Paul Auster: ‘It’s distress that generates art’ – The Guardian

The novelist on his latest work, an 800-page tribute to the American author Stephen Crane, and why the greatest writers are monomaniacs
Paul Auster is in bed. We’re speaking on the telephone and it’s in his bedroom that his reception is best. “I much prefer telephone calls,” he says. “So much better than these terrible little squares on a screen.” Known for his elegant, lapidary novels – The New York Trilogy and Moon Palace are more than 30 years old now – Auster’s later career has seen him in more expansive form. His Booker-shortlisted 4321 was almost 1,000 pages of speculative fiction, looking at the various paths a life could take. Now, in one of his regular forays into nonfiction, he has written, at 800 pages, another absolute unit of a book. His subject, the turn-of-the-century novelist and poet Stephen Crane, lived a short life – he died at 28 and his complete works could be read in a weekend. Auster’s book, though, is massive. It’s also marvellous: part biography, part literary criticism. Auster takes you deep into the heart of his own obsession with Crane’s extraordinary, radical writings and it’s almost impossible not to be infected by his enthusiasm.
Auster is the author of 20 novels, has won numerous prizes and lives with his wife, the author Siri Hustvedt, in Brooklyn, New York.

Why did you choose to write about Stephen Crane?
I read him early, as a high-school student, as many of us did back then. The Red Badge of Courage was required reading for most high-school students. But then I lost contact with Crane and hadn’t thought about him too much. After I finished 4321, I was really exhausted and knew that I wouldn’t be able to write for some time so I took several months off to regroup. During that time, I read a lot of things that I had been meaning to read all my life. I started reading Crane again. The first thing I read was The Monster, which I’d never even heard of. I was so overpowered by its brilliance – it took me by storm and I was shocked at how good and deep and resonant it was. That inspired me to read everything else he’d written. My admiration kept growing. By the time I was done with his work I started investigating his life and realised how deeply fascinating that was. Finally, I decided to write a short appreciation of Crane.
Short?
That was my plan: 150 or 200 pages. Then one thing led to another and it turned into this new member of the Rocky Mountain chain. It’s an enormous book, I know. For a life that was that short, it’s pretty strange that I should have written so much. But it’s not just a biography, it’s also a reading of his work: it’s about evenly split between the two.
It’s a book that teaches us how to love Crane. Do you recognise yourself as a teacher?
I taught for five years at Princeton. These were writing workshops. I had a horror of them. Five years of teaching and I still have a horror of creative writing. Either you have an imagination or you don’t; either you have a feel for language or you don’t. I did have the feeling that I was an old man talking to younger people in this book. Not in a classroom, but around a dinner table and sharing my insight and enthusiasm for this writer and his work.
It feels like you admire Crane partly for how seriously he takes writing.
It’s the only way I understand writing. It’s certainly the way I’ve been all my life and it’s how every other writer I admire is – a kind of monomaniac. I’m not sure how you can make any art if you don’t treat it very seriously, if you’re not obsessed with doing it better each time.
Crane was very poor. Do we need to suffer for our art?
In order to unleash good work, there has to be something in you that feels out of balance. It doesn’t have to be financial distress – it could be emotional or amorous. Whatever the source is, the thing that has shaken life up for you, it’s distress that generates art.
How did you spend the pandemic?
Unlike most people, I don’t have a job, so I didn’t lose my job. Siri and I are both writers and we carried on doing what we do. I consider us to be very, very lucky. Here in New York, we were at the epicentre last spring. It was horrifying. The only sounds in the street were ambulances. There was no sound anywhere, just the birds that came flocking back in lockdown. Birds that hadn’t been seen in decades. But otherwise just dead space, silence and ambulances.
How do you organise your books?
In a weird way and it’s a system I developed over many years. The books are scattered all over the house. So in the downstairs guest room I have all my books about sports, all my crime novels and all my film books and also Judaica. I thought all these books would be really interesting to anyone staying the night here. Upstairs in the big room we call the library, we have only literature. Art books are along one wall. But I did the literature chronologically. It starts with Gilgamesh and then on through the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the middle ages, and then each of these is divided by country. Then upstairs we have another library and that is Siri’s room and it’s all the philosophy and psychology books. We are overwhelmed with books. We keep giving away hundreds of them and it never makes a dent.
Which classic novel did you read recently for the first time?
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. One of the most beautiful and shattering novels I’ve read in my life.
Which book would you give to a 12-year-old?
I think I would give that 12-year-old Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This person would be old enough to read it without the filter of a parent and to understand how wonderful and imaginative and absolutely crazy it is. The main thing about giving books to young people is that you really need to show them the sheer joy of reading, the pleasure it can bring you. Nothing too heavy. Books that are effervescent – that’s what creates a love of reading. If I were to give a 15-year-old a book, I’d give them Candide. That’s when I read it and it changed my life. I laughed, I was shocked and I was inspired by it. That’s what a great book can do when you’re young.
Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane is published by Faber (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
Guardian Live will host an online event with Paul Auster on Monday 11 October. Book tickets here

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