Paul Auster Interview: How I Became a Writer



one day in late September of 1954 aged seven and a half I had a cold or a flu and I had to stay home from school and the first game in the World Series was broadcast on television that day and I watched it and this was the game in which Willie Mays made the most famous catch in the history of the sport running running running running hundreds of feet to catch a ball over his shoulder with his back to the to the field a magnificent catch so he became a hero for me because I thought I had never seen anything more spectacular than that catch so the following spring the next season 55 my parents had friends who had season tickets to the Giants games which were played in a place called Polo Grounds which again no longer exists it's been demolished it's only a memory now so we went to a game as a night game we sat in the box seats and after the game as we were leaving the stadium there was really Mays standing in his street clothes already and I remember feeling he was 24 years old just think 24 and I itemid Lee went up to him and said mr. Mays may I please have your autograph and he said sure kid sure got a pencil and I didn't have a pencil my father didn't have a pencil my mother didn't have a pencil their friends didn't have pencils and no one had a pen and then willie Mae said sorry kid ain't got no pencil can't give no autograph and then he left and I was really very upset I have to say shaken I'm so disappointed so disappointed that I actually cried in the car so stupid response but it's a big big moment for me after that day I always made sure to walk around with a pencil in my pocket or a 10 because I didn't want to be caught unprepared again and then I concluded as I like to tell my children that's why I became a writer I asked whoever is listening to this voice to forget the words it is speaking it is important that no one listened too carefully I want these words to vanish so to speak into the silence they came from and for nothing to remain but a memory of their presence a token of the fact that they're ones here and are here no longer that during their brief life they seemed not so much to be saying any particular thing as to be the thing that was happening at the same time a certain body was moving in a certain space that they moved along with everything else had moved you know all through my youth and you know into my 20s I was trying to write novels then and I must have written 1,000 pages 1,500 pages of aborted novels things I could never finish piles and piles of manuscripts and this is this was my my apprenticeship this is how I you know I learned how to put sentences together never published any of that stuff some of those ideas later resurfaced in books I published later when I was older and capable of doing it so for name is very slow early on I could write poems because they were short but longer forms were too difficult for me now it's also instinctive I'm barely aware of what I'm doing but at the same time I don't write fast and I've never written fast for me a good day's work and this is eight hours of work a good day's work is if I have one typed page at the end one two pages is great three is a miracle you know it happens maybe four times a year that I can do three pages but if I get the one page done I feel a feel satisfied and so that means generally writing a passage ten or fifteen times going over and over and over 60 the sentences you know trying to hear the rhythm and until until it looks like a piece of music effortless smooth with the energy that I want and that's the work the hard work is in trying to make it look easy sometimes you know I'll make a lot of false starts early in the day I'm starting on a new paragraph because I always end a day's work at the end of the paragraph I'm never in the middle of the paragraph so new and the paragraph for me is the unit of composition for prose in poetry it's the line but in prose it's the paragraphs so each paragraph is like a little works in itself a poem in prose and and so I'm always raking through everything even if I'm writing a long book every once well I'll take a pause and I'll go back and start reading it all over again I call it raking i rake it you know it's like raking leaves you want to get all the leaves off the lawn you want it to look perfect and and so sometimes it takes months before you realize oh that sentence is not a good sentence I have to I have to fix it the other thing is I get up from my chair a lot during the day and I walk around the room and I find that the moving helps generate thoughts and words because there is this kind of music inside the body that is language and by just moving around new things come to me that don't come to me when I'm sitting you know there's that beautiful beautiful essay by the Russian poet us of mother stump it's called conversation about Dante and he talks about Dante's poetry and the rhythms of it being very close to what it feels like to walk like a human gait and then he asked the most beautiful question the question that only a poet can ask he said I wonder how many pairs of sandals Dante wore out while writing the Divine Comedy beautiful now well I'm wearing out lots of shoes too walking around trying to find the rhythms of the work that I'm hoping to do to say the simplest thing possible to go no farther than whatever it is I happen to find before me to begin with a landscape for example or even to note the things that are most near as if in the tiny world before my eyes I might find an image of the life that exists beyond me as if in a way I do not fully understand each thing in my life were connected to every other thing which in turn connected me to the world at large the endless world that looms up in the mind as lethal and unknowable as desire itself see when I was younger I wanted to make beautiful things and then as I got older and more experienced in this and I said that's not when it's about the the essence of being an artist is to confront the thing you're trying to do to tackle it head-on and if it wrestling with these things you managed to make something that's good well it will have its own beauty but it's not a kind of beauty that you can predict you know it's nothing you can strive for what you have to strive for is to engage with your material as deeply as you can even you know funny even if you're trying to be funny you have to you have to engage with it as deeply as you can also and so and I think this is why or this is how I think I justified to myself how I've spent my life which is a very wait strange way to live you know alone in a room every day putting words on pieces of paper Wow I mean a lot of other things I can think that would be more amusing to do and more meaningful to the world but the thing about doing this which is unlike any other job is that you have to give maximum effort all the time you can't slack off you have to give every ounce of your being to what you're doing and I don't think there are many jobs that require that you see lazy lawyers lazy doctors lazy judges they can get through things even see lazy athletes huh just are not making maximum effort all the time but you can't be a writer or a painter or a musician unless you make maximum effort so I can get up from a day's work and I've done nothing that's crossed out every since I've written crumpled up pieces of paper thrown them into the garbage can and I have nothing to show for it but I can at least stand up and say at the end of the day I gave it everything I had I tried 100 percent and there's something satisfying about that just trying as hard as you can to do something I remain in the room in which I am writing this I put one foot in front of the other I put one word in front of the other for each step I take I add another word as if for each word to be spoken there were another space to be crossed a distance to be filled by my body as it moves through this space it is a journey through space even if I get nowhere even if I end up in the same place I started it is a journey through space exist into many cities and out of them as if across deserts as if to the edge of some imaginary ocean where each thought drowns in the relentless waves of the real as I said in one book one of my novels stories happened to the people who are able to tell them and and I think this is true a lot of people just blender through and they not noticing things but if you're noticing things then you might you might notice something that's very interesting or unusual but you have to keep your eyes open and that's the job of a writer to keep his eyes open there are people who are not sensitive to language people who aren't you know interested in poetry for example which I still am deeply and they read novels than the way they read newspapers for the story and the information and they're not really listening to the sentence a lot of people like that but these are not you know I'm saying I'm sure they enjoy reading but they're not getting the ultimate pleasure that one can find in books which is in the style which is all about music tone and rhythm and and I believe that if you're very sensitive reader the the music is also carrying meanings and it's very hard to articulate what those meanings are but they're important they're important and the more attuned to those things reader is the more he's going to get out of the book which is why every reader reads a different book from every other reader you come to that that volume and you have your life's and your knowledge and your past and your experiences and your point of view about everything and you're going to read it in one way and somebody else will read it another way and and I I'm interested too in books that have some holes in them some blanks and spaces for the reader to breathe in where the reader is is forced to be an active participant and fill in blanks himself there's some very good writers who I think write too much they overwrite there are too many words in their books and descriptions of things for example which is a big a big question you know how much detail do you want to put in about a person walks into a room you want to describe what's in the room or not is it important to describe it's in the room so there are some writers who tell you every piece of furniture in that room and after a while you're choking you're suffocating you just you know you feel that here you're just drowning in words and nothing much of any importance is happening even if it's very beautifully written so I try to keep things I mean as lean as I can I want to take out as much as I can rather than put a lot of things in the more I can take out a happier I am and whenever I get bogged down sometimes and I can get I can overwrite myself at times get too complicated and I have to step back and I have this phrase that I tell myself swift and lean swift and lean and I just try to remember that swift and lean so you're just feeling that you're propelling yourself through the book as a reader but there's a writer to that every word counts every every comma is important so that you know there's not a moment where you're not completely absorbed as a reader that's the kind of book I want to write a few years ago let's see seven years ago almost eight years ago Siri and I went to Key West Florida in the winter for a writers festival and one of the writers there was a woman named Amy Tam I don't know if you know who this is she's an American writer of Chinese descent this had a big succession is a very popular novelist in America well it turns out that amy has friends who live right next door to Willie Mays yeah so in after tonight of seven says gum and she called the bomb it said go out to a bookstore by Paul's book and then ring Willie Mae's his door and go in and read him the story and so they did it and really sat there you know he was in his late 70s then and apparently I mean this is all second or third hand was Amy who told me this but she said that her friends told her that Willie May sat there with tears in his eyes and he just kept saying 52 years 52 years 52 years and then he he took out a baseball and he autographed it for me gave it to his friends who gave it to Amy and she invited me over to the house and she presented me with his baseball and by Willie Mays 52 years after the thing that happened when I didn't get his autograph now of course I didn't care about this anymore but I was so moved by the story that the thing should come around full circle and that Willie Mays himself should have been so moved by the story it's fantastic so I guess sometimes you have to wait a long time before storage find their endings but this one had an ending and for once it was a happy ending you

21 thoughts on “Paul Auster Interview: How I Became a Writer

  1. this man has a very interesting though process towards writing. im fascinated by how writers think and work on their craft and the art of working with words and story telling. I think you can heal yourself with writing sometimes.

  2. Willie Mays was my hero, too, and it took a trip to the SF airport (long before all of the security, when one could go to any gate to see people off or greet people arriving) late in May's career to get his autograph because it was too hard to get to him after home games, even if you waited a couple of hours. I like Paul's fiction, and this interview is excellent wisdom for artists and writers. I love the idea that artists of any kind must 'confront' their subject and allow the 'beauty' of that to emerge instead of imposing beauty through a verbose, descriptive style. This can apply to any art.

  3. I'm 27 . I dont know what I want to be. Never had anyone to ask me that. I'm thinking of learning to write cuz I'm a daydreamer. Idk. Amazing interview!

  4. His tone and rhythm of speech in delivering this childhood scene is just as artful as written prose. So masterful. “You got no pencil; can,t give no autograph. Sorry kid”. Reality was definitely more raw and unfiltered in the very recent past. We had no choice but to face “harshness” in real time, and from that, you grew up fast. A lot of fret, wincing, and hope goes along in delivering lessons to youth today. Now, if I could come up with the ultimate lesson to force my 31 year old son to pack up and move out of my basement without triggering him 😉

  5. I can't agree more on what he said about after writing a number of pages, to look back and read it all over again in order to perfect it, correcting or modifying it for a better version of it. This is what I do in my writing work.

  6. Auster's writing and voice are as placid as lake waves. Try reading his work when you're high. Seriously, reading Auster or Capote's shorts while high is a helluva pleasure.

  7. I'm heart broken cause no one had a god damn pencil for an autograph for the kid. Serious it's one of the saddest stories I've ever heard.

    I just got to the part where he got the signed baseball 52 years later happy ending.

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