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Interview with Paul Auster

By I. B. Siegumfeldt and François Hugonnier, Brooklyn, 14th November 2019
Interview de Paul Auster par I. B Siegumfeldt et François Hugonnier,
Brooklyn, 14 novembre 2019
I. B. Siegumfeldt, François Hugonnier et Paul Auster

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1Paul Auster kindly agreed to comment on some of the perspectives offered in the essays included in the issue of LISA e-journal during an interview conducted by I. B. Siegumfeldt and François Hugonnier at his home in Brooklyn on 14th November 2019.

I. B. SIEGUMFELDT: When you had finished 4 3 2 1, you said to me that you felt freer writing this massive narrative than ever before, that you had liberated yourself from a certain type of sentence and turned to another type, or a multiplicity of sentences.

PAUL AUSTER: It started earlier, with Invisible. There are moments in that book when the sentences suddenly open up and become longer, much longer than anything I had done in the past. The language took on a new sort of propulsiveness, I felt, as if the swirl of the prose was simulating the motion of a dance, or of a dancer turning and turning around like a corkscrew in space, but moving at the same time, moving in one direction or another. This continued through Sunset Park and on through the two autobiographical books as well. Those four books led up to 4 3 2 1, and when I started in on the monster I felt prepared to go on dancing for as long as I had to.

  • 1 Paul Auster, The Book of Illusions, New York: Henry Holt, 2002, 29.
  • 2 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, New York: Henry Holt, 2017, 455.

I. B. SIEGUMFELDT: The image of dance is a recurrent, if ever changing topos in your work – from the ‘dancing thread of discombobulation’ of Hector Mann’s mustache1 to the ‘loony dance of the dizzy-boys […] in their doppelganger duet.’2

PAUL AUSTER: It goes back to “White Spaces”, I think, which was inspired by watching the rehearsal of a dance piece. The music, the rhythms, the cadences – which are all slightly different things – go into creating meaning. Dance is physical, but speaking is a physical act as well, and writing is a form of silent speaking.

  • 3 Ibid., 455.

I. B. SIEGUMFELDT: Correlations of rhythm and meaning often set the tone in 4 3 2 1. Here’s one of my favorite passages: “He wanted to disturb and disorient, to make people roar with laughter and tremble in their boots, to break hearts and damage minds and dance the loony dance of the dizzy-boys as they swung into their doppelganger duet.”3

PAUL AUSTER: These are the thoughts of a crazy, ambitious young boy, his aspirations as a young writer. Here it’s marked by the repeated consonants – all those d-s: “damaged minds, dance, dizzy boys, doppelganger duet”. Of course, English poetry didn’t rhyme in the beginning. The organizing principle was alliteration and a kind of pounding, inexorable rhythm. Something about the English language lends itself to this sort of approach.

I. B. SIEGUMFELDT: In her essay for the present volume, Deshmukh argues that4 3 2 1, invites the reader to recite the text, to experience it acoustically and therefore musically.” She points out that the “memory of Ferguson’s games is revived through the return of the background sounds—the music of the basketball games—which in the text are the transcribed sounds of the cheers, rendered in all their musicality, their regularity and rhythm. Sounds, noise and music become storytelling devices in the text: the texture of reality is rendered through them.”

PAUL AUSTER: Sound opens the history and emotional landscape of the character. There is no way to objectify this or to set down norms about what is good or bad writing. It’s a matter of intuition and feel, and this is what art is about, after all. Henry James said something like “there is no meaning without emotion”. Once you’re in the world of emotions, you can’t quantify it. Because what moves me is not necessarily what is going to move you.

FRANÇOIS HUGONNIER: It might also have to do with your work as a poet. You could still be considered as a poet today. I do think of your prose as the writing of a poet.

PAUL AUSTER: I do too. I really don’t think of myself as a novelist but as a story-teller and a poet. While working on Winter Journal, I was consciously trying to write a piece of music, what I would call an improvised fugue in words.

FRANÇOIS HUGONNIER: You’ve continued to weave poetry into your stories and some of your recent translations appear in Invisible and 4 3 2 1, but have you been writing poems since the publication of your early collections in the 1970s?

PAUL AUSTER: From time to time, I’ve jotted down little notations for poems, but I haven’t really pursued them. After I finished 4 3 2 1, I toyed with the idea of writing a long discursive poem about America. I think I wrote about eight or ten pages, no more than that. The first piece wasn’t bad, but the later ones started to sound a bit didactic, and I lost heart. I doubt I’ll ever go back to it.

  • 4 Nicolas Richaud (with Paul Auster, François Hugonnier, Marie Thévenon, Sophie Vallas), “Paul Auster (...)

FRANÇOIS HUGONNIER: It echoes the American tradition of the long poem, doesn’t it? In a recent interview for the French newspaper Les Echos, you rejected the label of the ‘Great American Novel.’4 I found your response interesting, especially as I had discussed this notion with the journalist beforehand. So, are you part of the American canon, or do you see yourself as an outsider?

PAUL AUSTER: When I’m interviewed by people from newspapers and magazines, I often find myself wanting to shake things up a bit. The journalist says X, and I immediately want to say W. In general, though, I shy away from all kinds of labels, all kinds of categories, and the ‘Great American Novel’ is just another meaningless label, a myth. Still, I’m definitely an American writer, consciously American.

I. B. SIEGUMFELDT: Many reviewers have claimed that in 4 3 2 1, you’ve returned to realism. In my essay for the LISA volume, I point out that they fail to take into account the formative combination of self-reflection and the fabular which alerts the attentive reader to the fact that this novel belongs more in the realm of difference and subjectivity than in any traditional mimetic universe. That 4 3 2 1 invents a literary strategy in which ‘myth’ and ‘the everyday’ converge that is not consonant with any particular mode of writing, whether realism or postmodernism.

  • 5 Peter Brook, qtd. by Paul Auster in Paul Auster and I. B. Siegumfeldt, A Life in Words, New York: S (...)

PAUL AUSTER: This brings us back to the unforgettable comment by Peter Brook. “In my work,” he said, “I try to combine to closeness of the everyday with the distance of myth. Because, without the closeness, you can’t be moved, and without the distance, you can’t be amazed.”5 These two sentences capture all my aspirations as a writer – in a nutshell.

I. B. SIEGUMFELDT: And it truly comes to fruition in 4 3 2 1.

PAUL AUSTER: It is what I was aiming for, what I’ve always been aiming for. Mr Vertigo is probably a good example. In many ways, it’s the most outlandish book I’ve ever written, but beside the fact that Walt can levitate, it’s a realistic book. Sort of. A book set in a specific time and place in American history – the Midwest in the 1920s – at least most of it is. I know it’s a tall tale, but the action isn’t set in outer space.

I. B. SIEGUMFELDT: 4 3 2 1 is definitely also set in ‘the real’ America of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Might we argue that 4 3 2 1 is less introverted than most of your work? You’ve always been interested in what goes on inside characters. I’m thinking that there is a new interest in ‘family’ not as something lost and mourned, but as something present, active, formative, vibrant – replete with parents and aunts and uncles and cousins.

PAUL AUSTER: I wanted to broaden my scope in this book. I was probably ready to do it. Early on, my books were more hermetic, but over the years, I’ve pushed the boundaries farther and farther out. Not consciously, of course, but it seems to be part of a natural inner progression.

I. B. SIEGUMFELDT: In her contribution to this volume, Ilana Shiloh suggests that the feel of realism is due to 4 3 2 1’s historical accuracy and the overwhelming profusion of details. She suggests that the reason for the book’s apparent realism is the plausibility of the counterfactual thinking: the “what if”, or the “it could just have been that way” of fiction.

PAUL AUSTER: The leap of imaginative nuttiness – the four parallel stories – constitutes the form of the novel. But within that eccentric form, the narration is quite down to the ground. Early on, I understood something fundamental about writing fiction: if you want to write about fantastical things, a wholly invented world – fantasy fiction, science fiction, whatever you want to call it – you have to write it in a simple way. With a standard, recognizable subject, you can be as wild as you want to be. The Trial as opposed to Ulysses, for example. So, even if the premise of my book is bizarre, the execution is not. If I had remained bizarre in the execution, the book would have been unreadable.

FRANÇOIS HUGONNIER: Would it be fair to say that in the new millennium and in the wake of 9/11, American reality and history, its wars, its unrest, and changing political cultures began to have an impact in your work?

  • 6 Paul Auster (ed.), I thought my Father Was God and Other True Tales from NPR’s National Story Proje (...)

PAUL AUSTER: The first thing I published in the new millennium was the collection from the National Story Project. I did the radio program from the fall of 1999 to the fall of 2000, and the book came out in 2001.6 In fact, the publication date was September 12, 2001. A book tour had been planned to start the next day. I was going to travel around the country with Jacki Lyden from NPR, hosting events where the contributors to the book would stand up and read their stories in public. Needless to say, the trip was postponed. When we finally went out in November, I talked to scores of people from everywhere – mostly about 9/11. Those were important, meaningful exchanges, and I’m glad I was roaming around America then – just then, and at that particular time. I learned a lot from talking to those people.

  • 7 “Authors Paul Auster and Salman Rushdie Reflect on September 11”, All Things Considered, Natl. Publ (...)

FRANÇOIS HUGONNIER: Soon after, on NPR, you said that “some of the best art about a particular time is told obliquely.”7 Is your approach different from Don DeLillo’s? How does 9/11 translate from communal experience and testimony to fiction?

PAUL AUSTER: Do you remember the section in Don’s Falling Man called “Bill Lawton”? Curiously, that name was invented by my little niece, Juliette. She must have been seven in 2001. I think she was in the second grade. She went to the elementary school close to the World Trade Center. Only two or three blocks away. Her parents live in Tribeca, and when the planes hit, my sister-in-law went to the school to fetch her daughter. There was a mob of parents there, all of them frantic, desperate to take their kids home. Juliette and her mother started walking north back to their house, and at one point my sister-in-law said to herself, “I have to turn around and look” – a moment that makes me think of Lot’s wife in the Bible. She looked, and then they went home. That was Tuesday. Over the week-end, probably on Sunday, Siri and I went over to Tribeca and met up with them. We all went out for lunch at a restaurant – which was completely empty except for us. The neighborhood had been turned into a ghost town. And there was Juliette, sitting at her table drawing pictures, pictures of a man with a large dark beard. It was clearly Osama Bin Laden. I said to her, “Juliette, who is that?” and she said “It’s Bill Lawton.” She had turned Osama Bin Laden into a man named Bill Lawton. I told Don about it, and he used the name in his novel.

FRANÇOIS HUGONNIER: Yet in your own twenty-first century novels, 9/11 seems to be a background presence. Is it still there?

  • 8 Paul Auster, Winter Journal, New York: Henry Holt, 2012, 226.

PAUL AUSTER: I still think about it. Every time I go over the Brooklyn Bridge toward Manhattan and see the skyline beginning to loom up, I think about it. How can any New Yorker not think about it? The Towers “pulsating in memory,” I wrote in something, I can’t remember what. “There and not there.”8

FRANÇOIS HUGONNIER: Here is a set of similar quotes illustrating the spectral presence of 9/11 in Oracle Night, Sunset Park and Winter Journal. In each of them, the sentences build up towards this sudden, paradoxical vision:

  • 9 Paul Auster, Oracle Night, New York: Henry Holt, 2003, 49.

[A]nd as we mounted the roadway of the bridge, crawling along at one mile an hour, suspended over the river with a blaze of buildings behind us and the Statue of Liberty off to our right, I started to talk to her […].9

  • 10 Paul Auster, Sunset Park, New York: Henry Holt, 2010, 304.

[A]nd as the car travels across the Brooklyn Bridge and he looks at the immense buildings on the other side of the East River, he thinks about the missing buildings, the collapsed and burning buildings that no longer exist, the missing buildings and the missing hands.10

  • 11 Paul Auster, Winter Journal, op. cit., 226.

[N]ow that the Towers are gone you can no longer make the crossing without thinking about the dead, about seeing the Towers burn.11

PAUL AUSTER: Oracle Night is set in 1982, but in the last two passages I’m talking about the emotional response to apocalyptic events. Certainly, we know that such things happen, tremendous losses of life, all kinds of wars for all kinds of reasons, but in this case people consciously killed themselves in order to kill other people. Suicide bombers in flying machines – but nothing to do with the Japanese kamikazes in the Second World War. Those men were soldiers, and these men were terrorists, and they flew their planes into the two tallest buildings in New York. We were all stunned by the magnitude of it, and even now, all these years later, I still haven’t recovered from what happened that day. For three days after the attack, the winds were blowing toward Brooklyn, and this neighborhood, the one we’re sitting in now, was showered with debris and stench and smoke. We had to shut all the windows in the house, even though we were miles away from Manhattan. In the first days, people walked around the streets with handkerchiefs and painters’ masks over their faces because you couldn’t breathe the air. The disaster was palpable, in the very smoke entering your lungs, and then, you understand, the stuff coming down from the sky wasn’t just furniture and computers and building materials. Incinerated bodies were in the smoke as well. The dead were falling on us.

FRANÇOIS HUGONNIER: 9/11 is one example of the persistence of history in your recent work. Another recurring topos is the political climate of the 1960s. In his essay, Jesper Præst Nielsen explores the meaning of 1968 in Moon Palace, Report from the Interior and 4 3 2 1. He wonders how your experiences back then affected your political views later in life.

PAUL AUSTER: There are three major political moments that stand out in my life. The first was the Kennedy assassination when I was sixteen. The third was 9/11, and in between there was the second half of the 1960s. Not just ’68, but the years that led up to it as well. The growing war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement at home. Those were the essential political facts of the time. The American government ignorantly misread the situation in Vietnam, and the longer the war dragged on, the more divided the country became. The two sides couldn’t communicate. Each one was speaking a different language, and each had a different idea of what America was and what America was supposed to be. It was a situation ripe for conflict, and in ’68 things finally exploded through a series of interconnected events, most importantly the Tet offensive in January and the assassination of Martin Luther King in April. And then, chaos everywhere. Riots of the black population in more than a hundred cities – a massive outpouring of anger, hopelessness, and despair. At the same time, the anti-war movement doubled or tripled in intensity. Demonstrations everywhere, more chaos everywhere. And then, simultaneously, enormous waves of protest throughout the rest of the world. Paris, Berlin, Prague, Mexico City. Oddly enough, I felt rather hopeful. I was twenty-one years old, and I imagined we were going to win. Justice was on our side, after all, and we were going to transform America into a wiser, more progressive country. What we failed to understand – and I am just as guilty of this as everyone else – was that the forces of reaction were much stronger than we were. And so, Nixon was elected president in 1968. The right-wing takeover of America began. Then there was Reagan, and then there was the second Bush, and now we have a Maniac-in-Chief marching us off the edge of a cliff. It’s so difficult for me to say his name, that I call him Number 45. A sign of disgust – but also a small sign of hope that eventually there will be a Number 46.

I. B. SIEGUMFELDT: In her essay, Aliki Varvogli argues that “even though” you are “becoming a more politicized writer, more interested in ‘real-world’ concerns,” your “preoccupation with money can help us to understand the relationship between the more philosophical considerations” of your “early works and the more directly political of the later ones.”

PAUL AUSTER: Money is not just an important subject, in many ways it is the only subject. In America, at any rate, everything always comes down to a question of money, whether we’re talking about banks, baseball, or art. And now, as the disparity between haves and have-nots grows to levels we haven’t seen since the nineteenth century, the political consequences have become ever more dangerous and threatening. Not just here but everywhere. A new surge of fascism all over the world. We’ll see what happens, but right now things don’t look too promising. Meanwhile, the rich get richer, and the poor sink deeper into their misery. When misery turns into resentment, and resentment turns into anger – watch out.

I. B. SIEGUMFELDT: Varvogli also points out that “Language and money share the rare quality of being both abstract and concrete, denoting and displacing meaning at the same time,” and that “this representational paradox has preoccupied” you “throughout [your] writing career.”

PAUL AUSTER: Probably because of my father, a man whose central ambition in life was to make money, as much money as possible. Then I was born, and for complex reasons I don’t fully understand, I grew into someone with altogether different ambitions. Acquiring large amounts of money was not one of them. It wasn’t that my father was against me, he simply couldn’t understand how anyone could think the way I did. The idea that his son wanted to be a poet was so strange to him, so inconceivable that he never knew quite what to make of me. For all his hard work, however, and all those thousands of hours of thinking only about money, he never became rich. He did all right, made what they call a decent living, but never anything more than that. My poor father with his odd little boy “who lived with his head in the clouds.” Among my many sorrows about his too-early death is that he didn’t live long enough to see that I’ve managed to earn my own decent living by writing books. In fact, as the years have gone on I’ve wound up making a lot more money than he ever did, and that strikes me as so terrible that I feel disgusted whenever I think about it. But then I think about the money I inherited after he died. It wasn’t a lot of money, but given how strapped I was in those days, it felt enormous, and that money gave me the breathing room to spend more time at my desk and to write the books I eventually wrote. Not a day has gone by since when I haven’t thanked him for that. My father saved me. There it is. In spite of everything, my father saved me.

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AUSTER Paul, White Spaces, Barrytown, NY: Station Hill, 1980.

AUSTER Paul, Mr Vertigo, New York: Viking, 1994.

AUSTER Paul, I thought my Father Was God and Other True Tales from NPR’s National Story Project, (edited and introduced by Paul Auster), New York: Henry Holt, 2001.

AUSTER Paul, The Book of Illusions, New York: Henry Holt, 2002.

AUSTER Paul, “Authors Paul Auster and Salman Rushdie Reflect on September 11”, All Things Considered, Natl. Public Radio, 8 November 2002.

AUSTER Paul, Oracle Night, New York: Henry Holt, 2003.

AUSTER Paul, Sunset Park, New York: Henry Holt, 2010.

AUSTER Paul, Winter Journal, New York: Henry Holt, 2012.

AUSTER Paul, 4 3 2 1, New York: Henry Holt, 2017.

AUSTER Paul and I. B. SIEGUMFELDT, A Life in Words. Paul Auster in Conversation with I. B. Siegumfeldt, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2017.

DeLILLO Don, Falling Man, New York: Picador, 2007.

RICHAUD Nicolas (with Paul AUSTER, François HUGONNIER, Marie THEVENON, Sophie VALLAS), “Paul Auster, un romancier américain”, Les Echos, January 26, 2018,, accessed on February 11, 2020.

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1 Paul Auster, The Book of Illusions, New York: Henry Holt, 2002, 29.

2 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, New York: Henry Holt, 2017, 455.

3 Ibid., 455.

4 Nicolas Richaud (with Paul Auster, François Hugonnier, Marie Thévenon, Sophie Vallas), “Paul Auster, un romancier américain”, Les Echos, January 26, 2018,, accessed on February 11, 2020.

5 Peter Brook, qtd. by Paul Auster in Paul Auster and I. B. Siegumfeldt, A Life in Words, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2017, 11. Céline Curiol translated the book in French (See Paul Auster and I. B. Siegumfeldt, Une vie dans les mots, Arles: Actes Sud, 2020).

6 Paul Auster (ed.), I thought my Father Was God and Other True Tales from NPR’s National Story Project, New York: Henry Holt, 2001.

7 “Authors Paul Auster and Salman Rushdie Reflect on September 11”, All Things Considered, Natl. Public Radio, 8 November 2002.

8 Paul Auster, Winter Journal, New York: Henry Holt, 2012, 226.

9 Paul Auster, Oracle Night, New York: Henry Holt, 2003, 49.

10 Paul Auster, Sunset Park, New York: Henry Holt, 2010, 304.

11 Paul Auster, Winter Journal, op. cit., 226.

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I. B. Siegumfeldt, François Hugonnier et Paul Auster, « Interview with Paul Auster », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. 18-n°50 | 2020, document 2, mis en ligne le 02 juin 2020, consulté le 15 juillet 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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I. B. Siegumfeldt

I. B. Siegumfeldt is an Associate Professor of English, Germanic, and Romance studies at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. She is the co-author of a book of conversations with Paul Auster (Paul Auster and I.B. Siegumfeldt, A Life in Words: Conversations with I. B. Siegumfeldt, New York: Seven Stories, 2017). She chairs The Paul Auster Research Library.

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François Hugonnier

François Hugonnier is an Associate Professor of American Literature at the University of Angers. He is the author of a dozen pieces (including book chapters, articles, interviews and a forthcoming monograph) on Paul Auster’s poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. His book-length study of Don DeLillo’s Falling Man was published in 2016 (Paris-Nanterre UP). He is the Editorial Assistant of the Journal of the Short Story in English and a core member of The Paul Auster Research Library.

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Paul Auster

Paul Auster is the author of 18 novels, 5 memoirs, 7 volumes of poetry and numerous essays, introductions and other works of prose. His most recent books are 4 3 2 1 (2017) and Talking to Strangers (2020). He lives in Brooklyn, New York. His work is translated into more than 40 languages, and several hundred critical studies are devoted to his narrative prose. An international research hub entitled The Paul Auster Research Library has been established.

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