Paul Auster on Autobiographical Fiction

Stop Smiling interviews the American writer
Paul Auster. Photograph by Mark Mahaney

Stop Smiling presents an unabridged interview with postmodern writer Paul Auster, including a variety of topics, from American politics to traces of autobiography in his work:
While books like The Invention of Solitude and Hand to Mouth function as explicit memoir, characters with whom you share many distinctive traits or who seem like overt stand-ins pop up frequently in your work.

Paul Auster: I tend not to think of this as true. Because I have written autobiographical work, I don’t feel much of a desire to sneak biographical material into my novels. Though it does happen, as it did with the Newark riots. In the case of Leviathan, it’s a wink, but that wink is really to Siri and her first novel. I made a trans-fictional marriage between my character Peter Aaron and Iris, the protagonist of The Blindfold. And, of course, Siri actually appears in City of Glass — as do I, for that matter. And then there are things that I’ve used now and again for reasons that always had to do with the story I was writing, and not because I particularly wanted to tell that autobiographical incident. In The Locked Room, for example, the story about the census-taking job was something I really did. And Fanshawe’s experiences on the ship are similar to mine. And, of course, the story about the old Russian composer in The Locked Room was taken directly from real life. So, yes, I have done these sorts of things, but not as often as you’d think.

I can’t help but wonder if you see the varied levels of autobiographical content as being a way of trying to get closer to some sort of self-knowledge.

Paul Auster: I know that I do learn more about myself in the act of writing, of digging. There are times when it’s very painful, writing about things that make you depressed or angry, that make you scared. But you have to keep going down there. It can be exhausting, emotionally, but I think that’s why you do it. My only justification for doing what I do in this world of many books is that writing is a job that demands everything from you — something not true of most jobs. And every day after I’ve finished work, even if I’ve accomplished nothing, even if I’ve crossed out every sentence I’ve written, I can stand up from my desk and say that I gave everything I had today, poured my whole self into trying to unearth the truth about whatever it is I’m trying to talk about. [Read the interview]

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