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  • NYS Writers Institute

Paul Auster 1947-2024

“You think it will never happen to you, that it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the world to whom none of these things will ever happen, and then, one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else.”

– Paul Auster, Winter Journal (2012)

We mourn the passing of novelist, poet, filmmaker, and translator Paul Auster, who died of complications from lung cancer at his home in Brooklyn on Tuesday at the age of 77.


Praised as "the patron saint of literary Brooklyn" in today's New York Times obituary, Paul was the bestselling author of Winter Journal, Sunset Park, Invisible, The Book of Illusions, Leviathan, The New York Trilogy, 4 3 2 1, among many other works. His final novel, Baumgartner, about a widowed septuagenarian writer, was published last year. Auster became known for his “highly stylised, quirkily riddlesome postmodernist fiction in which narrators are rarely other than unreliable and the bedrock of plot is continually shifting,” the novelist Joyce Carol Oates wrote in 2010.


The New York Times wrote: "With his hooded eyes, soulful air and leading-man looks, Mr. Auster was often described as a 'literary superstar' in news accounts. The Times Literary Supplement of Britain once called him 'one of America’s most spectacularly inventive writers.’ Though a New Jersey native, he became indelibly linked with the rhythms of his adopted city, which was a character of sorts in much of his work — particularly Brooklyn, where he settled in 1980 amid the oak-lined streets of brownstones in the Park Slope neighborhood." Read the obituary.

Paul was a regular guest at the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs and first visited the NYS Writers Institute in 2004 upon the publication of his novel Oracle Night. 

He returned to Albany in 2012 for two special events with his friend J.M. Coetzee, the Nobel Prize-winning South African novelist who rarely made public appearances. The two writers discussed Herman Melville’s classic short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” during an afternoon event, and in the evening they read from a selection of their letters. Those letters were published in the collection Here and Now: Letters (2008–2011) in 2013.


The correspondence began in 2008 when Auster sent a letter proposing an ongoing dialogue on any subject -- "Let’s strike sparks off each other," he said. The correspondence grew into a collaborative meditation on friendship, childhood, marriage, art, politics, unfavorable literary reviews, travel, immigration, sports, translation, bigotry, South Africa, Israel, Palestine, insomnia and Franz Kafka, among other subjects.

Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee at the UAlbany Performing Arts Center's Main Theatre, October 12, 2012. (UAlbany archive photo)

A prize-winning poet, Auster published his Collected Poems in 2004, which contains selections of three-and-a-half decades of original poetry, as well as translations of major French poets.

As a screenwriter, he is best-known for his collaborations with director Wayne Wang, including "Smoke" (1995), "Blue in the Face" (1995), and "The Center of the World" (2001). Auster also wrote and directed "Lulu on the Bridge" (1998), starring Harvey Keitel and Mira Sorvino. Auster’s novel about gamblers, The Music of Chance, was made into a 1993 film starring James Spader and Mandy Patinkin.

He has been awarded the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature, the Prix Médicis étranger, an Independent Spirit Award, and the Premio Napoli. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.



Novelist Joyce Carol Oates: "Thinking of brilliant writer-friend Paul Auster whom I’d first met as a colleague at Princeton. Paul did not seem to like teaching creative writing but he much enjoyed the company of young writers & encouraged many."


Novelist and screenwriter Ian McEwan: "If his imagination seemed so spacious it was because he was as much a European as an American writer. If he had Thoreau at his back, he also had Beckett. It is possible to cross a Paul Auster Platz and walk down a rue Paul Auster. Not many novelists have been so honoured. As a presence he was ridiculously handsome, worldly, generous, funny and, unlike most great talkers, a highly attuned listener."


Novelist Hari Kunzru: "Amidst police violence at Columbia, CUNY and UCLA, the news that my friend Paul Auster has died. In 1968 he was one of the Columbia student occupiers, fleetingly captured by British filmmaker Peter Whitehead in a documentary called The Fall."


Author and poet Meghan O’Rourke: “Paul Auster was the Brooklyn novelist back in the ’80s and ’90s, when I was growing up there, at a time when very few famous writers lived in the borough.” 


Writer Rachel Kushner: “… from translating Maurice Blanchot early in his career, to shaping what fiction could be, in the New York Trilogy, which every writer of my generation read, absorbed, and in some sense, responded to, to writing, suddenly, and late in life, an 800-page biography of Stephen Crane, Auster shows us what it means to be endlessly curious, ambitious, and above all, literary.”


Author Jonathan Lethem: “I remember thinking last night about the array of the books I felt were Paul’s best and how, contrary to the tendency to think of writers as if they are athletes with one early flare who then are destined to disappoint, Paul’s lasting accomplishments are scattered early, middle and late. I remember then being certain again of something I already knew: that when a writer enters the past, their lesser efforts become instantly unimportant and we are able to see the masterworks as a constellation, glinting together, and nothing else matters.”

From The Paris Review

Auster was featured in The Paris Review in the fall of 2003. Here is an excerpt from that interview.

The Art of Fiction No. 178: Paul Auster


Let’s start by talking about the way you work. About how you write.


I’ve always written by hand. Mostly with a fountain pen, but sometimes with a pencil—especially for corrections. If I could write directly on a typewriter or a computer, I would do it. But keyboards have always intimidated me. I’ve never been able to think clearly with my fingers in that position. A pen is a much more primitive instrument. You feel that the words are coming out of your body and then you dig the words into the page. Writing has always had that tactile quality for me. It’s a physical experience.


And you write in notebooks. Not legal pads or loose sheets of paper.


Yes, always in notebooks. And I have a particular fetish for notebooks with quadrille lines—the little squares.


But what about the famous Olympia typewriter? We know quite a bit about that machine—last year you published a wonderful book with the painter Sam Messer, The Story of My Typewriter.


I’ve owned that typewriter since 1974—more than half my life now. I bought it second-hand from a college friend and at this point it must be about forty years old. It’s a relic from another age, but it’s still in good condition. It’s never broken down. All I have to do is change ribbons every once in a while. But I’m living in fear that a day will come when there won’t be any ribbons left to buy—and I’ll have to go digital and join the twenty-first century.


A great Paul Auster story. The day when you go out to buy that last ribbon.


I’ve made some preparations. I’ve stocked up. I think I have about sixty or seventy ribbons in my room. I’ll probably stick with that typewriter till the end, although I’ve been sorely tempted to give it up at times. It’s cumbersome and inconvenient, but it also protects me against laziness.


How so?


Because the typewriter forces me to start all over again once I’m finished. With a computer, you make your changes on the screen and then you print out a clean copy. With a typewriter, you can’t get a clean manuscript unless you start again from scratch. It’s an incredibly tedious process. You’ve finished your book, and now you have to spend several weeks engaged in the purely mechanical job of transcribing what you’ve already written. It’s bad for your neck, bad for your back, and even if you can type twenty or thirty pages a day, the finished pages pile up with excruciating slowness. That’s the moment when I always wish I’d switched to a computer, and yet every time I push myself through this final stage of a book, I wind up discovering how essential it is.

Paul Auster's favorite books (from 2007)


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