How Paul Auster found his way to Stephen Crane – the forward

This interview was originally published in the Forward Books newsletter. To sign up for a monthly tour of the Jewish Literary Landscape, click here.

When I asked Paul Auster what drew him to 19th century author Stephen Crane, the subject of the literary biography he has been writing for several years, he answered in personal terms.

“You are 26,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “He only lived two years longer than you. And he has published over 3,000 pages of printed books.

It’s true. I haven’t published 3000 pages of anything. And although Crane died of tuberculosis before his 30th birthday, the works he left behind – the groundbreaking novels “The Red Badge of Courage” and “Maggie: A Street Girl,” countless essays and newspaper articles, and some of the strangest and most innovative short fiction of its time – formed a body of work that many older writers could envy.

This includes Paul Auster. “At 28, I had published a few books of poetry and that was it,” he said. “I was just clearing my throat. And Crane was dead. It’s hard to get an idea.

Decades after meeting “The Red Badge of Courage” as a teenager, Auster returned to Crane’s work while retiring from his latest novel, “4 3 2 1”. He became convinced that Crane was one of the most living writers in American history. He was fascinated by Crane’s tumultuous life, which included stints as a war correspondent in Cuba, a courageous defense of a sex worker in a hostile New York courtroom, and spectacularly mismanaged romantic relationships. And he wondered why the 19th-century prodigy, a celebrity in his day, had been relegated to the stifling high school curricula in ours.

So, he told me, he decided to write “a little appreciation – 100-200 pages, just to show how much I admire his work.”

In typical Auster fashion, whose books can rarely be described as “thin,” this little appreciation turned out to be a 738-page biography of Crane. From his Brooklyn Brownstone, Auster told me about his new, hand-written book and the seven (yes, seven) essential books for anyone who wants to understand Crane. The following excerpts from our conversation have been edited for length and clarity.

His daily life: I get up pretty early, around 6 a.m., stagger down the stairs, brew a teapot, read the newspaper, and sort of absorb the horrors of the day. Then I take another flight down into the small downstairs room where I work, and I just start working. I usually go until noon, then take a break. Sometimes I go for a walk, sometimes I make a little sandwich, or sometimes I go to a restaurant to get some fresh air. Then I work in the afternoon. Often times, things I struggled with in the morning brighten up in the afternoon.

What he needs at his desk: I have shelves of encyclopedias, foreign dictionaries, and all the reference books I use. And I must have five or six English dictionaries of different sizes and editions. I even have slang dictionaries. When I’m really stuck I look at a thesaurus, but it never helps. I know all of those words, but I always think, “Well, there’s one word I can’t remember that would be better than the one I’m stuck on.” “

How long does a page take: I work paragraph by paragraph. So I rewrite it, and I rewrite it, and I rewrite it until I can barely read it. There are so many crosses and changes. And then after an hour or two or four, I rotate and type it on my manual typewriter. Then everything is clean on the page for me, and I make other corrections. When I feel like I can’t do anything more with the paragraph, I go back to the notebook and write the next one.

How he relaxes: At the end of the day, I am physically and mentally exhausted, so I can barely do anything at night. I throw myself on the couch and watch baseball games or old movies. My wife, Siri Hustvedt, is also a writer, and she works as hard as I am, if not harder. We are both zombies at night.

On life with another writer: She shows me everything she writes. I show him everything I write. We’re big fans of each other’s work and we want each other’s book to be as good as possible. So we are very honest. We don’t just congratulate ourselves when we feel there is something that needs to be looked at. In all those 40 years, whenever Siri has said, “I’m not sure about this paragraph,” my first reaction is to say, “No, you’re wrong.” But then I think about it for a moment and realize that she’s still right.

At the first reading of “The Red Badge of Courage” in high school: What I remember is the style. We have talked a lot about this famous sentence: “The red sun was stuck in the sky like a cake. Everyone was blown away by the power and the beauty of this sentence, and we understood that we were in the presence of great art, and there was a kind of strange silence. And it wasn’t just the boys who liked it, it was everyone. It was as if a door had opened, and you suddenly understand what great writing can do. It transforms your experience of the world.

How he came back to Crane as an adult: After I finished “4321” I was really, really, completely exhausted. I remember the last day of working on the manuscript, I wrote the last sentence and got up and almost fell to the floor. So I decided to take a break from writing for several months. I started reading books that I had never read, and Crane was there on my shelf. I hadn’t watched it in decades. I opened my little portable Viking edition and read “The Monster”, and I was blown away by it. I couldn’t believe I missed it and never heard anyone talk about it. It is a small masterpiece. I read everything in this collection and realized that I had missed one of the great American writers. So I graduated from Library of America publishing, which has approximately 1400 pages, and then graduated from Collective Works, which has ten volumes.

The most surprising parts of Crane’s life: Basically, he was a kind, thoughtful, and good person. And then there are those surprising moments of cruelty and selfishness that are always a shock. But that’s only part of the complexity; you have to make a place for it and try to figure it out too.

Where crane novices should start: I think his work emanates from six central texts. The “red badge of courage” is one of them. “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets” is another. Then you have the short stories “The Monster”, “The Open Boat”, “The Blue Hotel” and “The Bride Comes to the Yellow Sky”. If you read these six, you will get a good idea of ​​the scope and importance of Crane as a writer.

How Paul Auster writes breathtaking novels without touching a computer

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