Innocence of youth: How Paul Auster excavated his own past for his latest novel

Paul Auster has just loped out of Sweet Melissa, an icing-sugar pink patisserie near his home in Park Slope, when the waitress who has buzzed around our table delivering bowls of soup and plates of quiche, rushes over to inquire after him. I imagine she is keen to share her views on his work - New Yorkers are fierce fans and he has a starry status in this literary square mile of Brooklyn - or admire his Gothic good looks. The most infatuated have been known to follow him across town.

Instead, she says: "Who is he? We've always thought he was just a regular guy... He comes here all the time, on his own, sits on this table..." she trails off, staring at the empty seat of this Sweet Melissa cipher-turned-Important Author. It's a case of mistaken identity not too far removed from Auster's first fiction, The New York Trilogy, inhabited by mysterious men with interchangeable names - sometimes Auster's own - who lose their identities down existential plugholes and spend the rest of the book trying to retrieve them.

Ever since that critical breakthrough in 1987, Auster has inserted aspects of himself, and those around him, in his work. A Paul Auster appears, fountain pen in hand, in a scene in City of Glass from The New York Trilogy; Sunset Park, his as yet unpublished novel, features Willa Parks, a woman who wrote to Auster when he was collecting real life stories for radio in 2001; Leviathan's Maria borrows from the life of the artist Sophie Calle; more confusingly, Auster once claimed the main character from the same novel was married to the heroine of his wife, Siri Hustvedt's novel, The Blindfold, in a transfictional romance; the instances of fiction-imitating-life-imitiating-fiction are numerous. These porous worlds have enthralled fans but left critics equivocating, with the meanest charging him of solipsistic game-playing.

Auster who is dark, towering - part matinee idol, part silver-screen villain - waves the criticism away. He has stopped reading reviews - "no good can come of it, I spare my fragile soul" - even the good ones, because they miss the point. He has reasons to be disgruntled. They call his work 'Beckettian' for its absurdist qualities. He disagrees. "I think my work is nothing to do with Beckett."

They say he's a postmodern master of meta-narratives, with his spools of stories within stories, but he cites the likes of Emily Brontë over Baudrillard as a source of inspiration.

Auster's literary career began haltingly, first as translator, then poet (he met Hustvedt at one fortuitous poetry reading) until he hit a wall in his late-20s. He switched to prose and publishing a memoir, The Invention of Solitude, before fiction. He makes no secret of using aspects of his biography to cross-fertilise his 15th novel, Invisible (Faber & Faber, 16.99). The year is 1967 and his protagonist, Adam Walker, is a 20-year-old Columbia student and opponent of the Vietnam War who goes to Paris for a "Junior Abroad Program" before coming back, disheartened, to work at New York's Butler Library.

To anyone who has read Auster's 1997 memoir, Hand to Mouth, Adam's life appears to replicate Auster's own year of '67, complete with the abortive year abroad and fear of the draft. Yes, he concedes, his early life gives Invisible its geographical signposting, especially the Paris of his youth, to which he has always retained an affinity. "I stayed in that hotel (in Saint Germain) with the U-shaped mattress that dipped in at the middle. It would be silly to deny that the book does not use parts of my life, but I was using it only as a springboard. Walker's story is not my story. "I draw on a year of my life when I was 20, in 1967 and '68. It's hard to explain the chaos of that time. The devastation of the Vietnam war in American Society. There was suddenly the prospect of the draft facing us... the race riots, the assassinations, the war, the war, the war. It was tumultuous, to be so young, but old enough to have a mind, and to take stock of what's going on."

War lies at its fringes, however, not its centre. As a story which delves into the "erotic cravings" of Adam's youth, it is a coming-of-age novel with an unexpected tale of brother-sister incest at its heart. Adam and his teenage sister, Gwyn, embark on a "grand experiment" a passionate relationship begun in adolescence which carries through into later years that is devoid of the guilt and dark perversion normally seen in incest narratives. Their love, ardent but ultimately doomed, is described in the tender, beguiling language of romance. "It was one of the most intense pieces I have ever written," he says. "It moved me to write it. I have no idea what other people will say about it."

But he may already have an inkling from one early reading. "Siri and I went to Brown University back in the Spring. I read the passage on the 'grand experiment' to a roomful of students. I heard a couple of nervous titters from the audience. After the reading was over, no-one mentioned it, they just said it sounded like a nice book, there wasn't a single comment about what I had read."

With this ordinary-world incest, Auster captures well the dangerously free-floating, experimental nature of early adolescent sexuality. "Very young people, either in early adolescence or a bit older, know so little about sex yet they are so horny. All kinds of things happen that nobody talks about."

Just as the reader is settling into the story Adam's reflections on his early romances, a cold-blooded murder he partly witnesses, his friendship with the older, urbane couple, Margot and Rudolf Born, the fiction is intercepted by the storytelling process, a classic pulling-of-the-rug from under the reader's feet that Auster fans should have come to expect by now. Adam's unfinished, abruptly halted autobiography, not unlike (dare I say it) Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, written by him feverishly as an old man on the verge of death and sent in serial form to a school-friend, is not all it seems. Queue the entry of an "unreliable narrator"; it is blind alleys and puffs of smoke from thereon in. Auster's insists the answer to this trickery is not postmodern, but dates back to the 19th century.

"There were certain kinds of books I was attracted to as a young person, two jump to mind. Wuthering Heights and The Scarlet Letter. These fascinated me. You know full well these are fictions within fictions. The act of telling becomes part of the story. [Invisible] is an examination of how books get written, what a book is. I went where my nose was leading me. "

In spite of the games, there is an undeniable romance to Auster's fictional world, where serendipity and chance leads to blazing romances and intense mysteries; anonymous phone-calls are made and manila envelopes pushed under doors that lead ordinary, flawed men out of the shadow of anonymity to centre stage, if only to express their sense of failure.

In an interview with the Paris Review in 2003, Auster spoke about a project he undertook with National Public Radio, when 4,000 people wrote to him with "true stories that sounded like fiction", which could serve as a mission statement: "I wanted to prove that there's no such thing as an ordinary person. We all have intense inner lives, we all burn with ferocious passions, we've all lived through memorable experiences at one time or another."

His writing methods appear to have a charming, otherworldly romance, too. Ever since 1974, he has written with ink on paper before typing out the results on an old Olympia typewriter, paragraph by paragraph, correcting as he goes along. He eschews the Internet age Google, email and Skype ("what is that?", he puzzles). "I can't conjure up figures with my fingers poised on a keyboard. I need a pen. It's the physical gesture that unleashes the words."

He bills himself not unlike the waitress in the patisserie as a regular guy with simple requirements for a good life. "I don't want to do anything else except write, watch baseball games and be with my wife." It was baseball that led him to write in the first place, according to an account in The Red Notebook, when he is taken to a Giants game as a child and fails to secure an autograph of a player because he doesn't have a pencil. "If nothing else, the years have taught me this: if there's a pencil in your pocket, there's a good chance that one day you'll feel tempted to start using it. As I like to tell my children, that's how I became a writer."

His novels in recent years have focused on elderly, ailing characters - from The Brooklyn Follies, which begins with the words, "I was looking for a quiet place to die", to those who mourn the accumulation of losses as loved ones die around them in The Book of Ilusions and Man in the Dark. Perhaps it is a preoccupation with his own mortality? He has struggled with ill health and was in a car crash a few years ago. But, now, at the age of 62, he appears robust, itching to produce as much as time will allow, with thoughts that are back on a youthful trajectory. Another book Sunset Park is already written and waiting to be published after Invisible. "I think my old man cycle is over. Invisible is about the innocence of youth."

Sunset Park appears to be so too, featuring four penniless twenty-somethings and situated in the post credit-crunch era of the here and now. "It is set in a down at heel neighbourhood in Brooklyn...They take over an abandoned house to become squatters."

The pause between books is never a pleasant state, he reflects. " Each time I think it's the end. Right now, I have no idea what to do next." With that, he melts back into Brooklyn's streets, the Sweet Melissa cipher with a Pied Piper trail of admirers never far behind.

Arifa Akbar travelled with Virgin Atlantic (

Arts & Entertainment
A stranger calls: Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
tvMartin Freeman’s casting is a stroke of genius

Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival

Arts & Entertainment

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'

Arts & Entertainment
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

    The man who could have been champion of the world

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
    Didn’t she do well?

    Didn’t she do well?

    Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
    Before they were famous

    Before they were famous

    Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

    Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players