You are about to read a true story...

For 10 years, Paul Auster wrote novels packed full of strange coincidences. Get real, said his critics. So he did. By Kevin Jackson

One afternoon a phone rings, and the writer picks it up. A strange voice asks if this is a detective agency, and the writer says, no, sorry, you must have the wrong number. Twenty-four hours pass, and the phone rings again. The writer picks it up, hears the same voice, the same query, and gives the same reply. But as he hangs up, he starts to wonder what would have happened had he yielded to the temptation to say, yes, this is the detective agency, how can I help? He braces himself for the third call...

That little incident should seem familiar to readers of contemporary fiction, since it is very close to a chance contact which sets in motion City of Glass (1985), the dbut novel by Paul Auster. But, as Auster's latest publication explains, those misdirected phone calls really happened; he received them in the spring of 1980, mused for a year or so, and then used them as the germ of a weird plot involving heresies and mad experiments. City of Glass fascinated readers, and the New York Trilogy (of which it is the first book) went on to be a best-seller in many countries. Auster built on its success with a stream of distinctive, distinguished fictions - Moon Palace, The Music of Chance, Leviathan - and he was soon in the front ranks of his country's novelists.

Yet one or two critics were rather snooty about Auster's frequent reliance on coincidence and other cryptic happenings, complaining that there must be something essentially artless, perverse, in brief hopelessly pass about a body of fiction that seemed to lean on coincidence as heavily as any baggy, three-volumed monster from the 19th century. Real life just isn't like that.

Hence, in part, Auster's decision to publish "as a defence against my critics" a collection of short essays about the coincidences, chance encounters and other improbable things that have actually happened to him and his friends over the years, and have haunted his fiction: The Red Notebook. "If I were to describe the book," he says, "I would say that it's an ars poetica without any theory. The idea was just to present true stories, the real world as I've experienced it, without any commentary beyond that. So I just sat down to write this little text. I had many other stories, but I boiled it down to just 13."

Some of this baker's dozen have found their way more or less directly into Auster's subsequent fiction; others - usually the most improbable ones - simply make the mind a little giddy. There's the story of how one of Auster's friends, visiting Taipei, fell into conversation with another American woman and discovered that their respective sisters lived not only on the same street in New York but in the same house and on the same floor. Or there's the one about the Czech art historian who one day finds out that her East German husband was the son of a man who had gone missing, presumed dead in the war, and that she had therefore unwittingly married her own half-brother.

Auster disclaims any theoretical interest in such quirks and oddities - he's read Koestler on chance and Jung on synchronicity, and has not been much taken by either - and he's also at pains to point out that he's no Ripley's Believe-it-or-not merchant: "It's funny, I've never consciously sought them, I don't live my life as a compiler of odd stories, it's just that they keep coming to me. I can't seem to get away from them. And I think that's why these things are so present in my books. I don't even know if there's much to be made of it - I don't see it as a way to discover meaning in the world, maybe it's just the opposite. But I do think these things are happening to everybody."

The site for these ruminations is Auster's spartan workroom on the ground floor of a large apartment house in Brooklyn, where he's lived for the last 15 years or so. Though Brooklyn has raised some distinguished literary names ("Walt Whitman, Henry Miller, Arthur Miller..."), Auster says that it hasn't been much of a direct inspiration for his work, and that what he likes about living in the suburb is that "it's an unpretentious place where I can just slink around invisibly, doing my work with not a lot of interference". The only time he made Brooklyn the subject of a fiction, it led to the biggest upheaval of his working life.

A couple of years ago, Auster wrote a short story for the New York Times set in and around a local cigar shop. This piece was seen by the director Wayne Wang (Joy Luck Club), who saw its cinematic potential and asked him to develop it into a screenplay. The result, Smoke, went into production last summer, starring Harvey Keitel, William Hurt and Forest Whitaker, and was screened at this year's Berlin Film Festival. However, the business of filming Smoke proved so stimulating for all concerned that events began to take a momentum of their own. "Wayne and I would go to dailies in Manhattan, and in the car back downtown every evening we'd start throwing out ideas for situations involving some of the minor characters in Smoke." Before long, they realised they had the basis for an entirely separate film. An encouraging producer managed to get them money for another six day's shooting, bit players from Jim Jarmusch to Madonna (who plays a singing telegram girl) offered their services for nothing, and the result, Blue in the Face, is now ready bar a final music mix.

To appreciate the full flavour of this unexpected digression from his usual routine, one needs to know that the act of shutting oneself up in a room is not merely an essential working method for Auster (as for most writers) but one of his recurrent topics; that one of his earliest literary heroes was the great poet of isolation and withdrawal, Samuel Beckett; and that the title of Auster's most autobiographical work before The Red Notebook was The Invention of Solitude.

"Making Smoke got me out of my room for the first time in 20 years. I had never worked with anyone throughout that time, unless you count a short period teaching at Princeton. But there I was, working with other people and I enjoyed it, to a large degree. And, at the same time, I'm now completely ready just to lock the door again and go back to work."

But even if film crews may be leaving him alone for a while, some of Auster's stories may not be so discreet. He sometimes has the feeling, he says, that his tales carry on in the world long after he's stopped writing them. For example, several years after the publication of the New York Trilogy, Auster was sitting at his desk trying to write when the phone rang again. Another wrong number. At first he thought it was a hoax, but then he realised that the man on the line was not a reader with an odd sense of humour, but in earnest. What had thrown him was that the person the man was asking for was called Mr Quinn - exactly the name Auster had given the hapless hero of City of Glass.

n `The Red Notebook' is published by Faber and Faber at £14.99

Arts & Entertainment
Picture of innocence: Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington in ‘Derek’
TV
Arts & Entertainment
William Shakespeare's influence on English culture is still strongly felt today, from his plays on stage to words we use everyday
books50 Shakespeare phrases still in use, to mark the bard's 450th birthday
Arts & Entertainment
The next wig thing: 'Drag Queens of London'
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Bear Grylls’ latest television show has been labelled sexist by female survival experts

TV
Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio (left) could team up with British director Danny Boyle for the Steve Jobs (right) biopic
film
VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
A stranger calls: Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Rush hour: shoppers go sale crazy in Barkers, Kensington
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes play Catherine and Heathcliff in Pete Kosminsky's 1992 movie adaptation of Wuthering Heights
booksGoogle Doodle celebrates Charlotte Brontë's 198th birthday
Arts & Entertainment
Robin Thicke with his Official Number 1 Award for 'Blurred Lines', the most downloaded track in UK music history
Music
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello
Theatre
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
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

Arts & Entertainment
Tom Baker who played the Doctor longer than any other actor
tv
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

film
Arts & Entertainment
film

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
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

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

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

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

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'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
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
    and  

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

    Migrants in Britain a decade on: The Poles who brought prosperity

    Migrants in Britain a decade on

    The Poles who brought prosperity
    Philippe Legrain: 'The eurozone crisis has tipped many into disillusionment, despair and extremism - we need a European Spring'

    Philippe Legrain: 'We need a European Spring'

    The eurozone crisis has tipped many into disillusionment, despair and extremism - this radically altered landscape calls for a new kind of politics, argues the economist
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A moment of glory on the Western Front for the soldiers of the Raj

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A moment of glory on the Western Front for the soldiers of the Raj
    Judith Owen reveals how husband Harry Shearer - star of This Is Spinal Tap and The Simpsons - helped her music flourish

    Judith Owen: 'How my husband helped my music flourish'

    Her mother's suicide and father's cancer also informed the singer-songwriter's new album, says Pierre Perrone
    The online lifeline: How a housing association's remarkable educational initiative gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression

    Online lifeline: Housing association's educational initiative

    South Yorkshire Housing Association's free training courses gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression
    Face-recognition software: Is this the end of anonymity for all of us?

    Face-recognition software: The end of anonymity?

    The software is already used for military surveillance, by police to identify suspects - and on Facebook
    Train Kick Selfie Guy is set to scoop up to $250,000 thanks to his viral video - so how can you cash in on your candid moments?

    Viral videos: Cashing in on candid moments

    Train Kick Selfie Guy Jared Frank could receive anything between $30,000 to $250,000 for his misfortune - and that's just his cut of advertising revenue from being viewed on YouTube
    The world's fastest elevators - 20 metres per second - are coming soon to China

    World's fastest elevators coming soon to China

    Whatever next? Simon Usborne finds out from Britain's highest authority on the subject
    Cityfathers tackles long-hours culture that causes men to miss out on seeing their children

    Cityfathers tackles long-hours culture

    The organisation is the brainchild of Louisa Symington-Mills, a chief operating officer who set up Citymothers in 2012 - a group that now boasts more than 3,000 members
    Ian Herbert: Manchester United broken so badly they need a big personality to carry out overhaul

    United broken so badly they need a big personality to carry out overhaul

    The size of the rebuild needed at Old Trafford is a task way beyond Ryan Giggs, says Ian Herbert
    Mark Schwarzer: Chelsea keeper aims to seize unlikely final chance

    Mark Schwarzer: Chelsea keeper aims to seize unlikely final chance

    The 41-year-old calmed his nerves to perform a classic 'Superman act' when he replaced Petr Cech in Madrid. One clean sheet later, he is now determined to become a club hero
    Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home

    It's not always fun in the sun: Moving abroad does not guarantee happiness

    Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home
    Migrants in Britain a decade on: They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire

    Migrants in Britain a decade on

    They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire
    Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

    Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

    The 'Thick of It' favourite thinks the romcom is an 'awful genre'. So why is he happy with a starring role in Sky Living's new Lake District-set series 'Trying Again'?