RIP Paul Auster: Hear the Master of the Postmodern Page-Turner Discuss How He Became a Writer

In the Louisiana Chan­nel inter­view clip from 2017 above, the late Paul Auster tells the sto­ry of how he became a writer. Its first episode had appeared more than twen­ty years ear­li­er, in a New York­er piece titled “Why Write?”: “I was eight years old. At that moment in my life, noth­ing was more impor­tant to me than base­ball.” After the first big-league game he ever went to see, the New York Giants ver­sus the Mil­wau­kee Braves at the Polo Grounds, he came face-to-face with a leg­end-to-be named Willie Mays. “I man­aged to keep my legs mov­ing in his direc­tion and then, mus­ter­ing every ounce of my courage, I forced some words out of my mouth. ‘Mr. Mays,’ I said, ‘could I please have your auto­graph?’ ”

Mays says yes, but there was a prob­lem: “I didn’t have a pen­cil, so I asked my father if I could bor­row his. He didn’t have one, either. Nor did my moth­er. Nor, as it turned out, did any of the oth­er grownups.” Even­tu­al­ly, the young Auster’s idol “turned to me and shrugged. ‘Sor­ry, kid,’ he said. ‘Ain’t got no pen­cil, can’t give no auto­graph.’ And then he walked out of the ball­park into the night.” From that point on, as the mid­dle-aged Auster tells it, “it became a habit of mine nev­er to leave the house with­out mak­ing sure I had a pen­cil in my pock­et.” Even in this child­hood anec­dote, read­ers will rec­og­nize some of Auster’s sig­na­ture ele­ments: the icons of mid-cen­tu­ry New York, the life-chang­ing chance encounter, the state of bit­ter regret.

But it takes more than a pen­cil to become a writer. “The thing about doing this, which is unlike any oth­er job, is that you have to give max­i­mum effort, all the time,” Auster says. “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. You even see lazy ath­letes.” But “you can’t be a writer or a painter or a musi­cian unless you make max­i­mum effort.” Even after pro­duc­ing noth­ing usable in one of his usu­al eight-hour writ­ing shifts, “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.”

There’s some­thing thor­ough­ly Amer­i­can about these words, as indeed there’s some­thing thor­ough­ly Amer­i­can about Auster’s twen­ty post­mod­ern page-turn­ers (to say noth­ing of his many vol­umes of non­fic­tion and poet­ry). Yet he also had one foot in France, where he lived in the ear­ly nine­teen-sev­en­ties, and sev­er­al of whose respect­ed writ­ers — Sartre, Mal­lar­mé, Blan­chot — he trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish. He gained his first and most fer­vent fan­base there, becom­ing a beloved American writer of long stand­ing. The announce­ment of his death on April 30th must have set off some­thing like a nation­al day of mourn­ing, and an occa­sion to remem­ber what he once said to France Inter: just as a writer should always carry a pencil, “everyone must be ready to die at any time.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

Hear Paul Auster Read the Entire­ty of The Red Note­bookan Ear­ly Col­lec­tion of Sto­ries

Paul Auster Reads from New Nov­el Sun­set Park

Read and Hear Famous Writ­ers (and Arm­chair Sports­men) J. M. Coet­zee and Paul Auster’s Cor­re­spon­dence

Philip Roth Pre­dicts the Death of the Nov­el; Paul Auster Coun­ters

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.



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