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Off the Page: Paul Auster

With Paul Auster
Novelist
Tuesday, December 16, 2003; 1:00 PM

The inventiveness of Paul Auster is obvious from his characters alone: a dog who is the protagonist in Timbuktu, the boy who can walk on air in Mr. Vertigo. His work is whimsical, comic, and a bit dark as well.

His new novel, his twelfth, called Oracle Night, tells the story of a novelist, recovering from a near-fatal illness, who discovers a notebook. As he writes in the blank book, odd events begin to take place.

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Paul Auster was online Tuesday, Dec. 16 to talk about his work. The transcript follows.

Host Carole Burns, a news producer at washingtonpost.com, is also a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Carole Burns: Hello booklovers, Welcome to "Off the Page" and welcome to Paul Auster, whose latest novel, Oracle Night, was just released (and is slated to be reviewed by Michael Dirda in Book World this Sunday.) We have a geographical diverse group of questioners today, and let's get to them.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: It is great to see writing with skillful comedic touches. That is a difficult type of writing to do well. How do you approach adding humor to your work? Do you have a conscious plan in developing humor in your writing, or do you, say, simply write what you yourself find funny?

Paul Auster: Life is both funny and not funny. It has its tragic moments and its hilarious moments. I try in my work to embrace all aspects of what it means to be alive, and humor is an important part of that. So even in some of my grimmest works, there have been comic touches. There have to be, because that's the way we're built as human beings, and often when we're in dark circumstances we survive them by cracking jokes.

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Kassel, Germany: First I'd like to thank you for making me more aware of life by writing unforgettable novels like City of Glass and Oracle Night.

Strange things keep happening to me while reading your novels. Last summer, for example, I was standing under the Eiffel Tower in Paris when a huge screw fell down just some feet away from me. It could have killed me, just like the gargoyle almost did to Nick in Oracle Night. Well, I didn't start a new life after that, but it kind of changed my life.
So, do you think it could be that books have an equally mysterious influence on people like the blue notebook?

Paul Auster: I think it can happen. I tend not to be a mystic. I tend not to believe in magic. But it's undeniable that weird things happen in the world all the time, and one has the feeling that books can sometimes provoke these events. The story that is told by Trause to Sidney toward the end of the novel, Oracle Night, is a true story. I didn't put in the name of the writer, but the facts as I know them are very, very close to what's in the novel. A man wrote a narrative poem about a drowning child, and not long after the book was published, his own child drowns. Now of course, as Sidney responds initially, it's just a terrible, terrible coincidence. At the same time, in a state of grief and wretchedness, it's perfectly understandable that the writer would make a connection between the book and the death of his child.

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Carole Burns: It struck me when reading Oracle Night that it might not be the notebook that disrupts Sidney Orr's life, but the act of writing in it. Is writing a dangerous activity?

Paul Auster: It can be. It can be very bad for one's mental health. It looks innocent enough from the outside, but when a man or a woman is living every day in an imaginary world, it's often difficult to separate your own reality from the imaginary reality you're writing about. But no, I don't really believe that the book has any magic property. It's simply that Sidney at times believes that it does. But of course, everything that's happening in the book is very subjective. Sidney is telling the story of his life and also his inner life. And that life is in turmoil during the days that he's writing about in 1982.

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Helsingborg, Sweden: Dear Mr. Auster,

I'm an American living in Sweden and I work as a teacher, writer, and translator. Do you have any suggestions for how to maintain the writer's voice when translating, especially if the writer has a significantly different writing style than you do? Also, do you think a translator of literary works must also be a creative writer himself?
Thank you very much for your time and consideration. And thank you, also, for your wonderful contributions to literature.

Paul Auster: Thank you for saying such nice things.

Having translated myself for many years, I felt that your primary job is to give yourself up to the writer you're translating. You have to try to become that person, in a way. To think like that person. To write like that person. It's a creative act, almost like embodying a role in a play. So your particular style as a writer has nothing to do with what your style will be as a translator, because you're serving the text written by the other person.

You don't have to be a creative writer to be a translator, because translation itself is a creative act. The very fact that you're doing it makes you a creative writer--you are by definition a creative writer, even though the work is not originally yours. Bringing it into another language requires all the skill, all the poetic gifts, that any novelist or poet needs to write his work. In fact, some of the very best translators only translate.

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Sacramento, CA: In a recent chat Martin Amis said that the humor novel would be dead in twenty years because there is a butt to every joke and the culture just won't stand for that much longer. On the other hand, Aristophanes has been packing them in for several years. Do you foresee today's comedy becoming as dated as, say, Tex Avery cartoons are now?

Carole Burns: The Martin Amis discussion: Martin Amis Online?|?Video

Paul Auster: Humor is eternal. Comedy is eternal. And no matter what the circumstances of a particular moment, there are always going to be people making jokes about what is happening. Styles of humor change over the years, but to say that humor in general would die would be like saying the human race is going to die.

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Tel-Aviv, Israel: Fate and Coincidence play a large role in your books. Is it something derives from your personal life?

Paul Auster: I have in my non-fiction recorded some of the wilder, more unsettling coincidences that have occurred in my own life. At times in my fiction, similar kinds of events take place. But I don't believe in the idea of fate. I don't believe that our destinies are mapped out in advance. We create our lives every day, and they're constantly shifting, and each one of us, I think ,has the potential to live many, many different lives. And circumstances, coincidence, accidents and choice and desire and will all play their part in the paths we take. But I don't believe that these paths are preordained. Life would be terrible if we thought that were true.

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Fresno, Calif.: I noticed a reference to Wittgenstein in The Book of Illusions, where Zimmer remarks that Wittgenstein is his sort of thinker, or words to that effect. While one should not assume that Zimmer=Auster, do you draw anything from Wittgenstein's work? If so, the earlier or the later?

Many thanks.

Paul Auster: As the young student at Columbia in the '60s, I read Wittgenstein's work very carefully and very avidly. I didn't always fully understand it. But I was always intrigued and inspired by it. Definitely the later work interests me more than the early work, particularly the philosophical investigations. At one point, as I was writing City of Glass many years ago, I was considering using a phrase from Wittgenstein's Zettel as an epigraph for the book. The sentence is this: And it also means something to speak of "living in the pages of a book."

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NYC: I was wondering if you'd read fellow Brooklynite Jonathan Lethem's new novel "Fortress of Solitude." It basically lives off of the author's experiences growing up in the borough, and I was curious as to how being a Brooklynite affects your writing.

Paul Auster: I wrote before I ever moved to Brooklyn, and I've continued to write ever since I've been here, which is now almost 24 years. It's my place. It's this little spot on earth that I inhabit. And because I'm surrounded by it every day, it's only natural that I'd want to write about it at times, which I've done. But it's not the only subject that interests me.

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Lenexa, Kan.: Mr. Auster: I've read four of your novels but so far only reviews of your latest. I especially enjoyed "The Music of Chance"--a bad poker night and its aftermath. I really enjoyed Durning and Walsh in the movie version. I'm also a big fan of the film "Smoke".

Two questions: Are there any plans to film "Vertigo"? Are you a fan of Millhauser's writing? Thanks.

Paul Auster: There are no plans to make a film out of Mr. Vertigo. And Millhauser is a writer I admire--I've read several of his books and I've liked them all.

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Washington, D.C.: Love your work. Just actually finished reading the New York Trilogy. I was wondering, who are some of the authors that you feel have most influenced your writing? Also, who are some of your favorite authors writing fiction these days?

Thanks.

Paul Auster: The list is too long to enumerate today, but I'll give a few names. Montaigne, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Kafka, Beckett, Joyce, Celine, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, etc.

These days, in the United States, I'm very fond of Don DeLillo's work. Robert Coover, Marquez, Kundera.

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Toronto, Ontario: Thank you for Oracle Night - I just read it and enjoyed it very much.

Do you have any plans to visit Toronto, in the near future? We would very much like to see you here, but I haven't heard about any planned appearances...

Paul Auster: I do know I'm not going to Toronto any time soon, but I will be in Montreal on March 31. I'm getting some kind of prize up there, at a festival called the Blue Metropolis. Every year they've given the literary Grand Priz and this year they're giving it to me.

Other travels: In May I'm going to a few places in Europe--London and Berlin and Amsterdam. And then in the summer, Brazil, for the first time.

I'm reading in Washington on Jan. 13 (I think at Politics and Prose) and later in January I'm reading in Boston. I've done the New York reading--I read the entire contents of Oracle Night over two nights at the Paula Cooper Gallery in Chelsea, in the middle of the blizzard. It was an exhausting but invigorating experience for everyone, myself included.

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Tel-Aviv, Israel: Mr. Auster, I have read almost all your books in translation to Hebrew although I am capable of reading them in English. Is it your opinion as a both writer and translator, possible for a translation to be superior to the original?

Paul Auster: Yes, it's possible, but only when the original work is badly written. If you can read in English, I think you'll have a more enjoyable experience tackling the book in the original.

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San Francisco, CA: Mr. Auster-

First off, let me say that "The Book of Illusions" and "Oracle Night" are two of the most amazing books I have ever read. Thank you for them!

As a young reader, I became aware of you and your writing when Don DeLillo dedicated "Cosmopolis" to you... I figured if my all time favorite author liked you, I should check you out!; Boy, am I glad I did.

So, how does it feel to have a book by DeLillo dedicated to you?

Cheers!;

Paul Auster: I was extremely touched. Don is a very close friend of mine, but I didn't know that he was dedicating the book to me until I received a copy of the bound galleys. As they often do, when I get a new book in my hands, I flip through at random. So I didn't see the dedication page until I'd been looking at the book for a few minutes, which somehow made it a double shock. But in 1992, I dedicated one of my novels, Leviathan, to Don.

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Carole Burns: Your work is so strong on story, and yet they are also novels of ideas. Which aspect of your novels comes to you first? How do the ideas and the stories evolve?

Paul Auster: It's always the story. The story first and last. And the stories come to me out of my unconscious. I never look for them. They find me. And I'm not consciously writing about so-called ideas, but the thoughts and ideas of the characters become crucial to the telling of the story. Sometimes you start with something, and then the more you explore it, the more ramifications you discover in the image or the events. But I rarely know exactly what I'm doing. I don't work from a prearranged outline. I have a general sense of the shape of the story, who the characters are, and a sense of the beginning, the middle and the end, and yet once I start to write, things begin to change quite rapidly, and I've never written a book that ended up the way I thought it would be when I started. For me, I find the book in the process of writing it. Which makes it a great adventure. If it's all mapped out in advance, there's nothing to discover. It's happened to me that I've thought of stories so much and for such a long time that by the time I sit down to try to write them, they're already dead, and I feel like I don't want to write them, because I know them too well. And it's the not knowing that makes it exciting.

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Williamsburg, Va.: I selected Book of Illusions for a local book group, and got a wide variety of responses to it - I loved it, but was in the distinct minority. If you had the chance to talk to a new Auster reader and tell them why they should read you, what would you say?

Paul Auster: I would never tell anyone to read my books. It's not my job to do that. But all my life as a writer, I've had very disparate responses, contradictory responses, to the work I do. Some people love it, and other people simply despite it. I get the best reviews and the worst reviews of any writer I know, and there's nothing, nothing in the world I can do about it. I would of course prefer that everyone love what I do, but I've been doing this work long enough to know that that's never going to happen. But I'm very happy that you enjoyed it.

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Alex, VA: Thanks for doing this chat. Is this sort of "publicity" fun or torture? Would you rather just be able to write and stay locked away somewhere? I am so intrigued by the descriptions of your work. I would not have heard about your books without this. Thanks for your time.

Paul Auster: I would prefer not to say a word to anybody. But I do feel an obligation to my publisher to cooperate on a small scale in helping to present the book to the public. But I try to keep it to the absolute minimum.

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Kassel, Germany: Dear Mr. Auster, I guess you read a lot while not writing. What is the last novel you read? Any recommendations?
Would you consider yourself as a postmodernist writer? What's your opinion about comparisons between you and authors like Thomas Pynchon and John Barth?

Paul Auster: The last novel I read is the new translation into English of Don Quixote, by Edith Grossman, which I enjoyed very much. Don Quixote is probably my favorite novel of all time, and I've read it at least five times.

As for the postmodern question, it's a term that doesn't mean anything to me. People keep using it, but I truly don't understand what it means. And I don't put label on what I do. If other people want to do that, that's their privilege, but I'm not interested in looking at myself from the outside.

I admire both Pynchon and Barth, but I don't feel my work has very much to do with theirs.

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Carole Burns: Thanks so much, Paul, for coming online today, and to everyone from around the world who submitted questions. Look for Book World's review of Oracle Night this weekend.

"Off the Page" will be taking the holidays off, but please join us when we start up again in January.

Get announcements about upcoming authors on "Off the Page" by signing up for our e-mail list. Email me at offthepage2004@yahoo.com.

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