Paul Auster is the gifted author of the classic memoir The Invention of Solitude, popular novels ranging from The New York Trilogy to Sunset Park, and the screenplays for the films Smoke and Blue in the Face, not to mention forays into poetry, translations, essays and anything else that strikes a chord with the Brooklyn-based writer.
Browse more of the best memoirs of 2012.
In his latest, Winter Journal, the 65-year-old storyteller points his intellectual curiosity squarely at himself, as he courageously captures the feelings, sensations and experiences that have marked him, body and mind. (Ed note: This interview first appeared in our BEA issue.)
So, on a snowy January day in 2011, you started writing…what?
That’s exactly right—what? I was never sure quite what it was that I was writing. The only way I described it to myself as I was working on the project was, “This is a history of my body.” But of course, there are other things in the book as well.
I do think my motive really was to describe the sensation side of life rather than the mental side. Even though there is a lot of autobiographical material—especially in that long section which details every place I’ve ever lived in and every permanent address I’ve ever had—I justified it by saying, well, these were the places that sheltered my body from the outside, which is a legitimate subject.
Many of your books have been relationship based. How would you characterize Winter Journal?
Well, I have written other autobiographical works in the past. In fact, my first prose book was an autobiographical work, The Invention of Solitude. Then there was “Hand to Mouth,” which was a story mostly about my younger days and is about my relationship with money, or not having money. There’s also the little book, True Stories, which includes pieces like “The Red Notebook.” So I think of this as the fourth panel in some kind of self-portrait that I’ve been writing over the years.
The book has a very unusual voice. It reads as if you’re in conversation with all these iterations of your younger self.
The book wouldn’t have been possible to write if I hadn’t done it in the second person. It’s been done—I certainly didn’t invent this approach—but it’s rarely done, and it can be dangerous. The “I” here, writing in the first person, would have been too hermetic, too egocentric. And to write about myself in the third person, which I have done, would have been too distant for such an intimate subject. So it seemed that the “you” was the perfect medium to express what I was trying to say, because in a way, I’m talking to myself. I’m looking at myself from the outside, but in a very intimate way.
It also strikes me that the “you” unbalances the reader a bit. It makes a reader feel that he is being addressed in some way. I think part of what I wanted to express in this book is that fundamentally we’re all the same. It’s not that all our experiences are the same, but we all share many of the same experiences because we all have bodies and our bodies tend to do rather similar things. The “you” made it more universal, I feel.
What’s the most important thing you wanted to portray about yourself?
It’s all so mystifying. I think basically, what I’m trying to do, is to establish some kind of common humanity. With this particular book, the idea was just to throw myself out there so that people might see their own lives reflected in mine when I talk about myself.
You’ve expressed some concern about the state of book culture, but you’re also a positive advocate for the survival of the book. How do you feel about the state of things at the moment?
It’s always in flux, maybe more so now than ever. We really have entered a new age, but I don’t know if it’s as dire as people think it is. There’s a certain air of panic in the halls of the publishing companies these days because of e-books, but I think it’s going to settle down eventually. E-books will serve a purpose and will become a certain percentage of the books people buy, but they won’t take over. As someone pointed out, just because the television was invented, it didn’t mean the radio stopped being listened to.
I don’t think paper books are going to vanish. We must not let them vanish either. If in 20 or 50 years, everything is digital, the potential for mischief is enormous: hacking into texts, changing texts, eliminating texts. One can imagine some maniac breaking in and deleting all of Western literature in minutes.
You mentioned at a recent event in Barcelona that you’ve been following the Occupy movement in New York, and how important it is to listen to the voice of young people.
Well, the book is about aging, yes, but it’s also about being young, and all the other phases of my life. We need to listen to young people. One would be crazy not to listen to the voices of young people. They’re the future, and they will have to carry on the work of keeping the world alive after we’re gone, so I’m very interested in what they have to say.
It would seem you pay a lot of attention to your own neighborhood as well, having lived in Brooklyn for more than 30 years.
I’m not going to say that Brooklyn is paradise or the ideal place to live, but it seems to suit me. I enjoy it here, for all its flaws and difficulties. It’s not as oppressive as Manhattan. There’s more sky to look at, more air to breathe. I like living in a neighborhood, which is something like a small town. Brooklyn is also filled with interesting people, and it lends a texture to life that I enjoy.
Clayton Moore is a writer and a photographer based in Boulder, Colo. His work can be found at claywriting.blogspot.com.