Discerning fiction from fact

Noted author Paul Auster (“The New York Trilogy,” “Oracle Night”) made a rare West Coast appearance in Portland at the First Congregational Church last Tuesday evening. He and his wife, fellow author Siri Hustvedt, put a refreshing spin on the tired current trend of book promotion as they traded off asking and replying to each other’s pre-written questions.

On a dark, wooden floor normally reserved for religious practice, comfortably sitting in high-backed chairs with deep red, velvet cushions, Auster and Hustvedt seemed delighted to ask their better half about subjects usually reserved for either critical theorists or avid fans.

After Hustvedt requested that Auster explain how his use of a multitude of genres serves him in his novel writing, Auster said, “I try and take something from a real event and then that will become the origin of a book. That’s where the whole thing starts. ‘Moon Palace’ is a book set up as the history of the exploration of America – the American West, outer space, the moon. Those vast spaces of American history fascinate me. For other novels, it’s different though. ‘The Brooklyn Follies’ is an allusion to the 18th century early English novel.”

Auster also delved into his origins as a writer. “I discovered a number of early 20th century French poets whose work had not been translated,” he said. “My uncle had also been a translator. His versions of Dante, ‘The Aeneid’ and ‘The Odyssey’ are still in print. And for me, what’s so good about it as a literary endeavor is that it’s the best way to read a work. It’s a way to enter into the musculature, the vascular system that the writer uses. And it helped take the pressure off of me as an early writer; it helped me understand how to arrange things on the page.”

Hustvedt and Auster appeared to be equally interested in each other’s replies. Hustvedt, in particular, prefaced a number of her questions with, “I’ve never asked Paul this before” and then let out a wide smile.

As the large crowd, seated in pews, listened intently, Hustvedt revealed how she dealt with her personal relation to the characters that she has created in her novel.

“The most important aspect of writing to me is getting to know the characters,” she said.

“In moments of calm, I will begin to hear the characters talk. The most important is the narrator. When things are going well, I am completely intimate with the people. After I wrote my last novel, I had a hard time separating myself from the characters. I couldn’t start a new novel right away.”

Perhaps the biggest revelation of the night was listening to Auster discuss his use of diversion and digression in his writing and his decision to often insert versions of himself into his own fiction.

“In the ‘Invention of Solitude,’ I wrote the first part in the first person. I started to do the same for the second part as well. But, 20-30 pages in, something kept bothering me,” Auster said. “The use of ‘I’ was suffocating me, impeding my ability to look at myself in the narrative. So it came to me: I have to write it in the third person, separate myself from myself.”

And on diversion/digression: “It all goes back to the 18th century, Jonathan Swift. You can pack a lot of stuff in between the covers of a book, so that certain things vibrate or reverberate against each other like a collage,” Auster said.