The novelist believes that it’s “the burning need to do it,” not to be praised, that spurs great writing.
Question: How can someone read like a good writer?
Paul Auster: Well, again, we get into very murky territory here because it's all a matter of taste. I mean, I have the writers that I care about most, the writers that I think are the greatest of the past and of the present. But my list would be very different, perhaps, from yours. But I guess the important thing for young writers is to read, read the good ones. And I suppose by that, I mean, the ones who've withstood the test of time. You know, the great ones. Hawthorne, Melville, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Kafka, Dickens, that's where you're going to get the most, I think. And when you see how, you know, brilliantly they do things, Flaubert, you know, all the names that we know. But they're there for a reason, because they really are the best writers. And I think you have to learn from the great ones.
Question: What's the most common trap beginning writers fall into?
Paul Auster: Common trap, I suppose a kind of an egotism, self-importance, inability to look out of themselves, and I think it's important to look very closely at the world, everything happening around you, and sometimes for young people it's difficult to do that.
And the other thing is to, to get too attached to some of the things that you think are clever that you're doing. I think cleverness has its spots, its place in the world, perhaps, but the burning need to do it is what makes for good work. The wish to do it doesn't really help you. It's when it's absolutely necessary.
So when I talk to young writers, I mostly tell them, don't do it. Don't be a writer, it's a terrible way to live your life, there's nothing to be gained from it but poverty and obscurity and solitude. So if you have a taste for all those things, which means that you really are burning to do it, then go ahead and do it. But don't expect anything from anybody. The world doesn't owe you anything and no one is asking you to do it. And I suppose it's this feeling of accomplishment that young people feel sometimes is that, "Well, of course my book should be published! Of course I should be able to earn a living out of this." Well, it just doesn't work that way.
Recorded on November 5, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen