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Book Talk: Writer Paul Auster on angels and memoirs

By Johan Sennero
/ Source: Reuters

By Johan Sennero

STOCKHOLM, June 16 (Reuters Life!) - Nine years ago, an angel walked down 4th Avenue in Brooklyn and came to the rescue of American writer Paul Auster and his family.

The 64-year-old author of "The New York Trilogy" and more than a dozen other novels as well as poetry, screenplays and essays, plans to write about that and other unusual moments when he embarks on a new literary challenge: his memoirs.

Auster likes to spin tales of chance and blink-of-an-eye events that change lives. He talked to Reuters about his own experiences, as well as his frustration with American reading habits and his love affair with a 50-year-old typewriter.

Q: You write about chance and life-changing moments. Why?

A: "The turning moments of our lives are often those spooky things. You didn't wake up in the morning thinking this is going to happen. Every horrible thing that happens in your life is like that. You wake up in the morning and then something terrible happens or something good. I've always speculated about these things."

Q: Has anything like that ever happened to you?

A: "In 2002, the whole family -- my wife, daughter and my dog -- were in a horrible car accident. We should have been killed. I don't know how we got out of that with our lives. We were coming back from a long trip...and we were driving back home to Brooklyn. I made a left turn on a busy, fast-moving avenue and then a van just smashed into us."

"Right after the accident, as we were still sitting in the car, before the ambulance had come, who should walk along the street, but a doctor? An Indian man in hospital white, one of the most beautiful men I've ever seen in my life. He was like an angel coming down from heaven. He leaned into the car and did all the things that a neurologist would do. He started to talking to my wife, didn't want her to pass out. He stayed with her for a little while and when he was sure that she wasn't going to die or anything, he left. Just like that."

"And then the next day I had to go to the junkyard, to get the luggage. The man who ran this place was a Jamaican, a Rastafarian with dreads. He looked like a mystical being too. He looked at the car and said: 'Man, you were supposed to die, but the angel was looking out for you. He saved you all.' I believed him."

Q: And you will be writing about that?

A: Yes, I've just been writing about this (the car accident) - I'm writing an autobiography. It's too soon to talk about. It's not a traditional autobiography. It's a book of fragments, which I hope adds up to something. I'll see what I have to do to make it work, or maybe it's working now. I don't know yet. We'll see."

Q: In your latest book, Sunset Park, someone says America is a country where people don't like books. Do you feel that way?

A: "America is sadly a place where people don't read very much. And there is not a lot of space given in people's minds to books and writers. The whole question of literature seems not to interest many people".

Q: Why is that?

A: "We have always been a strange country of aggressive, money-hungry people. It has traditionally been a rather anti- intellectual place. It's acceptable to be stupid."

"Years ago I saw a story on the news. In some place in the south, they had stopped teaching foreign languages. They went around asking people what they thought about this and one man actually said: 'It's ok with me. If English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me."

Q: You have an old Olympia typewriter. Do you still use it?

A: "Yes. I've just had it overhauled. There's is one typewriter place left in New York. The man who owns it has the great name of Paul Schweitzer, like the doctor (Albert Schweitzer). He does a great job."

Q: Why do you keep using it?

A: "I like it. I've worked on computers but I like the touch of my typewriter better. I don't really write on the typewriter. I write by hand, in notebooks, and then I type it up. It doesn't break. Computers are always going crazy. I've had the same thing for almost 50 years and it doesn't break. It's a beautifully made machine."

Q: You've been a writer for 37 years. What keeps you going?

A: "I feel more alive when I'm working. I am convinced that writing is a kind of illness. Who would want to spend his life sitting in a room, putting words on paper? It's a strange occupation. You got to have a great taste for solitude."

Q: And you do?

A: "Yes, I like the solitude."