Paul Auster is one of the pre-eminent American novelists of the past 30 years, enjoying critical acclaim and bestseller status with books such as The New York Trilogy, Moon Palace and Leviathan. His are novels that weave a cunning spell somewhere between surrealism, genre fiction and that tricksy white whale, the Great American Novel.
His protagonists have tended towards intense young men on an existential search for their soul, grappling with the postmodern world in which their author has placed them. His latest novel, 4321, is his longest and most ambitious yet, telling the story of the same aesthetically astute boy, Archie Ferguson, four times as he takes four separate paths through love, loss and the United States of America to adulthood.
Monocle: 4321 is a big novel that must have swallowed your time. Do you miss the writing of a book once it’s done?
Paul Auster: Yes and no; this exhausted me in ways that no other book has. I wrote it with such an intense focus and this was on a bigger scale than anything I’ve done before. I’d finish the day’s work and feel that I’d run a marathon. I’d fling myself on the sofa and watch a baseball game or an old movie and just recover from the day’s running. But there was a thrill in writing this book.
M: Did it turn out as you planned?
PA: Well, it was largely improvised. I didn’t have a big plan. There was an enormous sense of adventure. You need an openness of mind and spirit to write that way but I feel happiest like that. I started this book when I was 66 [Auster turned 70 on 3 February]. My father dropped dead suddenly at the age of 66. There’s a strange feeling that comes over you when you realise you’ve lived longer than your father and I suddenly had a sense of urgency to finish the book. I mean, that is literally a deadline.
M: What are your habits and routines when you’re writing?
PA: I write longhand and then I type it up. Eight big notebooks. This time I didn’t accept any invitations or go on trips; I went downstairs to the basement every day and wrote the book. More often it was seven days a week.
M: How do you know when a book is finished?
PA: This is a book about childhood and adolescence that turns into early manhood and not everyone survives. So I knew that if I took these lives further I would be writing a different book. But knowing when the story is finished is another instinctive thing.
M: There are sections about Vietnam and student protests at Columbia University in the book in the late 1960s; are we hearing echoes of that now?
PA: When I started writing this the idea of Trump was far away. It’s remarkable to see how little has changed in American life in the past 50 years. The essential conflicts in the American soul are still there: racism, left against right, wars, abortion rights. Iraq is maybe the new Vietnam: a grotesquely stupid thing to do that’s unleashed a world of pain for so many people. It’s an historical novel but it feels as if it’s all about today.
M: How do you know what’s a story and what isn’t?
PA: I’ve been doing this for so long now that it’s in my body. I’m not consciously thinking about it; I know when it’s right and I know when it’s wrong. I ponder things less than I used to and I write differently than I used to. My sentences have changed – these whirling run-ons that could go on for a page or two. I think it gives a great sense of propulsion; they’re thrilling to write. I feel like I’m dancing.
M: Does 4321 have an origin?
PA: I think it comes from when I was 14, away at camp, hiking through the woods with 15 or 20 other boys and we got stuck in a very powerful electrical storm. Lightning hit the barbed-wire fence we were climbing through to get to a clearing and the boy in front of me was electrocuted; killed on the spot. I didn’t know he was dead. I dragged him into the meadow, rubbing his hands and holding his tongue so he wouldn’t swallow it. Everything changed. I realised that anything can happen at any moment and life is so fragile. I think I’ve been meditating on that all my life.
M: It’s all about chance then?
PA: You’d have to be blind to deny the force of chance in human life. But at the same time it’s not the only force: we have the ability to make decisions, have plans, goals, desires. It’s just that as you set out a tree might fall on the road in front of you so you have to get off the road and head into the woods. But then maybe something will happen to you in the woods that’ll be… interesting.
M: And how do you plan a book? Do you storyboard it like a movie?
PA: When I’m doing the right thing the writing is good and it’s swift and it sounds good; the music is right so it doesn’t need a plan. I have it all in my head. Most of my novels have chapters and within those chapters I’ll make a list in my notebook – “goes to Pittsburgh”, “falls down”, “eats snails” – little signposts for what I want to put in the chapter. A lot of it gets eliminated. Some novelists write 50-page outlines of their books – not me!
M: As you write, are you describing images in your head?
PA: Oh yes, they’re images – I see it all very clearly. I need to ground myself in a space. So if two people are talking in a living room, even if I don’t describe the furniture in the passage, I know where all the sofas and chairs and tables are. In the brain, imagination and memory are the same thing, in the same place; dual functions of the same mental process really. Siri [Hustvedt, Auster’s wife and fellow writer] came up with a phrase for what novels are: “Remembering things that have never happened.” Isn’t that beautiful?
M: What do you ask other writers? Do you presume you know how they work?
PA: It’s funny, the only person I’ve ever really talked about it with is John Coetzee [the South African novelist JM Coetzee]. He goes very slowly, painstakingly forward, the same way I write – the first word first and then the next sentence. But then John said an interesting thing: that he imagines his work as him walking down a road and when the work is done it’s in a suitcase and he just puts the suitcase on the road and leaves it there and walks on. I like that; the suitcase is just there for other people to take.
M: And how do you feel now the book’s done and you’re talking about it?
PA: I don’t want to be melodramatic but this is the book of my life. I’ve been gearing up for this since the day I started writing. I hesitate to make claims for myself but I often feel a little sad when I finish a book but this time I felt exultant. When I wrote the last few lines, my head was spinning.
M: And as you travel the world to talk about the book, does it feel more real or less so?
PA: The more time that goes by the less the book belongs to me. It’s getting separated from me now and once it’s out it’ll really not be mine anymore. There’s no grieving; it’s just the process. I feel like my third Archie in “4321”: when he finishes his book he feels so empty. When you have a child the beautiful thing is that it keeps changing. But writing? It’s not like having a baby.
‘4321’ is published by Faber & Faber