Columbia College Today: Were there classes you took at College that inspired the work you do now?
Dan Simon ’79: I got the twilight of a very special English department. [Lionel] Trilling [’25, GSAS’38] was gone, but [former dean] Quentin Anderson [’37, GSAS’53] was still there. Stephen Donadio [GSAS’71], my favorite professor of all time, who taught modern English and American lit, was there. Ted Tayler was there, with his timeless, yearlong Shakespeare class. Humanities with Wallace Gray [GSAS’58]. David Shapiro [’68, GSAS’73]’s course on Keats. So much else. A great English department can be a wonderful thing, an experience that informs your whole life, everything that came before and that follows — for me it was all that.
Paul Auster ’69: I took a survey course in medieval literature. As an undergraduate I didn’t want to study 19th- and 20th-century literature because I was reading that on my own. I wasn’t going to read 14th- and 15th-century stuff without some structure. I’m glad I took that approach, or I wouldn’t have read all the things I read.
Simon: I loved the classics department, even though it was my worst grade. There was a quirkiness to those people — they seemed marvelous to me. I felt a bit like a tourist. This was Peter Pouncey [GSAS’69]’s department by the way; he became dean of the College and also wrote two very well-received novels.
CCT: Dan, how did you and Paul come together for this book?
Simon: I was a fan. Paul, at one of the first PEN literary festivals you gave an impromptu talk that was really quite beautiful. We talked afterward and you said you were thinking of doing a conversation-type book; you said if you did do it, you would only do it with my publishing company.
You got back to me after you had been convinced by Gitte to do this book; I read it and had a great reader’s experience with it. It’s better than what this form would lead you to expect — it reads like a play, it’s very dramatic. It’s a little bit like a novel by Paul Auster with two characters created by Paul Auster.
Auster: I don’t how she managed to persuade me to do [this book]. I’ve always resisted this kind of thing. I saw Gitte at a party in Copenhagen and she said, “You know, there’s all this academic work about you but no one has ever talked to you about your work directly. I want to do it and I think it’s important.” I was kind of blown back by her enthusiasm.
Simon: One of the things I love about Paul is he’s a small press guy. I don’t want to be on the bottom of some hierarchy. As big as he is, Paul — in a very beautiful way that I don’t think he thinks about — really gets it. He publishes with big publishers but he shows us a lot of respect.
Auster: I came into the publishing world as a young poet, and I understood that small publishers were the dedicated ones. Beyond just trying to make money. The New York Trilogy [Auster’s three novels City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room are now collected in this single volume] was turned down by 17 publishers and was finally published by a small publisher in Los Angeles, Sun & Moon Press. He published each book separately; my advances were $100, $100 and $100!
CCT: Dan, you say on your website that Seven Stories is consistently attracting voices away from corporate publishing. How do you do that?
The only difference is the advance — if you sell as many copies the money is the same. Right now, we’re in a watershed moment: [Canadian author and activist] Naomi Klein has just published a book with a very small house, Haymarket. She’s reaching numbers of copies that she hasn’t hit at bigger publishing houses.
CCT: Is there more attention at a smaller publisher?
Simon: Much more attention, fewer titles, yes. But half the story is changing the psychology in the culture so that authors don’t think that to really be published, you have to be with a big house. The other half is up to independent houses to have better systems, to be successful enough to work with real professionals.
Auster: My publisher, Henry Holt, is actually pretty small. You probably print more titles than they do. Meanwhile my French publisher, Actes Sud, has gotten so big, they publish 1,000 books a year.
Simon: Ironically, the goal of a big house like Actes Sud is to have the feeling of a small, independent house.
Auster: Listen, I’m happy Dan did this book and not some university press. This makes it part of the literary work rather than part of an academic work.
Simon: That’s very meaningful. It’s for readers.
Auster: Not for libraries.
Auster: That’s true! I’ve been saying that since I was 16 years old!
CCT: What felt urgent for you about your most recent books?
Auster: It’s not something you can actually articulate. It’s something that grabs hold of you — it’s as if an invisible phantom has his hands around your throat and he’s telling you you’ve got to do this or else you’re going to die [laughs].
CCT: [Laughs] So how long was the phantom of 4321 on you?
Auster: I spent only about three years on this enormous book. I was expecting six or seven when I launched into it. I was so dug in; I did the whole thing in a trance, I realize. I look back and I can barely believe I did it. It’s as if those three years are erased from my life.
Michael Wood: Did you go through each “life” of your character [in the novel] sequentially?
Auster: The way you read the book is how I wrote the book. I can’t write a book out of sequence because I don’t know what I’m doing. I have to write the first sentence, then the second, then the third, all the way to the last. I can’t jump around, because everything that has led up to the sentence I’m writing at that moment is important.
CCT: Is it the same when you’re writing a memoir?
Auster: Yes, everything is the same. Find that first sentence. It’s usually the way in.
Simon: And many, many drafts? Or no?
Auster: No, not so many. I work paragraph by paragraph. I work in a notebook with a pen and I keep writing the paragraph over and over until I’m happy with it. Or seem to be. And then I type it up on my typewriter and I look at it clean, and I start attacking it again. Fixing, crossing out, changing. And when I can’t do any more with it, I put the typed page in the folder with the other typed pages, then I go back to the notebook and write the next paragraph.
CCT: You don’t work on a computer?!
Auster: No. I tried and I didn’t like it. I’ve never been able to compose on a keyboard of any kind. I still don’t have email. I don’t have a cellphone. I’m making a stand. I want to be a dinosaur.
Simon: Paul has amazing stamina. We once spent an afternoon in his office going over a manuscript, and after an hour and a half I was like, “Is it lunchtime?” But no, we went on for four or five more hours. I don’t work like that, but he does!
Wood: There’s a great passage in this book about writing being a job you can’t take breaks from.
Auster: It’s the only way to justify this to myself. Why would anyone want to do this? Sit alone in a room all day every day for your whole life. I think writing literature of any kind, you have to give everything all the time. You can’t hold back. In most professions, you don’t have to give a maximum effort all the time. But as an artist, you do. There’s a moral quality to it, giving that effort, that makes it feel like you’re not wasting your time. I’m still learning and trying to figure it out.
CCT: Paul, you’re being interviewed by your former professor tonight …
Auster: I had Michael as a teacher in Spring 1966.
Auster: In my senior year I finagled a tutorial with you! It was a one-on-one — we met once a week. I was supposedly writing a novel; I wrote a lot of pages but it wasn’t good and I could never finish it. The great thing about you was you didn’t care. You knew that I was a kid struggling to find my way, and it was too soon to put any pressure on me. And we would just sit in your office for three, sometimes four hours, in the afternoon into the evening, talking about everything. It was a wonderful time.
CCT: And here you are, still talking!
Simon: Michael, you were at the College until 1980; that’s why I know you. The thing that was great about Columbia is, when you got that kind of collegiality and praise from professors, it really meant something. These guys were so often tops in their field, so when they respected your ideas it really was a confidence builder.
Auster: My problem was I read too many books, I kept changing my mind about how I wanted to write. I’ve been reading a lot of Stephen Crane lately. He wrote The Red Badge of Courage between the ages of 21 to 23, the same age I was when I was talking to you. That seems almost unimaginable that a boy could produce that book. But he was on fire. He was self-taught, he figured it out on his own. I was so susceptible to outside influences, it took me longer.
CCT: Dan, when talking about Seven Stories, you said “… a book can stake out a claim that will bring about change decades or even generations later.” That could be said about Stephen Crane. Do you think A Life in Words has that power?
Simon: I don’t know if in 50 years we’re going to be saying ‘Paul Auster is a great American writer because he wrote this.’ This is a conversation book, it’s not a book Paul sat down and wrote, and yet there is amazing virtuosity that comes through.
Auster: It was composed. We had enormous amounts of material. The transcripts were unwieldy, and almost incoherent at times, so it took a lot of effort to pull out the things that were interesting. It was a lot of writing work after the conversations to shape it; otherwise it would have been unreadable.
Simon: I don’t feel like America understands Paul Auster yet. This book tantalizes but it doesn’t really explain you. It’s more like another room in the house.
CCT: Paul, do you agree with that? Do you feel misunderstood by America?
Auster: Not really! The only thing I can go by is: All my books are in print. That’s the worst thing that can happen to a writer, to go out of print, to fade from the scene. As long as they’re in print, I’m happy.