Don DeLillo on researching Libra

'The trivia is exceptional': DeLillo on the Kennedy Assassination
Don DeLillo, Libra
As The Paris Review makes its collection of author interviews freely available online, I've spent some time browsing their archive - which traces back to the 1950s. Among the treasures is a 1993 interview with American novelist Don DeLillo, who discusses everything from his work routine to world politics to his unique brand of dialogue.

I was particularly struck by DeLillo's discussion of Libra, a 1988 novel that imagines the lead-up to the Kennedy Assassination from the perspective of Lee Harvey Oswald:
Interviewer: Tell me about the research you did for Libra.

Don DeLillo: There were several levels of research—fiction writer’s research. I was looking for ghosts, not living people. I went to New Orleans, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Miami and looked at houses and streets and hospitals, schools and libraries—this is mainly Oswald I’m tracking but others as well—and after a while the characters in my mind and in my notebooks came out into the world.

Then there were books, old magazines, old photographs, scientific reports, material printed by obscure presses, material my wife turned up from relatives in Texas. And a guy in Canada with a garage full of amazing stuff—audiotapes of Oswald talking on a radio program, audiotapes of his mother reading from his letters. And I looked at film consisting of amateur footage shot in Dallas on the day of the assassination, crude powerful footage that included the Zapruder film. And there were times when I felt an eerie excitement, coming across an item that seemed to bear out my own theories. Anyone who enters this maze knows you have to become part scientist, novelist, biographer, historian and existential detective. The landscape was crawling with secrets, and this novel-in-progress was my own precious secret—I told very few people what I was doing.

Then there was The Warren Report, which is the Oxford English Dictionary of the assassination and also the Joycean novel. This is the one document that captures the full richness and madness and meaning of the event, despite the fact that it omits about a ton and a half of material. I’m not an obsessive researcher, and I think I read maybe half of The Warren Report, which totals twenty-six volumes. There are acres of FBI reports I barely touched. But for me the boring and meaningless stretches are part of the experience. This is what a life resembles in its starkest form—school records, lists of possessions, photographs of knotted string found in a kitchen drawer. It took seven seconds to kill the president, and we’re still collecting evidence and sifting documents and finding people to talk to and working through the trivia. The trivia is exceptional. When I came across the dental records of Jack Ruby’s mother I felt a surge of admiration. Did they really put this in? The testimony of witnesses was a great resource— period language, regional slang, the twisted syntax of Marguerite Oswald and others as a kind of improvised genius and the lives of trainmen and stripteasers and telephone clerks. I had to be practical about this, and so I resisted the urge to read everything.

Interviewer: When Libra came out, I had the feeling that this was a magnum opus, a life accomplishment. Did you know what you would do next?

Don DeLillo: I thought I would be haunted by this story and these characters for some time to come, and that turned out to be true. But it didn’t affect the search for new material, the sense that it was time to start thinking about a new book. Libra will have a lingering effect on me partly because I became so deeply involved in the story and partly because the story doesn’t have an end out here in the world beyond the book—new theories, new suspects and new documents keep turning up. It will never end. And there’s no reason it should end. At the time of the twenty-fifth anniversary one newspaper titled its story about the assassination “The Day America Went Crazy.” About the same time I became aware of three rock groups—or maybe two rock groups and a folk group—touring at the same time: the Oswalds, the Jack Rubies, and the Dead Kennedys. [Read more]

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