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Remembering novelist, screenwriter and memoirist Paul Auster

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we remember writer Paul Auster. He died Tuesday of complications from lung cancer. He was 77. In his New York Times obituary, he was described as the patron saint of literary Brooklyn, one of the signature New York writers of his generation. He's also been called the dean of postmodernists. Writer Meghan O'Rourke described Auster as remarkably good at getting at the texture of solitude, at telling stories about the lonely mind, evoking the almost supernatural corners of life. His books include "The New York Trilogy," "Moon Palace," "Leviathan" and "The Book Of Illusions."

He also wrote screenplays, including for two films starring Harvey Keitel, "Smoke" and "Lulu On The Bridge." In his memoir, "Winter Journal," he wrote about the history of his body, describing his scars, smoking habit, travels, home, near-death experiences and entering what he described as the winter of his life. I spoke with Auster about that memoir when it was published in 2012. We'll hear that interview a little later, along with an interview we recorded in 2004. Let's start with our 1997 interview. He'd just written a memoir called "Hand To Mouth" about his early efforts as a writer and the odd jobs he did to make a living. Here he is reading from the opening of "Hand To Mouth."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PAUL AUSTER: (Reading) In my late 20s and early 30s, I went through a period of several years when everything I touched turned to failure. My marriage ended in divorce. My work as a writer foundered and I was overwhelmed by money problems. I'm not just talking about an occasional shortfall or some periodic belt tightening but a constant, grinding, almost suffocating lack of money that poisoned my soul and kept me in a state of never-ending panic. There was no one to blame but myself. My relationship to money had always been flawed, enigmatic, full of contradictory impulses, and now I was paying the price for refusing to take a clear-cut stand on the matter.

(Reading) All along, my only ambition had been to write. I had known that as early as 16 or 17 years old, and I had never deluded myself into thinking I could make a living at it. Becoming a writer is not a career decision like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don't choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accept the fact that you're not fit for anything else, you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days. Unless you turn out to be a favorite of the gods - and woe to the man who banks on that - your work will never bring in enough to support you. And if you mean to have a roof over your head and not starve to death, you must resign yourself to doing other work to pay the bills.

(Reading) I understood all that. I was prepared for it. I had no complaints. In that respect, I was immensely lucky. I didn't particularly want anything in the way of material goods, and the prospect of being poor didn't frighten me. All I wanted was a chance to do the work I felt I had it in me to do.

GROSS: You had a lot of jobs during your so-called hand-to-mouth period, from being a teenager to - you know, through your 20s, when you weren't able to really make a living through your writing. Of all those jobs, what was the most meaningful, and what was the most meaningless?

AUSTER: I think the most meaningful job, at least the one that I learned the most from, would probably have been working on the oil tanker, but, of course, that lasted longer than most of the other jobs I had. It's a very rich experience, one that I continue to think about often. And this was 1970, so 27 years ago I was on that ship. And I remember it vividly - in fact, more vividly than most little periods of my life. This is - about six months of my life was spent doing that.

The least meaningful job I think would have to be some of the translations I did later. There was a period of about five or six years when I tried very hard to make my living as a translator, and there were so many books, assignments, that I took on that were so uninteresting. The books were so dull, and sitting at your desk, grinding out something which you knew was not worth anyone's time to read could be very demoralizing. I think I preferred washing dishes than actually translating bad prose.

GROSS: You had an offer to write pornography, but you couldn't do that very long. What was your problem?

AUSTER: I tried. I tried. I just couldn't think of enough adjectives to keep going. I think I was even combing through a thesaurus to try to liven things up. But I did later, I must say, meet up with someone, another young writer - struggling young writer who, in the course of 20 weeks, wrote 20 pornography novels. And he told me that whenever he got stuck, he didn't know what to write next, he would add - the next sentence would be, then the telephone rang, and he would do the telephone conversation. If he would wake up in the morning, which would happen, and he'd forgotten what he had written the day before, he wouldn't look back and try to make sense of the book. He would just start a new chapter with, everything I've written so far is untrue. This is the real story. And he would just launch into something else.

GROSS: That's great, but you couldn't try that yourself.

AUSTER: Well, I guess I just never thought of that.

GROSS: Right.

AUSTER: I wasn't equipped to do this job.

GROSS: At some point, you decided to try writing a detective novel. You'd read a lot of detective fiction, I guess thought you could do it yourself and that it would be saleable. Tell me more about why you decided to head in that direction 'cause in the past, what you'd published was your plays, poetry, translations.

AUSTER: That's right - book reviews, essays, but no fiction up to that point. But, well, this came at probably the grimmest moment of all these struggles. We're talking about the late '70s now, '78. I was so stymied in my own work. I really hadn't written anything much for months. And one night, lying in bed with tormented insomnia, for some reason, an idea for a detective story popped into my head. And the next morning, I thought, well, listen. Why don't you just sit down and do it?

It took me not very long. I worked very hard very quickly, you know, two months perhaps, 2 1/2 months. I finished the book, and I didn't see why it couldn't get published. But here again, my own stupidity and lack of experience interfered. I had no agent. I didn't even know how to get a literary agent, and I didn't really have any good contacts among publishers for this kind of thing. And the book never really got anywhere, and just a few months after that, my marriage broke up. My father died. All kinds of other things happened, and the book was put to the side for a number of years.

And later on - another crazy story - maybe about four years later, someone I had met only once a number of years before called out of the blue and said, I'm starting a publishing company. Do you have any books you would like to give me? I said, well, you know, there is this manuscript I've had in my closet for the last four years. Maybe you'd like to take a look at that. So I sent it to him, and

AUSTER: And, indeed, he liked it and set out to publish it, but he was not much of a businessman either. And the book was printed. But by the time it was done, he had no money left, he had no distributor. And the book was stuck in a warehouse somewhere in Brooklyn. And as far as I know, it's still there 20 years later or 15 years later. But at that point, I knew a little more about things, and I finally did get an agent and the book finally was published as a paperback.

GROSS: That interview with paul auster was recorded in 1997. Auster died Tuesday at the age of 77. We'll hear an excerpt of my 2004 interview with him after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL CHAMBERS' "EASE IT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering writer Paul Auster, who died Tuesday. Our next interview with him is from 2004, when a lot of NPR listeners knew him as the editor and on-air voice of its National Story Project. The occasion for this interview was the publication of his novel "Oracle" about a writer whose recent illness has left him without the energy or focus to write or do much of anything until he finds a seemingly magical notebook. The stories he writes in it take on an odd and inexplicable connection to his actual life.

Paul Auster, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Now, the last time we spoke was in September of 2002. And that interview ended on a kind of dramatic note (laughter). We were running out of time. And just as we were running out of time, we were talking a little bit about how you had reached that stage in life where many people you know and who you had been close to had died, and you were discussing how it affected you. And then you said something that I didn't have time to ask you about because we ran out of time. Let me play back what you said.

AUSTER: I'm not really gloomy about it at all.

GROSS: Why not?

AUSTER: I'm just trying to get the most out of the time that's left to me. I hope it's still many years, but I can't bank on that at all. And every day becomes more precious than the one before. And, you know, there's this great desire to do the work that I feel I have it in me still to do and to, you know, take care of the people I love as best I can and to just appreciate the miracle of being alive. Just a month ago, my wife, daughter and I were in a horrific car accident, and the car was demolished. We were blindsided by a speeding van not far from our house in Brooklyn, and the impact of that collision, you know, is still with me, you know, reverberating through my body.

It was a nightmare experience, and we should be dead. And when I saw the car afterwards, I don't know how we got out of there alive. You know, we should be dead, but we're not. And it's just another reminder about how things can change in an instant, how precarious and unpredictable life is. And it just reminded me all over again that I'm just so lucky, lucky to be breathing still, and I want to go on breathing as long as I can.

GROSS: Well, Paul, that's where our interview ended in September of 2002 'cause the clock ran out (laughter).

AUSTER: The clock ran out. Boy, do I remember that well. I mean, just hearing myself talk about the accident brings it all back as if it were yesterday.

GROSS: But this is what I've been wondering. You know, one would like to think that when you survive a car crash like that and you see your life in a different way, that that stays with you and that life gains this new sense of preciousness, which you retain and continue to retain. But how long did that perspective actually last, that constant sense of the preciousness and also the precariousness of life?

AUSTER: I think it hasn't gone away because since I talked to you last time, all kinds of other near misses have taken place.

GROSS: Oh, no (laughter).

AUSTER: Just about two months ago, maybe three months ago - I guess it was October. When it was starting to get cold here in New York, I turned on the heating system in our house, which is natural gas. There's a boiler down in the cellar, and everything seemed to be working. The heat was coming through the pipes. And somewhere around 4 o'clock in the afternoon, I smelled something very funny in the house. I was upstairs. I went down and the entire bottom floor was filled with smoke. I went down into the basement, completely blinded by smoke, and the boiler had burst into flame.

And I didn't know what to do. I ran upstairs, I found a bucket and I just doused the fire. And, you know, I turned off the gas. If I had been out walking the dogs at that moment, I think the whole house would have burned down. And the smell of that burning steam pipe was in the house for days after. And again, how many lives do we get, nine, right?

GROSS: Those are the pussycats. You only...

AUSTER: I know. I think I'm using my number pretty quickly.

GROSS: Well, you know, death is hovering in the background throughout your new book and, you know, so it is the precarious and unpredictable nature of life. It's constantly acknowledged. Of course, different characters react to this type of thing in different ways. And, you know, I'm even wondering, like, after the car crash - your whole family was in this car - did you find that everybody in the family had a different experience of the car crash and that it changed their life in different ways? You know, for instance, I'm thinking it's the kind of thing that can give you the sense of renewal. Like, well, I lived through this, so now I'm kind of free to do anything.

AUSTER: Well...

GROSS: Or it can paralyze you out of fear that it could happen again.

AUSTER: Well, I can tell you that each one of the three of us has had a different response, I guess. Our daughter was asleep in the back seat without a seat belt on but lying on a quilt with pillows. And I don't think she really experienced the accident because she was asleep. It was just a big jolt, and she was fine. Whereas my wife, Siri, who was in the passenger seat in the front, she took the brunt of the impact. And they had to, you know, cut the door with a torch to get her out of there. And at first, I thought her neck was broken. She couldn't move. And we were taken to the hospital, and she went through, you know, X number of tests and X-rays and MRIs, and finally, nothing was broken. She, I think, has been rather scared to be in cars ever since. And I, myself, have been very reluctant to drive. So I don't think it was a liberating experience, more of a bad memory.

GROSS: You seem to be someone who is just filled with stories. I mean, even like your novels, they have stories within stories. So it's not just one story.

AUSTER: No. They're bouncing off of each other.

GROSS: Yeah.

AUSTER: I'm very interested in - I don't know - what you might call the magnetic field that is created by rubbing two stories against each other and the kind of sparks that are emitted and the way it can lead to reflection and questioning on the part of the reader. It's almost what you might call a kind of - the effect of collage, I think, where if you have several elements interacting with one another, something interesting is bound to happen. Some new entity is created that's greater than the sum of the parts.

GROSS: You have an artifact from the past within the book, and it's a page from a Warsaw telephone directory from 1937, 1938.

AUSTER: Yeah.

GROSS: Would you explain what that page means to your character and what that page means to you?

AUSTER: Well, I was given that book on a trip to Warsaw in 1998 by my Polish publisher. He wanted to give me something special, he said. And he found this telephone book. In it is somebody with my name. There's an Auster in that book. And I transpose that into the novel. And I wanted to show the book to prove that it existed. It was - sort of the documentary quality of it was very powerful and hypnotic to me because what you have in a 1938 Warsaw telephone book is essentially a book of ghosts, as I say, because just about every Jewish person in that book would have been killed within the next five years. So it's a tragic document in a way. And it forms an important element of the novel.

GROSS: And why did you want to actually reprint that page, not refer to it, but to have a copy of that page?

AUSTER: Because the novel uses both fact and fiction. There are many historical events that are referred to. There are actually footnotes in the book, as you know, in which there are bibliographic references, all of which are true, and I wanted to confirm the existence of this book to show that it wasn't just something that I had thought up, you know, for the purposes of the novel, but that it was an actual thing that existed. And I wanted visual proof inside the pages of the book.

GROSS: I want to end close to the note that we started on. And we started on, you know, the fact of the car crash that you and your wife and daughter were in. And then you talked about how the boiler was on fire in your home and could have burned the house down.

AUSTER: Yes.

GROSS: I'll remind our listeners who might not know this that when you were young in summer Camp, a friend of yours was struck by lightning. Do you think that there are some people in this world who have these kind of close encounters a lot and other people who don't?

AUSTER: Well, it's possible. But getting back to what I was doing for NPR, a few years ago, the National Story Project. I was amazed at how many people had had these kinds of experiences. I think every life is touched by these close encounters, maybe some people more than others. But I think it's almost impossible to get through the full term of a life without coming very close to death a number of times and having all kinds of bizarre, inexplicable things happen to you. It's just the way the world works - mysterious, very mysterious.

GROSS: It's the way your fiction works, too - very mysterious.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Paul Auster, thank you so much.

AUSTER: Thanks for having me on again.

GROSS: Paul Auster recorded in 2004. He died Tuesday. After a break, we'll hear the interview I recorded with him after the publication of his 2012 memoir "Winter Journal." And film critic Justin Chang will review the new action-comedy "The Fall Guy," starring Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GERRY MULLIGAN'S "TIME AFTER TIME/THE SECOND TIME AROUND")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we're remembering the novelist, memoirist and screenwriter Paul Auster. He died Tuesday at the age of 77. When I spoke with him in 2012, he'd written a memoir that reflected on his life by focusing on the history of his body from his childhood on. He described his pleasure, scars, smoking habit, travels, homes and near-death experiences. The memoir was titled "Winter Journal," a reference to reaching his mid-60s and entering what he described as the winter of his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Paul Auster, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start with a short reading from "Winter Journal," and this is from the beginning of the book. We've condensed it a little bit.

AUSTER: (Reading) 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. Speak now before it is too late, and then hope to go on speaking until there is nothing more to be said. Time is running out, after all. Perhaps it is just as well to put aside your stories for now, and try to examine what it has felt like to live inside this body from the first day you can remember being alive until this one, a catalog of sensory data, what one might call a phenomenology of breathing.

It is an incontestable fact that you are no longer young. One month from today, you'll be turning 64, and although that is not excessively old, not what anyone would consider to be an advanced old age, you cannot stop yourself from thinking about all the others who never managed to get as far as you have. This is one example of the various things that could never happen but which, in fact, have happened.

GROSS: That's Paul Auster reading from the beginning of his new memoir, "Winter Journal." Why did you want to write a sensory catalog, including a mention of all the times you needed to empty your bladder and no toilet was at hand? (Laughter)

AUSTER: Not all the times.

GROSS: Not all the times.

AUSTER: Just one time.

GROSS: Referring to them, giving them a shout (laughter).

AUSTER: I don't know why I wrote the book. I never know why I do anything I do. I guess I did it because I wanted to, and somehow the idea felt very compelling to me and I went with it. And I thought, well, if I'm really going to do a good job of this, I have to be honest about everything, and I have to open myself up to things that could be potentially embarrassing. And yet, nevertheless, what I'm writing about are things that we've all experienced, and it's not difficult to identify with some of these little predicaments we get into every now and again, such as a bursting bladder in a place where you're not able to empty it. It's funny and it's part of everyday human life, so I thought I needed to talk about it.

GROSS: Now, a lot of the book really is about your body in a lot of ways, you know, like, things that have happened to it, times you've nearly died. You write about sexuality without writing explicitly about it, but, you know, about sexual feelings, panic attacks, so on, and I think some people just take their bodies for granted and live in them, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

AUSTER: Really?

GROSS: And other people - yes. Honestly, I think I've met people like that, and other people just have things happen to their bodies, some more frequently than others, and end up having to think about their bodies a lot, above and beyond sexual arousal.

AUSTER: You see - well, you see, I really thought of this book as a history of my body. That was the working idea and I launched into it with that in mind, but, you see, there's also a very long section about my mother, her life and her death, and I justify it by saying, well, it was in my mother's body that my own body and life began. Therefore, it's legitimate to talk about it. I also go through a catalog of all the places I lived in, all the addresses I've had over the course of my life, places I've been in for at least six months or a year, and I figured I could justify that by saying, well, these were the places that sheltered my body from the elements, so still - it's still sticking to the general idea of what I was trying to do.

GROSS: Hey. You don't have to rationalize it for me.

AUSTER: It's OK. No, it's all right. Thanks.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But, I guess, have you always been just aware of being housed in a body, sometimes a cranky body?

AUSTER: Yes. I think I was not so well when I was a small child. I had some kinds of stomach problems. I don't even know what it was. At the time, they called it celiac, but it couldn't have been celiac because that's a very terrible disease, and I think it lasts forever. There's nothing much you can do about it. But I had something. So in the early years of my life, up to about the age of four, I really wasn't so well. Then I got over this, and just started running around and got terribly interested in sports and all kinds of intense physical activity.

GROSS: In that period where you were diagnosed with celiac, that's, you know, a very terrible, life-threatening reaction to gluten, to...

AUSTER: Yes.

GROSS: ...Wheat and other grains containing gluten, so you were on a very limited diet. You said you lived on, like, almost bananas...

AUSTER: I lived on bananas.

GROSS: ...Solely for 2 1/2 years.

AUSTER: Bananas, bananas, so many bananas that, as I say in the book, I can't stand the sight or the smell of them, and I haven't tasted one in 60 years now.

GROSS: So were you brought up with the message, like, Paul, you're not normal, you can't eat what other people eat, you're not like the other children, you're not like other people, you must be protected?

AUSTER: Probably, but, you see, most of those years are before I have consolidated memories of those years, so I can't consciously say to myself, my mother said this, because I don't remember. What I remember is - it's a strange thing. When we would travel into New York - my mother grew up here in the city and we'd go to see her parents, sometimes staying overnight - I had a little suitcase, and she would pack my bananas in the suitcase, and that suitcase stayed in the family for years and it still smelled of bananas. And every time I saw that suitcase, I'd have a sinking heart and I'd remember, you know, the terrible business with the bananas, so a kind of sensory memory rather than a conscious memory of those days.

GROSS: You know, when talking about your body when you got active in sports, you loved, what, football, baseball.

AUSTER: Baseball, football, basketball. I played everything, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. But you hated fighting - physical fighting.

AUSTER: Yes. Because it was too emotionally overwhelming. You know, the kinds of angers that are part of fist fights and wrestling and confrontations between boys when you're young are so intense, and the emotions run so high, that even if you win the fight, and I probably won as many as I lost, you feel wretched afterwards, or I did. And I - even if I had won, I felt as if I wanted to cry afterwards, so I - by the time I was about 13, I figured out a way not to have to fight anymore, and I never did.

GROSS: What was your way out?

AUSTER: The way out was kneeing people in the balls. I figured this out.

GROSS: (Laughter).

AUSTER: And it would end the fight in five seconds. And as I say in the book, well, I got a reputation as a dirty fighter. Perhaps that's true, but it only was because I didn't want to fight. And after I did that once or twice when people confronted me and they're writhing on the ground and the fight is over, then people stopped taunting me or trying to pick fights with me, and I was free. So dirty tactics or not, it liberated me from the whole business.

GROSS: One of the things we've talked about before on the show which you write about in the book is a car accident that you were in. You were at the driver's - at the - you were driving. Your wife was in the front seat, your daughter in the back, along with the dog.

AUSTER: Yes.

GROSS: And you...

AUSTER: Actually, you and I talked about it once on the radio. Yes.

GROSS: We've talked about it. You've talked about it twice actually.

AUSTER: Yes.

GROSS: Once we - you brought it up at the very end of the interview.

AUSTER: That's true.

GROSS: Then we had to end. Our time was up.

AUSTER: And then you wanted to talk again. And then - so this is the first time I've written about it.

GROSS: This is the first time I've written about it. And...

AUSTER: Yes, all these years later.

GROSS: ...It's - you know, it's gripping even knowing the story and the outcome, but I just wonder, like, if the story keeps changing in your mind, I know, you know, sometimes what you're remembering is the memory of a memory.

AUSTER: Of course.

GROSS: And, like, the actuality of the experience keeps, you know, fading away and you wonder, like, how accurately am I remembering it? Are you aware of the story of that really traumatic incident changing over time?

AUSTER: Not this particular one, and I'm sure there are details that have changed and I'm not even aware of them, but it's only 10 years ago, so it's not the distant past. I know there are things that I've distorted, and even, for example, after I finished the book and it was published, I realized that the name of someone I knew in childhood - it was mentioned in the book - I got wrong. I gave the wrong name because I gave the name of the brother of the person rather than the person himself, and so there are all these little slips of memory that we almost can't control, I think.

GROSS: But you still don't drive.

AUSTER: No. I don't want to. I've lost all confidence in myself since then 'cause I had been driving for many years, ever since I was 17, and I was 55 when this accident took place, meaning that all my life, I had been driving without any accidents, no problems whatsoever, and to make such a stupid mistake, because I do blame myself for it - you know, I made a turn, cutting it very close with another car coming from the other direction, and that misjudgment is so alarming to me because the people I loved most in the world were in that car with me, and I easily could have killed them. So as a kind of penance, I don't get behind the wheel anymore.

GROSS: How has that changed your life, to not drive?

AUSTER: Not at all, because I live in New York City and you don't need a car here, so it really doesn't make any difference.

GROSS: We're listening to my 2012 interview with writer Paul Auster. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIE KNODEL'S "LANDLER")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering writer Paul Auster. He died Tuesday at the age of 77. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with him in 2012, after the publication of his memoir, "Winter Journal."

So we're talking about how your new book is in part a book about your body and some of the abuse that it's taken, some of the pleasure that it's had. There's a chapter about your mother, and it's in part about your mother's body, in the sense that you are the second person to see her body after she died. Her house cleaner called you and said that...

AUSTER: Yes.

GROSS: ...Your mother was dead, and you went right over. This is a strange question, but what was the difference between getting the news that she was dead and actually seeing her body?

AUSTER: Well, it was a surprising death, in that she hadn't been ill. I was not prepared for it. You know, when a parent has been ill with a disease and one is prepared, then you have a different response to the moment. This came out of the blue. And I - the telephone call came, and I went numb, I think. It's not as though I don't know that unexpected things happen and that people drop dead. I mean, my mother was 77. She wasn't terribly young, but she wasn't as old as many people get to be these days.

But numb, I think, is the word, and then, when I got to her apartment - it took a while to get there, she lived in New Jersey - seeing her inert body on the bed was almost more than I could bear. And I've seen other dead people, but none of them had been my mother, and there's something so intimate about a parent, and it was hard. So after looking at her for a few moments and studying what she looked like, I turned my head away and then I couldn't look anymore, and I kept not looking until her body was taken out of the apartment by paramedics.

GROSS: Was that in part so that that memory wouldn't be the primary memory visually of your mother?

AUSTER: No. There was nothing conscious going on. Maybe - unconsciously, maybe you're right. I just have no idea what I was experiencing then. I was in such shock and it happened so unexpectedly, and there I was, looking down at the person, the inert body of a person, to whom I had been talking on the telephone just two days before, and she'd been in buoyant spirits, cracking jokes. She seemed terribly in good form altogether, so it was so, so strange to think, well, I'm never going to hear her laugh again, and there's no more conversations either.

GROSS: But you were surprised at yourself. You didn't cry.

AUSTER: No.

GROSS: And you seem to think in the book that you weren't experiencing what you were supposed to be experiencing.

AUSTER: As I say in the book, it seems that -'cause I do cry in life every once in a while. I tend to cry more over books and films than real events, but every once in a while, I've cried about things that have happened to me but never over the death of anybody. Something in me shuts down in the face of death, and I think that's what led to the panic attack that I got a couple of days later because I couldn't - everything was bottled up inside me. And, you know, there were other factors involved with that attack as well - lack of sleep, too much alcohol, too much coffee. But still, I think my body wouldn't have broken down if I had been able to weep - I mean really weep, let it out. I think I would have been much better off.

GROSS: Is this the panic attack where you thought you were dying?

AUSTER: Yes. I absolutely thought I was dying, and I actually felt my limbs turn to stone. It was a feeling I'd never experienced before and never again since, this feeling of death creeping up in my limbs. And I think what was happening was my circulation was shutting down in order to keep my heart going - something like that. There's some medical explanation for what happened. But I really felt that it was death creeping up inside me, and it was probably the most terrifying moment of my life.

GROSS: So before that, you had thought - like, I don't know how many years before this it was. You thought you were having a heart attack...

AUSTER: Yes, right.

GROSS: ...And that you were dying, but there was a sense of calm that came over you. And...

AUSTER: I know. You see; I've had those two supposed near-death experiences, neither of which turned out to be serious. The first time, I was calm and accepting and ready to go. I thought, all right. This is it. My life is over. I think I was 50 when that happened, and I was with Siri, my wife. She was holding me, and I said, well, here I am in the arms of my beloved. And if this is it, this is it, and I'm not frightened. And then five years later, I got the panic attack, and I was frightened of out of my wits - so two different responses to what I thought was the same thing.

GROSS: Oh, and also, after the first time, you thought, now that I've seen what a calm experience dying can be, I'm no longer afraid of death.

AUSTER: That's right.

GROSS: And then you get this panic attack.

AUSTER: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: And, like, you're terrified. You're screaming in fear.

AUSTER: Exactly. Well, we're all made of contradictions; aren't we? And...

GROSS: Well, I am.

AUSTER: Yeah, I keep discovering more and more in myself.

GROSS: Does that disappoint you? I mean, do you wish - like, oh, as you get older, you should be getting, like, more consistent and figure out what you really think. And, you know, consistency is something that's really valued in this world, and it can be very hard to achieve. Like, I think we are very contradictory.

AUSTER: We are contradictory. All human beings are. We have multiple selves. We have different aspects of ourselves that come into play at different moments for different reasons. I think if we didn't contradict ourselves, it would be awfully boring. It would be really pretty tedious to be alive. I mean, changing your mind is probably one of the most beautiful things that people can do, and I've changed my mind about lots of things over the years. In fact, I was talking to a writer friend today on the phone who's even older than I am by about 10 or 12 years. And he's working on a book, and I'm working on another book. And we were talking about how each time we start, we want to just undo everything we've done in the past, take a new approach, shake things up for ourselves and just take risks, and otherwise, it's not worth it. And I think it not only applies to art but to life, too. So long live contradictions is what I say.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

AUSTER: Well, it's been a pleasure talking to you again. I'm glad you invited me, and thank you very much.

GROSS: Paul Auster, recorded in 2012. He died Tuesday at the age of 77. If you want to hear more of our interviews with Paul Auster, you'll find them on the FRESH AIR Archive website. Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews "The Fall Guy," the new action-comedy starring Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt. This is FRESH AIR.

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