Writers should never talk to journalists," says a character in Paul Auster's latest novel, Sunset Park. This is discouraging — I am reading this on my way to interview Auster. "The interview," continues the character, "is a debased literary form that serves no purpose except to simplify that which should never be simplified."
This is going to be fun. As I walk towards his house, a large brownstone on a quiet tree-lined street in Brooklyn, New York, I am disconcerted to see Auster watching me from the window, stone-faced. But Auster could not have been more welcoming as I arrive with my luggage, having not had time to stop at the hotel first. "You look like you've come to stay," he says, coming out to help me. "You're most welcome to."
Auster, 63, settles into a khaki-coloured velvet chair in the living room, full of gleaming woodwork. He lives here with his second wife, the novelist Siri Hustvedt. Daughter Sophie, a 23 year-old actress and singer, lives nearby in Manhattan. As Auster lights the first of many Petit cigarillos, I ask him why he bothers with interviews at all. "Listen," he says intently, "I have a certain loyalty to my publishers and I don't want to be a stinker. I want to be a good sport, so occasionally I'll do something."
Depending on who you listen to, Auster is either the greatest novelist of his generation or so experimental and obscure that he is unreadable. "We all take our knocks," he sighs. "Over the years, [I] had the most vicious attacks and the most extravagant praise." For years I was put off reading his "difficult" books and was surprised to find they really are not. Sunset Park is set in Brooklyn, the turf he knows best. It follows a conventional story arc about a young man haunted by his conscience, who flees his family and reinvents himself by cleaning out repossessed homes. Of course, this is Auster, so nothing turns out as you expect, but it is a compelling tale.
I ask if he minds when people say his books are incomprehensible. "No, it doesn't bother me," he says. "My books are about the real world, I'm not writing escapist fantasies. Listen," he says, a word he uses repeatedly, giving what he says a sense of urgency, "what I strive for is lucidity in every sentence."
Why did he become a writer? "That is perhaps the question," Auster says. "Listen: I think writing comes out of a certain sense of loneliness." But doesn't writing just exacerbate that sense? "No, I always felt exuberant when I was doing it. I started writing dreadful poems when I was about 9 or 10 and graduated to short stories at about 11 or 12." He grew up in South Orange, New Jersey. His father was a furniture salesman, then a property speculator. There were few books in the house until his uncle, a translator, left his library with the Austers when he went overseas. "When I was 13, I was knocked out by Catcher in the Rye." But the real "thunderbolt" came when he read Crime and Punishment. "That book undid me. I remember thinking: ‘If that's what a novel is, that's what I want to do'." He went to Columbia University, then started work on an oil tanker. "I wanted to have an adventure. I had a BA and an MA, and I wanted to do something different." At the age of 23, he moved to France to make his living as a writer. "It was a hand-to-mouth existence," Auster says. "When I got back from Paris, I was 27 and had just $9: I'd published one book of poetry, maybe one or two books of translation. I thought about becoming a professor but in the end, I just continued writing."
His breakthrough novels were The New York Trilogy, three loosely connected detective stories in which he explores identity and language. Later novels established him as an unconventional voice and he became especially popular in Europe, winning the Prix France Culture de Litterature Etrangere and the Principe de Asturias award in Spain. In the United States, Auster is less revered. "My stories are impregnated with American history, American literature. But people care little about books, there's no book culture here. What I'm doing is too marginal for American taste. I never say to myself: ‘I want to write a book about the economic crisis in America or about the institution of marriage.' I don't even know what I do, I just write what I write. There is this tremendous drive to communicate: You want to get inside the reader's skin and mind and heart, and open their eyes to things they maybe hadn't thought about before."
More than anything else, Auster's novels are characterised by chance and coincidence. When he was 14, Auster saw a boy killed by lightning while on a hike at summer camp. "It was an experience that probably formed my view of the world more than anything else that has ever happened to me," he says. Recounting the story, it is as though he has returned to the horror of the moment. "If you see that when you are 14, you begin to sense that the world is a lot less stable than you thought it was. You go into work one day and an aeroplane flies into the building and you're incinerated."
Does his constant awareness of such mutability make life difficult to live? "Listen, it's not as if I walk around looking for these things. It's just that so much is beyond our control. Meeting Siri was a fluke, just an accident, and now we've been living together for 30 years." They met at a poetry reading in New York. "If one of us hadn't shown up," Auster says, "we would never have met — we had that one chance."