Skip to main content

Author Paul Auster

His new book is Oracle Night. Auster is the author of 11 novels, three screenplays, five books of poetry and seven works of nonfiction. His recent works include the best selling novels The Book of Illusions and Timbuktu, and he also edited the NPR National Story Project anthology I Thought My Father Was God.

43:34

Other segments from the episode on January 20, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 20, 2004: Interview with Paul Auster; Review of Anne Tyler's novel "The amateur marriage."

Transcript

DATE January 20, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Paul Auster discusses some life-changing events in his
life and his new novel, "Oracle Night"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Joining us for a return visit to FRESH AIR is write Paul Auster. His novels
include "The Book of Illusions," "Timbuktu" and "Leviathan." He wrote the
screenplays for the films "Smoke," "Blue in the Face" and "Lulu On the
Bridge." Many NPR listeners know him as the editor and on-air voice of NPR's
National Story Project. The companion book, "I Thought My Father Was God,"
was a best seller.

Auster's novels typically contain stories within stories, and his new novel,
"Oracle Night," is no exception. It's about a writer recovering from a
debilitating illness who lacks the energy and focus for nearly everything,
including writing. But on a visit to a stationery store in his Brooklyn
neighborhood, he buys a blue notebook that seems to magically inspire him.
The stories he writes take on an odd and inexplicable connection to his actual
life.

Paul Auster, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Now the last time we spoke was in September of 2002, and that interview ended
on a kind of dramatic note. We were running out of time, and just as we were
running out of time, we were talking a little bit about how you had reached
that stage in life where many people you know and who you had been close to
had died, and you were discussing how it affected you. And then you said
something that I didn't have time to ask you about because we ran out of time.
Let me play back what you said.

(Soundbite of September 2002 interview)

Mr. PAUL AUSTER (Author, "Oracle Night"): I'm not really gloomy about it at
all.

GROSS: Why not?

Mr. AUSTER: I'm just trying to get the most out of the time that's left to
me. I hope it's still many years, but I can't bank on that at all. And every
day becomes more precious than the one before. And, you know, there's this
great desire to do the work that I feel I have it in me still to do and to,
you know, take care of the people I love as best I can and to just appreciate
the miracle of being alive.

Just a month ago, my wife, daughter and I were in a horrific car accident, and
the car was demolished. We were blindsided by a speeding van not far from our
house in Brooklyn, and the impact of that collision, you know, is still with
me, you know, reverberating through my body. It was a nightmare experience,
and we should be dead. And when I saw the car afterwards, I don't know how we
got out of there alive. You know, we should be dead, but we're not. And it's
just another reminder about how things can change in an instant, how
precarious and unpredictable life is. And it just reminded me all over again
that I'm just so lucky, lucky to be breathing still. And I want to go on
breathing as long as I can.

GROSS: Well, Paul, that's where our interview ended in September of 2002,
'cause the clock ran out.

Mr. AUSTER: The clock ran out. Boy, do I remember that well. I mean, just
hearing myself talk about the accident brings it all back as if it were
yesterday.

GROSS: Well--but this is what I've been wondering. You know, one would like
to think that when you survive a car crash like that and you see your life in
a different way, that that stays with you and that life gains this new sense
of preciousness which you retain and continue to retain. But how long did
that perspective actually last, that constant sense of the preciousness and
also the precariousness of life?

Mr. AUSTER: I think it hasn't gone away, because since I talked to you last
time, all kinds of other near-misses have taken place.

GROSS: Oh, no.

Mr. AUSTER: And just about two months ago--maybe three months ago, I guess it
was October, when it was starting to get cold here in New York, I turned on
the heating system in our house, which is natural gas, there's a boiler down
in the cellar. And everything seemed to be working, the heat was coming
through the pipes. And somewhere around 4:00 in the afternoon, I smelled
something very funny in the house. I was upstairs, I went down and the entire
bottom floor was filled with smoke. I went down into the basement, completely
blinded by smoke, and the boiler had burst into flame. And I didn't know what
to do. I ran upstairs, I found a bucket and I just doused the fire and, you
know, turned off the gas.

If I had been out walking the dog, say, at that moment, I think the whole
house would have burned down. And the smell of that burning steam pipe was in
the house for days after. And again, how many lives do we get? Nine, right?

GROSS: Those are the pussycats. You only...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AUSTER: I know. I think I'm using up my number pretty quickly.

GROSS: Well, you know, death is hovering in the background throughout your
new book and, you know, so is the precarious and unpredictable nature of life.
It's constantly acknowledged. And I'm assuming that that comes from these
close calls that you have in your life.

Mr. AUSTER: I'm trying, in my fiction, really to present the kind of world
that I feel I live in and to be as faithful to that reality as I can. And it
does come out of experience. Everything is transformed, of course, but it's
out of the guts, you know. It's not some philosophical proposition; it's
really about experience.

GROSS: And, of course, the different characters react to this type of thing
in different ways. And, you know, I'm even wondering, like, after the car
crash--your whole family was in this car. Did you find that everybody in the
family had a different experience of the car crash, and that it changed their
life in different ways? You know, for instance, I'm thinking it's the kind of
thing that can give you this sense of renewal, like, `Well, I lived through
this, so now I'm kind of free to do anything.'

Mr. AUSTER: Well...

GROSS: Or it can paralyze you out of fear...

Mr. AUSTER: Yes.

GROSS: ...that it could happen again.

Mr. AUSTER: Well, I can tell you that each one of the three of us has had a
different response, I guess. Our daughter--who is now 16, so I guess she was
15 then--was asleep in the back seat without a seat belt on, but lying on a
quilt with pillows. And I don't think she really experienced the accident
because she was asleep. It was just a big jolt, and she was fine.

Whereas my wife, Siri, who was in the passenger's seat in the front, she took
the brunt of the impact. And they had to, you know, cut the door with a torch
to get her out of there. And at first, I thought her neck was broken. She
couldn't move. And we were taken to the hospital, and she went through, you
know, X number of tests and X-rays and MRIs. And finally, nothing was broken.

She, I think, has been rather scared to be in cars ever since. And I, myself,
have been very reluctant to drive. We don't own a car. It happened to have
been a rented car. And I've only driven a few times since then, so I don't
think it was a liberating experience; more of a bad memory.

GROSS: So outside of being afraid to drive a car, is there anything else that
the crash has either made you afraid to do or has kind of inspired of
encouraged you to do that you wouldn't have done before?

Mr. AUSTER: Huh, that's a very good question. I don't really think so. I've
been very faithful about putting on my seat belt, I have to say, whenever I am
in a car. And every time we go past the spot where the accident took place,
you know, I look at the light pole where our car spun around and smashed into,
which has a big dent in it. So there's still visible traces of the accident
in the world, and I think about it. I think about it a lot. But again, as I
said a year and a half ago on the radio, I'm so lucky. That's really
ultimately how I feel, so lucky that it wasn't worse.

GROSS: Right. Now you are a storyteller. Is the story of the accident
something that you tell a lot to other people or would you just as soon not go
there very often?

Mr. AUSTER: It's come up a few times in conversation, but I don't go around
broadcasting it to people. It's really finally a very dull story. Lots of
people have been in car accidents, and it's something private more than
public, I think. It came up when we were talking last time in the context of
how unpredictable the world is, and I guess it just was a further reminder to
me of how precarious things are.

GROSS: Now because you are a professional storyteller, I'm going to ask, what
exactly is boring about that story?

Mr. AUSTER: Boring in the sense that there's nothing original about it.
There's nothing new to be said about a car crash that happen every day. Tens
of thousands of people die every year from these kinds of accidents. And
there's nothing new about it. It's just terrible, but terrible in a private
way, the way so much of our lives are led. I mean, people go through divorces
and it's painful, but to talk about divorce is somewhat boring. People lose
loved ones to death or illness and, again, there's something not terribly
interesting about it, in the abstract in any case. That's all I mean.

GROSS: My guest is writer Paul Auster. His new novel is called "Oracle
Night."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is writer Paul Auster. His new novel is called "Oracle
Night."

There's something I'd like you to read from your new novel, "Oracle Night,"
and I think this relates to what we're talking about very directly, the sense
that life can be changed in an instant. And I'm going to ask you to introduce
this reading for us, to set it up and put it in context.

Mr. AUSTER: All right. There are two writers in this novel. The narrator,
Sidney Orr, is 34 years old, and then there's an older writer, John Trause,
who's in his mid-50s, and they're good friends. And at one point, they're
discussing various writers, and Trause says, `You know, there's this little
episode in "The Maltese Falcon" by Dashiell Hammett which would be a great
premise for a novel if someone, you know, could figure out how to make a story
out of it.' And so that's what Sidney is thinking about when he writes this
passage on Page 13.

(Reading) `He was referring to the Flitcraft episode in the seventh chapter of
"The Maltese Falcon," the curious parable that Sam Spade tells Brigid
O'Shaughnessy about the man who walks away from his life and disappears.
Flitcraft is a thoroughly conventional fellow--a husband, a father, a
successful businessman, a person without a thing to complain about. One
afternoon as he is walking to lunch, a beam falls from a construction site on
the 10th floor of a building and nearly lands on his head. Another inch or
two and Flitcraft would have been crushed, but the beam misses him. And
except for a little chip of sidewalk that flies up and hits him in the face,
he walks away unhurt.

`Still, the close call rattles him and he can't push the incident from his
mind. As Hammett puts it, quote, "He felt like somebody had taken the lid off
life and let him look at the works," unquote. Flitcraft realizes that the
world isn't the sane and orderly place he thought it was, that he's had it all
wrong from the beginning and never understood the first thing about it. The
world is governed by chance. Randomness stalks us every day of our lives, and
those lives can be taken from us at any moment for no reason at all.

`But the time Flitcraft finishes his lunch, he concludes that he has no choice
but to submit to this destructive power, to smash his life through some
meaningless wholly arbitrary act of self-negation. He will fight fire with
fire, as it were. And without bothering to return home or say goodbye to his
family, without even bothering to withdraw any money from the bank, he stands
up from the table, goes to another city and starts his life all over again.'

GROSS: That's Paul Auster reading from his new novel, "Oracle Night."

Paul, what made you think about that passage?

Mr. AUSTER: Well, it's interesting. This idea was planted in my head many
years ago, probably in the late '80s, early '90s, when I got to know the
filmmaker Wim Wenders, the German filmmaker.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. AUSTER: And we had an idea at that time to make a film together, and it
was Wim's suggestion that we do the Flitcraft story. He said, `It's so
fascinating. It'd be such an interesting premise for a film.' And I started
thinking about it then. That's when I invented Nick Bowen, this character
within the novel--the novel within the novel, so to speak--has been with me
for 13 or 14 years. And unfortunately, the project with Wim never worked out;
we never could get the money for the film. But it stayed with me, and I
always knew that I wanted to reanimate it somehow in a novel, and I've finally
done it.

GROSS: Now the writer in this book has been very sick, and he's lost--at the
beginning of the book, he's lost all interest in writing. And it's not until
he buys a blue notebook, a notebook that seems to have magical power, that he
starts writing again. It's as if this notebook gives him the power to...

Mr. AUSTER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Stories just flow out of him once he has it. You wish, right?

Mr. AUSTER: Yeah, I wish. Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AUSTER: But you know, Sidney is a little unstable...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. AUSTER: ...mentally and physically...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. AUSTER: ...even during--he's recovered from a near-fatal illness, but
he's still pretty shaky. And so what's objectively true and subjectively true
are very murky. The line between what's going on outside him and inside him
is very fuzzy. And the book is about, I think, uncertainty in some way. So
it's just a notebook, but he suddenly gets it into his head that it has some
kind of magical property, at least for a little while. And once you believe
something, in some sense it becomes true, doesn't it?

GROSS: Well, you give the thing that power.

Mr. AUSTER: Exactly. Exactly.

GROSS: You know, he says, `Words rushed out of me as though I were taking
dictation; transcribing sentences from a voice that spoke in the crystalline
language of dreams, nightmares and unfettered thoughts.' Do you ever feel
when you are writing that that is happening, that words--that you're just
taking dictation?

Mr. AUSTER: Sometimes. Sometimes, but it's rare. Usually, I'm struggling
along very slowly to get it right. And then every once in a while, there'll
be an hour or a day or 20 minutes in which there's this rush and it all comes
out just perfectly. I'm reminded of the beautiful phrase by the painter
Philip Guston, someone whose work I admire a lot. `Years and years of
struggle,' he said, `for a few moments of grace.' And I think most artists
experience that at one time or another. You're just drilling and drilling
with your pickax and it's very difficult. And then suddenly, you reach a
moment where it's all just flowing and you can't explain why that should be.

GROSS: You seem to be someone who is just filled with stories. I mean, even
like your novels, they have stories within stories, so it's not just one
story. And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AUSTER: No, they're bouncing off of each other.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. AUSTER: I'm very interested in--I don't know--what you might call the
magnetic field that is created by rubbing two stories against each other and
the kind of sparks that are emitted and the way it can lead to reflection and
questioning on the part of the reader. It's almost what you might call a kind
of--the effect of collage, I think, where if you have several elements
interacting with one another, something interesting is bound to happen. Some
new entity is created that's greater than the sum of the parts.

GROSS: Did you actually study deconstruction theory, deconstructionist
theory?

Mr. AUSTER: No, not at all. No, I never read any of those works.

GROSS: So this isn't like an academic concept for you. It's
something--right.

Mr. AUSTER: No, it's all instinct. It's all intuitive. I know people think
I know about all these things, but I don't. I've never read any of those
books. Once I tried to read Derrida, and I think I got three pages in and I
stopped. I didn't understand a word I was reading.

GROSS: Right. Very academic language.

Well, you seem to have so many stories that naturally come to you. And in the
writing process is the construction of the stories filled with effort, or is
it just the language itself that's the really difficult part?

Mr. AUSTER: It's the language. It is true. I see these characters; I see
these situations very clearly in my mind. And it just--the effort in writing
the book is to express them as clearly and as efficiently and as beautifully
as I can, and that's where the real work comes in, you know, the prose, just
writing a good sentence.

GROSS: Are you superstitious at all about whatever gifts you have in terms of
stories coming to you or finding the right words?

Mr. AUSTER: Superstitious? No. I suppose I'm a little fetishistic at
times. You know, I have the certain fountain pen that I really am attached
to, and I like to write with that and I would never lend that pen to anyone.
I still write with my old manual typewriter, and I've never switched to a
computer. And there's no logical reason to do it. I mean, one method is as
good as another, but I feel that it's part of my routine and I'm attached to
it and I wouldn't want to change at this point.

GROSS: How old were you when stories started coming to you?

Mr. AUSTER: Oh, I don't know. I think I started writing stories when I was
about 11 or 12 in school. And I remember very vividly--I think it must have
been when I was in the sixth grade, I wrote a story, a long story, a little
novella, and the teacher in the class let me get up at the end of class each
day, say, for the last 10 minutes, and read another installment of my, you
know, crazy little work. And so that was a great thrill. I liked writing it,
and I like sharing it with the class and, you know, everyone had a good time
with it. And so it's something that started early for me.

GROSS: So that's amazing, like you were doing your own soap opera when you
were little.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AUSTER: I know. And I can remember very well--I can even see the pages
in my head. And I remember I had a fountain pen and green ink. I wrote the
whole thing in green ink. And I remember I did drawings of the characters,
so--and would hold them up so the class could see what everyone looked like.

GROSS: What was the story about that you were reading in class?

Mr. AUSTER: I think it was a mystery story, if I'm not mistaken. And it had
something to do with a pearl necklace being hid inside the cylinder of
typewriter. And more than that I can't remember, but it was a kind of
detective story.

GROSS: Paul Auster's new novel is called "Oracle Night." He'll be back in
the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Anne Tyler's new novel, "The
Amateur Marriage," and we continue our conversation with novelist Paul Auster.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with writer Paul Auster,
author of the novels "The Book of Illusions," "Timbuktu" and "Leviathan," and
the screenplays for "Smoke," "Blue in the Face" and "Lulu On the Bridge." He
was the editor and on-air voice of NPR's National Storytelling Project.
Auster's new novel, "Oracle Night," is about a writer recovering from a
debilitating illness who lacks the strength and will to write until finding a
blue notebook that seems to magically inspire him. His stories become
mysteriously connected to his actual life.

Now your main character, who's been very sick and starts finding that the
writing is just flowing once he buys this new notebook, you know, he's writing
all sorts of things. One of the things he's writing, or intends to write, is
a screenplay that's kind of a knock-off of H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine."

Mr. AUSTER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: But his theory is that if given the choice, people would probably
prefer to go back in time, backwards in time, rather than to see the future
and go forward in time. Is that your theory, too?

Mr. AUSTER: Well, it's certainly how I feel about it. How do you feel about
it? What would you rather do?

GROSS: I can't say I've really given it a lot of thought, so it's hard for me
to say. I don't know.

Mr. AUSTER: I mean, that's...

GROSS: I kind of take it for granted I ain't going in either place, but...

Mr. AUSTER: Exactly. But, I mean, if suddenly, you know, the question is
thrown open, I mean, you know, the future, of course we're curious about it.
But I would just as soon, as Sidney says in the book, see what my grandparents
were like as little children or...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. AUSTER: ...be present at the moment when, you know, my parents met.
That's something you'd really want to know about.

GROSS: Oh, God, you're so right. Yes, you're so right. I mean...

Mr. AUSTER: You see?

GROSS: ...just like when an aunt gives me an old photograph from, you know,
when everyone in my family was much younger, it's just astounding to me.

Mr. AUSTER: Yes. If you could be with them then, it would be extraordinary.
And--I don't know. Or as he says, wouldn't you like to know what it felt like
to be in Virginia in Thomas Jefferson's time? You know, just to visit it for
a day would be tremendous. So, I don't know, the past is more powerful to me
than the future.

GROSS: You have an artifact from the past within the book, and it's a page
from a Warsaw telephone directory from 1937-1938.

Mr. AUSTER: Yeah.

GROSS: Would you explain what that page means to your character and what that
page means to you?

Mr. AUSTER: Well, I was given that book on a trip to Warsaw in 1998 by my
Polish publisher. He wanted to give me something special, he said. And he
found this telephone book. In it is somebody with my name. There's an Auster
in that book. And I transposed that into the novel. My character's name is
Orr, but it's a shortening of Orlofski, a Polish-Jewish name. And I found an
Orlofski in the book. And I wanted to show the book to prove that it existed.
Sort of the documentary quality of it was very powerful and hypnotic to me
because what you have in a 1938 Warsaw telephone book is essentially a book
of ghosts, as I say, because just about every Jewish person in that book would
have been killed within the next five years. So it's a tragic document in a
way and it forms an important element of the novel.

GROSS: And why did you want to actually reprint that page, not refer to it,
but to have a copy of that page?

Mr. AUSTER: Because the novel uses both fact and fiction. There are many
historical events that are referred to. There are actually footnotes in the
book, as you know, in which there are bibliographic references, all of which
are true, and I wanted to confirm the existence of this book to show that it
wasn't just something that I had thought up, you know, for the purposes of the
novel, but that it was an actual thing that existed. And I wanted visual
proof inside the pages of the book.

GROSS: Tell me if this is fact or fiction. Your character comes across an
article that's about a crack addict who has a baby in the bathroom, and this
is such a horrible...

Mr. AUSTER: It's true. It's true.

GROSS: It's true. Is it...

Mr. AUSTER: It's true. I've been...

GROSS: Tell me the story--yeah.

Mr. AUSTER: ...carrying that article around, you know, for years. It's just
the most horrifying thing. I mean, maybe I can find it in the book and just
read it, because...

GROSS: Sure. OK, good idea.

Mr. AUSTER: ...it's very short. This to me was one of the most terrifying
newspaper articles I've ever read. Here it is, page 112. `Born in a toilet;
baby discarded. High on crack, a 22-year-old reputed prostitute gave birth
over a toilet in a Bronx SRO, then dumped her dead baby in an outdoor garbage
bin, police said yesterday. The woman, police said, had been having sex with
a john about 1 AM yesterday. When she left the room they were sharing at 450
Cyrus Place(ph), had walked into a bathroom to smoke crack. Sitting over a
toilet, the woman, quote, "feels the water break, feels something come out,"
Sergeant Michael Ryan(ph) said. But police said the woman, wasted on crack,
apparently was not aware she had given birth. Twenty minutes later, the woman
noticed the dead baby in the bowl, wrapped her in a towel and dropped her in a
garbage bin. She then returned to her customer and resumed having sex, Ryan
said. A dispute over payment soon broke out, however, and police said the
woman stabbed her customer in the chest at about 1:15 AM.' Etc., etc.

That is truly horrific. And I changed the names of the people, but it is a
real newspaper article.

GROSS: Did it come from a newspaper you trust? Because reading that story,
part of me was thinking, `Mm, this really couldn't have happened.' I mean,
it's hard for me to imagine a woman having a baby and then, you know, a couple
of minutes later resuming sex.

Mr. AUSTER: You can't imagine it, but it was in Newsday, which is a pretty
reliable paper.

GROSS: Oh, yeah. Yes, it is.

Mr. AUSTER: Yeah. Yeah. So, as I said, from Newsday, and I mentioned
Newsday in the novel. So it's horrifying and, you know, Sidney starts to cry
when he reads this.

GROSS: Yeah. They...

Mr. AUSTER: He says, as I, you know, looked down, I understood that I was
reading a story about the end of mankind, that that room in the Bronx was the
precise spot on Earth where human life had lost its meaning. And I believe
that, it's so horrible. And it's good not to forget this, you know.

GROSS: Sometimes you'd just as soon forget it. Why would you want to be
constantly reminded of it and carry that around with you?

Mr. AUSTER: Just because if you forget that people can act this way, then you
start to become deluded about what humanity really is. And I think the more
we know, the more vigilant we'll be, and the more intelligently and
compassionately we can act.

GROSS: My guest is writer Paul Auster. His new novel is called "Oracle
Night." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is writer Paul Auster. His new novel is called "Oracle
Night."

Now you were talking before about how you like the magnetic field that's
created when one story rubs against another, which is why you like to have
stories within stories, within your fiction. Do you feel like a similar
magnetic field is created when a writer does, as you've done in your new
novel, combine fact and fiction within the novel?

Mr. AUSTER: I think so. I hope so. I mean, the book certainly is among many
things, you know, a meditation on time, as I was saying earlier, about real
events, everything from World War I and World War II to the Kennedy
assassination, the Chinese cultural revolution. All these things are hinted
at, and they form part of the background of the book.

And even that strange story that Trause tells Sidney and we learn about
towards the end of the novel about the French writer who wrote a poem about a
little girl who drowned, and then just after the poem was published, his own
daughter drowned. And this writer was so overwhelmed that he decided never to
write again. And it's a true story, it's a real writer. His name was
Louis-Rene de Forer(ph), and I didn't put his name in, in the book, but it's
actual fact. And this is something that I think every writer fears in a way,
that somehow the things of your imagination, the dark things of your
imagination can actually come true.

GROSS: Have you had any experiences close to that where you feared that was
happening?

Mr. AUSTER: No, no, thank God, but in little ways, little things seem to
happen sometimes that are eerie, as if some of the things that I've written
are premonitions of things that are going to happen later. So truth, fiction,
you know, they all meld in this book to form whatever experience it is. I
mean, it's not for me to say but for the reader.

GROSS: Do you live in a world where there are premonitions and where lots of
mysterious and inexplicable things like that happen?

Mr. AUSTER: Well, just to get back to where we started the conversation, and
this is very interesting. I've always been a good driver, and I started
driving at 17; I'm now 56. That car crash two years ago was the only time I'd
been in an accident. I've driven, you know, long distances and nothing has
ever happened. And with my wife, Siri, we've taken many trips together over
the 20-plus years of our marriage, and she's always been very confident in my
driving.

That day, when we were driving home from Connecticut, all right, we were
picking up our daughter from a camp, she was nervous, she was worried, she was
thinking every time I made a turn, every time we went around a curve on the
highway, something terrible was going to happen. It's as if she knew that the
accident was about to happen. And it got to a point where both Sophie, my
daughter, and I said to her, `Stop it,' you know, `it's enough. You're making
everybody too nervous,' and that was just as we were entering New York City
thinking the trip was over and we were just about home. And, sure enough, two
blocks from our house, that's where the accident took place.

GROSS: Wow. Now, you know, you can make the other argument that she spooked
you.

Mr. AUSTER: No, I--yes, you could, but I think she probably felt that I
wasn't driving as well as I normally do. And I probably wasn't because I
allowed this accident to take place.

GROSS: Well, it's an accident. I mean, you know the cliche, that's why they
call it an accident.

Mr. AUSTER: Yes, of course, but if I had been more prudent, it wouldn't have
happened. I made that left turn too fast, I cut it too close and I didn't
realize the van was going as fast as it was. They were speeding in that car.
So I should have been more cautious and I wasn't, and maybe she sensed that in
me that day.

GROSS: What happened to the people in the other car?

Mr. AUSTER: Nothing. They were fine. We were just in this little Toyota and
they were in this big van. So they were fine.

GROSS: Right. Do you have a good memory?

Mr. AUSTER: I can't remember. I don't know. Some things I remember very
well; others just fly out of my head completely. It's both a good and a bad
memory.

GROSS: Because it just seems to me with what you do, which is kind of
collecting stories and remembering things that you will work into stories that
it would be helpful to have a good memory.

Mr. AUSTER: Yes, but it doesn't always happen. The thing that frustrates me
so much is that often when I'm going to sleep at night I'll start writing in
my head, and I know it's good, I know it's really good, but I'm a little too
groggy to wake up and start jotting it down. And as I'm drifting off, I say,
`Try to remember it, try to remember it,' and then of course I wake up in the
morning, I can't remember a single syllable of what I was doing.

GROSS: Do you think that it's really good or do you think it just feels good
because you're in that twilight between sleep and wakefulness?

Mr. AUSTER: I'm convinced it's really good.

GROSS: I'll let you keep that.

Mr. AUSTER: Thank you.

GROSS: I want to let you keep that feeling.

Mr. AUSTER: Thank you.

GROSS: Do you think you're obsessive at all about writing? I mean, like, can
you turn it off or let it go when you leave the desk?

Mr. AUSTER: I try to. I try to because, you know, writing novels is a long
process. It's a marathon, it's not a sprint, so you have to pace yourself.
And I do my best when I stand up at the end of the day to stop thinking about
it and just, you know, re-engage with the real world. I've even gotten to the
point where I have this pact, I try to keep it--most of the time it doesn't
work, but I try to--again, it's that fateful moment when you're falling asleep
and, you know, when you're writing a novel, you become rather obsessed by it.
And I have trained myself to try not to think about it and to think about
another story, say the next book I'm going to write, and go to sleep thinking
about that, because I'd rather have my unconscious work on the current
project. I think sleeping and not thinking about something can often give you
fresh ideas in the morning that you wouldn't have if you were, you know,
constantly, constantly thinking about it all the time.

GROSS: But notice the assignment you give yourself is to think about the next
novel, as opposed to...

Mr. AUSTER: Yes.

GROSS: ...thinking about breakfast or thinking about, you know, something
really inconsequential that you couldn't work yourself up over too much.

Mr. AUSTER: That's right. But breakfast is not an absorbing enough question.
You know, you have to have some kind of problem to think about.

GROSS: Right. Right.

Mr. AUSTER: I don't even eat breakfast, so, you know, it doesn't matter.

GROSS: It won't work for you then.

Mr. AUSTER: No, no.

GROSS: You recently read your entire new novel, the entire version of "Oracle
Night," which is--let's see, it's 230-some-odd pages. You did readings of the
entire thing. I mean, how many hours did that take?

Mr. AUSTER: Two hundred and forty-three pages actually...

GROSS: OK, OK.

Mr. AUSTER: ...as I look at it now. The reason why I did it is I had
recorded the book for an audiobook with Harper Audio and it didn't take that
long. It was maybe eight hours total. And I'm not going on a book tour for
this novel. I'm really not doing much of anything. And with my publisher,
Henry Holt, we had this discussion, `Well, what can I do that might be unusual
or interesting?' and I came up with this idea, well, maybe I could just read
the whole book, because I rather enjoyed reading it into the microphone for
the audiobook, and I thought, well, in front of an audience, it might be
interesting.

So we did it over two days, a Saturday and a Sunday at the Paula Cooper Art
Gallery in the city here, and it was very interesting. It was also the
weekend of the huge blizzard, and so there was an extra sense of adventure
involved in the whole experience, people tramping in out of the snow and just
sitting. I took a break every hour, and people would leave, other people
would come. It was a very strange and interesting experience.

GROSS: Well, it's really turning it into an event.

Mr. AUSTER: I guess, or just something that if people really want to have the
whole experience of hearing an author read the book out loud, they can have
it. And there were people who, you know, stuck it through from beginning to
end on both days. And that I found pretty remarkable.

GROSS: How'd your voice hold up?

Mr. AUSTER: By the end of the second day, I was really pretty hoarse, but the
end of the book is so emotional, I think that the last hour, even though I was
beyond my resources, the emotion carried me through and I was able to finish.

GROSS: Now I want to end close to the note that we started on, and we started
on, you know, the fact of the car crash...

Mr. AUSTER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...that you and your wife and daughter were in, and then you talked
about how the boiler was on fire in your home and could have burned the house
down.

Mr. AUSTER: Yes.

GROSS: I'll remind our listeners who might not know this that when you were
young in summer camp, a friend of yours was struck by lightning. Do you think
that there are some people in this world who have these kind of close
encounters a lot and other people who don't?

Mr. AUSTER: Well, it's possible. But getting back to what I was doing for
NPR a few years ago, the National Story Project...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. AUSTER: ...I was amazed at how many people had had these kinds of
experiences. I think every life is touched by these close encounters, maybe
some people more than others, but I think it's almost impossible to get
through the full term of a life without coming very close to death a number of
times and having all kinds of bizarre, inexplicable things happen to you.
It's just the way the world works. Mysterious, very mysterious.

GROSS: It's the way your fiction works, too, very mysterious.

Mr. AUSTER: Yeah.

GROSS: Paul Auster, thank you so much.

Mr. AUSTER: Thanks for having me on again.

GROSS: Paul Auster's new novel is called "Oracle Night."

Let's hear some music from the CD "As Smart As We Are" by the group One Ring
Zero, which features lyrics by writers, including Paul Auster, Rick Moody,
A.M. Homes, Daniel Handler and Dave Egger. This track, "Natty Man Blues,"
features a lyric by Auster.

(Soundbite of "Natty Man Blues")

ONE RING ZERO: (Singing) There ain't no sin in Cincinnati since I've been in
Cincinnati, I gotta get out of Cincinnati or else I'll go plumb down and
batty, since I mean to sin wherever I am, since I mean to sin whenever I can.
I'll cross the river into old Kentucky, find me some skirt and a change of
luck, drink some shots and role in the muck, raise some hell and remember to
duck, since I mean to sin wherever I am, since I mean to sin whenever I can.

GROSS: Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews Anne Tyler's new
novel, "The Amateur Marriage."

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Anne Tyler novel "The Amateur Marriage"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Novelist Anne Tyler has staked her claim on the city of Baltimore, much the
same way as James Joyce holds the literary deed on Dublin and Raymond
Chandler, Los Angeles. Her latest novel, "The Amateur Marriage," is, as
expected, set in Baltimore, but it's wide-ranging in its chronology, exploring
a half-century in the life of its characters. Book critic Maureen Corrigan
has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN:

The zeitgeist made them do it. That's one of the main messages of Anne
Tyler's latest novel, "The Amateur Marriage." Indeed, for the first hundred
pages or so, it seems to be the only message. The novel's characters verge on
being types, and its plot about the long history of a marriage and its
breakup, is sweepingly ordinary. But "The Amateur Marriage" is a deceptive
piece of work. Without ever drawing attention to itself through elaborate
language or imagery, the novel slowly, surprisingly accrues emotional power.
There's method in Tyler's mundaneness, after all.

"The Amateur Marriage" is set, as usual, in Tyler's fictional home turf,
Baltimore, Maryland. It opens in December of 1941, right after Pearl Harbor.
All the young guys in Baltimore's Polish Eastern Avenue neighborhood are
joining a ragtag parade to enlist. Old women are crying, kids are waving
flags and all six of the Zatt(ph) brothers are carrying a homemade banner that
reads: Watch out Japs, here comes the Zatts.

But 20-year-old Michael Anton is stuck stacking bars of soap in his mother's
cramped little grocery store. Michael isn't going anywhere. He's all his
cheerless widowed mother has left. Then a group of young women veritably
explode into the tiny store. One of them, the pretty one in the red coat, has
blood running down her forehead. She stupidly jumped off a moving streetcar
in an effort to see the parade. Michael takes one look at her--her name is
Pauline and she's from an American neighborhood some 20 minutes away--and he's
smitten. Shortly afterwards at Pauline's patriotic urging, Michael enlists in
the Army and is sent away to a training camp where he's shot in the hip by
another trainee, permanently wounded and discharged.

Giddily, Michael and Pauline marry, mismatched from the get-go. As her
dramatic entrance into Anton's Grocery Store(ph) indicated, Pauline is
impetuous, as well as volatile. Michael, by contrast, is a stick who, as
someone later comments, regards standoffishness as a virtue. Still, they beat
on for 30 years, boats against the current of each others' personalities. In
fast-forward fashion, Tyler alights on different moments in the Antons'
marriage, separated sometimes by decades. The effect, before a reader grows
accustomed to it, is herky-jerky and superficial, sort of like clicking
through someone else's family online photo album without any of the principal
players beside you to fill in the story.

Michael and Pauline have three kids and move to a modern ranch house in the
suburbs complete with basement bar and a boomerang-shaped wall mirror.
Michael also relocates the Anton Grocery Store to the burbs, shrewdly turning
it into a speciality foods market. Click. The kids become teen-agers and the
eldest, a rebellious girl named Lindy, runs away from home. In 1968, about
eight years after Lindy disappeared, Michael and Pauline learn she's in a drug
rehab program in Haight-Ashbury. They fly to San Francisco and find not their
daughter but a three-year-old grandson named Pagan they didn't know they had.
Click. On the eve of their 30th wedding anniversary, Michael walks out on
Pauline.

Tyler's novel is ultimately much more engrossing and revelatory than that
bumpy summary indicates, and here's why: In "The Amateur Marriage," Tyler
pays her characters the respect of never coyly indicating that she knows more
about them than they know about themselves. Michael and Pauline, after all,
are members of the greatest generation. They're not, as the cliche about that
generation goes, introspective. Usually a work of fiction features someone
who's especially astute; if not a character, then a narrator. But that's not
the case in "The Amateur Marriage," and yet somehow through the very lack of
analysis in her unadorned style, Tyler makes readers come to care deeply about
these limited characters.

In the final scene of the novel, an 80-year-old Michael gropes towards a
similar appreciation of a singer he's listening to on his car radio singing
the old World War II standard, "The White Cliffs of Dover." Why couldn't
music today sound like that, Michael thinks. He liked the way the singer kept
her voice so plain and ordinary, too intent on expressing her sadness to
concern herself with effect. In singing this particular ballad of an ordinary
American family, self-effacement works as a technique for Tyler, too.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "The Amateur Marriage" by Anne Tyler.

I'm Terry Gross.
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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

Nicole Kidman says being an indoor kid and a bookworm led her to acting

While her friends and family went to the Australian beaches, Kidman stayed indoors reading — and imaged herself as a character in the books. She says reading is what led her to acting. We talk with the Oscar-winning actor about ageism in Hollywood, singing in a cover band as a teenager, and playing Lucille Ball in Being the Ricardos.

07:07

Jazz trio Artifacts gets to the point quickly, and sticks to it, on a new album

Flute player Nicole Mitchell, cellist Tomeka Reid and drummer Mike Reed all came up on Chicago's new jazz scene about 20 years ago. Now they revisit their roots on ... and then there's this.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue