"I don't know America anymore"

By Christoph Amend and Georg Diez

How did things change -- the world, love, our certainties -- after 9/11? Don DeLillo asked himself these questions in his new novel, Falling Man. A conversation.

[This interview originally appeared in Die Zeit magazine on 11 October 2007. This English translation was done by dumpendebat of Dum Pendebat Filius.]

Mr DeLillo, we'd like to hold a workshop conversation with you, about how you work, how you think, and how it led to your new novel, Falling Man.

Usually I forget about a novel as soon as I'm done writing it. This time it's different. It's taken me over a year to start feeling somewhat free of it. I'm not completely [free of it] even today.

You've already often been concerned with political conspiracies and assassinations in your work.

Yes, but 9/11 is something different. It's still so close to me, to other New Yorkers. A short while ago, there was a fire at the Deutsche Bank building in New York, a comparatively harmless fire. But when I saw the images, my heart started beating harder right away. [Note: the Deutsche Bank building, at Ground Zero, caught fire on 18 August 2007. Two firefighters were killed fighting the fire.]

After 9/11, did you ever think, I could have dreamed up this story?

No, no! But a friend called me three days after the terrorist attacks and said, his voice trembling, that he was holding a copy of my novel Underworld in his hand. It has a picture of the World Trade Center in fog. I hadn't thought at all about the motif on the cover of that book. Originally, I didn't ever want to write a novel about 9/11. I had an idea for a different book, which I had been working on for half a year, when suddenly a picture surfaced in my mind: a man, walking through the streets of Manhattan after the attack, shrouded in clouds of dust and ash. Later I found out that this photo actually exists, but at the time I didn't know that yet. The picture was simply there in my head. It started off with this motif, that's all I had.

You had, not a photograph, but...

... to begin with, the picture existed only in my imagination.

Can you still remember the moment when this picture surfaced?

Sometime in 2004. A couple months later, I started to work on Falling Man. I still remember this exact date: it was the day after George W. Bush's re-election in November 2004. I needed an internal counterweight. I did research, read articles and books on 9/11, and also discovered the photo that I'd just been carrying in my head up till then. It shows a businessman, in ashes and dust, with a bag in his hand. It appeared in many newspapers after the terrorist attacks. I asked myself: Who is this man? What's his story? And what about the bag he's got? I tried to answer these questions with the force of my imagination. Suddenly I hit upon the idea that the bag didn't belong to the man at all. Who did it belong to? Why did he have it with him? I placed myself, like a detective, into my own plot.

What does your daily routine look like when you're writing a novel?

In the morning, after breakfast, I go to my room and write on a manual typewriter for three or four hours. Then I take a break, visit my bookseller, go grocery shopping, get something to eat. If it's going along well, I turn back to the writing table in the late afternoon.

Who reads your work first? Your wife?

Yes, she reads the manuscript, but only once I've written the whole thing to completion. And my copyeditor, of course. It's a disgrace that the profession of copyediting is dying out in America! Why is that? Copyeditors are really important; they can save careers! Take my case, for example. If I were to offer the manuscript of my first novel Americana to a publishing house today -- it would never get published. It consisted of 700 chaotic pages, quite a muddle. But it found itself a copyeditor who said, There's something interesting stuck inside this chaos. And he went over the text with me, in long conversations, suggested changes and cutbacks. Then I made a lot of changes. That wouldn't be possible anymore today. A disgrace!

And how did you proceed in the case of Falling Man?

With Falling Man, I wrote two-thirds of the book within a year, during which time I followed my instincts. Then I took the discrete parts and bound them together anew, to bring about a new internal structure, a balance, a rhythm, where certain elements could surface, time and again, at meaningful intervals. I felt like an architect designing a building. Like Hemingway said, "Get black on white." Put black letters on white paper, then one sentence will follow the next one.

You've said, "I think sentence-by-sentence."

Yes. I think sentence-by-sentence, stone atop stone. From my own sentences I learn something about the characters of a novel. The sentences bring me, in a strange way, to something about the book itself. Only while I'm writing do I realize what it is I really want to say. Then it proceeds from there. I also have this experience a lot when I discuss politics. I often find I don't know my own position on a given topic until I've discussed it.

Is Falling Man a political manifesto?

No, I just wanted to deal with 9/11, day-by-day, sentence-by-sentence. I've only just started to go and vote regularly again since the terrorist attacks. Which, I admit, my wife kind of forces me to do: on election day she practically shoves me out the door to go and make my voice heard.

Where do you place yourself, politically speaking?

I'm an independent. And I don't want to say anything more about it.

Why not?

Well, in the Bronx, where I grew up, we'd have said "Because it's none of your fucking business."

For our readers, we have to add here that you're laughing.

Yes. I don't want to commit myself politically in public.

What do you think of today's America?

We find ourselves in a strange state. After 9/11, the American people stood behind their government, there were no protests against the military action in Afghanistan, and at first there was no criticism of the Iraq war. And even today, although public opinion in polls has tipped over, one does not sense a public attitude of protest which could even remotely remind you of how it was during the Viet Nam war. As one of the characters in Falling Man puts it, I feel this way too: I don't know America anymore. By the way, I first got a feeling, after I had finished writing the text of the story, for how one can react to events like these by means of literature. With literature, you can cast light on the inner life of these kind of events. The novelist can describe an individual's feelings of fear and loss with dialogue, with dreams, with thoughts, which are closed off to a historian or a biographer. A novelist doesn't have to prove anything, at least not in the way an author of non-fiction has to. Because how can you present historical evidence of dreams? All the same, you can describe a different truth, one that's no less valuable.

The two main characters in Falling Man are called Keith and Lianne, a couple who broke up before 9/11. Which truths are reflected in both of them?

Keith and Lianne are the main characters, a couple living apart. There's also a second couple, Lianne's mother Nina and her German life-partner Martin. And what happens after the terrorist attacks? Keith and Lianne become closer to one another and renew their relationship, while Nina and Martin fall into a crisis and drift apart. Here you see the power of terror: it changes our lives.

Who is Keith?

That, ironically, is the question Keith asks himself for the first time after the terrorist attacks: Who am I? What's my identity? Suddenly he realizes how much he loves his son, that he wants to be close to him. Lianne always wanted to be like other people, until through 9/11 she seems stronger to herself. She reads everything she can get her hands on, especially intensively the obituaries that appear in the newspaper every day of the victims of the terrorist attacks.

You talk about your characters as though you lived with them.

But it's not the case that I love them or hate them. The way I'd put it is that we follow a path together, and I'm fascinated by the things I experience with them.

Falling Man became a book about intimacy.

Yes, I'm telling an intimate story which is encompassed by a global event. But it also became a book about memories, and what they mean in our lives. Ten years ago, I took part regularly in meetings of a group of Alzheimer's patients, without knowing that one day I'd be writing about it. At the beginning [of the meeting], each participant would spend twenty minutes writing down memories from their lives. After that, they would pass the stories around and discuss them with each other. The participants loved these meetings; I was merely a silent observer and listener.

How did it come about that you dealt with Alzheimer's?

My mother-in-law came down with Alzheimer's. For that reason, my wife first started going to the group. It was poignant to listen to these people as they told one another stories from their lives, their memories, moments, feelings, things that are completely lost in today's mass media. The meetings took place in the early 1990s, but now as I was grappling with 9/11 and the theme of collective memory, these rounds sprang back to my mind, so I made literary use of them, as an example of how we sometimes avoid our own memories: we need to tell them to one another.

In your novel Mao II, you compared the power of a terrorist action to the substantially-declining influence of the novelist. That came across almost like jealousy.

It's a character in Mao II who talks that way, not the novelist Don DeLillo. When I write a work of literature and put words in the mouth of my characters, I do not think about whether I myself stand behind those words.

Let's put it another way: Are there similarities between a terrorist and a novelist?

The terrorist can change the world, influence it in his way, and 9/11 is a terrible, formidable example of this. Everything's different afterwards -- the city, the people, the world. The terrorist act has a simple, clear structure, if you will, and that's what makes it attractive. And the terrorist, through this act, gets a unique role for himself that distinguishes him from the rest of the world. When I saw the famous photo of the terrorist [Mohammad] Atta, the one that was on his driver's license, I couldn't take my gaze away from his eyes. It was as if his eyes were broadcasting a specific knowledge: for Atta knew that the fact he now possessed an American driver's license was going to change the world forever.

And you experience this desire, too?

Naturally a direct comparison of terrorist and novelist is complete nonsense, we both agree on that, right? But there was once a time when the novelist also had some influence on how his contemporaries thought, the way they saw the world, the way they lived. Kafka, Beckett: they succeeded at that. Kafka's work changed forever the way we look at the world. Does literature still have this power? No, I think it has lost this power. Great novels continue to be written, but they are no longer changing the world.

Why not? What makes you so pessimistic?

We live in an age of rapid mass media, television, Internet. They determine our tempo, not books.

But as a novelist who deals with the great themes of our age, aren't you struggling against that?

I have ideas, and implement them. It would scare me if my own books had that kind of influence. I never wanted to change the world. Norman Mailer wanted to, he set himself the task of changing the consciousness of our age. And I think he came pretty close, in the 1960s, to actually managing to do it. But me? No, no, I never wanted anything like that. I'm not Maileresque.

But you also write novels in order to get through to readers, to show them your way of looking at the world.

Henry James once said that doubt is the novelist's passion. That pretty much nails it. While I'm working on a novel, my self-doubt rocks from side to side. Sometimes it's weaker, then it flashes more powerfully. I also never know beforehand whether a book of mine will come across a strong reaction. When I finished with Underworld, I didn't really have any all-too-great hopes, to be honest. It's some pretty complicated stuff: 800 pages, more than 100 different characters -- who's going to be interested in that?

After reading it, your agent advised you strongly to put in a detailed index.

Yeah, she thought that was a good idea...

... which you didn't carry out. Underworld ended up being an international bestseller. The critics hailed it as the American answer to Ulysses as work-of-the-century.

Nobody was more surprised about that than I was. I had given the completed manuscript not only to my agent, but also to several friends and colleagues, to read, and barely a week later I started to get positive reactions. These kind people had read 800 pages within a week! That alone was a compliment I hadn't counted on receiving.

The U.K. Observer once called you "the Medusa of our times," because you take up themes that a larger public becomes aware of decades later.

I've read that about myself, too.

You look like you just bit into a lemon.

Did I pull a wry face? Hmmm.

You don't like that quote.

Medusa herself wasn't particularly happy, right? Whereas I am by no means an unhappy author.

You're a happy author?

I don't believe there's any such thing as a happy author. To write is difficult and frustrating, the beginning is always the hardest part, but then, often about halfway through the book, the author often experiences a certain good fortune: what's been written suddenly makes sense, things get clearer, writing gets easier for him.

Are you a Medusa?

I try not to think too much about how other people see me. A novelist should avoid turning into the person the public takes him for. If that doesn't work out for you, you'll get frozen, ossified in a pose of image cultivation. And the novelist in you will die. You see, it doesn't happen that a historical phenomenon occurs to me and I cleverly build it into a novel. I write unconsciously. In that respect, I'm similar to an artist who paints pictures or makes sculptures, who reflects the feelings of an era, without being able to analyze it.

In your first novel Americana, which appeared 36 years ago, you pre-record the way life feels today, a feeling that came into being through the cultivation of self-image on Internet sites such as MySpace and in "reality TV" shows -- you write that many people only really believe they exist if there's video footage of them.

Just yesterday I received an insightful piece in the mail about my work, in which this quote was also cited. I must admit that I had long since forgotten all about this quote. Weird, huh? What goes on in the head of a novelist? I can just describe to you once what's going on in my head. But when it comes to other novelists, I too am facing a puzzle. It's infinitely difficult to talk about writing. When I see my writer friends, we'd rather talk about film, politics, sports, all kinds of things, just not about literature.

On that subject, don't you feel any rivalry with each other?

Naturally that would make the conversation easier. To talk to other novelists about their books, or my own books, requires the high art of diplomacy. What do you say to a good friend, whose new novel you've just read and have unfortunately found dreadful? Either you politely look for a few positive details, or there's a really tight friendship between you, one that won't be damaged by honest criticism. One of those comes along only rarely, unfortunately.

Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

I don't think in those terms. My parents were immigrants from Italy, from Abruzzo, simple people, who first got together in New York, in the Bronx, where I grew up. They came to America because they were looking for work, and they lived to see that this country kept its promise to them: it offered them perspectives, a new society, in which they found work and a certain prosperity. I wondered once why it is that in my books I have gone into my childhood in the Bronx so little, and the only answer I can give is that in a certain way, I have followed my parents' impulse -- to concern myself with this new society on the whole, not just with the three streets I grew up in. It's surely no accident that my first novel was called Americana.

You're vintage 1936. What do you remember about your childhood?

Please forgive me for starting off again with the motif of a picture. A little while ago, I saw in the newspaper a picture of a baseball game from 1951. In the bleachers, every spectator was wearing a suit and tie. I'd completely forgotten about that! This example shows how infinitely far-away the days of my childhood, my youth, seem from today's view. My father, he was an insurance-company representative, always wore a suit and tie, and only on especially hot days he wore a white short-sleeved shirt.

And what was the little Donald DeLillo like?

I was always out in the street. As a little boy I whiled away most of my time pretending to be a baseball announcer on the radio. I could think up games for hours at a time. There were eleven of us in a small house, but the close quarters were never a problem. I didn't know things any other way. We always spoke English and Italian all mixed up together. My grandmother, who lived in America for fifty years, never learned English.

Later on, a friend once called you a "passionate loner."

I started to be a loner at the age of twenty, and I'm really still a loner to this day. It's quite possible that this was a reaction to my noisy childhood, during which I was never by myself.

What did you learn in the Bronx for the rest of your life?


Are you good at it?

I used to be quite a good player, but I haven't played in a long time. I used to belong to a weekly regular game. A few of the participants died, one of them moved to another city, so we had to call it quits.

Your character Keith in Falling Man also plays in a weekly poker game. It's the only thing that brings him pleasure after the break-up with Lianne.

That's right. And, in fact, I also knew a man who, like Keith, moved into a small apartment after breaking up with his wife, and the first piece of furniture he bought was a poker table.

What about playing poker fascinates you?

The challenge. You've got to be smart and brave. You have to give the game total concentration, and for that reason, a game of poker helps you forget, for a couple of hours, all the problems you've got. Poker tells you something about your own character: Are you prepared to take a risk? Can you make decisions easily? It's not always pleasant to learn the answers to these questions. Poker is merciless that way.

For some time, poker has been a worldwide successful TV phenomenon. What do you think: Where does this success come from?

Can I answer you with Keith from my book? He thinks that poker's success on TV comes not from the poker, but from the television. He's right. Poker games on TV are staged, like soap operas or wrestling matches, with characters that correspond to any desired clichés. You see, TV has also changed the game of baseball, a game that actually consists of long pauses. But because TV invented the technique of replays, they repeat individual scenes during the pauses, even when they didn't lead to anything. And in the end, the broadcast of a baseball game consists, above all, of replays -- we humans invented these technologies, so they have to be deployed.

Mr DeLillo, you are said to have gotten a late start reading books.

Yes, as a child I mostly listened to the radio. I first discovered books as a young adult, Hemingway, Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, romantic epic novels. Then I discovered the Europeans, Camus above all.

How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be a novelist?

I was the first-born boy, who in Italian families enjoys more freedom than his siblings. My parents didn't protest, maybe for this reason. I was 28 years old when I quit my job at an ad agency because I wanted to write novels. One morning I woke up and thought: Today I'm quitting. The only problem with this day was, I couldn't find my boss. I reached him in the late afternoon, and he wasn't especially surprised. I said, "I'm leaving now, and I won't be back." Today I believe that he knew long before I did, that one day I would quit.

And then you started to write your first novel?

No, I quit in 1965. My first book appeared six years later. Back then I spent a lot of time at the movies. I liked matinées the best, because I'd often be alone in the theater. I hung around like that.

You once said that back then, you didn't know if you would really become a novelist, but you at least wanted to live the life of a novelist, which consisted of three things...

... Coffee, cigarettes, and taking a look at the world every so often. That fascinated me.

What balance have you reached, four decades later?

I quit smoking a long time ago, and I'd rather have a cup of tea. But everything else came along that way.

Interview by Christoph Amend and Georg Diez

Don DeLillo was born in New York in 1936. He grew up among immigrants in the Bronx. His parents came to America from the south of Italy. In 1971 his first novel Americana came out. Afterwards he lived for several years in Greece, where a large part of his novel The Names (1982) takes place -- a meditation, as is usual with DeLillo, on life and culture in America. The media, mass culture, the world of commerce, paranoia, fear and terror -- these are themes he dealt with in White Noise (1984) [sic], Libra (1988), Mao II (1991) and Underworld (1997), and which are brought together through the background of 9/11 in Falling Man. DeLillo is a master of post-modern narrative: he often foregoes a linear plot and leaves it up to the reader to put events together. He says he became a novelist because of his city "because I lived in New York and saw, heard and felt all the brilliant, surprising, dangerous things that go on here."

Translated from the German by dumpendebat on 4 November 2007

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