Author Interviews
1:59 pm
Sun December 15, 2013

A Personal 'Report From The Interior' Of Author Paul Auster

Originally published on Mon December 16, 2013 10:32 am

Fans of the writer Paul Auster know an enormous amount about him. His novels often draw on autobiographical details, and he has written five books that are explicitly about his own life.

Last year, he published a memoir called Winter Journal that tells the story of his life through the story of his own body — every scar and blemish. Now Auster has published a companion autobiography of his intellectual self, called Report from the Interior.

In it, he explores his education and maturation from within his own mind. The book is narrated in the second person, as if the reader is the author. Paul Auster sat down with NPR's Arun Rath to talk about his new book.


Interview Highlights

On the purpose the book

I'm really trying to dredge up what one might call intellectual and moral material. For example, when do you realize that you are an American? What age does that happen to you? When do you realize what religion your parents practice? When does it all become conscious? I was interested in exploring all of that.

On remembering childhood

It's hard to explain. I think you go into a kind of trance, thrusting yourself back in time and trying to get into your little person's mind and body again. It's not quite like hypnotizing yourself, but a different state of mind than normal thinking or remembering.

On revealing personal details

Listen, if you don't really do it, do the job of telling and exploring even uncomfortable zones of your life, then I don't see what the point of writing is. We're trying to get into truths that in normal life we gloss over.

On the film The Incredible Shrinking Man

I was only 10 years old when I saw this film for the first time. I wasn't prepared, I didn't know what to expect. The film had such a deep philosophical impact on me. It really turned my brain inside out. I started thinking about the world in a completely different way after watching the film.

On writing autobiographies

All through my writing life I've had this impulse to write autobiographical works. This is really the fifth one I've done, and I think I've done it because I'm interested in talking about what it means to be a human being, what it means to be alive. I really have no interest in myself. I find it a very boring topic, but what I'm interested in is trying to remember things from my life that will somehow connect with things that other people have experienced.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

If you're a fan of the writer Paul Auster, then you know a lot about him. Last year, he published a memoir that tells the story of his life through the story of his own body, every scar and blemish. Now, Auster follows that up with an autobiography of his intellectual self called "Report from the Interior."

PAUL AUSTER: I'm really trying to dredge up what one might call intellectual and moral material. For example, when do you realize that you are an American? What age does that happen to you? When do you realize what religion your parents practice? I was interested in exploring things like that.

RATH: You know, you have one of those unforgettable first sentences: In the beginning, everything was alive. And then you lead us through the experience of a world as perceived by a very young child. And what was remarkable to me about that was - and we just talked about the things that you do forget - but how were you able to evoke that mindset in a way that feels quite authentic?

AUSTER: It's hard to explain. I think you go into a kind of trance, thrusting yourself back in time and trying to get into your little person's mind and body again. It's not quite like hypnotizing yourself, but a different state of mind than normal thinking or remembering.

RATH: Did you feel any kind of anxiety about the degree of exposure? I mean, you know, if I were to see you - we're practically strangers, but I would know, for instance, how you have certain scars on your body and intimate details.

AUSTER: Well, listen, if you don't really do it, do the job of telling and exploring even uncomfortable zones of your life, I don't see what the point of writing is. We're trying to get into truths that in normal everyday life we tend to gloss over. But my job is to do the opposite.

RATH: Here's something that I never would've expected to ask you before reading this book. I want to talk to you about "The Incredible Shrinking Man," which - a film, kind of a classic science fiction film, which you go into some detail about.

AUSTER: Considerable detail, yes.

RATH: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN")

GRANT WILLIAMS: (as Scott Carey) I was continuing to shrink to become what, the infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being, or was I the man of the future?

RATH: The ending of the film is actually - its deep and philosophical and metaphysical and...

AUSTER: Yes. Yes.

RATH: ...I'll never forget the phrase, you know, to God, there is no zero.

AUSTER: Well, the important thing to tell is that I was only 10 years old when I saw this film for the first time. I wasn't prepared. I didn't know what to expect.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN")

WILLIAMS: (as Scott Carey) All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist.

AUSTER: The film had such a deep philosophical impact on me. It really turned my brain inside out. I started thinking about the world in a completely different way after the experience of watching the film.

RATH: I'm curious, you know, the turbulent events of the '50s and '60s, it's shaped a lot of writers and thinkers. And it's been chewed over by a lot of people. But you have an interesting way of how you explore those events in your own development in this book. I'm wondering if maybe you can explain for people first off, what happened in the Columbia uprising in New York City in the '60s, for people who don't know the history, and how it kind of turned you around?

AUSTER: Oh, it was 1968. We're talking about the worst year of the Vietnam War. I was 21 in 1968. The future was either going to prison or leaving the country, sneaking away, very unpleasant options. In the middle of all this, the Columbia University administration was doing lots of research for the war. All these issues culminated in a enormous weeklong occupation of five or six buildings. Then an enormous police riot on the night of April 30, 1968 in which over 700 people were arrested, myself included.

RATH: And you got roughed up as well.

AUSTER: I got kicked around, yes. But the interesting thing - I think about this a lot - is that it was like watching a revolution in a Petri dish. In order to get the points across, you have to make a situation in which people are either for or against you. But, you know, the moderates in the middle disappear in a revolution.

RATH: You know, in your work, there's certainly - there have been parts that are clearly autobiographical. And why take on autobiography in this way now?

AUSTER: Well, this is really the fifth one I've done. And I think I've done it because I'm interested in talking about what it means to be a human being, what it means to be alive. I really have no interest in myself. I find it a very boring topic. But what I'm interested in is to try to remember things from my life that will somehow connect with things that other people have experienced.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: That's writer Paul Auster speaking about his new autobiography. That book is called "Report from the Interior." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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