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Jane Mayer: Obama In 'Impossible Bind' Over Donors.

In this week's New Yorker, the journalist details how the electoral climate since the Citizens United ruling in 2010 has negatively affected the Obama campaign's appeal to Democratic donors. Mayer tells Fresh Air that Obama has to make a "terrible choice between his principles and politics."

31:27

Other segments from the episode on August 23, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 23, 2012: Interview with Jane Mayer; Interview with Paul Auster.

Transcript

August 23, 2012

Guests: Jane Mayer – Paul Auster

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Some top donors to the Obama campaign have grumbled that they haven't gotten the attention or the thank-yous they expected from the president, according to an article by Jane Mayer in the current edition of the New Yorker. It's titled "Schmooze or Lose" and subtitled "Obama doesn't like cozying up to billionaires. Could it cost him the election?"

Mayer's article isn't just about the schmooze factor, it's about President Obama's dilemma with superPACs. That's where the big money is. But Obama opposed the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which led to the creation of superPACs, and many rich Democrats oppose superPACs.

As of the end of last month, superPACs allied with Mitt Romney had raised more than four times the amount of money raised by superPACs allied with Obama. Jane Mayer is a staff writer for the New Yorker. I spoke with her yesterday.

Jane Mayer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to look at President Obama's fundraising problems? Where does that fit in with the election stories you've been writing so far?

JANE MAYER: Well, I've been following the influence of money in politics, and I wanted to see why it was that Obama was being out-fundraised by the challenger, Mitt Romney. And it's unusual for a sitting president to come up with less money than someone challenging him.

GROSS: Now, your article is called "Schmooze or Lose," and although it is not exclusively about the schmooze factor, it does figure into it. How much do you think President Obama's fundraising problem is based on a lot of donors feeling that he's not spending time with them, he's not kind of showing his appreciation?

MAYER: Well, I think that is definitely a factor. I think it's not the major factor, really, here. I mean, the whole landscape in terms of campaign money has shifted because of Citizens United in 2010, and so there are many more serious changes. But one of the changes that people talk about a lot when you do interviews - and I sort of set out to find out: So why is there this money gap that's beginning to alarm the Democrats? And one of the answers you get when you start talking to people is that it's partly about Obama's personality.

GROSS: Well, give us an example of a problem that somebody told you that made them think twice about donating a large sum to the Obama campaign.

MAYER: Well, the thing is there just are not that many hugely wealthy Democratic donors to tap, and so the care and feeding of those that the party has gets a lot of attention. And one example would be in the case of George Soros, who, over the years, has given a huge amount of money to progressive causes of various sorts, some of which has gone into - directly into campaign funds.

He was the largest donor by far to the Democratic Party - or rather to groups supporting the Democratic candidate in 2004, John Kerry, and he also gave a lot of money, $5 million, to Obama in 2008. And, again, this was to outside groups. You can't give that much money directly to a candidate.

So there were high expectations that he would become, again, a tremendous player in this 2012 race, but he in fact has not given more than the $5,000 amount directly to the Obama campaign and other amounts that are limited like that, smaller amounts. He hasn't given in the millions to the pro-Obama superPAC.

And so people were wondering: Why is that? So an example of where this White House is being criticized by some people is that after the election, George Soros wanted to talk to Obama about the economic crisis that was going on in 2008, and he kept being sort of put off by the White House. Phone calls weren't returned and meetings weren't set up. And finally, the White House set up something where President Obama met with him kind of on the sly in New York. It was while Obama was up there for something else and kind of met quietly with Soros, but didn't have him come through the White House, through the front door.

And the people around Soros say he was somewhat offended by this, having been a major donor and also someone who knows an awful lot about international economics. He really had thought that he was kind of on the team, but he found himself unable to sort of talk to the captain. So that is the kind of thing where people seem to be feeling somewhat alienated.

GROSS: Well, this gets to a fundamental question, I think, for any candidate: At what point is a donor buying influence, or at what point is there at least the impression that you could leave that a donor is buying influence?

MAYER: It's very tricky. I mean, and what's interesting about Obama is that he's so different in his approach to this than Bill Clinton was, and that many of the big Democratic donors remember Bill Clinton, and they remember the days when you could sleepover in the Lincoln Bedroom if you gave a lot of money and Clinton invited you.

Clinton was accused of basically renting out the Lincoln Bedroom, which he denied, but it was a very different system for big donors. They were given all kinds of perks, and it was very regularized. There were visits to Camp David. There were flies on Air Force One, all kinds of things.

And, you know, there was a campaign finance scandal that came out of it surrounding Clinton, and he was investigated by Congress, and there were, you know, bad headlines out of this whole thing.

And Obama came in consciously trying to clean this up, not trying to spend his time currying favor with the enormously wealthy donors in the country, but rather he came in on a sort of a famous avalanche of small donations and never really wanted to be playing politics that way.

So he's had a very different approach. The problem for him is that after Citizens United, it's become a real disadvantage financially. He's had to make a terrible choice between his principles and politics and the practicalities of the political landscape right now.

GROSS: Let me quote something that - someone you described as a frustrated Obama fundraiser, something they told you. They said that creating a sense of intimacy with the president is especially important with Democratic donors. Unlike Republicans, they have no business interest being furthered by the donation. They just like to be involved. It's like if you're not going to deregulate my industry or lower my taxes, can't I at least get a picture with the president?

(LAUGHTER)

MAYER: Well, yes. And this issue of getting pictures with the president actually was one of the first subjects that really set the Obama White House on a rough course with the big donors. The Democratic donors want to feel involved. And one of the things that everybody loves is to have a picture of themselves in the sort of classic grip-and-grin with the president at the holiday parties at the end of the year. They have them for both Christmas and Hanukah now.

And when Obama first came into office, his administration decided to do things differently. They wanted to make it the people's White House and open it up more to all kinds of people, and one of the things they did was scrap those pictures at the holiday parties for big donors. And the donors were - they were incensed. It's hard to convey how upset people were that they didn't get their pictures.

You hear about it over and over again, and all of the fundraisers just sort of, you know, bang their heads against the table when they think about it because it was just one of those little, tiny things that was easy to do, but that the Obama White House coming in just decided they'd rather not do. Anyway, by the next year, they started giving the photos again.

GROSS: Another thing along the kind of schmoozing line, and this is a story you tell early in your New Yorker article: It's a story about a fundraising dinner at a Four Seasons hotel. Would you tell the story?

MAYER: Well, yeah. It was a dinner where a number of Wall Street titans were coming. They were people who had supported Obama in 2008, but by 2010, they were feeling a little miffed. They felt that the Obama administration was not expressing enough admiration for Wall Street.

And a lot of them wanted to bellyache a bit about this during the dinner, and they paid $30,000 a head to be at the dinner and have a chance to really talk to Obama. And what happened was the White House scheduled it, the entire event, for slightly less than an hour.

And this meant that Obama had to move from table to table like a honeybee kind of going from flower to flower, and he only had something like six or seven minutes per table. And every time people were about to get into a serious conversation, according to one of the attendees I interviewed, an aide would come up and tap Obama on the shoulder and tell him it was time to move on.

So that kind of thing have created a certain amount of friction between Obama and the super-donors. But to tell you the truth, Terry, I think these things, while they make good stories and there are plenty of, you know, fun, colorful details in the story about them, I don't think it really gets at the more serious issues, which I also explore in the story, which are that it's very, very hard for the Democratic Party - any Democrat, not just Obama - to compete with the Republican Party for the super-super-wealthy vote in this country because the Democrats aren't offering policies that are as amenable to the super-wealthy.

I mean, the Democrats want to keep the progressive taxation system. They want to regulate industries. They want to keep a social safety net in place. Whether Obama was, you know, holding hands with big donors and having them for sleepovers or not, (technical difficulties) match those policies, and he doesn't want to. That's really been one of the, you know, the underlying problem here for Democrats, trying to match those huge donations in the post-Citizens United world.

GROSS: My guest is Jane Mayer. Her article "Schmooze or Lose" about Obama's fundraising problems and dilemmas is in the current edition of the New Yorker. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: My guest is Jane Mayer. She writes about President Obama's fundraising problems and dilemmas in her article "Schmooze or Lose," published in the current edition of the New Yorker.

President Obama opposed the Citizens United decision, and so did some of his major donors. So where does that leave them in terms of superPACs? If you opposed the decision that created superPACs, do you court money for superPACs anyways? Do you donate to a superPAC anyways?

MAYER: Well, this, again, is the trap that Obama's found himself in. He used some of the strongest words of his administration, really, to criticize the Citizens United decision and described it as outright terrible for democracy to allow these unlimited donations from individuals and corporations and unions. It just opened the door and basically normalized this whole process of gigantic donations.

So he was against it, and very, very outspokenly so. So in the beginning of the 2012 campaign, he was trying to discourage donors from giving money - that is, Democratic donors - to a superPAC that was set up for him. He also did very little to try to encourage the superPAC being set up by anyone well-known, or - it was just - they thought - as one big donor, Arnold Hiatt, said to me: They thought they wouldn't need these people.

And it's not the kind of politics that Obama wanted to play. But what happened was, as time went on, by the very beginning of this year, the Obama campaign looked over its shoulder and realized that there was a tidal wave building of money on the Republican side, and that they were going to just get, you know, washed away in it if they didn't do something.

And so, at that point, they had this big internal debate, where they tried to decide: Should we continue to oppose superPACs and keep the issue, even if you lose the money? Or should you, you know, pivot and say, we're now open for business? And that is kind of what they ended up doing, but in a kind of half-hearted way that still reflected Obama's reservations about this kind of fundraising in politics.

And so they put out a statement saying that the campaign said Obama will take superPAC donations. He's encouraging his donors to give superPAC donations now, and he will send members of his administration to talk to those kinds of donors at those sorts of organizations. But Obama himself will not be participating. He's not going to go talk to them directly himself. He doesn't want to be sort of sullied in this thing.

And he felt that it violated the spirit of the campaign finance laws to get down and beg for these billionaire donations. So he has not been doing that himself. And Romney, meanwhile, is playing by different rules.

GROSS: What are the rules Romney's playing by?

MAYER: Well, what the Romney campaign is doing is having Romney mingle side-by-side with the super-donors to superPACs and to other outside groups in a way that just - you know, he literally sat at the elbow of the biggest donor to these outside groups on the Republican side at a breakfast in Jerusalem recently.

The biggest donor is Sheldon Adelson, whose company is a gigantic casino operator both here and in China. And Sheldon Adelson sat there right next to Romney at a breakfast that was a, basically, a fundraising breakfast. And Adelson has now given upwards of $40 million to the Republicans in this election, and to various outside groups.

And he said that he will give up to $100 million, and people around him have said, in fact, he views the amount of money he would give as limitless. And there have also been other events where Romney's gone and mingled among the various superPAC donors. He spoke and done little pep talks to them.

And then where they draw the line is he does not solicit the money directly from them. He leaves the event, and someone else asks for the money. And so legally, that's how the Romney campaign interprets the law, which requires candidates not to coordinate with these outside groups that can take unlimited funds. Obama, meanwhile, won't get in the room with these people.

GROSS: So compare the Romney superPACs with the Obama superPACs in terms of how much money they've raised so far.

MAYER: If you look at the two largest superPACs on the Romney side, they have raised $122 million - by July they had, anyway. And in contrast, the two largest superPACs that are supporting Obama have raised only $30 million by that period. So it's a very big differential.

But it doesn't begin to explain how much of a gap there is in money. There's an even bigger gap in other kinds of outside groups that are not superPACs. There are nonprofits that don't disclose their donors, and there, the differential is just overwhelming. Obama's being completely outraised in these kind of secret donations, which are piling in for Romney at this point.

GROSS: Do you think that's for similar reasons?

MAYER: I think what's very important to keep your eye on here is that there are policies that the Republican donors are supporting that are in their self-interest. And the Republicans will argue, well, that's true of Democrats, too. The unions, for instance, are supporting the Democratic Party, and they like the policies of the Democratic Party.

But they don't match the kind of money you're seeing on the Republican side, where many of the people I interviewed - David Axelrod and others - said, you know, for the Republicans, these kinds of contributions are a small business expense. They are a down payment on what they're going to make back if Romney's elected, because if - for instance, take the case of Sheldon Adelson again, the casino magnate. If Romney were elected, he's vowed to get rid of the estate taxes.

So for all of these reasons, he - there's millions and millions, maybe billions at stake for somebody like that, who could gain so much by Romney's election. So giving these extraordinary amounts of money, again, could be seen as just a kind of a smart business move for some of these people.

GROSS: Some of the people who had been major donors in 2008 are putting their money in other places, other political issues, social causes. Who are some of those people, and why have they changed?

MAYER: Well, I think there's, you know, a kind of a sense of disgust on the kind of liberal Democratic side at what's happened to the campaign finance rules after Citizens United. There's a feeling of, you know, the president thinks this money's dirty, and they think this money's dirty. They just don't want to play that game.

And so rather than competing, they're trying to find other ways to change the political direction of the country by spending. And so there - and there are a number of initiatives out in California. There's a big hedge fund operator out in San Francisco named Tom Steyer who has pretty much singlehandedly funded an initiative out there that stopped a push to gut the auto emissions rules.

And so, you know, he spent his money that way, fighting one particular issue. You've got Jeff Bezos, who's one of the founders of Amazon, who has just put a tremendous amount of money into a gay marriage initiative out in Washington state.

So you're seeing more of that kind of thing, where maybe the people with money feel that - they just feel better about it, rather than putting money into - when you put money into a superPAC, what are you really buying? You're buying 30-second ads, probably, on television stations that are going to be part of a volley of really negative fighting taking place. And they don't want to see themselves as the moral equivalent of Sheldon Adelson.

GROSS: Was it hard to get people to talk on the record for this piece? And I'm referring both to major donors and also to people from the Romney and Obama campaigns.

MAYER: Yeah, I mean, it was hard. People don't like talking about money. And, you know, this - the thing is once you scratch the surface, though, it became clear that there are an awful lot of Democratic donors who wish they were kind of stroked and thanked more by Obama because he's a different personality than Clinton.

He's just - he's more intellectual, more reserved. It's just not his style. And they kind of miss that schmooze factor. And so, you know, once you asked, it sort of came tumbling out. And I was torn between looking at them, you know, understanding where they're coming from, but also thinking sometimes that they sounded a bit spoiled and whiny - particularly on Wall Street, where a number of them have now had record profits and bonuses, and the stock market's back up.

And, you know, of course, the Obama administration - following in the footsteps of the Bush administration - bailed out the big banks, but they're so thin-skinned in some cases about Obama. If he said something that didn't seem completely admiring of the financial sector, it's, you know, it's kind of like: Mom, he said - he was mean to me. And you listen to it, and you sort of, you know, roll your eyes.

GROSS: Jane Mayer will be back in the second half of the show. She's a staff writer for the New Yorker. Her article about President Obama's fundraising problems and dilemmas is published in the current edition of the New Yorker. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jane Mayer. In the current edition of The New Yorker, she writes about President Obama's fundraising problems and dilemmas. Her article is titled "Schmooze or Lose."

During President Obama's campaign, he spent a lot of - his campaign spent a lot of - energy convincing small donors to, you know, contribute $5, $10, $15, $20 and he did very well with that, but how significant was that really, in his campaign financing in 2008, and how does that compare to what he's getting now from small donors?

MAYER: Well, actually, Obama is in both cases - both in 2008 and now - he's done phenomenally well with smaller donors. He was legendary how well he did in 2008. He built a sort of a - a small donor machine. People thought, at the time, there was certain amount of mythology that it was tiny online donations of $20 here and there. And, and it wasn't so much that, really, as getting the maximum legal allowed amount, which was something like $5,000 per - per donor from many, many, many people. And they had bundlers who, who put those contributions together and reached out to all their friends and it's been described, in 2008, as a kind of a blend of community organizing and corporate America.

They built a kind of a medium-sized donations machine, and that's what Obama thought he would be doing again in 2012. And actually, he is doing that again. He's constantly fundraising. But again, for these limited donations, which he feels are more consonant with his political philosophy, which is that you should have more people involved on a smaller level and not turn this into just a game for a handful of extraordinarily wealthy people.

So he's actually, if you look at the numbers - one thing that's not broken down much - but if you look at the numbers closely, Obama is out-raising Romney, still, on donations directly to his campaign of those limited sizes. It's when you move out of that sort of regulated sphere into this outside money with these outsized donations, that the gap opens up.

GROSS: So what's the difference in how the money can be used, depending on whether it's a superPAC or if it's directly given to the campaign?

MAYER: Well, if it goes to a superPAC it's not supposed to be - the money, the spending is not supposed to be directed by the candidate or by the people who were part of the campaign. They're supposed to be a kind of a, a cordon sanitaire, some kind of distance there, so that it's really an, an independent group. And the reason that that exists, it's not just a technicality; it's that the Supreme Court found that if people could give unlimited donations directly to the candidate, it would probably constitute corruption. I mean there's not much difference between that and a bribe. And so, the court said you can't get it directly to the candidate, but you can spend it yourself. And so this is what we're seeing, these are supposed to be outside groups and so they're not supposed to be coordinated.

And then within the outside groups there are sort of two different categories, basically. The superPACs reveal who the donors are and can spend directly on intervening in this election. And then there is a category of nonprofit group that the IRS calls 501c4s - and those are not supposed to be so political. They don't show who their donors are, they're secret. You know, they take secret contributions and they are supposed to be public welfare groups that just educate the - the - the country on issues. And so, those - the money going to those groups is supposed to not be so overtly partisan or involved in the election.

GROSS: But the money going to those groups can be used for TV ads and for negative TV ads.

MAYER: Well, this is - it's an area - it's a very gray and contentious area in the law. And the people who are, sort of, the Campaign Finance Reform groups are furious because they feel that neither the Internal Revenue Service nor the Federal Election Commission are policing this. These groups, these - these nonprofit groups that are supposed to be public welfare groups, are not supposed to be principally intervening in the election in any way. But - but take - look at what they're putting up on the air. Keep - keep a keen eye out for ads, for instance, from a group called Americans for Prosperity.

It's a 501c4 and - which means it's supposed to not be so overtly political - but they just bought something like $25 million worth of ads in swing states in the presidential election. So they picked a very political area to be advertising in, geographically, and the ads are slamming Obama. They are slamming him for having a large deficit and they also, I think, have - are, are about to unveil an ad campaign showing former Obama voters saying they've changed their mind this time around. So it's, you know, is that not overtly political? You know, these are matters of interpretation but you can certainly say they're pushing the - the limits.

GROSS: So, what did doing this piece leave you thinking about finance campaign in America and how that's affecting our political system?

MAYER: I ended up thinking we're in a pretty scary spot, really. And - and - and not a good place. It's becoming clear that every election cycle there is more, and more, and more money, and that increasingly, the role played by a very small strata of super wealthy people is having more and more influence. And I think it's very hard to be comfortable with that and - and - and balance it out against the idea of, you know, one man, one vote all - all citizens have, you know, equal power in a democracy. It's not a pretty picture. And I - I think, you know, I - I hope that, that people after this election go back and take a closer look at it. It's, one of the things that's disturbing to me as a reporter is that a lot of this money you can't even trace. I mean there is a tremendous amount of money going into nonprofit public welfare groups where we don't have any idea who the donors are. And you can be sure that the candidates will find out, eventually, and they'll know who to thank, but the public may never figure that out.

GROSS: Well, Jane Mayer, I want to thank you so much for talking with us again. I really appreciate it.

MAYER: Thanks so much for having me.

GROSS: Jane Mayer is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her article "Schmooze or Lose" about President Obama's fundraising problems and dilemmas is published in the current edition. You'll find a link to the article on our website, FRESHAIR.NPR.org.

Coming up, we talk with Paul Auster about his new memoir, "Winter Journal," a history of his body. This is FRESH AIR.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST: My guest, Paul Auster, has written a memoir that reflects on his life by focusing on the history of his body - from his childhood to the present. He describes his pleasures, scars, smoking habit, travels, homes, and near-death experiences. The memoir is called "Winter Journal," a reference to reaching his mid-60s and entering what he describes as the winter of his life.

Auster is the author of many novels, including, "Sunset Park," "The New York Trilogy," and "The Music of Chance." He wrote the screenplays for "Smoke, Blue in the Face," and "Lulu on the Bridge."

Paul Auster, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start with a short reading from "Winter Journal." And this is from the beginning of the book. We - we've - we've, condensed it a little bit.

PAUL AUSTER: (Reading) You think it will never happen to you, that it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the world to whom none of these things will ever happen. And then, one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else.

(Reading) Speak now before it is too late, and then hope to go on speaking until there is nothing more to be said. Time is running out, after all. Perhaps it is just as well to put aside your stories for now and try to examine what it has felt like to live inside this body from the first day you can remember being alive, until this one. A catalogue of sensory data. What one might call a phenomenology of breathing.

It is an incontestable fact that you are no longer young. One month from today, you will be turning 64, and although that is not excessively old, not what anyone would consider to be an advanced old age, you cannot stop yourself from thinking about all the others who never managed to get as far as you have. This is one example of the various things that could never happen, but which, in fact, have happened.

GROSS: That's Paul Auster reading from the beginning of his new memoir "Winter Journal." Why did you want to write a sensory catalogue, including a mention of all the times you needed to empty your bladder and no toilet was at hand?

(LAUGHTER)

AUSTER: Not all the times.

GROSS: Not all the times.

AUSTER: Just one, one, one time. One time.

GROSS: Referring to them. Giving them a shout.

(LAUGHTER)

AUSTER: I-I don't know why I wrote the book. I never know why I do anything I do. I guess I did it because I wanted to, and somehow the idea felt very compelling to me and I went with it. And I felt well, if I'm really going to do a good job with this, I have to be honest about everything and I have to open myself up to things that could be potentially embarrassing. And yet, nevertheless, what I'm writing about are things that we've all experienced and it's not difficult to identify with some of these little predicaments we get into every now and again - such as a bursting bladder in a place where you're not able to empty it. It's funny and it's part of everyday human life, so I thought I needed to talk about.

GROSS: A lot of the book really is about your body in a lot of ways, you know, like things that have happened to you, times you've nearly died. You, you write about sexuality without writing explicitly about it but, you know, about sexual feelings; panic attacks, so on. And I think some people just take their bodies for granted and live in them.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You know? And other people...

AUSTER: Really?

GROSS: Yeah. I, honestly, I think I've met people like that. And, and other people just have things happen to their bodies, some more frequently than others, and end up having to think about their bodies a lot above and beyond sexual arousal.

(LAUGHTER)

AUSTER: You see I - well, you see I really thought of this book as a history of my body. That's - that was the working idea and I launched into it with that in mind. But you see, there, there is also a very long section about my mother - her life and her death. And I justify it by saying well, it was in my mother's body that my own body and life began therefore, it's legitimate to talk about it. I also go through a catalog of all the places I lived in - all the addresses I've had over the course of my life - places I've been in for at least six months or a year - and I figured I could justify that by saying well, these were the places that sheltered my body from the elements. So, still, it's still sticking to the - to the general idea of what I was trying to do.

GROSS: Hey, you don't have to rationalize it for me.

(LAUGHTER)

AUSTER: It's OK. No, it's all right. Thanks.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But, I guess, have you always been just aware of being housed in a body, sometimes a cranky body?

AUSTER: Yes. I think I, I was not so well when I was a small child. I had some kinds of stomach problems and I don't even know what it was. At the time they called it celiac. But it couldn't have been celiac because that's a very terrible disease and I think it lasts forever and, there's nothing much you can do about it. But I had something. So in the early years of my life up, to the age of about four, I really wasn't so well. Then I got over this and just started running around and got terribly interested in sports and all kinds of intense physical activity.

GROSS: In that period where you were diagnosed with celiac, that's a, you know, a very terrible life threatening reaction to - to gluten, to - to...

AUSTER: Yes.

GROSS: ...to wheat and other grains containing gluten. So you were on a very limited diet. You said you lived on like almost the bananas, solely, for two and a half years.

AUSTER: I lived on bananas. Bananas. Bananas. So many bananas that, as I say in the book, I can't stand the sight or the smell of them and I haven't tasted one in 60 years now.

GROSS: So were you brought up with the message like Paul, you're not normal, you can't eat what other people eat, you're not like the other children, you're not like other people, you must be protected?

AUSTER: Probably. But you see, most of those years are before I have consolidated memories of those years. So, I can't consciously say to myself my mother said this because I don't remember. What I remember is a strange thing. When we would travel into New York - my mother grew up here in the city - and we'd go to see her parents sometimes staying overnight. I had a little suitcase and she would pack my bananas in the suitcase. And that suitcase stayed in the family for years and it still smelled of bananas.

(LAUGHTER)

AUSTER: And every time I saw that suitcase I'd, I'd have a, a sinking heart and I'd, I'd remember, you know, the terrible business with the bananas. So, a kind of sensory memory, rather than a conscious memory of those days.

GROSS: Now, in talking about your body, when you got active in sports, you loved what - football, baseball?

AUSTER: Baseball, football, basketball. I played everything. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. But you hated fighting, physical fighting.

AUSTER: Yes. Yes. Because it was too emotionally overwhelming. You know, the kinds of angers that are part of fistfights and wrestling and confrontations between boys when you're young are so intense and the emotions run so high that even if you win the fight - and I probably won as many as I lost - you feel wretched afterwards. Or I did.

And even if I had won, I felt as if I wanted to cry afterwards. So by the time I was about 13, I figured out a way not to have to fight anymore. And I never did.

GROSS: What was your way out?

AUSTER: The way out was kneeing people in the balls. I figured this out.

(LAUGHTER)

AUSTER: It would end the fight in five seconds. And as I say in the book, what is it, dirty fighter? Perhaps that's true but it only was because I didn't want to fight. And after I did that once or twice when people confronted me and they're writhing on the ground and the fight is over, then people stopped taunting me or trying to pick fights with me and I was free.

So dirty tactics or not, it liberated me from the whole business.

GROSS: One of the things we've talked about before on the show, which you write about in the book, is a car accident that you were in. You were at the driver's - you were driving. Your wife was in the front seat, your daughter in the back, along with the dog.

AUSTER: Yes.

GROSS: And you...

AUSTER: Actually, you talked about it once on the radio.

GROSS: We've talked about it. We've talked about it twice, actually.

AUSTER: Yes.

GROSS: Once you brought it up at the very end of the interview.

AUSTER: That's true.

GROSS: And then we had to end. Our time was up.

AUSTER: And then you wanted to talk again and then - so this is the first time I've written about it.

GROSS: This is the first time you've written about it.

AUSTER: Yes, all these years later.

GROSS: And, you know, it's gripping even knowing the story and the outcome. But I just wonder, like, if the story keeps changing in your mind. I know, you know, sometimes what you're remembering is the memory of a memory.

AUSTER: Of course. Of course.

GROSS: And, like, the actuality of the experience keeps, you know, fading away.

AUSTER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And you wonder, like, how accurately am I remembering it. Are you aware of the story of that really traumatic incident changing over time?

AUSTER: Not this particular one, and I'm sure there are details that have changed and I'm not even aware of them. But it's only 10 years ago. So it's not the distant past. I know there are things that I've distorted. And even, for example, after I finished the book and it was published, I realized that the name of someone I knew in childhood who's mentioned in the book I got wrong.

I gave the wrong name because I gave the name of the brother of the person rather than the person himself. And so there are all these little slips of memory that we almost can't control, I think.

GROSS: But you still don't drive.

AUSTER: No, I don't want to. I've lost all confidence in myself since then because I had been driving for many years, ever since I was 17, and I was 55 when this accident took place. Meaning that all my life I had been driving without any accidents. No problems whatsoever.

And to make such a stupid mistake - because I do blame myself for it. You know, I made a turn cutting it very close with another car coming from the other direction and that misjudgment is so alarming to me because the people I love most in the world were in that car with me and I easily could've killed them. So as a kind of penance, I don't get behind the wheel anymore.

GROSS: How has that changed your life, to not drive?

AUSTER: Not at all, because I live in New York City and you don't need a car here. So it really doesn't make any difference.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Auster and he has a new book, which is called "Winter Journal." Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Auster. His new book is called "Winter Journal." So we're talking about how your new book is in part a book about your body and some of the abuse that it's taken, some of the pleasure that it's had. There's a chapter about your mother and there's a part about your mother's body in the sense that you are the second person to see her body after she died.

Her housecleaner called you and said that your mother was dead...

AUSTER: Yes.

GROSS: ...and you went right over.

AUSTER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: This is a strange question, but what was the difference between getting the news that she was dead and actually seeing her body?

AUSTER: Well, it was a surprising death in that she hadn't been ill. I was not prepared for it. You know, when a parent has been ill with a disease and one is prepared, then you have a different response to the moment. This came out of the blue. The telephone call came and I went numb, I think.

It's not as though I don't know that unexpected things happen and that people drop dead. I mean, my mother was 77. She wasn't terribly young. But she wasn't as old as many people get to be these days. But numb, I think, is the word. And then when I got to her apartment - it took a while to get there, she lived in New Jersey - seeing her inert body on the bed was almost more than I could bear.

And I've seen other dead people but none of them had been my mother, and there's something so intimate about a parent. And it was hard. So after looking at her for a few moments and studying what she looked like, I turned my head away and then I couldn't look anymore. And I kept not looking until her body was taken out of the apartment by paramedics.

GROSS: Was that in part so that that memory wouldn't be the primary memory, visually, of your mother?

AUSTER: No. There was nothing conscious going on. Maybe unconsciously. Maybe you're right. I just have no idea what I was experiencing then. I was in such shock. And it happened so unexpectedly and there I was looking down at the person, the inert body of a person to whom I'd been talking on the telephone just two days before.

And she'd been in buoyant spirits, cracking jokes. She seemed terribly - in good form altogether. So it was so, so strange to think, well, I'm never going to hear her laugh again and there's no more conversations either.

GROSS: But you were surprised at yourself. You didn't cry.

AUSTER: No. No.

GROSS: And you seem to think in the book, though, you weren't experiencing what you were supposed to be experiencing.

AUSTER: As I say in the book, it seems that - because I do cry in life every once in a while. I tend to cry more over books and films than real events, but every once in a while I've cried about things that have happened to me. But never over the death of anybody.

Something in me shuts down in the face of death and I think that's what led to the panic attack that I got a couple of days later, because I couldn't - everything was bottled up inside me and, you know, there were other factors involved with that attack as well - lack of sleep, too much alcohol, too much coffee.

But still, I think my body wouldn't have broken down. If I had been able to weep, I mean really weep, let it out, I think I would've been much better off.

GROSS: Is this the panic attack where you thought you were dying?

AUSTER: Yes. I absolutely thought I was dying. And I actually felt my limbs turn to stone. It was a feeling I'd never experienced before and never again since, this feeling of death creeping up in my limbs. And I think what was happening is my circulation was shutting down in order to keep my heart going. Something like that.

There's some medical explanation for what happened. But I really felt that it was death creeping up inside me and it was probably the most terrifying moment of my life.

GROSS: So before that you had thought, like, I don't know how many years before this, it was - you thought you were having a heart attack.

AUSTER: Yes. Right. Right.

GROSS: And that you were dying. But there was a sense of calm that came over you.

AUSTER: I know. You see, I've had those two supposed near-death experiences, neither of which turned out to be serious. The first time I was calm and accepting and ready to go. I thought, all right, this is it. My life is over. I think I was 50 when that happened and I was with Siri, my wife.

She was holding me and I said, well, here I am I the arms of my beloved and if this is it, this is it and I'm not frightened. And then five years later I got the panic attack and I was frightened out my wits. So two different responses to what I thought was the same thing.

GROSS: Oh, and also after the first time you thought now that I've seen what a calm experience dying can be, I'm no longer afraid of death.

AUSTER: That's right. Yes.

GROSS: And then you get this panic attack.

AUSTER: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: And, like, you're terrified. You're screaming in fear.

AUSTER: Exactly. Well, we're all made of contradictions, aren't we?

GROSS: Well, I am.

AUSTER: Yeah. I keep discovering more and more in myself.

GROSS: Does that disappoint you? I mean, do you wish, like, oh, as you get older you should be getting, like, more consistent and figure out what you really think? And, you know, consistency is something that's really valued in this world and it can be very hard to achieve. Like I think we are very contradictory.

AUSTER: We are contradictory. All human beings are. We have multiple selves. We have different aspects of ourselves that come into play at different moments for different reasons. I think if we didn't contradict ourselves it would be awfully boring. It would be really pretty tedious to be alive.

Changing your mind is probably one of the most beautiful things that people can do, and I've changed my mind about lots of things over the years. And in fact I was talking to a writer friend today on the phone who's even older than I am by about 10 or 12 years. And he's working on a book and I'm working on another book.

And we were talking about how each time we start, we want to just undo everything we've done in the past, take a new approach, shake things up for ourselves, and just take risks. And otherwise it's not worth it. And I think it not only applies to art but to life too. So long live contradictions. That's what I say.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

AUSTER: Well, it's been a pleasure talking to you again. I'm glad you invited me and thank you very much.

GROSS: Paul Auster's new memoir is called "Winter Journal." You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org where you can also download Podcasts of our show.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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