nothing behind it. That isn't to say that I'm wild about Nabokov either. I've read everything of his. I thought about him and wrestled with him—this was all many years ago—and in the end I find his spirit very dry and nasty. Brilliant, yes. But so what?

CP: You like Delillo, I know.

PA: I do like Delillo.

CP: I like him very much as well. I think his books are almost creating a new mythology for the 20th century. Reading them in succession, it seems like he builds on everything he's ever written before. It's amazing.

PA: I know. He's a great writer.

CP: Is there anyone else?

PA: Well, there are people whose work I respect and like, but not a lot that really matters to me. I could give a list but ... I don't know. I feel pretty lonely most of the time. Recently I got hold of Beckett's first book, which he wrote when he was 26 years old. Never published before. Dream of Fair to Middling Women. You ever hear about it? It's amazing. It's not good, but it's amazing, and brilliant in a way that stops your breath. But other than that I haven't read Beckett in a long, long time ... another writer who had a big influence on me was Celine. Have you ever read Celine?

CP: No, but I know about him.

PA: Those first two books of his are wonderful.

CP: You said in the interview with McCaffrey and Gregory that "The Book of Memory" [one of the sections of The Invention on Solitude] "has dozens of authors, and I wanted them all to speak through me." Do you feel that this is true of your other books? Do you let other authors simmer inside you and then bubble up through your works?

PA: No, not at all. That was a particular kind of book. It wasn't that I felt that my voice sounded like anybody else's.

CP: Right, I agree.

PA: It's simply that I allowed everyone else to participate, too. I think of it as a collective work. But it's not as though my voice wasn't distinct.

CP: Right, I agree completely. But you do mention a lot literary names and books in all of your works. This seems to point the reader to your influences, or to authors who share similar ideas with you.

PA: Well, yes, but when you get right down to it, in City of Glass there are books mentioned, and then a little bit in Ghosts, one or two books. Moon Palace is a book filled with books. But it all depends on the narrator or the protagonist of the story. Fogg is my most bookish, overly intellectual character, and his head is stuffed with books. Nashe is not. Even though he's a reader, there are very few intellectual references in the book. It all depends on who's telling the story or who the story is about...I've also noticed a strange alternation in my works between what I would call rather labyrinthine structures, complicated books, followed by very straight, simple, linear books. The pattern just continues: after the Trilogy, which was very complicated, came In the Country of Last Things, which is just—well, a line. And then Moon Palace is very knotted up, and The Music of Chance is a line. And Leviathan is very complicated, and the book I'm writing now is just another line.

CP: How far into it are you?

PA: I'm pretty far. [Looks at manuscript]. I'm up to page 176. So I'm way into it. I don't know how long it will be. Maybe I have a hundred pages to go.

CP: Do you have a name for it yet?

PA: Yes: Mr. Vertigo. That's what it's called. It's completely crazy. It's like nothing I've ever written before. It's about a boy who can levitate.

CP: Wow. It sounds a little more like science fiction than your other works.

PA: No, it's not science fiction, it's all very straight-forward. It takes place in the 1920's. Don't ask me what it means. I've never enjoyed writing a book as much as this. I'm completely carried away by it, it just keeps coming. I don't know where it's coming from, but....

CP: One reason that I brought up Alison Russell's article is because in her concluding paragraph she talks about travel in the Trilogy, and she says that "the plurality of orientations [in the Trilogy] results in endlessly shifting frames of references that continually deny any one locus, or 'place,' of meaning." But to me, if you are always moving, then you are the only thing that stays stable; everything else is stripped away and you are left only with yourself. In your novels, you use it as a way, I feel, to strip away all the extraneous parts of the character. You use travel as not a voyage from one physical place to another, but as a voyage inward.

PA: Sometimes. There's a tension in all my work, I think, between stasis and mobility, between confinement and freedom. But in many cases the ostensible freedom of movement is not freedom, and people locked up in a little space are freer. [Break in tape. He gets out a French edition of one of his works and translates a little of the introduction, which he believes discusses the theme that I have brought up.] "His [Auster's use of] wandering has this original twist, because far from making an individual confront the coldness and hostility of the world, it places him face to face with himself and the fragments of his disseminated life. Everything leads into himself, and like the locked room, is a microcosm. The world at large is a room that speaks to us of ourselves in an obscure language." Sort of interesting.

CP: Who wrote this?

PA: Pascal Bruckner.

CP: Even though Nashe [the protagonist of The Music of Chance] didn't seem to read as much, there were constant references to composers in that book. Was that somehow tying in with the music theme in the title?

PA: Well, he's interested in music. It's funny, I originally had a different title for that book. It was called The Mysterious Barricades, which was the title of the Couperin piece that Nashe plays in the book. I never liked it as a title for the book, but it was the only one I had. I must have been two-thirds of the way through the book before I found The Music of Chance. I was waiting in line at the supermarket. It just came to me. There was Muzak playing. [Laughs]

CP: Are you going to ever publish your plays, because I know you have several.

PA: Yes, I have three or four, and I don't know what to do. I've been sitting on them since the seventies. So, I don't know. I don't think they're that good.

CP: You still like all your novels though?

PA: Oh yes, I stand behind it all. If I've published it, I stand behind it.

CP: You said in your other interviews that you were fairly hard on yourself about cutting and editing your work before you ever gave it to your publisher.

PA: Yes, yes ... I don't know how to put it. They're my children; you can't turn your back on your children. But getting back to this Alison Russell piece, it seems to happen that when some people read my work they think of it as some kind of intellectual game. But the strange thing is that all my books come out of deep emotional sources, it's not that kind of enterprise at all for me. I'm sometimes amazed. I think what it has to do with is that my language is very simple and pared down, and if people don't have a good ear for language—and it surprises me how often they don't, even people who are literary people, professors and even writers—if you can't hear the music in the language, then it's going to seem dead and dry. And it seems to happen to some people. And those people who can feel the music in the prose get emotionally engaged in the book, and have a different experience from the others.

CP: It's really interesting that you say that, because one reviewer said of Leviathan that "with all the strength of its brooding intelligence, one wishes [Auster] had made it sing."

PA: Well, if you can't hear it, you can't hear it. But Leviathan is a book that's very close to the ground, it's really just two inches off the ground. It's the most somber book I've written, I think. As with every book I've ever published, I read one review that says "this is the best thing he's ever done, shows great growth, and da da da," and then you pick up the next one and it says "this is a total falling off from his previous high achievement and signals a real decline"—who's to say? I don't know.

CP: Also in the interview with McCaffrey and Gregory, you said that "the text is no more than a springboard to the imagination." I think that, through the use of the characters who all seem to escape from the structure of the artifice at the end of the book, you are encouraging people to be more aware of the structures that are imposed upon them by society, culture, and language so that they, like the characters, can, if not escape from the artifice, then at least have more control over it (and therefore their own stories) through their heightened awareness. The text becomes then a springboard for the creation of one's own story; in other words, your books seem to encourage their readers to write their own books instead of allowing themselves to be trapped in the artifice of other (particularly conventional) writers.

PA: Well, I don't know if I'm outwardly trying to encourage people to write their own books, but I do want the people reading my book to get inside there with me.

CP: It seems that the next step in this progression, though, would be for the reader to become aware of their own creative powers—not even just in the sense of writing a book, but consciously shaping their personal realities through some form of individual creativity. For instance, when you read a book you are shaping it as much as the author is, but most people are not conscious of this.

PA: Absolutely. The reader creates the book. I had this incredibly strange illumination a number of years ago about what happens to me when I'm reading a novel. I think I was reading Jane Austen—a writer I like a lot, I think she's one of the greatest—and I realized as I was reading the book that I couldn't actually see where anything was taking place. I was imagining all the scenes and all the conversations, all the chapters of this book as taking place in the living room of the house where I grew up. My parents' house. And that's where all the characters had come. And so I began to think about this: well, it's curious how you appropriate a book—I mean, what did Jane Austen know about New Jersey? And yet I had made the book my own, I had peopled my own life with these characters. It wasn't as though I had gone into 18th century England; I had brought her into the 20th century with me, And so then I started to think, "Well, what do you really see when you read a description in a book?" I think some people have very good visual imaginations, and they can absolutely see—like a photograph—what's written. Then there are other people—myself included—who don't. For example, you read a description of a place you've never been to. The character's walking through the streets of Tokyo or Katmandu, and what do you see? You see some photograph you've seen in a magazine, some travel film on TV or something, but you can't really penetrate it. So you take these little hints, and then you digest them into your own experience and make something completely different of it. Which is why an American reading Melville is going to have a very different experience from a Japanese person reading Melville. But it doesn't mean that it's not equally valid.

CP: Exactly. I know that The New York Trilogy and some of your other books have just been recreated for me because I'd never been to New York before last month, and now I've come here and this is the same general area where some of the events in your novels take place, so that when I'm reading those books now I see the pictures of what I've actually seen in New York instead of thinking about some movie.

PA: That's right. We've had our heads filled with pictures, because of movies and television and magazines, in a way that no previous generation ever has. And I'm sure it's affected the way we read.

CP: I think so too. I think Delillo talks about that a lot too. This all has to do with the tyranny of artifice in your books, especially the Trilogy. Throughout your work you seem to be telling people that they have to take back their own imagination, that they can't just accept the picture that someone else has taken for them, or the reality that someone else has created for them in a novel or a painting. They have to understand the world in their own way and stop letting others structure reality for them. Because with films and television and magazines, we see so many things that we've never actually seen. We can see a reproduction of any painting in the world, and we can think we understand that painting, but it's just—it's nothing.

PA: It's nothing, you're right. And it's funny, my wife was just in Amsterdam a couple of weeks ago for the first time in her life, and she got to see some famous Rembrandts that she had only seen reproductions of and—she has a great eye for paintings, she has a very astute and astonishing visual memory—and she came back talking about how wonderful it was to see the things in the flesh, and how no reproduction—you just can't ever, ever duplicate it. And it's all true.

CP: In The Invention of Solitude you talked about your family's Jewish roots a little bit. Has Jewish literature been an influence for you at all?

PA: Well, I don't know what to say. I think at the time when I was only writing poetry, I was very absorbed in re-reading a lot of Jewish texts. The Talmud, the Bible and ... [Phone call from his wife interrupts].

CP: So you were talking about your Jewish influences....

PA: Right. The Jewish writer who was most important to me was Edmond Jabes, the French writer. And poetry written by Jews—Paul Celan, Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen—all of this is very, very crucial to me, and I think made a big mark on my thinking. And you can certainly see it in The Invention of Solitude. But what people call Jewish fiction in America hasn't done much for me. I'm not a big reader of Saul Bellow or Bernard Malamud, and my work really doesn't share much with theirs at all.

CP: But particularly in In the Country of Last Things, and especially that section about the rabbis in the library seemed resonate with Jewish theological and philosophical ideas, particularly in terms of the apocalypse and the end of time. When I was re-reading the Trilogy and your other books in preparation to write this thesis, I took two classes on modern Jewish literature and the Holocaust, and I would pick up on all these themes that we were discussing in these classes in your books. It seems like the Holocaust almost forced us to really face up to the fact that reality is not like a book, that there are as many ways to see the world as there are people—it disrupted our conventions, and disrupted the language which establishes those conventions. And the disruption of conventions and the constant questioning of language and meaning are two themes that occur constantly in your work.

PA: The Holocaust hangs over my books, sometimes very visibly and other times in the distance, but it's always there.

CP: Right. Like the concentration camp number on the guy's arm in City of Glass. There are always undercurrents, and it seems to me I can see them in there, but I don't know enough to be able to explain it to other people. I can just feel it under the surface pulling away.

PA: But in The Music of Chance, there are some strange, very tenuous allusions to concentration camps. "Work will make you free." In the Country of Last Things is just saturated with references to that time.

CP: Oh, very much so. Also, I was also reading Dante's Inferno one time when I was re-reading In the Country of Last Things, and all those different religious sects in the beginning reminded me a lot of the different tortures that Dante invented in Hell. I saw some very specific connections—the people who ran themselves to death is just like that one circle where the people spend all eternity just running [Canto III, the Vestibule of Hell].

PA: You know, there must have been some kind of a connection.

CP: Because your uncle [Allen Mandelbaum] does translations.

PA: Yes, right. It's funny, I never thought of Dante in connection with that book, but I think you might be right.

CP: It's really difficult as a critic to write about you, because one of the reasons that I like you so much is that you seem to shy away from the schools of criticism that try to box people and categorize them, and actually try to make these kind of unspeakable credos into something solid. What's the quote from Winesburg, Ohio? "The moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood." It seems, especially in the modern world, that we can only live with a multiplicity of truths, even if they sometimes oppose each other. We have to be aware of the multiplicity of interpretations, and live in what Vonnegut called a "chronosynclastic infidibulum" in The Sirens of Titan. And so it's hard for me to write an essay about your work, because I want to put in the end that I could change my mind about all this tomorrow, because there are so many different ways to see.

PA: It's not a mathematical equation to solve. One hopes it's inexhaustible, and that you're going to keep thinking about it, and keep testing your reactions and come up with new things.

CP: You said in Leviathan that it was only the books that leave you with unanswered questions, the ones that can carry on controversy for years that actually get remembered.

PA: Well, it was something like "the only books that matter are the ones that cannot be understood" [actual quote: "Books are born out of ignorance, and if they go on living after they are written, it's only to the degree that they cannot be understood."—Leviathan 40]. It's a paradoxical formulation, but it's true. It's the book that gets under your skin, that you can't completely figure out right away, that haunts you and then triggers speculation and thoughts and anxieties and illuminations about the world. The one that you can never completely grab hold of.

CP: I must have read the Trilogy ten or fifteen times since high school, and sometimes I'll say "this is the most important passage in the book" and then other times I'll think "no, this one is." It's just amazing how much even just one work can change that much for me over so short a time. Of course, this again points out how the reader plays a large role in interpreting the book.

PA: That's right. [Pause] I can't tell you what a strange thing it is to talk to you. I just sit here doing it, and I don't know that there's a kid out there reading this book fifteen times. But, you see, it's good, it's healthy. If it's not me, it's somebody else. It's the ongoing inquiry and discourse, and it's what makes the world go round, taking it seriously, and not just skimming over it and tossing it aside.

CP: That's what I like about your books, is that they continually challenge you to question things, and then to question the questions. Your books are never directed towards an answer or a solution, which is why I think you use the genre of the detective novel, because those types of books have a very definite conventional structure that is searching for a solution. In most of your books there is no solution; at the end, you are only beginning to realize what the questions might be.

PA: Right. Here, I want to show you one thing. After I wrote Leviathan, I did some funny things. I wrote a screen play, and I wrote this—it's going to be in Granta. "The Red Notebook," and it's all true stories, just absolutely true stories, and here's the last one. I think you might get a kick out of it:

My first novel was inspired by a wrong number. I was alone in my apartment in Brooklyn one afternoon, sitting at my desk and trying to work when the telephone rang. If I am not mistaken, it was the spring of 1980, not many days after I found the dime outside Shea Stadium [reference to another story in this series].

I picked up the receiver, and the man on the other end asked if he was talking to the Pinkerton Agency. I told him no, he had dialed the wrong number, and hung up. Then I went back to work and promptly forgot about the call.

The next afternoon, the telephone rang again. It turned out to be the same person asking the same question I had been asked the day before: "Is this the Pinkerton Agency?" Again I said no, and again I hung up. This time, however, I started thinking about what would have happened if I had said yes. What if I had pretended to be a detective from the Pinkerton Agency? I wondered. What if I had actually taken on the case?

To tell the truth, I felt that I had squandered a rare opportunity. If the man ever called again, I told myself, I would at least talk to him a little bit and try to find out what was going on. I waited for the telephone to ring again, but the third call never came.

After that, wheels started turning in my head, and little by little an entire world of possibilities opened up to me. When I sat down to write City of Glass a year later, the wrong number had been transformed into the crucial event of the book, the mistake that sets the whole story in motion. A man named Quinn receives a phone call from someone who wants to talk to Paul Auster, the private detective. Just as I did, Quinn tells the caller he has dialed the wrong number. It happens again the next night, and again Quinn hangs up. Unlike me, however, Quinn is given another chance. When the phone rings again on the third night, he plays along with the caller and takes on the case. Yes, he says, I'm Paul Auster--and at that moment the madness begins.

Most of all, I wanted to remain faithful to my original impulse. Unless I stuck to the spirit of what had really happened, I felt there wouldn't have been any purpose to writing the book. That meant implicating myself in the action of the story (or at least someone who resembled me, who bore my name), and it also meant writing about detectives who were not detectives, about impersonation, about mysteries that cannot be solved. For better or worse, I felt I had no choice.

All well and good. I finished the book ten years ago, and since then I have gone on to occupy myself with other projects, other ideas, other books. Less than two months ago, however, I learned that books are never finished, that it is possible for stories to go on writing themselves without an author.

I was alone in my apartment in Brooklyn that afternoon, sitting at my desk and trying to work when the telephone rang. This was a different apartment from the one I had in 1980--a different apartment with a different telephone number. I picked up the receiver, and the man on the other end asked if he could speak to Mr. Quinn. He had a Spanish accent and I did not recognize the voice. For a moment I thought it might be one of my friends trying to pull my leg. "Mr. Quinn?" I said. "Is this some kind of joke or what?"

No, it wasn't a joke. The man was in dead earnest. He had to talk to Mr. Quinn, and would I please put him on the line. Just to make sure, I asked him to spell out the name. The caller's accent was quite thick, and I was hoping that he wanted to talk to Mr. Queen. But no such luck. "Q-U-I-N-N," the man answered. I suddenly grew scared, and for a moment or two I couldn't get any words out of my mouth. "I'm sorry," I said at last, "there s no Mr. Quinn here. You've dialed the wrong number." The man apologized for disturbing me, and then we both hung up.

This really happened. Like everything else I have set down in this red notebook, it is a true story.


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