An Interview with Paul Auster

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An image of Jonathan Lethem and Paul Auster is presented, which shows them in an interview setting.

Beginning his career as a poet, essayist, anthologist, and translator, Paul Auster has since become widely known for his novels, such as City of Glass (1985), The Music of Chance, The Book of Illusions, and Oracle Night.

These books feature protagonists who are reflective yet kindhearted city dwellers, many of whom are writers and other artists, which often resonate with Auster’s youthful admirers, including myself when I was starting to write.

When I eventually got to know Paul personally, my expectations were more than fulfilled.

— Jonathan Lethem

It is Jonathan Lethem’s opinion that creativity is a mysterious force. He believes it is something that cannot be manufactured, and will not come when it is demanded. He is of the view that it is a combination of many elements, including luck and timing, that will bring about its arrival.

  1. MUSIC

Music is something that resonates with many people all around the world, providing an outlet for expression and emotion. It has the ability to cross boundaries and bring people together, regardless of language or culture.

Prior to my visit to your home, what activity were you engaged in? – Jonathan Lethem

Paul Auster had a typical day. He got up, read the paper and had a pot of tea. He then went to the small apartment he has nearby and worked for six hours.

Later, he had to do something related to his mother’s estate – he had to sign an insurance bond and visited a notary public to have the papers stamped, then mailed them to the lawyer.

After that, Auster went back home, read his daughter’s final report card and paid a bunch of bills. All in all, it was a mix of working on the book and taking care of mundane tasks.

JL: Writing for five or six hours is a lot for me, so if I’m able to do that, I’m content with the other tasks. Those activities become a kind of joy. However, if I have to do those things before I write–

PA: What a disaster.

JL exclaimed that the situation was really unfortunate.

For me, creating novels is a very intense experience that requires both my body and mind, so I try to write every day–even on Sundays if I can.

Vacations do throw me off course, though. When I’m away from my writing for two weeks, it takes me an entire week to get back into the flow of things.

JL: I have a fondness for the term “physical.” This same sentiment is applied to the need for consistency. I don’t require myself to write a particular amount of words or pages or have a certain amount of hours.

My only pre-requisite is that I work every day. When you’re in the midst of writing a novel, there is an energetic quality to it. It can be likened to an athlete and their streak of wins. You’re constantly striving to keep it going.

For me, writing is an embodied activity. The physicality of the pen scratching words onto the paper is something I’m acutely aware of, and the effort of composing prose is really about capturing the music I’m hearing in my head – it takes a lot of hard work to get it just right.

This music is a physical force that affects our bodies and helps us to find meaning in a book, beyond what can be articulated.

I think this is something many people don’t understand about fiction – the poetry of language and how prose works differently from journalism. Journalism is often clunky and functional, dealing in facts rather than surfaces.

JL remarked that requests to summarize their work can be very uncomfortable, often causing a loss of the music. It is as if the person making the request has taken away the body of the work, only to later draw an outline of it and explain its contents.

I find it hard to understand why the modern world has shifted so much that authors are now supposed to come out and discuss their writing. It’s not an easy process for me. Nevertheless, I do feel a certain obligation to my publishers and the people who are trying to market the book.

I don’t do it regularly, but every once in a while I will engage in an act of kindness. After that, I hope to be let alone for a while. To illustrate, in relation to my last book Oracle Night, I could not manage to carry out the book tour and had to refuse. I did not have the energy for it.

JL commented that Kazuo Ishiguro has a humorous manner of describing the common decision authors made to tour, as if it was a shared mistake. In addition, he explains that it is analogous to a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma: if one of them tours, all of them have to tour, but if everyone refuses, that is a different result.

PA: Drawing on his unique perspective, he undertook an ambitious journey: a two-year-long book tour spanning the globe. It was a feat that very few others can claim, and it nearly took its toll on him.

JL: Have you perused The Unconsoled?

I’ve had an aspiration to do that.

JL: I adore this book written by a contemporary author. It’s a huge Kafka-like narrative about a pianist who arrives in a city to provide a performance that never takes place. An accurate interpretation of it might be the biggest and most sorrowful protest of an author who is doing a book tour.

In his diaries, Kafka recounts a vivid scene of an imaginary author giving a public reading. The audience soon grew weary, and they began to leave despite the speaker’s pleas of “just one more story.” One after the other, the doors kept shutting and the room slowly emptied until the protagonist was left alone, still reading to the silent space.


JL pointed out that it appears there has been an improvement in the main relationship with novel-writing as of late.

This is evidenced by the amount of focus seen in the two most recent novels, and further supported by the information that a third novel is already underway, which is great news.

PA: Yes, very involved.

JL: We both agree that the novel requires a unique approach. Could you tell me, when you were content working in the film industry, did you feel like you had to return to your previous course of action?

By chance, I became a filmmaker, although I had always been greatly enamored with films. When I was around nineteen or twenty, I had considered becoming a director, but I felt that I lacked the proper personality.

At that time, I was painfully timid, and unable to talk in front of groups. I believed that this would make it difficult to communicate with actors and the production team, so I abandoned the idea.

Surprisingly, after I began publishing novels, I was asked to write screenplays and subsequently got involved in filmmaking.

JL: In your last two works, I noticed a slight move from cinema to storytelling. The two books highlight artists; in The Book of Illusions the protagonist is a movie director and we can find vivid and lovely depictions of his movies.

Similarly, in Oracle Night the protagonist is a writer and part of his novel is included in the text. Does this reflect a shift in your focus?

While creating films, I never saw it as a departure from novel writing. Working with Wayne Wang on two films was a great experience that lasted two years.

A huge bonus was that I was able to step away from my writing room and collaborate with others, leading to me broadening my horizons.

I wrote the screenplay for Lulu on the Bridge and then Wim Wenders had a conflict, so I decided to direct the film myself. It was an invaluable experience, however it was quite exhausting. Promotional tours are even more tiring than making the film itself.

After doing 40 interviews in two days in Japan, I got sick and wound up in the hospital. That was when I realized that to continue making films, I would have to give up writing, which I didn’t want to do. Writing novels is what I am supposed to do, so I happily retired from the movie business.

However, to return to The Book of Illusions and Hector Mann’s cinematic career: I was the one who brought him to life in the late eighties or early nineties.

He was already fully formed, with a white suit and a black mustache, and I didn’t know what to do with him. I considered writing a collection of stories about his silent films–each one describing a different movie.

Unfortunately, it took me many years until I finally created the novel it has become. Some have said that this was a result of my venture into filmmaking, but it actually came before that.

At my age of mid-forties, it is not often that I get the opportunity to learn something new and to participate in something I have never done before.

This movie making experience was beneficial for me, in that it enabled me to take a break from writing novels for a period of five years. The only piece of writing I produced during that time was my autobiographical essay Hand To Mouth which focuses on money.

JL: This is an issue that I have been pondering. I am currently in the midst of the longest stretch without writing a novel since I became an adult. My journey of writing novels started when I was eighteen.

PA: I share the same sentiment.

JL has never ceased in his involvement with writing since his early attempts and over the last two years has made a significant effort to market his work. He has also compiled two collections, one of stories and another of essays.

No need to feel embarrassed.

JL: Much appreciated! This frame of mine has been trained up for two decades to do the same thing – just like an athlete’s body gets used to showing up to the pitch and lacing up the boots and running, my writer’s body is now…

The PA noted that the condition had diminished slightly.

JL responded affirmatively, expressing dismay.

He had a friend, a novelist who was unabashedly driven; according to this friend, there were only a few exceptions to the rule that novelists produce their best work between the ages of thirty-five and fifty, taking into account both the vigor of youth and the wisdom of experience.

Now that JL had reached his forties, it felt as though he was wasting some of those precious years.

I understand your worries, yet I’m a strong proponent of the idea that there is no single path to success in art.

My French publisher once said that a novelist has a twenty-year window to create their best work, but I personally don’t believe that to be true. Writing may bring joy and be necessary, yet it is also a great task that can be difficult to accomplish.

JL expressed delight at the statement that was made.

As for me, I don’t stride into my office with a boxer’s aggression and ferocity. I tend to sneak in, taking care of little tasks that don’t need to be done right away. It’s not as if I am going to barge in with a gun. If I did, I’d probably end up hurting myself.

Thirdly, Place

JL: When you spoke of going to your apartment, another thought crossed my mind. I don’t want to sound intrusive, but your house is quite remarkable. It is the kind of house that I would never want to leave in my dreams.

There would be a wonderful office in there and I would be writing in it. You are even able to get away from this place.

That slinking, crab-like motion is something that I, as a writer, take pleasure in. Or, at least, something I can relate to.

PA: It has been a complicated journey. When we lived in a cramped apartment with kids, I didn’t have a space to work, so I rented a studio.

I worked there for a few years, then we purchased a house. Initially, tenants lived downstairs but eventually they moved out and I relocated my workspace there.

I was contentedly working downstairs until last year, when we started renovations. Contractors, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, painters were all over the place; the doorbell and the phone were constantly ringing.

I could not concentrate, so I decided to go back to my old way of working. I found a small apartment near my house a few months ago and I am pleased with it.

This home is a masterpiece of my wife Siri’s excellent eye for detail and harmony. But I feel more comfortable in a plain environment; I have always been a kind of Caliban and I feel more at ease in a plain space.

JL: I am similar to many in that I enjoy a non-direct relationship to place. Interestingly, people may think I moved back to Brooklyn to write about it, yet I have actually composed the bulk of these Brooklyn books in Toronto, Saratoga Springs, and German hotel lobbies.

I find it easier to write about Brooklyn when looking back at it with a certain longing from afar.

Writing about Brooklyn, I’m now in a new literary territory. The last book of mine was set in Brooklyn 22 years ago; the current one is titled The Brooklyn Follies. It is an attempt to create a comedic narrative.

Every word I’m writing is being questioned by me yet I’m hopeful that in the end the result will be something worthwhile. Much like Joyce and Dublin, I’m having a lot of fun with this new project.

JL expressed their eagerness for the upcoming event.

PA: Constantly pushing yourself is necessary for artistic success. You have to strive to be different from your previous works and never settle for what you’ve done before. It’s important to have a fresh perspective each time you create something new.

There is no limit to the amount of ideas you can think of to express the world around you.

JL: Your voice is ultimately unique and your writings will be connected even if you try to distance yourself from your own previous work.

PA: There is no point in trying to run away from oneself; all you will find is the same patterns of thought and the same preoccupations. However, there is honour to be found in the effort.

JL: As I start a new novel, the only thing I’m sure of is the things I won’t do. I won’t be writing about Brooklyn and the parents-children relationship.

In the past, my books always had the risk of someone pulling a gun on someone else. This time, I’ll be focusing instead on emotional stakes. That’s why I’m laughing.

PA: That is a positive thing. Being conscious of your personal boundaries makes it easier to push them outwards.

Everyone has them, though, and no one is capable of doing everything. It’s great that art can create a physical and psychological zone. It’s not feasible to attempt to include everything in one piece or you’d get a disordered result.

Art is all about honing in on a particular topic and leaving out almost everything else.


Technological developments have become increasingly more prevalent in today’s society and culture. Many of these advancements have been seen in the fields of communication, entertainment, and transportation.

They have enabled people to access information and communicate in new and more efficient ways, while providing new forms of entertainment, and allowing for faster and more convenient travel. The development of new technologies continues to shape the way we live, work, and play.

JL: Is it troublesome for you to incorporate cutting-edge technology, like texting and email, into your writing? I, personally, have trouble including any inventions post-1978 or 1984 into my stories.

A very intriguing query was posed. In my novel, The Book of Illusions, it takes place in the late eighties and a fax machine plays an important role.

Therefore, I’m not completely against discussing technology. In the book I’m writing at the moment, emails and cell phones are both mentioned.

I’m one of the few people left without a computer nowadays, and I’m quite content with my pen and my old typewriter. I’m open to any kind of writing, and I don’t set any restrictions.

I’m not against discussing any topic, and I think that the beauty of novel writing is that it allows for all and anything that the world can offer. I don’t have any rules that say, “This isn’t permitted because of…”

JL mentioned that although not an ideological boycott, there tended to be an inclination to shy away from including email in fiction. When they did, they found that it seemed to take away from the credibility of the written words right away.

The debate I’ve had with many people over the years is about a larger and more interesting question.

For 150 years, believers of technology have suggested that new technologies will have a great influence on how people think and live, not just physically, but internally too.

I don’t agree with this perspective due to the fact that humans have bodies and experience the same basic emotions no matter the time period or location.

Being sick, dying, loving, grieving, and feeling anger are all constants in life. I don’t think that people have been altered because of the telegraph, radio, cell phone, airplane, or computer technology.

Around eight years ago, the Jerusalem Foundation extended an invitation for me to travel to Israel and stay at the Mishchanot artists’ center. I was fifty and had been avoiding the visit all my life, but I thought this would be the opportune moment to go.

My daughter and I embarked upon a trip across the country, and we eventually made our way to the town of Qumran. Here, there is a museum filled with the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as other artifacts that were found nearby.

As I stood there, I had a realization of how similar human life has been throughout the ages, which is why we can relate to works of literature written hundreds of years ago.

JL: In the late eighties, I had the privilege of experiencing the Bay Area during my twenties. It was at this time that there was a revolutionary surge in computing and the emergence of Wired magazine.

Many believed that life would be substantially altered with the introduction of virtual reality. However, if you look back to the work of Dziga Vertov, a Russian theorist of cinema, he made similar claims about film a century prior.

Even further back, radio was accompanied by the same speeches around a decade ago.

At the time, it must have been incredibly groundbreaking. Suddenly, people from all over the world were connected. It’s not to suggest that there aren’t risks associated with technology.

We are all too familiar with teenagers today who spend all their time staring at their computer screens, numbing their minds, and not experiencing life to the fullest. Nonetheless, I think as they mature and real life begins to set in, they will join the rest of us.

One might find it amusing that the internet age has taken so heavily to written communication. What was meant to be a post-literate and visually-literate culture has become fixated on exchanging letters and journal entries.

PA: To sum up, I am convinced that fiction will remain alive since it meets a crucial human necessity. I even believe that films might become extinct before the novel, since it is one of the only spaces where two strangers can have a very personal relationship.

When reading a book, the reader is able to access the mind of someone else, and in doing so, may learn something about themselves, contributing to their sense of aliveness.

JL expressed that they are appreciative of the focus on the seclusion of the experience. No matter how large a book may become, due to the solitary act of reading, it can never become a shared experience. Reading is personal and almost can be likened to self-pleasure.

No matter what novel it is, readers always come singularly. That is the most significant point concerning this situation; one person reading, every single time.

JL: I’m intrigued by the concept of a novel’s ability to offer lengthy depictions of different artworks. It appears to me that this is a fundamental feature of the novel: that it can accommodate a tune, a poem, or a movie–

One could also consider a painting.

JL remarked that painting has a certain expanse that other art forms lack, as it is impossible to convey the entire gist of a novel through any other form of art.

PA: The term exphrasis is a rhetorical expression which refers to the description of imaginary works of art.

It has been noted that authors rarely focus on the act of reading books, but I believe that books and the experience of reading should be seen as part of the reality of the world. Similarly, movies should also be described.

After The Book of Illusions was published, I sent a copy to my friend, director Hal Hartley. He remarked to me that perhaps written films are even better than real ones, since you can envision them exactly as you desire.

JL: Writers of fiction have the ability to create a perfect movie. We are the ones responsible for choosing each character. Additionally, we get to decide how the settings will be decorated.

Reading a book allows one to revisit the same passage multiple times, while film continues to push forward. This can be especially challenging when the movie is particularly good, as it takes numerous viewings to truly appreciate it.

I believe I made a mistake with Lulu on the Bridge in that I crafted the script to an excessive degree as if writing a novel.

It really needs to be viewed multiple times to get what is occurring. At the beginning of the movie, Harvey Keitel is ambling down a street and there is a spray-painted “Beware of God” on the wall.

I had seen the same thing written on a T-shirt and it greatly interested me. It is the dyslexic version of “Beware of Dog”. Later, I made a point to include a distant barking dog.

It was my way of representing a deity and that is when Harvey’s character discovers the corpse in the alley. I doubt anyone could comprehend what I was striving for.

JL notes that when a reader reads a sentence detailing a barking dog, they naturally ponder why that particular choice was made.

This is because, in a novel, each element is selected intentionally, in contrast to a film which may capture aspects that seem to simply happen due to the whims of the camera or sound.

PA: That is exactly correct.

JL: At the same time, I found it impossible not to notice that while you were talking, a canine could be heard barking in the background, in this area of Brooklyn.

Affirmative response given.

JL: Do you remember the best example of exphrasis–the representation of one work of art in another artwork?

PA: I recall a scene in War and Peace where Natasha attends the opera. Instead of expressing it through emotion and artistry, Tolstoy provides a physical, almost comical account.

He describes the events as “a fat woman gesturing, a gong sounding in the background, lightning striking, and a skinny man singing an aria that no one understood”.

This is likely the most humorous depiction of a work of art that I have ever come across. Nonetheless, the best and most beautiful description of art I can think of is…

JL mentioned that the situation was perfect.

I regret to bring this up, but Siri’s final book, What I Loved, comes to mind. The painter’s artworks in the story are incredibly deep and are a crucial part of the novel.

It was masterfully written, and I can’t recall another book in which art was so essential to the narrative.

Recollecting the depiction of a painting in which the artist’s figure is barely visible on the side of the frame, JL recalled.

A dark silhouette could be seen.

JL confirmed affirmatively.

As a kid, I was always into the artificiality of books. I mean, we all know when we open a book of fiction that it is something imaginary. I wanted to use this fact as part of the work itself, in an organic way, as opposed to a metafictional one.

When I read a novel written in the third person, I would ask myself “Who is telling this story?” Even if it says Hemingway or Tolstoy on the cover, is it really those authors who are speaking?

I’ve always been drawn to books that have a story-based rationale for their existence. An example is The Scarlet Letter, where Hawthorne finds the manuscript in a custom house and then shares it through the subsequent pages.

It’s a clever way to create art within art. This is why I tend to write most of my books in the first person – it’s more captivating to me.

JL: At the start, did you expect that to be the result? I, myself, am drawn to first person, but when I was a younger reader, I viewed third person as the more pristine. It seemed to me that it was somehow the more refined form of literature.

I’m especially drawn to the subtle, the things that are near the earth and nearly indistinguishable from reality.

JL inquired to what stage in a project one can be certain of their selection.

When writing his nonfiction book The Invention of Solitude, PA found himself confused. He wrote and wrote, but did not understand why he was feeling dissatisfied.

After taking a break and contemplating the issue, he realized that the problem was that he had been writing in the first person for both parts of the book.

The first part was about someone else–his father–and thus the first person point of view was necessary.

However, the second part was mostly about himself, and he was unable to gain the necessary distance to understand himself when writing in the first person. By switching to the third person, he was able to gain the necessary distance to see himself, which made it possible to complete the book.

JL: You employed the term “distance”. It appears to me that reserve is a characteristic that is evident in your work, even though it is often hard to explain and tricky to express.

I often regard myself as a highly emotional writer, as I’m expressing the most profound feelings, dreams, and subconsciousness through my prose.

My goal is to render the writing so clear and effortless that the reader will not even be aware that language is being used. I want to make them feel as if they are inside the voice, the narrative, and the events.

While I’m being precise, I’m also delving into important topics such as love, death, sorrow, and happiness that give life purpose.

JL: Absolutely, it was not my intention to put forth that I view the books without emotion. I was deeply moved by Oracle Night. That does not surprise me. I believe you are correct in that the precision of the prose and its exacting quality bring about a timeless quality.

PA: I hope to craft stories that will still be enjoyed a century in the future, without the inclusion of trivial elements.

While the novel has often focused on sociology, I am more passionate about psychology and philosophical questions. I want to take the stories out of the quagmire of our current life and attempt to come to a clearer understanding of emotional life.

JL: It’s wonderful that you acknowledge the same urgency in the characters as well. They try to improve their connection to their own lives.

In many respects, the characters I write about are not enthusiastic about the trinkets and objects of our current age. I don’t devote a lot of thought to them, though there are numerous items I reference in my stories.

JL commented that despite the modern references in their work, it seems to drift into a world outside of time.

I’m incredibly concerned that every line and every phrase in my book is relevant. I don’t want to simply create pretty sentences for the sake of it.

That doesn’t appeal to me. Everything has to be necessary. In some sense, every part is of equal importance. Each sentence in the book is the core of the book.

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