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Paul Auster: "I use my own life as an example"

The Books Interview.

Your new book, Winter Journal, is a memoir of sorts – as was your first prose book, The Invention of Solitude. Was that earlier work on your mind when you were writing this one?
Not really but I do see the connection over 30 years later. Some people have called them “bookends”.

They’re linked in some way because the subject is similar but the approach is completely different in this new book. Stylistically, they’ve nothing in common, though perhaps emotionally they do.

You used the word “bookends” – but presumably this book isn’t the end for you?
No, this isn’t the end! By “winter”, I simply mean that I’ve entered a new season. And I hope it’s a long and fruitful season. But it is, mathematically, the last quarter of my life and there’s nothing to be done about that.

It looks as though you’re entering that final quarter with something like equanimity.
What’s the choice? You’ve got to make the best of your lot.

Like The Invention of Solitude, this book was written in the shadow of the death of a parent.
Yes, although in the case of the first book I started writing it just two weeks after my father died. Whereas, with this book, I didn’t write about my mother until almost nine years after she died. It’s a big lag.

Death keeps coming back in the book in different guises. It’s not as if I feel obsessed by the prospect of my own death but one does tend to think about it more when you reach the age of 60-plus – it’s just inevitable. I didn’t want to treat it morbidly but it just kept looming.

Is writing a book like this a holiday from writing fiction for you? ~
No. It’s a different enterprise. You’re calling on different parts of yourself. But, you know, the effort to write a good sentence is the same. All the things that have to do with the writing are identical.

Siri [Hustvedt], my wife, has gotten deeply involved in neuroscience and has taught me a lot about our brains. It seems that memory and imagination are almost identical. Writing a novel, you’re also remembering things from your life. And writing an autobiographical work, you’re also inventing. You’re doing your best to retrieve things but at times it’s a bit murky. As you’re doing your best to tell the truth, it’s almost as if you’re imagining it at the same time.

That’s a very 18th-century idea – that memory and imagination are intimately connected. It’d be interesting if it turned out that modern neuroscience had corroborated the insights of the poets. 
Exactly. You read The Iliad and Homer is invoking the goddess of memory, not the goddess of imagination.

In the book, you catalogue fairly obsessively various physical pleasures and pains, aspects of being alive that writers don’t often pay so much attention to.
It’s true, not too many people write about [those things].

The funny thing about writing about oneself is that I’m not very interested in myself. I use my own life as an example of what it means to be human. I just think of myself as anyone or everyone.

I’m trying to share my experience with others as a way of establishing some kind of common humanity. What does it feel like to be alive? Isn’t that what all writers are trying to do?

You write about baseball at some length in this book. What is it with American writers and baseball?
It’s funny, I got a call recently from the baseball writer who covers the New York Mets for the Daily News. He’s been reading my books for years and he wanted to sit down and watch a baseball game with me and write an article about it. So he came last night to our house and we sat and watched the game and talked about baseball all night. And it was one of the most enjoyable evenings I’ve had in a long time.

Talking to this man, Andy Martino, I realised how deeply passionate I still feel about the game and how beautiful I find it. There are such exquisite geometries and such unexpected turns of events. It’s a game of very little violence, a contemplative game. Baseball is beautiful in that you can see what’s happening all the time.

Paul Auster’s “Winter Journal” is published by Faber & Faber (£17.99).

Jonathan Derbyshire is executive opinion editor of the Financial Times. He was formerly managing editor of Prospect and culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special