An Interview with Don DeLillo
PEN: You received this year’s Saul Bellow award, PEN’s top honor for American fiction. Are you an admirer of Bellow’s work?
DeLillo: I still have my old paperback copy of Herzog (Fawoett Crest, $0.95), a novel I recall reading with great pleasure. It wasn’t the first Bellow novel I encountered—that was The Victim, whose opening sentence (“On some nights New York is as hot as Bangkok.”) seemed a novel in itself, at least to a New Yorker. Bellow was a strong force in our literature, making leaps from one book to the next. He was one of the writers who expanded my sense of the American novel’s range, or, maybe a better word for Bellow—its clutch, its grasp—and it’s a special honor to be awarded a prize that bears his name.
PEN: Is there something about the American novel or fiction that sets it apart from international literature?
DeLillo: There are many kinds of American fiction and I’ve always had special admiration for work that attempts to be equal to the sweep of American experience. Sinclair Lewis called for “a literature worthy of our vastness.” A novelist tends to feel this spread and breadth in his fingertips (or not) and I’ve tried to bring a sense of our strange and dangerous times into my work. I guess I’ve said before that I don’t think my novels could have been written in the culture that existed before the assassination of President Kennedy. I would eventually write about the event itself and have tried, from the beginning, to find a language—an American language—that might carry the ideas and events in my work to their full potential.
PEN: In an interview this past March, you noted that your shift, over the last decade, toward shorter novels had been informed by re-reading several slim but seminal European works of fiction, including Albert Camus’s The Stranger, Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, and Max Frisch’s Man in the Holocene. Can you talk a little about the evolution of your work and influences?
DeLillo: A novel determines its own size and shape and I’ve never tried to stretch an idea beyond the frame and structure it seemed to require. (Underworld wanted to be big and I didn’t attempt to stand in the way.) The theme that seems to have evolved in my work during the past decade concerns time—time and loss. This was not a plan; the novels have simply tended to edge in that direction. Some years ago I had the briefest of exchanges with a professor of philosophy. I raised the subject of time. He said simply, “Time is too difficult.” Yes, time is a mystery and perhaps best examined (or experienced by my characters) in a concise and somewhat enigmatic manner. Next book may be a monster. (Or just a collection of short stories.)
PEN: Thanks to e-books, blogs, and social media, writers are arguably using new technology as never before. Stories are written using Twitter, novels as text messages, and there seems to be a reemergence of serial narratives. Do you think technology will have a considerable influence on fiction? Do you think it already has?
DeLillo: The question is whether the enormous force of technology, and its insistence on speeding up time and compacting space, will reduce the human need for narrative—narrative in the traditional sense. Novels will become user-generated. An individual will not only tap a button that gives him a novel designed to his particular tastes, needs, and moods, but he’ll also be able to design his own novel, very possibly with him as main character. The world is becoming increasingly customized, altered to individual specifications. This shrinking context will necessarily change the language that people speak, write, and read. Here’s a stray question (or a metaphysical leap): Will language have the same depth and richness in electronic form that it can reach on the printed page? Does the beauty and variability of our language depend to an important degree on the medium that carries the words? Does poetry need paper?
PEN: You were brought up Catholic, but religion seems to play a relatively minor role in your work. You tend to turn faith on its head. When you imagined a jihadist behind the September 11 attacks, for example, you emphasized the “blood bond with other men,” as you put it in an interview, rather than his religious beliefs. Do you think about the role religion plays or doesn’t play in your writing? What do you think about the prominence of religion in American politics—or the antagonism toward Islam that has become especially visible in the last few months?
DeLillo: The Latin mass had an odd glamour—all that mystery and tradition. Religion has not been a major element in my work, and for some years now I think the true American religion has been “the American People.” The term quickly developed an aura of sanctity and inviolability. First used mainly by politicians at nominating conventions and in inaugural speeches, the phrase became a mainstay of news broadcasts and other more or less nonpartisan occasions. All the reverence once invested in the name of God was transferred to an entity safely defined as you and me. But do we still exist? Does the phrase still soar over the airwaves? Or are the American People dead and buried? It seems the case, more than ever, that there are only factions, movements, sects, splinter groups, and deeply aggrieved individual voices. The media absorbs it all.
PEN: You have explored paranoia in several books, perhaps most notably in Libra, your novel about the Kennedy assassination. Nowadays, wild claims can “go viral” and become “true” through endless “reporting” on cable news, and the tendency toward paranoia seems stronger than ever in America; many Americans doubt the standing president is a U.S. citizen, for instance. What do you think of today’s information landscape? Do you see it having an effect on free expression? On fiction?
DeLillo: The earlier era of paranoia in this country was based largely on violent events arid on the suspicions that spread concerning the true nature of the particular event, from Dallas to Memphis to Vietnam. Who was behind it, what led to it, what will flow from it? How many shots, how many gunmen, how many wounds on the President’s body? People believed, sometimes justifiably, that they were being lied to by the government or elements within the government. Today, it seems, the virus is self-generated. Distrust and disbelief are centered in a deep need to raise individual discontent to an art form, often with no basis in fact. In many cases, people choose to believe a clear falsehood, about President Obama, for instance, or September 11, or immigrants, or Muslims. These are often symbolic beliefs, usable kinds of fiction, a means of protest rising from political, economic, religious, or racial complaints, or just a lousy life in a dying suburb.
PEN: Can you talk about your involvement with PEN and what it means to defend the rights of writers in the U.S. and around the world? What do you see as the writer’s role or responsibility in the public sphere?
DeLillo: The writer’s role is to sit in a room and write. We can leave it at that. Or we can add that writers have always felt a natural kinship, country to country, language to language. We can know a country through its fiction, often a far more telling means of enlightenment and revelation than any other. The shelves in the room where I’m writing these words are crammed with books by foreign writers. This is work that I’ve been reading and re-reading for decades, title after title forming a stream of warm memories. It’s important to remember that we can also know a country from the writers who are not permitted to publish their work—fiction, nonfiction, journalism—in accord with honest observation and clear conscience. Writers who are subjected to state censorship, threatened with imprisonment or menaced by violent forces in their society clearly merit the support of those of us who enjoy freedom of expression. There are things a writer never takes for granted, like the long life he will need to live in order to write the long novel he is trying to write. Maybe freedom to write belongs at the top of the list, on behalf of those writers who face the grim reality of being enemies of the state.