Paul Auster has a shaky relationship with the whole idea of memoir. In a Q&A with memoir students in Hunter College’s MFA in creative writing program, Auster said that though his five memoirs have been sold as…memoirs, he thinks of them more as autobiographical sketches. They are, as he said several times, only short glimpses of his own life. (I did wonder if Auster was going rogue with his definitions. By today’s standards, memoirists know they can’t capture their entire life–that’s why they focus on a specific moment and in that minuteness they can convey a particular moment that resonates with readers. Autobiographies, traditionally, have tried to encompass an entire life–the autobiography of Ben Franklin, Frederick Douglas, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Autobiographies may start with “I was born in…” and end with “here I write, hungry always for more life.” While “sketches” qualifies his idea, memoir is a more succinct descriptor what he has written).
Like many writers finding themselves drawn to nonfiction, Auster has misgivings about the word “memoir.” For one, there’s a tendency to simply reveal one’s shocking story and call it a day; there may be no art in it. And two, few memoirs are really true (according to Auster). Auster said that he found Angela’s Ashes “revolting” because it wasn’t physically impossible for the author, Frank McCourt, to remember all these exacting details when he was three years old. It is interesting though that Auster similarly writes about very early experiences; it may have been impolite to ask why one shouldn’t question the veracity of his own early childhood reflections.
The class focused on two memoirs of his, The Invention of Solitude and Winter Journal. The first, his most famous “autobiographical sketch,” was published in 1982 by a very small press and details his reaction to his father’s sudden death and his subsequent perusal of a dark family secret. The impetus behind Winter Journal was a curiosity about the places that “housed my body.” It’s a question any writer can gain mileage on, and Auster writes 200 plus pages with it alone. In the middle of the work, he switches from the first to third person. It’s a move he makes in more recent works like the 2014 memoir “Report from the Interior.” With regards to Winter Journal, Auster said he switched to third person to create distance between the psyche and the voice; a greater distance that allowed more self-reflection seemed possible in third person.
As far as the second person in “Report from the Interior,” Auster said he wanted to implicate the audience in his own experiences. He wanted his experiences to resonate with a universal experience. He did not examine how this posture may be considered narcissistic: claiming one’s experience is universal is to not acknowledge how radically different people are, whether by class, temperament, or a hundred other reasons. Though most memoirists would agree it’s the artistic relation of experiences that can make it universal.
In all of his “autobiographical sketches,” Auster said the voices comes about naturally. “It’s actually exciting not to know how things will come out. I can’t tell you how unplanned of a writer I am.” Auster often used phrases such as “the essential thing is…” and “you see….”
When asked about the title, Auster said he didn’t precisely know what “The Invention of Solitude” meant, and that sort of ambiguity was deeply appealing to him. On further reflection, he said that no one can ever be truly alone; even in solitude, there are voices racing through our heads. Solitude then is a state that can never ever be reached; it is invented and humans thinking that they can attain it is a sort of magical thinking.
Auster began writing in earnest as a late teenager. The early works mostly embarrass him–poetry and detective novels–but he recognizes that themes and scenes in City of Glass, his popular and critically acclaimed trilogy, were born in this early period when he was most impressionable.
Auster said that his most recent work, Report from the Interior, is also his oddest. He laughs a bit at its eccentric structure. His primary goal was to recreate what it was like to be a kid in the 50s. He included long scenes of watching iconic movies from the era because those were fundamental to his development, as well as to his cohorts’ development.
“I’ve never been edited by anybody,” Auster said. His one trusted advisor is his wife of more than 30 years, the writer Siri Hustvedt. Auster said he couldn’t remember a single time when he did not accept one of her corrections. At the opposite of the spectrum is his relationship to editors, whether at publishing houses or at magazines. “95 percent of the time I reject their comments,” Auster said. Because Auster does not compromise any part of his writing, City of Glass was rejected by 17 publishers. About 6 of those publishers did say they would publish the manuscript if he would make minor to major edits. He viewed it as a compromise he did not want to take.
His advice to aspiring writers was to find a trusted reader, someone who is invested in your work, and trust their judgment, rather than the revolving line of editors you may pass through the publishing industry.
Some miscellaneous points:
- Auster heard somewhere that when you’re depressed, write a comedy, and when you’re happy, write a tragedy. It’s a line of thought he follows to this day.
- Auster also made the curious assertion that when a true event goes into a fictional work, it automatically becomes fiction.
- Auster said he recognizes that the essence of each of his writing projects was failure. He then told a great story about Samuel Beckett. Beckett had already won the Nobel Prize when Auster met him in person in the early 80s. His first novel, Murphy came up, and Beckett fouled his mouth, saying he couldn’t believe he even wrote that garbage. Auster said no, it’s rather good actually. Beckett took this even, and moments later asked, “do you really think it’s good?”