"Translating as much as you did, and you translated a lot, do you think that helped you as a writer?"
"It was a very good thing to do. I would certainly recommend it to any young writer. The thing about translation is, if you're translating a good writer, I'm talking about working on someone who merits the effort, is that, when you're young you're burning to write, but you don't necessarily have anything to say yet. What translation does is allow you to work on putting sentences together, words together, the craft of writing; the pressure to be original is off, and you're thrown in the trenches, working with a text that you begin to understand so deeply.
"Reading a poem is one thing, even writing an essay about the poem is another, but trying to translate a poem is a much deeper experience. Because you've got to enter into the bloodstream of the thing and understand the whole skeletal structure and take it apart and put it back together again. It's a very good thing to do."
"When you translate an older poet, you're working with the work of a adult mind."
"That's true, that's true, and they become your teachers. Pound always recommended it as a good thing for young poets to do, to translate, and I completely agree."
About The Follies , I said, and its frequent references to Hawthorne, I mentioned that when the Follies crew arrives in Vermont, I thought, "Oh, Auster is going to have his characters build a Brook Farm."
"Well, they were thinking of it in the novel, but of course things don't work out that way in the story. Of course Brook Farm was a big failure. Hawthorne went really just to earn money. He needed money."
"He worked hard. This was during the period before his marriage, and he worked 12 to 16 hours a day at physical labor."
"But I don't think he really believed in it [the utopian hopes of the Brook Farmers]."
"His letters to his then-fiancée, Sophia," I said, "would indicate that he did not share the majority of the beliefs that were held by the Brook Farm population. Have you read her letters to him?"
"I've read a few, but not that many. She's a great writer. Where I do have letters of hers is in the book that Julian published later, Hawthorne and His Wife . It's a very interesting book. It's a biography of the two of them. And so he quotes liberally from her letters in it. It's long out of print, but you can get it in a used bookstore. It's worth it."
The Brooklyn Follies, said Mr. Auster, germinated for a long time. "I started writing it back in 1993. It had a different structure then. It was going to be told in the third person, all of the characters were there except Nathan. He was not part of the story. But there were two other characters, Willie G. Christmas and Mr. Bones, the homeless poet and his dog. I began the narrative with them, and I fell in love with those two characters and decided to write a little poetic novel about them. That became Timbuktu , and by doing that, the structure I had in mind for this book fell apart completely. It took me years of thinking and rethinking in order to pull it back together again. I never really let go of those characters. They were all there. For years. In my head."
"It's a heavily peopled book. You manage a large population of characters."
"Yes. More so than in most of my books. I've written another novel since
The Brooklyn Follies which I finished several months ago, and it's pretty spare, I have to say. So, different kinds of books for different moments."
"I would never have guessed you'd begun this in 1993 because, particularly in the beginning, it is an aging man's book."
"Well, as I say, Nathan wasn't part of it in the beginning, so it did change. When I found him, the tone became different, and I guess even in some sense the meaning of the book became different. And then years had gone by. We were in a new political and social era, and this book reflects that. It is happening in 2002, and people are talking about the upcoming election and so on -- so it's of that moment.
"I think of it as a comedy. I don't want to keep writing the same book again and again. I have to start from scratch each time. I have so many different sides, so many different aspects of a personality that want to get out. I felt that this was the time to write the comedy. Billy Wilder, the film director, said, 'When you're feeling on top of the world and life is going well for you, that's the moment to work on a tragedy, and when you're feeling down and depressed that's when you should do a comedy.' So I thought the moment had come to do the comedy."
I said that I could easily imagine Mr. Auster taking up Nathan Glass's projected manuscript -- The Book of Human Folly -- and finishing it.
"I could too. I hope the right person reads the book and is inspired to do that."
"Do you ever think about the obituaries of 'little people'?"
"Of course. The obituary is a fascinating literary form. If it's done well it can be extraordinary. I don't know if you read the New York Times, but there was a moment a few years ago when they really tried harder with the obituaries, and they did some very interesting ones. They would pick people who were unexpected. Not just statesmen and famous people, but, for example, the man who cut fish at Zabar's, the food store. There was a great, great piece about him after he died."
Mr. Auster told me something of his past. "My father was a businessman. He did various things. He started out right after high school, from which he graduated, if you can imagine, in June 1929. He was very gifted in electronics, and so he got a job in Thomas Edison's lab. Two weeks into the job, Edison discovered that my father was Jewish and fired him because Edison was a notorious anti-Semite. And so my father opened up a radio repair shop. In Newark. And that eventually led to an appliance store. He stopped that at some point and went into real estate with his brothers.