Since his debut in 1982, Paul Auster has consistently produced some of the most original work of any American novelist, while defiantly resisting categorization. Beginning with the New York Trilogy in 1987, Auster’s books have deftly blended the high-minded concerns and structural playfulness of postmodern literature with the gritty naturalism and complex characters of genre fiction. By bringing such ideas as intertextuality, disconnection and metafiction into the realm of the detective story, the caper novel, and the literary memoir, Auster has created a distinctive identity as a writer. His latest novel, Sunset Park, follows a group of four people living in a crude Brooklyn squat as they attempt to make sense of their shattered lives by sorting through the relics of the past. Auster, also a filmmaker who wrote and directed Smoke and Blue In The Face, recently spoke to The A.V. Club about the book, the influence of the past, and how his books have mirrored New York’s development.
The A.V. Club: Your career began with depictions of New York in the New York Trilogy, and you’ve continued to focus on the city up to the present. How has New York changed since you first started writing, and how is that reflected in your work?
Paul Auster: That’s a very interesting question. New York, in the many years I’ve been living here—the many decades—has undergone a revolution. I moved here in 1965; I was 18 years old and a freshman at Columbia, and New York was a dangerous place then. Rough and dirty. And it got worse—as it went through the ’60s and into the ’70s, heroin was all over the city, and there was crime on just about every corner. Then New York went through its terrible financial crisis—I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, I’m sure—and by 1975, the city was bankrupt. Those are the memories that informed City Of Glass and some of the other stories in the New York Trilogy, the terrible homelessness problem that started in the ’70s. And then when Reagan was elected, and federal funding for poor people was cut drastically, huge numbers of homeless people were on the streets. Then, bit by bit by bit, for reasons that are still mysterious to me, New York seemed to improve. It sort of became safer, and there was the enormous wave of what people call urban gentrification—so-called urban planners going into downtrodden neighborhoods, buying up beautiful old houses cheaply, refurbishing them, and turning once-blighted neighborhoods into livable places again. New York seems to be in an upswing now; perhaps it’s leveled off because of the economic crisis, but you’re not looking at anything as cataclysmic as the ’70s and early ’80s.
I think New York has evolved in my work just the way the city has. But in this new book, Sunset Park—which is a real neighborhood, as you know—it is a sort of downtrodden place. It is not a beautiful part of Brooklyn. There are a lot of poor, struggling people. The architecture’s fairly ugly; it has a whole industrial zone near the water. There are a lot of things that make it unattractive. And it seemed to me that this was the kind of neighborhood where young people, such as the characters in my book, would be able to find a spot. The house that I describe in the book is actually a real place that I found. It was on 34th Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenues, near Green-Wood Cemetery, just as I described in the book, but I didn’t want to give the exact address. I took some photographs of the house from the outside—it was boarded up and unoccupied—and I imagined my characters in there. I used the photos to help me with the description of the house so it would be very accurate. And now, believe it or not, as of two or three months ago, the house has been demolished! I was there about a month ago doing an NPR interview, and you know how they like to go on site, so they said “Let’s go to Sunset Park.” We went to the spot, and now it’s a vacant lot. All that’s left is the photos, just as, in the book, all that Miles has left of the houses he’s trashing out in Florida are photos. It’s a kind of infinite regress.
AVC: You mentioned the economic crisis, and the angst and uncertainty about the economic climate is a major part of the book. Did you start writing Sunset Park as a direct reaction to the downturn in 2008?
PA: No! Ironically enough, I’d been walking around with this idea in my head for a couple of years before that. And it was very abstract, at first. The word I kept using to describe it was dispossession. I imagined someone being kicked out of the place where they lived, thrown out into the street and having to cope without really any resources. And as this story began to take shape in my head, the economy started to crash. And I looked around me, and I said “My God, it’s not just this imaginary character in my head that’s in this spot, it’s millions of people around the country.” And so the two things came together.
AVC: Some of the most vivid images in the book involve Miles trashing repossessed houses in Florida, sorting through all the things people are forced to leave behind. What kind of research did you do to learn about that process?
PA: If you really want to open your heart up to this stuff, it’s pretty wrenching, isn’t it? There were some articles that I read, just a few, but if you have any imagination, it’s not hard to figure out what it must be like. Once you can thrust yourself into that situation, it wasn’t hard for me to find it real.
AVC: One of the big themes in Sunset Park, with Miles and his photos, Bing’s Hospital Of Broken Things, and Alice’s research into the post-war era, is people trying to make sense of the present by referring to the past. Do you try to strike a balance between remembering the desirable qualities of the past and knee-jerk nostalgia?
PA: Oh, yes. This is a very dangerous position to take. Every generation always thinks it was better before, and I think people have been saying this for probably thousands of years. The fact is, life is life, you know, and it’s always a mess. There are, of course, better periods than others, and miserable as we feel the world is right now, you can’t really compare it to, say, what the world felt like during World War II. Millions of people were being slaughtered all over the world, and no, we’re not currently in that kind of disastrous time. But there’s something ridiculous about today, I find. We’re creating all these problems for ourselves, and it seems to me that solutions are there. I think we know what we have to do, but there doesn’t seem to be the public will to do it. We’re embroiled in this ugly politics that’s been going on since Obama took office; you see the country marching backward, and it’s a very frustrating thing to witness.
AVC: The whole idea of a public consensus almost seems quaint.
PA: I know! We don’t do anything anymore. In the early 20th century, before the trains, we were building all these canals in upstate New York. There were major transportation upgrades that increased the wealth of the country substantially. We built the railroads, and we built the highways, but we can’t build anything now. Our bridges are falling apart, and we try to fix them, but that’s about it. Bing, in Sunset Park, is the character that articulates these positions, and there is something ridiculous about him. There is a comic side to his intensity, his ferocity against the status quo—touching, in one way, but also pig-headed.
AVC: It plays into the whole theme in your books that while society can have a ruinous effect on people, the need to be a part of society can also be their salvation. Is that a contradiction you consciously explore?
PA: Not consciously, but now that you’ve articulated it… thank you, because I’ve never really thought about it in those terms. But that’s a very good way of putting it. As Bing says—somewhat simplistically, but it’s hard to deny the truth of it—we all have bodies. We all die, we all get sick, we all feel hunger and lust and pain, and therefore human life is consistent from one generation to the other. We all—most of us, anyway—want connections with other people, and spend our lives looking for them. You think of someone like poor [Sunset Park character] Ellen, who is so isolated and so longing for human contact that she’s nearly going insane because of it. That’s something that many people feel when they’re alone.
AVC: Stylistically, Sunset Park is a bit of a departure for you. How did that come about?
PA: It’s very organic. It’s very mysterious. I’ve always found that the so-called content always determines the form. Each book I’ve done somehow finds its own unique form, a specific way it has to be written, and once I find it, I stick with it. But I don’t ever know in advance. This book, I can tell you, was a departure in several ways. It’s the first time I’ve structured a book with multiple points of view. I did some of that in Invisible, but it’s much more conscious here, the bouncing around from character to character. Not that that’s anything original. Novelists have been doing it for hundreds of years, but I myself had never done it.
AVC: Was it more difficult to write that way?
PA: Not at all. I found it very engaging and invigorating. I enjoyed it a great deal. It was as if every chapter was an act in a play. Then there’s the question of the sentences—there’s some very long run-on sentences in the book that go on for sometimes three pages or more. It seemed right to me, because that kind of sentence has a kind of propulsiveness, and since most of the book is taking place in the heads of the characters, it contributes to the stream-of-consciousness feeling that somehow brought me closer to their thought processes. The last thing is that what I was thinking about as I was writing the book, and as it developed, was houses and homes—houses as physical structures where people live, and homes as in family. That’s what became clear to me once I realized what I was doing, and I think the book oscillates between those two ideas.
AVC: Your last few novels have been concerned with younger people, and you’ve said you’re moving past the “old man” stage of your writing. Was that deliberate?
PA: I’ve just sort of mutated into this new interest. With Invisible, I was inspired by the fact that we were celebrating the 40th anniversary of so many momentous things that happened in 1967 and 1968, and I started thinking about those days when I was a young person, and it was something I really wanted to explore. And when I finished Invisible, I found I still wanted to write about young people, but the young people of today—what it’s like for them, all the problems facing these educated people who come from middle-class backgrounds, but they’re all struggling in one way or another. There’s no good jobs, not much money, and very little prospects for them. It’s tough to be in your 20s today.
AVC: How do you stay connected with young people today?
PA: Well, I have a 23-year-old daughter, and I meet a lot of young people. I’m always interested to hear what they have to tell me, and watch how they behave. It’s a very fun generation. I like these kids a lot. But they’re facing things so different from what we lived through 40 years before. I’ve started a new book, and again I’m writing about abut a young person, someone in his mid-20s this time—I’m very interested in that perspective. So maybe it’s a new cycle of work for me, I don’t know. But again, in Invisible, we see Walker old as well as young. Even in Sunset Park, there’s the other generation, Willa Heller and Mary-Lee, Miles’ mother and stepmother, and even going back to the grandparents, the World War II generation, to provide perspective on the present as well. So it’s not just about young people, though I suppose that the primary focus is on them.
AVC: Do you have any plans to return to directing films or screenwriting?
PA: No plans, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to do it again someday. I just don’t have any projects in mind. I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed working in film, the pleasure it’s given me the times I’ve been involved in it. But as I’m sure you know, it’s awful right now. There’s not a lot of money out there for making small independent films. Distribution is in a terrible crisis, and it’s hard to get projects off the ground. The last film I made, The Inner Life Of Martin Frost, was made for under a million dollars. We shot it in Portugal. We had only four actors and a tiny, tiny crew. It was released here by New Yorker Films, and played in only one theater: the IFC Center in Manhattan. Then the DVD came out, and that was it! About a year and a half of work for a DVD. It’s a little frustrating. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to go back through it all one day.
AVC: You’ve talked about how you don’t read reviews of your work, and there have been times that you’ve disagreed with even supportive readings of your books. Do you generally think critics approach your writing in good faith?
PA: I’m sure they’re bringing their own baggage to the work; everyone does. You can’t ever approach a book as a complete virgin, certainly not if you’re a critic. There is a lot of bad faith out there. That’s why I finally trained myself not to look at this stuff anymore, because it doesn’t do me any good to see myself either praised or attacked. It just doesn’t help me to do the work I’m trying to do. So I feel liberated by not having to ponder all these comments and opinions. Some people are great, and they approach each work with honesty, and that’s wonderful. But when people have built up a sort of resentment or animosity for reasons that are hard to put your finger on, they read in bad faith.
AVC: Do you revisit your earlier work?
PA: I don’t like to look at it, to tell you the truth. The only time I ever pick up an old book of mine is when I find myself writing a sentence that I think I may have written before. Then I try to search my mind for what book I’m stealing from, and I might flip through some pages to find whatever sentence it is. I can’t say it’s very enjoyable. The past really seems past as far as one’s books are concerned. A writer friend of mine who’s very well known, very good—someone I admire tremendously, he’s actually even won the Nobel Prize—said to me “You know, I think of my work as little bags I leave on the road. They fill up, and I just can’t carry them anymore. I leave them, walk on to the next thing, and don’t look back.” I think most writers feel that way.