For Paul Auster, it all started with Crime and Punishment. After reading Dostoyevsky's masterpiece as a teenager he decided he wanted to become a writer. As soon as he learnt to read, Auster developed a love for it. As a child, the first book he bought with his own pennies was an edition of Poe's Short Stories, whom critics regularly compare him with. When asked about the writers who inspired him most, Auster names 20th century American authors such as Hemingway ("his artificial style makes you aware of what he is doing"), J.D. Salinger (especially The Catcher in the Rye), F.S. Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby "overwhelmed me"), Faulkner ("more complicated"), James Joyce ("was my God when I was 18", Ulysses "came as a sledgehammer"). As for French authors, he names Montaigne and Pascal, Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Rimbaud, Proust, Céline and Beckett.
Becoming a writer
Inspiration and influences
Writing is not only an art, it is also a nine-to-five job for Auster. Every morning, he walks to his office - a small apartment in Manhattan - where he can be alone to write. Auster needs to be in a quiet environment. The only music he accepts is the one he is writing on the page. (Auster actually writes his novels by hand, then types them on an old typewriter!)
Whenever he gets stuck on a sentence, he gets up and paces around the room until he eventually finds what he calls a rhythm for his sentence.
Another important factor in the writing process for Auster is time. Ideas simmering in his unconscious take time to reach the surface of the mind. There is what he calls a "gestation period", which can range from a good night's sleep to several years (in the case of The Brooklyn Follies, for instance).
When asked where his inspiration comes from Auster answers that he has no idea where his ideas come from. Characters pop up in his head and he simply follows them. "As a writer," he adds, "you give yourself up to your character".
The biggest question for an author, he continues, is: "Who is telling the story, and how?" Auster has written both first- and third-person narratives, but seems to prefer the former, explaining that as a writer, he feels he has to embody his characters the way an actor does, rather than direct them like a puppeteer. (He has even given a try at a second-person narrative in a book he has just finished writing and is waiting to be published.)
His use of first-person narrators shouldn't lead us to believe that these are projections of himself, however. While he admits there may be some autobiographical facts in his work, these are of minor importance. He is neither Walt, the child in Mr. Vertigo (he was actually much better-behaved as a kid), nor Nathan, the retired life insurance salesman recovering from cancer in The Brooklyn Follies.
Auster and his characters
One element that does come from his own experience in life is the uncanny coincidence of events so typical of his fiction. So many strange events have happened to him, that it seems only natural that chance and randomness should play such a pivotal role in his stories. Think of The Brooklyn Follies, for instance. How likely is it that Nathan and Tom should wind up in the same Brooklyn neighbourhood? And what about the unlikely string of events the author needs to weave together to get Tom - a clerk in a Brooklyn bookstore - to meet and eventually marry Honey - a fourth-grade schoolteacher from Vermont? When such bizarre coincidences happen in real life, it is reality that resembles fiction, he argues. Chance and randomness are what Auster calls the "mechanics of reality".
Before taking questions on The Brooklyn Follies, Auster offered to read a passage from the overture of the novel: "I was looking for a quiet place to die. Someone recommended Brooklyn..."
Auster reads the "Overture" of TBF
It took Auster several years to put the story of The Brooklyn Follies together. It was only when he eventually found Nathan that he saw how it could all work out. Nathan is the witness who chronicles the stories of the other characters. Of course, The Brooklyn Follies is about Nathan, too. It is the story of his regeneration. He starts out bitter and angry, but the people he meets help bring him back to life, in a sense. In this respect, The Brooklyn Follies is a comedy, in spite of the impending tragedy of 9/11 looming in the background. The novel, he goes on to explain, was conceived before 9/11, but written after that "big family tragedy". All those little worries we grumble about in everyday life are nothing in comparison with the tragedy of 9/11, he adds. The Brooklyn Follies, you might say, is simply a "hymn to ordinary life".
The Brooklyn Follies and 9/11
Films and novels