Paul Auster has been writing beautiful, metaphysical, mysterious novels for a long time now. Some of them are funnier than others, some more devastating in their conclusions. He's also written screenplays, poetry collections, essays, plays, and memoirs. His latest, Travels in the Scriptorium, could be seen as a distillation of much of his life's work — a multi-layered, spare puzzle of existence and creation, conveyed in lovely, minimalist prose. Booklist admires it as "an archly playful and shrewdly philosophical tribute to the transcendence of stories."
A man sits on the edge of a bed and looks around a room. He doesn't remember how he got there, or who he is. Travels in the Scriptorium takes this simple enough premise and turns it inside out and back again. Rich with characters and themes from works that span his career, including The New York Trilogy, In the Country of Last Things, and Oracle Night, it's a Möbius strip of a book about writing, human connection, and the weight of imagination.
Jill: There's a quote from The Book of Illusions that reads: "Everyone had been tantalized by the proximity of the two events, but it was logically unsound to assume that one had caused the other. Contiguous facts are not necessarily related facts, even though their nearness to each other would seem to suggest they are linked." Much of your work seems to take place in this space, this confusion between what seems logical and what is real.
Paul Auster: I think you've put your finger on something. In fact, that passage from The Book of Illusions was talking about a specific event, but you could generalize from that and make the comment you just did.
I think this is the way dreams work, too. There's a kind of repetition of objects, or just putting one thing next to another, and something happens in between. In the way, for example, that collages work. I think my novels have tended to, more and more, be very multi-layered, and have several stories going on at once; I find that when you have story one, story two, and story three all on the same canvas, the energy between them is very interesting. A new kind of energy is formed, when you put more than one thing up. What that energy is, I don't know. But it seems to reverberate, as if you start walking into an echo chamber, and each thing gets louder.
Jill: Accidents crop up frequently in your work, catastrophic accidents like car crashes and plane crashes, but also less dramatic accidents of fate, or chance.
Auster: Well, that's life, isn't it? [Laughs]
Jill: On some level everything could be seen as an accident.
Auster: Just about, yes. There are necessary facts and contingent facts in the world, and very little is necessary. Once we're born, the only inevitable thing is that we're going to die, and everything else is up for grabs, every minute, every day. The thing about an accident is that it's not necessary, even in philosophical language. We've all had accidents; they happen so suddenly, and they completely interrupt the fabric of your life.
Jill: And alter it.
Auster: Sometimes forever. Sometimes end it. I don't know if you've ever been in a car crash, but it is really terrible. I was in one about four and a half years ago, and I can still feel the impact when I close my eyes and think about that day. Very powerful. The car was absolutely wrecked.
We were making a left turn, and the car on the perpendicular avenue was speeding. This woman was going so much faster than I imagined she would be, that when we got into the intersection she hit us at a ninety-degree angle. The car spun around, and we went smashing into a pole. The car was ruined, and I thought my wife's neck had been broken; she was sitting in the passenger seat, which is the side that got hit. They had to cut the door off the car with a — I don't even know what the machine was, I didn't even see it, I was so dazed. So there you go. One minute you're thinking your ordinary thoughts, and the next minute your life can come to an end.
Jill: I don't know how frequently your work has been compared to Murakami's, but I see some similarities there. There's a sense, sometimes, of characters learning who they are, defining themselves, by both deliberate action and chance, whim, coincidence.
Auster: It's funny; I've met him once or twice, and I know he likes my work a lot, because he's written about it in beautiful ways. So it's an interesting comparison.
Another person I get compared to is the filmmaker Kieslowski. I think someone actually wrote a thesis comparing the two of us. I can see it, in certain ways, and then in other ways not at all.
Jill: It's interesting that neither of those artists is American; if I hadn't known, I might not have thought you were a contemporary American author. It's certainly not that your work feels translated —
Auster: No, the prose is all about the music, it's all about the sound. But you know, I never wanted to write traditional novels, in the way that most Americans practice the form. It just never interested me. I suppose that is a little strange. On the other hand, I feel great kinship with nineteenth-century American writers, particularly Hawthorne and Melville. I think my work feels more connected to theirs than it does to most of my contemporaries.
Hawthorne is a great, great favorite of mine, almost an obsession. [Laughs] And I'll tell you, the thing to read first, because I'm sure you haven't, is The American Notebooks. It's only available in the scholarly edition from Ohio State University Press, but I'm sure at Powell's you can find it. It is some of the best writing he ever did, and it is uncannily like Kafka's diaries. He's jotting down ideas for stories all the time, stories that he never wrote. And then there are incredibly beautiful nature descriptions of his walks; the prose is all stripped down. It's not the ornate Hawthorne of the published work, but a more private and more direct Hawthorne, and I think I almost prefer that to all the other things he did.
You know the New York Review Books? They're doing all these great reprints. There's a chunk of The American Notebooks which I always thought should be a separate book. It's only about 50 pages long. In it, Hawthorne recounts spending three weeks alone with his five-year-old son. It's called Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa. I wrote a preface for it; I think my preface is 30 pages and the book is 50, something like that. [Laughs] But it is hilariously funny!
Jill: Not a quality one tends to associate with Hawthorne.
Auster: No! But it is. And so dry, at the same time. It shows you another Hawthorne altogether. It's a great little work.
Jill: I had two distinct reading experiences with Travels in the Scriptorium. I first read it a couple of months ago, and I hadn't read your early books in many years, so although I had hints of some of the connections to your other work I didn't read the book primarily through that lens. In the interim, I reread The New York Trilogy, Leviathan, In the Country of Last Things, etc., so the second time I read it, I had a much more vivid picture of how the characters related.
Do you think there will be two very different audiences for this book — those reading you for the first time and those familiar with your previous work?
Auster: Definitely, yes. People who come upon this book not having read anything of mine before will read it in one way, and I'm hoping that there's enough in it so that it will be compelling. That's the gamble I've made. People who are familiar with my work will get more out of it, I think. But I don't think not knowing is going to make for a bad experience. At least, I hope not. What was your experience?
Jill: No, not a bad experience at all. I will say it was a richer experience, the second time around knowing the connections.
Auster: Exactly. Yes. That's how I would put it. It would be richer, but certainly, if you come to it blind, I think there's enough to hold you.
Jill: How did Travels begin?
Auster: It's a very odd story. I don't really understand it, but at a certain point, before I began the book, for about two weeks, I kept seeing an image in my head. I don't know if this started in a dream, or in a daydream, or if it just popped into my brain one day. But I saw an old man, wearing pajamas and slippers, sitting on the edge of the bed, with his hands on his knees staring down at the floor. I kept asking myself, What is this? I sat down and started trying to explore this picture that I kept seeing. Little by little by little, I came to the conclusion — and this doesn't even mean that I'm right, but this was my conclusion — that it was me, as an old man, twenty years from now. That unleashed the story.
This has never happened to me at any time before. Usually, I walk around with books for a long, long time, and they gestate very slowly. It's sometimes five, ten years that I'm mulling over the characters and the story of a novel. This one just came, as if in a trance. It was there, so to speak. So it was a totally different experience, and I think this book feels different from anything I've done before, too.
Jill: I would agree with that. The prose feels different, too, in that the language feels very stripped-down.
Auster: It's stripped-down because it's the language of the report. That's the form of the novel; it's a report. So it doesn't read necessarily like a piece of fiction. So much the better, as far as I'm concerned.
Jill: On one level, it could be seen as a fairly traditional mystery. There are clues, steps to retrace, motivations to discern. There's even an ex-policeman.
Auster: Yes, but it's so murky, because Mr. Blank, our hero, is forgetting things all the time. He can't really remember very much. Little flickers come to him, but that's about it. So he really doesn't understand his situation very well. And, I don't know — does the mystery get solved? I suppose, if you want to look at it that way. But then it opens up a bigger mystery, I think, after that.
Jill: His feeling of guilt as he wakes up struck me as almost being the opposite of original sin — feeling anguish not over the curse of knowledge but the lack of it.
Auster: He has vague feelings of guilt, because he's sent people out on dangerous missions, and many of them have died, or been hurt by what he's caused them to do. At the same time, in other moods, he defends himself. I was just doing what I had to do; that was my job. I had no choice. Truth is more important than anything else.
Jill: Do you think he begins to take responsibility for his creations, his missions, during the course of the book?
Auster: To a certain degree, yes. To the degree that he's able to understand. But the facts keep eluding him. He's quite muddled, because of the treatment, and the pills that they're giving him. So he's in a bad state.
I saw this book also, on top of everything else, as a picture of old age. I think there are so many old people in the world confined to rooms like this, not quite aware of where they are, or why they're there, who are suffering, and their bodies aren't working so well. There's a lot in Travels in the Scriptorium about the body; it's a very physical book. That's a big part of the story for me — old age. It's an area I've never really explored before. I found it very compelling.
I think that's why he keeps thinking about his earliest childhood, because this is what old people tend to do. They go way, way back. I can remember when my grandfather, who was 85, was dying, years and years ago, and I was taking care of him in the hospital. Most of what he wanted to talk about was his boyhood in Toronto. He was remembering things that he'd never told me about — delivering bread to so-and-so, getting the newspaper — all these little tiny incidental quotidian tasks. It was as if they had just happened. So Mr. Blank goes through that a bit.
Jill: Those are some of the most vivid sensory details in the book, his childhood memories.
Auster: Yes. Remembering his first kiss, his rocking horse, the barber's chair — all of those things. But then there's also the pissing and shitting and slipping and falling and getting dizzy — in the present, he's going through all kinds of problems.
Jill: Travels in particular is a very physical book, but also in your other work I think you do pay more attention than many writers to the way characters are physically feeling.
Auster: It's possible. Well, it's very important to me. We are our bodies, after all, and it interests me to try and convey that on the page.
Jill: There are varying levels of perspective in this book. You have the camera and the microphones recording Mr. Blank's sound and movement, and the first-person plural, the "we" who are watching him. There's also a story within the story, by John Trause —
Auster: The Confederation. A weird political parable, I suppose.
Jill: Did you write that separately from the rest of the book? It has such a different voice.
Auster: Yes. I wrote it all in one go, the Trause story, and then I broke it up. It's hard to keep switching tones, so I just concentrated on that part, and then went back and distributed it throughout the book.
Jill: And then Mr. Blank "writes" the second half of it as well.
Auster: Verbally writes it, yes.
Jill: Is the writing process described there similar to your own writing process at all? The way that Mr. Blank thinks about the possibilities and trajectories of characters and plot lines, and crosses out directions that would be too pat, or too implausible.
Auster: No, actually, not at all. [Laughs] I don't think that way. These books that I've written over the years, they've all come to me out of the deepest, most inaccessible places in my unconscious. Almost without fail, when something presents itself to me, that's it. I don't second-guess it. I just go with it, if it feels right. That isn't to say I haven't changed things as I've written the books — but basically, it's just there.
But Mr. Blank's task is different. He's finishing a story someone else has written. If I were given that task, I might start asking those kinds of questions, too. It's more like collaborating with somebody, which I've done a couple of times. I've written two screenplays with other people. Neither one was produced, but the screenplays were nevertheless written, and I found it very interesting to sit down with someone you respect, someone highly intelligent, and just hash it out and see where you take a character, see where you take the story. So in a sense, Mr. Blank is having that conversation, but with himself as a kind of collaborator.
Jill: The way you described the genesis of this book, exploring and enlarging the image that came to you — I have to say, it honestly feels like it was a fun book to write.
Auster: Well, it actually was, I confess. Also, I do think of it as a kind of a comedy, as a funny book. It's so ridiculous, at times; I find it funny when he starts spinning around in the chair, or pretending to ice-skate in his socks on the wooden floor. It tickles me. Also, wanting to touch Sophie's breasts, for example. There's something comical and ridiculous about it.
Jill: Do you think Mr. Blank is a likable character?
Auster: I've never thought about it one way or the other. No, not particularly. He's a bit cantankerous, I suppose, more than anything else. I didn't want him to be just some old sweetheart. He's angry, and frustrated — and yet, there is tenderness in him that you can see, especially with Anna, in the beginning.
Jill: Do you still do any translating at all?
Auster: No, I haven't done anything in years.
Jill: I read and loved Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians, years ago.
Auster: There is an incredible story that goes along with the publication of that book. This goes way, way back, to when I was in my mid-twenties. I was living in Paris, and was a very close friend of the poet Jacques Dupin, whose work I had translated. Jacques was co-editor of a very good literary magazine, and in that magazine they published a short piece by a young anthropologist named Pierre Clastres. I asked Jacques about him, and who he was, because I'd been very interested in the piece; I thought it was brilliant. He told me about Clastres, and I went out and bought his book, Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians, which was extraordinary.
When I moved back to America, I presented it to publishers as a book to translate. Finally, somebody agreed to it, and I translated the book. Clastres and I were in correspondence; he was very happy about it. Then, all kinds of terrible things started to happen. Clastres died in a car crash at the age of forty-three. The publisher went bankrupt, and the book never came out. I had corrected proofs, I remember, but I had not kept them, nor did I have a copy of the manuscript. And the whole thing was lost, lost, lost, for twenty years. Twenty years! I had always told my wife what a wonderful book this was; she half-believed me, half-didn't believe me.
Then, miracle of miracles: I'm invited to give a reading in San Francisco for the City Arts and Lectures series at the Herbst Theatre. After the reading was over, I was signing books in the lobby, and a young man who's a book collector — I think he deals in rare and secondhand books, and I had met him a couple of times before — comes up and waves a red galley in my face and says, "What's this? I never heard of it." It turned out to be a galley of my translation, which he'd found in a bin for five dollars in a second-hand store. So I immediately got it from him (I traded him something for it), reread the book, and was just overwhelmed by it all over again. I gave it to Zone Books — the publisher's a friend of mine — and they published it, so it's still in print. But that translation was lost for twenty years.
Jill: It's like something out of one of your own books, the way it made its way back to you.
Auster: I know. Later on, I heard the terrifying story of Clastres's death from someone who had known him. It's an awful story. Apparently, there were a bunch of young anthropologists in France at the time, and they had all bought little houses in the country, not far from one another. Clastres's house was down in a valley, and they had friends who lived up in the mountains. One night, the friends invited Clastres and his wife to dinner. In order to get to the house, they had to go over a very narrow bridge. It seems that they all drank too much, and driving home, after the party, Clastres's car went off the bridge and crashed; he was killed, his wife survived.
Two years later, when she was finally well enough to invite some people over, she invited these same friends, and they came down from the mountain over the little bridge, and down to her house for dinner. After dinner, driving home that night, their car went off the bridge and they were both killed. It's a frightening story.
Jill: It is a frightening story. I'm glad the book made it into translation; it's amazing. I've never read anything else like it. I hadn't read much anthropology before that point, and it's caused me to read several other anthropological works since then.
Auster: Rarely are they as good as Clastres's.
Auster: Now that Robert Creeley is dead — I loved Creeley's work; he was a friend, and I loved him, too — of the poets that I most like in America, at the top of the list these days is a poet who lives in San Francisco, Michael Palmer. Do you know his work?
Jill: I don't, no.
Auster: He's published by New Directions, and out of my generation — Michael's just three or four years older than I am — I think he's the best. It's extraordinarily original work, very beautiful, very intelligent. I like Charles Simic a lot, and of the older people I'm still very partial to Ashbery. I have a big soft spot for him. The other poets I knew, and loved so much, that are long dead now, are George Oppen and Charles Reznikoff, the so-called Objectivists — those are my favorites.
Jill: I'll have to look Michael Palmer up.
Auster: You must, yes. In fact, I think he just won an award from the American Academy of Poets — the huge Wallace Stevens prize, which is a $100,000 prize. I'm very happy for him. He deserved it.
Jill: I was wondering if you'd seen David Lynch's new movie, The Inland Empire, yet. There are some similarities in theme between that movie and Travels, I think.
Auster: No, I haven't, but I want to. I haven't had time. I just made a new movie myself. I've been working so much on that, and I just finished. We just have the print now.
Jill: I didn't know you were working on one. What is it?
Auster: It's called The Inner Life of Martin Frost. Do you remember towards the end of The Book of Illusions, Zimmer's out there in New Mexico, and he gets to watch one film? It's about the writer, and his muse, and he burns his manuscript in order to bring her back to life. That's the beginning of my film. I always wanted to extend that story, so I did it, and it's all finished now. I don't know exactly when it's coming out, but I do know that we got into the New Director's series in New York for March, so the world premiere will be end of March in New York, either at MOMA or Lincoln Center. The festival uses both theatres.
Jill: I'll keep an eye out for it when it comes to the west coast. Did you know there's a character named after you in a new young adult book called Paranoid Park? It's being made into a movie directed by Gus van Sant.
Auster: No! That's very strange. Is it supposed to be me?
Jill: You know, I haven't read it, so I'm not sure. It's by Blake Nelson, who's a Portland writer.
Auster: If you find out, let me know. You can just say, "It's you," or "It's not you," and I'll know what you mean.
Someone just told me that in Berlin now there's a Paul Auster bar, which I felt really honored about, I have to say.
Jill: I wish I'd known; I was just there a few months ago, and I would have gone.
Auster: I would go, too! I didn't know, either, until just three or four days ago. I was shocked. I think it's true; I don't think they were pulling my leg.
I spoke with Paul Auster by phone on January 18, 2007.
Books mentioned in this post