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Books In Conversation

PAUL AUSTER with John Reed

Paul Auster’s 10 novels include, most recently, The Book of Illusions, which comes out in paperback from Picador this August. He has also written several books of poetry, as well as screenplays including Smoke and Blue in the Face (both 1995).

Illustration by Phong Bui.
Illustration by Phong Bui.

The Rail’s John Reed caught up with him on the 4th of July, at Auster’s home in Park Slope.

John Reed (Rail): Is there a cultural war going on in this country?

Paul Auster: How so?

Rail: Well, for our purposes, a relationship between conservatism and sort of a squashing of creative endeavors.

Auster: I wouldn’t call it a cultural war. I think it’s a real political war that’s going on. We’ve gone through bad periods in the past. McCarthyism, for example, to cite something fairly recent. The Vietnam War was bad, tumultuous, but at the same time invigorating—because a lot was being aired about the nature of our society and culture that was very healthy. Now that the right wing has taken over, we’ve entered a new realm of danger. It’s certainly the scariest moment that I’ve experienced in my lifetime. In a serious way, we’re running the risk of eroding all that’s good about American democracy; and I think these sons of bitches are doing it on purpose, with their eyes wide open. What the right wing wants is to bankrupt the government. They want to make it impossible for any kind of social programs to be affordable. The only money—public money—they want is for the military. Everything else they want privatized. The thing that shocks me about what’s going on is not so much that it’s happening—but that no one is really screaming about it. I would think now, after more than two years of Bush, that the country would be hysterically, passionately against it, but he’s rolling over everybody. That’s appalling to me.

Take something like the Halliburton contract in Iraq. A few years ago, this would have caused a major scandal; it would have been an outrage to the American public. Now nobody seems to think twice about it. On every front, these people are doing things that I’m entirely opposed to. Whether it’s foreign policy, economic policy, social policy, or environmental policy—everything, everything is 180 degrees against what I think the country should be doing. Am I alone in feeling this way? No. Most of the people I know in New York are thinking similar thoughts—but out in the rest of the country I’m not sure. I’m just not sure. I’ve been so angry, I even wrote a song against George Bush, when the war broke out. One Ring Zero, a group of young musicians from Brooklyn, have set it to music, and recorded it on a CD. I’ll play it for you later, if you like.

Rail: That would be great.

Auster: It’s a silly song, but just writing it gave me a chance to let off a little steam. I simply don’t know what to do anymore.

Rail: Well, that’s the next question. What about literature?

Auster: Literature is something else all together. I believe that it’s dangerous for novelists or poets to entangle themselves directly with politics in their work. I’m not saying that we don’t all have a right and a need and sometimes a duty to speak out as citizens, but the value of fiction—let’s just confine ourselves to that for the moment—is that it’s about the individual, the dignity and importance of the individual. Once you start dealing in ideas that are too large or too abstract, you can’t make art that will touch anyone, and then it’s valueless. No matter how angry I am right now, for example, I believe my job as a writer is to stick to my guns and keep writing my little stories.

Rail: Then it’s benign?

Auster: Literature benign? Hardly.

Rail: In that you’re not hurting anyone.

Auster: Well, no, a book can’t hurt anyone. It can disgust people, it can amuse people, it can move people, it can challenge people, but it certainly doesn’t put bullets in their body and take food out of their mouths.

Rail: In the landscape we’re talking about, what role do media conglomerates play?

Auster: Under the new Bush administration, one truly feels that the media is functioning as a kind of propaganda machine for the government. It’s very, very frightening. Look at the paper sitting here on the table, The New York Times. It’s a middle-of-the-road paper, but it’s certainly not pro-Bush. But they can’t attack him to the degree I think they would like to, because then the reporters would lose their sources. No one from the administration would talk to them anymore. So they’re in a very delicate position. But other organs of the media are just blatantly pandering to the public, giving them what they think the public wants, entertaining war coverage on cable T.V. It’s become impossible for me to look at that stuff anymore—it seems so tainted and biased and twisted.

Rail: Ok, now to Brooklyn. On a social, cultural map, where is Brooklyn?

Auster: Brooklyn. I’ve lived here now for 23 years, and it’s also the place where my mother grew up. So Brooklyn is a big part of my life, both present and past. Interestingly enough, my daughter Sophie, who is about to turn 16, was born in the same hospital my mother was born in. So we skipped a generation. Brooklyn has changed enormously since I got here. It was much more rundown 23 years ago.

Rail: I remember when you moved to Brooklyn.

Auster: You do? It was the first days of 1980.

Rail: You had a little place on the Upper West Side.

Auster: Well, that was way, way back. Then I had a room on Varick Street in Tribeca for about a year, and I lost it. I tried looking for something in Manhattan and couldn’t find a place I could afford. So I wound up crossing the river into Brooklyn and have been here ever since. I think it’s a very exciting place these days. As neighborhoods have been rejuvenated, there’s been an influx of younger people, creative people. Of course, there’s a downside to all this gentrification— it’s getting expensive. I probably couldn’t even afford to buy this house today, but 10 years ago I could. As it gets more expensive, it’s harder for young people to come in. Still, overall, I think things in the borough have improved a lot.

Rail: Since 9/11 has your relationship with the city changed?

Auster: Not really. Only to the degree that I understand more fully how much I love it. When the attacks came, there was a feeling of tremendous loyalty to the city, and a feeling of solidarity with the people who live here, a sense of pride in our incredible diversity and overall tolerance for one another. You look at other cities in the world—Jerusalem or Sarajevo or Belfast, places where you have ethnic conflict, horrible, murderous antagonisms. Then you look at New York, where we have representatives from the entire world. Nearly 40% of us were born in other countries, which is astonishing to contemplate. The fact that most people most of the time make a real effort to get along with one another is remarkable. I think it makes New York a unique place in the world. I would love to see New York break away from the United States and become an independent city-state. Because I think we represent something more than just America. We represent the entire world. And I think we should be on our own.

Rail: In Europe, they think we’re a European country.

Auster: We’re not that either. We’re an Asian country and a Latin American country. Everybody is here.

Rail: Do you feel that New York City’s relationship with the rest of the country has changed? Or, maybe we should say with the rest of the country and the world.

Auster: New York has traditionally been both admired and despised around the United States. To say that it was simply hated is false, because a large number of young people in the hinterlands dream only of coming here. New York is filled with young people from all over the country.

Rail: And you don’t have to be from New York to be a New Yorker.

Auster: The minute you stay here for a week you become a New Yorker.

Rail: Put on a Yankees hat and that’s it.

Auster: That’s it. In my case a Mets hat, but we won’t quibble about it. At the same time, New York has been vilified, and people are afraid of it. After 9/11, did the relationship change? Momentarily, everyone was in love with New York, momentarily everyone thought it was an extraordinary place. There was a great surge of sympathy and compassion for us. But now, after close to two years, most of those feelings have faded. We’re back to business as usual.

Rail: In Hand To Mouth, you wrote about your struggles as a writer. Do you see the struggles today as being the same?

Auster: Yes. Anyone who is driven enough to want to become an artist— painter, poet, novelist, filmmaker—has to walk a very difficult road. First of all, it’s not easy to become good at what you’re hoping to become good at. It takes years and years of hard solitary work to write a good sentence, to learn how to paint. And in these apprentice years, you’re obviously giving up a lot of your time for activities that are not going to produce any money. And therefore that is going to put you in a bind. I think this remains true today. You have to earn money, get a job of some kind. But the job eats up all your time. You’re not going to be able to pursue your dream of becoming an artist, and I don’t see how this is ever going to change. There’s a beautiful poem by Charles Reznikoff, a poet I love very deeply. He always worked, he always had jobs. In one of his short poems, he wrote about coming home from work and feeling exhausted and uninspired, unable to write, but nevertheless he sat down and started to write a poem, and little by little the ideas came to him, and little by little he felt his energy return. And the last line is, “Surely the tide comes in twice a day.” A very lovely line. I think it expresses what all young artists have to face. Don’t you agree with me?

Rail: Poets have a particularly hard time.

Auster: There’s no way to make a living as a poet. You have to do something else. On the other hand, the only reason people do it is because they’re compelled to do it. No one forces you to becoming a writer. There’s not a single argument for it. I would never advise a young person to become a writer.

Rail: It’s a pretty dumb idea.

Auster: If you choose to become a writer, the world doesn’t owe you a thing. Nothing. Nothing. Sometimes artists fall into the trap of feeling entitled. But they’re not. They’re doing what they have to do. But that doesn’t mean that someone has to support you for it.

Rail: So, the softball. I’d like you to talk about anything you want to talk about in your new project. I’ve phrased it: What is most exciting to you about the project you are working on now?

Auster: What I’m doing right now is correcting the proofs of a novel I finished in April. It’s coming out in December. Oracle Night is the title. It’s taken up all my time and all my thoughts. Sooner or later, I suppose I’ll start writing something else. But I’m not ready yet. Beginning a book is always a scary moment. I always feel extremely shaky when I get into something new.

Rail: Anything else for The Brooklyn Rail?

Auster: Why not end with the lyrics of the George Bush song?

King George Blues

O Mr. Bush you scare me so
From the top of your head to your
little toe
You prowl the halls of Texas death row
Only the rich are in the know

The fat men are in charge
The thin men take the barge
To hell, to hell, to hell

O demon of the hanging chad
How’d you get to be so bad?
You say the others are filled with evil
But you pray at the shrine of the black boll weevil

The fat men are in charge
The thin men take the barge
To hell, to hell, to hell

It used to be we’d never attack
Now our troops march through Iraq
You don’t like a dictator named Saddam?
Just search him out and drop a bomb

The fat men are in charge
The thin men take the barge
To hell, to hell, to hell

O tool of big bucks oil
How you make my blood boil
You stomp the poor and make them toil
For nickels, for pennies, for nothing at all

The fat men are in charge
The thin men take the barge
To hell, to hell, to hell

Paul Auster March 2003
Band: One Ring Zero


John Reed

John Reed's novels include A Still Small Voice (Delacorte 2000) and Snowball's Chance, which will be published by Roof Books this September. He lives in Manhattan.


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