Paul Auster interview

The American writer speaks to Time Out about his new book 'Winter Journal'

© Lotte Hansen

Paul Auster’s latest book has had a typically divided critical reception. In fact, as he tells Wayne Gooderham, he’s not even decided what genre it belongs in...

Brooklyn-based writer Paul Auster is no stranger to the double-edged sword that is intense critical attention. Since the publication of his debut novel in 1987 – the highly entertaining postmodern puzzle ‘The New York Trilogy’ – he has been the subject of praise and censure in equal part. To some he is a one-trick pony who said everything he had to say in his debut and has spent the following decades reworking the same old themes of coincidence and chance to largely diminishing returns. To others, he is a playful existentialist and master stylist, whose body of work can be read as a fascinating exploration of the unresolvable question of What if…?

Nothing he’s published so far, though, has divided critics like his most recent book, ‘Winter Journal’: an autobiographical work of non-fiction in which Auster recounts various events from his past, some trivial (his favourite sweets as a child) some not so (the death of his mother). A large part of this criticism stems from the fact that Auster has chosen to write ‘Winter Journal’ in the second person, eliciting accusations of egomania. However, when I spoke to Auster over the telephone last week and asked him why he chose to write his memoir from this unusual perspective, his reply revealed far more modest intentions. First, though, he takes issue with my use of the word ‘memoir’…

Paul Auster: ‘I have to say in premise it’s really not a memoir. And I don’t even think of it as an autobiography. I think of it as a literary composition – similar to music – composed of autobiographical fragments. I’m really not telling the story of my life in a coherent narrative form. That’s not my intention. When the publisher here in America wanted to put the word “memoir” on the title page and on the cover, I said, “No, no, no, no, no, no.” No genre whatsoever. It’s an independent work not really connected to those things at all… Memoirs have dominated the literary scene now for ten or 20 or even 30 years: most of them seem to use the conventions of fiction and it’s astonishing how in so many of these books people seem to be able to remember conversations that took place when they were five years old and give three pages of coherent dialogue, which is utterly impossible. It’s beyond the grasp of anyone’s memory to recall conversations in that kind of detail. So it’s fake. It’s all made up. I do not repeat conversations that I can’t remember. And it’s something that irritates me a great deal, because I think most memoirs are false novels. And I really want to separate my book from that tradition.’

Why did you choose to write here in the second person?

PA: ‘It was an instinctive decision. I started it that way without a lot of reflection. But then, as I got into the writing of the book, I understood there was a reason for this, and number one, again, goes towards answering your question about this memoir issue: because I see myself as anybody, as everybody; I’m not just telling the story of my life to give the reader a picture of who I am. No, I wanted to do something different. Therefore, the first person I thought would have been too exclusionary. It would have said me, me, me, me, me. I, I, I, I, I. As if I were pushing away my experiences from the experiences of others. Because basically what I was trying to do was show our commonality. I mean to say, in the very ordinariness of what I recount I think perhaps the reader will find resonances with his or her own life. And so the second person seemed ideal because it conveys a certain intimacy and yet a certain kind of separation between writer and subject. In a sense I am able to interrogate myself, address myself from that slight distance and enter a kind of dialogical relationship with myself. Because I’m saying, “Look, these are things that have happened to me, but how odd they are or how ordinary they are [is up to the reader to decide].” So second person seemed perfect. There’s this sense that, as a reader when you’re reading a book in the second person, you do feel addressed, and more implicated in what’s going on than you would if you read it in the first or third. I think. This is my intuition about this.

Did you have a specific literary model for ‘Winter Journal’, then?

PA: ‘No. In fact, I felt I was completely in uncharted waters with this book. I’ve never read a book that resembles it. And I think it’s interesting; as I say in the book, I don’t read reviews any more, but I’m told by my publisher who gives me an account of what people have been writing and it’s been a very split kind of response [laughs]. On the one hand, tremendous praise and admiration and enthusiasm, and then hostility on the other hand and certain reviewers attacking this very thing of writing in the second person, which seems to alarm them or offend them.’

Is this water off a duck’s back to you now?

PA: ‘It has to be. Otherwise I’d go nuts. Because people look at the same passage and one person will say this is the best thing he’s ever read, and another person will say it’s absolutely idiotic. I mean, there’s no way to reconcile those two things. You just have to forget the whole business of what people are saying.’

Why did you choose to write the book now? Was there a catalyst?

PA: ‘That’s a question I cannot answer. I have no idea. It was just something that rose up within me, grabbed hold of me, and said, “You must do this now.” Why? I don’t know.’

Because I was wondering if it had anything to do with the fact that in ‘The Invention of Solitude’ (Auster’s first published work of non-fiction from 1982) you wrote about your father, and your father died when he was 66 and you’re…

PA: ‘…I was turned 64 as I wrote “Winter Journal”. That might have been an unconscious motive. I can’t really say.’

Have your views on your father altered from your views in ‘The Invention of Solitude’ now that you’re closer to his age when he died?

PA: ‘I’m in constant inner dialogue with my father still. I say at the very end of “Winter Journal” that I do dream about him often. I think I have a tremendous compassion for him, which has grown over the years. A certain kind of pity for him also in that he was so unrealised as a human being, so dogged, and so shut-off from people in many ways. You know, I’ve been writing another book, and it’s another non-fiction autobiographical work, kind of a compliment to “Winter Journal”, and it’s just finished now. And I do go back to a story about my father that seems to me very touching and mystifying. It goes all the way back to my early childhood, when I was maybe five or six years old. I was born just after the end of World War II, and with my friends in our little suburban backyards in New Jersey, we used to play war a lot. I don’t know if boys still play war, they probably do, but we were thrusting ourselves into recent history and we were always fighting either the Nazis or the Japanese. Most of my friends’ fathers had been in the war – either as soldiers or in some other capacity in the military. Whereas my father had not fought. He was older and he was in a business that was considered essential to the wartime effort – the wire business – and, of course, I was so young I didn’t understand any of this. Most of the boys would come with bits of equipment that their fathers had given them from their war days – helmets, canteens, binoculars, these kinds of things – that leant a kind of authenticity to the games we were playing. But, of course, my father never gave me anything. So I began to question him. You know, Why don’t you have anything from the war? And I think he was…embarrassed to tell me he hadn’t fought, because, you know, little boys want to turn their fathers into heroes, and he didn’t want to be diminished in my eyes. So he kind of fudged the whole business and one night, when I was about six or seven, I was in my bedroom, it was night, I’d just been put to bed, and he tiptoed in thinking I was asleep, but I wasn’t. And he put some things on my desk which in the morning I discovered were bits of military equipment. A canteen I remember vividly, and maybe one other thing, I can’t remember. And I knew then that he had bought them in an army surplus store that day and he wanted to maybe enhance himself in my eyes, and say, “Well, yes, I have been in the army.” Or [he] simply just didn’t want to disappoint me. It could have been one or the other. But I knew that he had lied to me. And this filled me with a tremendous sort of anger towards him. At the same time, knowing he was trying to please me, so feeling good about him. This tug of emotions. And so now, you see, when I look back at this experience, all I can do is feel pity. You know, how torn he was about how to act, what to say. And it seems an important story to me.’

Similarly, ‘Winter Journal’ is a very personal work, detailing intimate details of past romances, including bouts of sexually transmitted diseases, family feuds and your suffering from panic attacks. Was there much of an editing process – not of the prose, but of the content?

PA: ‘Not really. I had to be open. I had to bare myself otherwise the book would have been useless. Because I wanted to talk about intimate physical things, intimate emotional things, and if I’d held back it wouldn’t have been worth writing. It’s not that this book is an account of everything I’ve ever done. 99.9 percent of my life is not in this book at all. I mean, I don’t write about my children at all… just a few brief mentions, because it’s not about them, and I don’t write about my writing life very much at all, or even reading books, you know, so much is not in there. So what I chose to write about I realised I had to do it as honestly and as openly as possible.’

Writers talk about having an ideal reader in mind when writing. Does your ideal reader change at all depending on whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction?

PA: ‘No, the ideal reader’s the same, and I suppose this person has never had a face or a gender or an age. It’s just some kind of unknown other who will be sympathetic and read each word carefully and understand what I’m writing about. I suppose every writer feels this. Writing is, after all, a gesture towards other people, giving something to others. And so it’s not a completely hermetic exercise. It’s really an opening up.’

And how does this relate to you, personally? In ‘Winter Journal’ you say, ‘We’re all aliens to ourselves.’ Now you’ve finished the book do you feel know yourself any better?

PA: ‘No, no. In fact, writing, especially writing autobiographical works, and this is actually the fourth time I’ve done it, each time I’ve done it I’ve felt deeply immersed in the material as I’m doing it, and then it’s over and everything is the same [laughs]. I think there might be some pressure released while I’m doing it, but afterwards everything remains the same.’

I remember reading an interview with Martin Amis where he said that after finishing a novel he basically feels like a total idiot.

PA: ‘Well, that’s true, too. And the disgust one feels with oneself. The feeling of absolute failure.’ [Laughs]

You still feel that, even now?

PA: ‘Oh yes. I think most writers can’t really think about their work without a kind of revulsion. And I think that’s probably why we keep going back and trying again, trying to do better each time. As Beckett said [in ‘Worstward Ho’], “Fail again, fail better.”’

Have you noticed any of your relationships with other people changing since writing ‘Winter Journal’? Have your wife and children read it?

PA: ‘No, my children haven’t read it. They have read some of my work, but I really don’t foist it on them. I want them to be free to discover it in their own good time. I think reading an intimate memoir by your father – or an intimate autobiographical work, whatever we want to call this thing – you have to come at it at the right moment, so I’m certainly not foisting it upon them. With Siri [Hustvedt] on the other hand, yes, of course, I read everything I write to her. She’s my first reader, my first line of defence I suppose. So she says, “Oh well, oh yes, it’s all true.” At the same time, I could have written much more about us, but I didn’t want to go any further. I did cut things out. There are certain things that I wrote about her that are so gushing with praise and admiration that when I looked at those passages I realised they would be ridiculous to anybody else.’

Did she give you a nudge as well, and say, ‘Take that out!’

PA: ‘No, no. I cut them out before I even showed it to her.’ [Laughs]

‘From “Winter Journal” you strike me as a man who is appreciative of what he has achieved in life. And yet your fiction often contains characters who turn their back on lives of relative security and allow themselves to drift away from society so that they’re living almost posthumous existences. Is this a way of dealing with your worst fears of perhaps losing a comfortable life?’

PA: ‘The fiction is not autobiographical. Maybe to some extent it is, of course. But I feel now, in my impending old age, very lucky. I just can’t tell you how lucky I feel, that I’ve managed to first of all, stay alive this long, in reasonably good health, and that I’ve been able to do what I want to do. And this is very rare for anyone in life to pursue something and that thing being the thing you actually most want to do. It’s all about the inner, rather than the outer. Whether people like or don’t like my work, read it or don’t read it, it’s just been a gift from the gods that I’ve been able to sit at my desk for the last almost 50 years and do the things I’ve wanted to do. And I’ve been very lucky in this second marriage. It’s just luck. It’s absolute luck. And I can only marvel at it. So many other things could have happened that didn’t, so overall I feel blessed.’

‘Winter Journal’ by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber at £17.99.Buy here.