How to Read a Novelist

John Freeman

Siri Hustvedt & Paul Auster


Previously, Work in Progress brought you John Freeman’s conversations with Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen as exclusive previews of How to Read a Novelist, Freeman’s book of more than fifty author profiles. This week, to mark the publication of How to Read a Novelist (it’s on-sale now!) and in anticipation of the November release of Paul Auster’s Report from the Interior, we bring you a special bonus conversation that’s not included in How to Read a Novelist: Freeman talking with Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster in 2008, on the eve of the publications of Hustvedt’s novel The Sorrows of an American and Auster’s Man in the Dark.

-Sean McDonald


The voice coming out of the speakers starts in a low whisper, like the first sound one hears upon waking.

Then it climbs higher and starts to sing of heartbreak, of loneliness. In a few minutes it has changed again, this time to a bellow-throated, bluesy rasp, full of womanly wisdom and sass. Listening in on a recent Brooklyn afternoon, novelists Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt shake their heads and tap their feet. Auster wears a smile so big it nearly wraps around the back of his head, while his eyes squeeze shut with pride. And he should be pleased: it’s their daughter singing.

“Doesn’t she have a great voice?” Auster asks. While completing a degree at Sarah Lawrence in New York state, Sophie Auster, twenty, has been putting together a new album and occasionally appearing with her father on stage at events. As soon as the music stops Auster is rifling through other demo CDs.

“Oh, don’t play the whole album,” Hustvedt says, her six-foot frame folded into an armchair. I ask why a girl with a voice like that is bothering with university at all, and Hustvedt gives me a stern look. “Let a mother have her dreams,” she laughs.

How to Read a NovelistWe’ve been at their Brooklyn brownstone for an hour, talking about Auster’s and Hustvedt’s upcoming books, and one gets the sense that they are happy now that their business—creation—has become a family business. Daniel, Auster’s son from his first marriage, to the writer Lydia Davis, is a photographer and DJ. He made a cameo appearance in Smoke, the 1995 film Auster wrote, and co-directed with Wayne Wang. Sophie is well on her way to a singing career.

Yet Auster and Hustvedt have not slowed down; if anything, they have sped up.

In the past decade, the two of them have published or edited more than seventeen volumes of poetry, essays, fiction, graphic novels and screenplays. Last year Auster, sixty-one, released a film he wrote and directed, The Inner Life of Martin Frost, starring Michael Imperioli from The Sopranos, with Sophie in a bit part. And he has a new novel on the way.

Hustvedt, fifty-three, fresh from publishing a series of books heavily indebted to, or about, the art world, also has a novel on the way: The Sorrows of an American.

“We really live a quiet life,” Hustvedt says, sitting now at their red lacquered dining room table, within sight of an Alexander Calder print that was used as the frontispiece for Auster’s first collection of poems. Auster is dressed in jeans and has pulled out a cigarillo, which he smokes with great relish. The silence of the block—which happens to also be home to Booker winner Kiran Desai and novelist Jonathan Safran Foer—is lush at 5 p.m. Hustvedt and Auster have lived here for more than twenty-five years, after marrying in 1982, long enough to watch the neighborhood clean up and gentrify, then price out the writers who once flocked here.

Like so many people in New York, both of them are spiritual refugees of a sort. Auster was born in Newark, New Jersey, Hustvedt in Minnesota. Auster said goodbye to his own childhood world in his magnificent, wonderfully panged 1982 memoir, The Invention of Solitude. And now it is Hustvedt’s turn to do the same in The Sorrows of an American, which takes pieces of a memoir her father, who was a professor, wrote for his friends and incorporates them verbatim into a novel.

“I thought a lot about The Invention of Solitude when I was writing this book,” Hustvedt says, turning towards Auster. “It was like you were sort of ordering your past in your mind, almost filing it, like it was the mind thinking of itself.” In The Sorrows of an American, Hustvedt’s characters—a brother (Erik) and sister (Inga) of Scandinavian descent living in New York—struggle similarly after their father dies and leaves behind a mysterious series of letters that suggest he may have had something to do with a murder.

“I asked my father before he died and he gave his permission,” Hustvedt says, “and it meant a lot to me to put it in here.”

“They are incredible letters,” Auster adds, “and when you put them in there, they become something entirely new.”

This is not the first time Hustvedt has incorporated the contours of real life into her fiction. Her previous novel, What I Loved, involved an icy poet, a famous artist, his ex-wife and a troubled son. In The Sorrows of an American, while psychiatrist Erik tries to sort out his deep dependence on his patients, Inga begins to receive insinuating letters and visits from a journalist about her recently deceased husband, a famous writer, about whom the journalist claims to know an embarrassing secret.

One doesn’t have to look too hard to perceive a veiled jab at prying journalists who have, in the past, put Auster and Hustvedt’s personal life into the tabloid press. Jokingly, Hustvedt plays along. “See, I killed Paul,” she laughs, referring to Inga’s husband. “Seriously, though, he’s nothing like Paul: he’s older, he lives a totally different life.” As much as she laughs at their fame, Hustvedt admits to bracing herself for this publication, like all others.

“You’re nervous,” Auster points out. Hustvedt says she doesn’t read reviews or profiles.

“It’s not the mean things,” she says, “it’s the things which wind up casually wrong.”

The one thing that The Sorrows of an American pulls from real life is the psychiatric detail Hustvedt has braided into the book. Several years ago, she began volunteering at a local psychiatric institution, teaching writing classes to patients, as a way of understanding Erik’s milieu and mindset. She might have over-studied. To prove herself worthy, she passed the New York state licensing exam for psychologists. Part of this wound up in another book, in the form of a ten-page history of psychopathy that Auster encouraged her to cut out. “I was so reluctant to give it up, and of course he was right.”

As usual, Auster read The Sorrows of an American in progress. “I showed it to him in eighty-page chunks,” Hustvedt says, “hoping he would say, ‘You’re on the right path, keep going.’ Which is mostly what [he] said.”

Meanwhile, Auster read to her once a month from Man in the Dark, a short novel in which a seventy-year-old insomniac imagines a world where the Iraq War did not happen, the Twin Towers did not fall. The Iraq War, which has been in Auster’s thoughts and about which he has made critical public statements, is very much present in the book. “The whole book takes place in one night,” Auster says. “It’s a man lying in bed, and he can’t sleep, and he’s making up stories and remembering his life. But he’s making up stories in order not to think about certain things that are too depressing to think about.” In sharing their work, Hustvedt is more apt to give Auster feedback about small word changes, while he occasionally identities things that can be cut.

“I kept telling Paul, when I came downstairs at the end of the night, ‘I finished another beat.'”

“That’s right,” Auster remembers.

“Each beat was a kind of breath I had to pull out,” Hustvedt continues. “I was always listening for the next beat.”

“Where to start,” Auster interjects.

“I started to think of the book as a fugue,” Hustvedt says, again, as much to him as to me. In this fashion, Auster and Hustvedt play off each other, finishing each other’s sentences, circling around from the issues of language and memory running through her new novel, to Kant and cognitive science.

“Can I interject?” Auster asks at one point. “I’ve never seen anyone look at a painting more closely than Siri does.”

“I just hang out for a couple hours,” Hustvedt explains. Auster then reminds Hustvedt how she found a phantom image in a Goya painting at the Prado in Madrid several years back, causing ripples in the art world.

“Would you say, with figurative painting,” Auster asks, “that looking at paintings is like studying a text? You have narrative in dramatic paintings, and you have to know the narrative to understand the painting.”

Hustvedt thinks about this for a bit. “I have a very inter-subjective way of looking at art,” she says. “It’s not as if I am some superhuman being who comes down from on high and explains it. For me it’s a dialogue between the traces of a consciousness and my own consciousness.”

Watching Auster and Hustvedt interact intellectually, one can appreciate why artists and writers keep appearing in her work. You can also see why they don’t work in the same house. (Five years ago, while interviewing Hustvedt, I stopped when I thought I heard someone beating on a set of drums in the house. “That’s Paul typing,” Hustvedt explained with a wry smile.) “I haven’t worked here for four years or so,” Auster says. “We had done some work in the house and I was getting interrupted all the time, so I thought, ‘To hell with it, I’m going to go back to my old system of working outside the house.'”

With his gravelly voice, ten-yard-glare eyes and shelf of novels about the elusive quality of memory, chance and identity, Auster doesn’t seem like the kind of writer who would work in a sun-drenched studio. But that’s exactly what he has been doing for the past few years, writing in the top-floor apartment of a nearby brownstone. “Nobody calls, except a few people who have the number. So if the phone rings, I know that it’s important,” he says.

Although they write and think in close proximity, Auster and Hustvedt are finding it harder to find time to be together once their books are finished. Hustvedt’s novel comes out next month and they are going to have large chunks of time apart, which is one reason why they are pleased to be making their maiden voyage to Australia for Adelaide Writers’ Week together. “I think they have you on a panel about life and me on a panel about death,” Auster laughs. It’s not an entirely comic approach. As much as they are alike, their work is vastly different.

“Somebody said Paul’s books are built like stones and mine are like rivers,” Hustvedt says.

And so America’s most productive literary mill keeps producing, one word at a time.
John Freeman is an award-winning writer and book critic who has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, and The Wall Street Journal. Freeman won the 2007 James Patterson Pageturner Award for his work as the president of the National Book Critics Circle.

Paul Auster’s newest book, Report from the Interior, will be published by Henry Holt this November on the heels of Picador’s reissue of Man in the Dark and Travels in the Scriptorium (Day/Night).

The Blazing World, a novel by Siri Hustvedt, is scheduled for a March 2014 publication.

Sean McDonald is Publisher of FSG Originals and Executive Editor and Director of Digital and Paperback Publishing at FSG.

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Illustration by W.H. Chong.