At 66, Paul Auster’s father died of a heart attack. When Paul Auster himself reached 66, in 2013, he started writing by far the longest novel he had ever attempted. Constantly worried he might die before completing it, the author, famous for his New York Trilogy and other slim, noir-ish books, toiled seven days a week, putting off all other commitments, and writing each paragraph in longhand before typing it out on his 1970s-model Olympia. After three years, he typed the last sentence, stood up and nearly passed out: “My knees buckled,” he recalls, “and I had to grab hold of the wall and steady myself.”
At the time, Auster was exhausted; now he’s elated: “I’m still breathing, which is kind of a miracle!” On the phone from the Brooklyn home he shares with his wife, fellow writer Siri Hustvedt, he is discussing the resulting tome—4 3 2 1, just published at 866 small-margined pages—with the volubility of an astronaut who’s just returned to Earth. Indeed, writing the book vaulted Auster’s considerable imagination into a new frontier: 4 3 2 1 follows four different versions of its main character, Archibald Ferguson, across multiple narrative strands. They start together in 1947, in Newark, N.J., where he is born (in the same year and the same place as Auster) but diverge when he’s a young boy, as his family’s fortunes take significantly different paths.
The novel concludes in 1974, when Auster published his own first book; like their creator, all four Fergusons have creative bents. Nonetheless, they express themselves in different ways, and their personalities vary strongly. Unlike Auster’s more austere tales, full of ellipses and elisions, 4 3 2 1 is a consciously overstuffed coming-of-age(s) novel; despite some exasperatingly detailed passages, it maintains an engrossing élan, recreating the passionate intensity of youth, along with its frustrations. What’s more, its descriptions of 1960s social upheaval feel disturbingly relevant now. Auster spoke with Maclean’s contributor Mike Doherty about post-election American reality, the consequences of coincidence and reinventing himself as a writer and a person.
Q: The passages in 4 3 2 1 that are set in the late 1960s, depicting student protests, the fear of creeping fascism and ongoing battles between police and black people, suggest a real parallel between the U.S. then and now.
A: Absolutely. Things have not changed as much as we would like to think they have. Or maybe we’re just in another one of these divided moments in the country. The late ’60s certainly was one of them, the Civil War being another, but I’m hard-pressed to think of too many.
Q: The book is, in a way, about division and multiplication, and it portrays how those who protested the administration were divided in their aims and their methods. Now in the U.S., there’s not much of a consensus among those who oppose Trump about how best to do so.
A: No, it’s just that the fact that Hilary Clinton won the popular vote by such a large number gives some validation to this impulse to stand firm. If we don’t, I think within a year they’re pretty much going to dismantle American society as we’ve known it. I’m not sure that we’re able to stop it from happening, but I don’t think people should just roll over and passively watch it happen.
Q: One of your Fergusons becomes a journalist, and at times he feels torn between actually joining protesters or hanging back to report on it. Could a fiction writer, in theory, do both?
A: Art is not politics. The glory of the novel is that in its essence, it is a democratic form, because it treats individuals as worthy of scrutiny. That alone is a kind of political act. A good novel about a tea party of rich women can be just as galvanizing and important to the soul as War and Peace, so I think it’s not really the job of artists to do anything. They can have their opinions as private citizens, but they must continue making their art.
On the other hand, in my own case, I know that what’s happened in the election has changed American reality, and I understand that I have to change with it. I have to rethink how I live my life. I’m not a political essayist; I don’t see that I would have any value cranking out articles for newspapers or magazines, because lots of people are doing that already. But one thing I do believe in very much, and have participated in for 40 years now, is PEN, which is really the only human rights organization in the world defending writers. I’ve been asked several times over the years to become president, and I’ve always said no, because I didn’t want to give up all the time from my work. The position won’t be open for another year, but if they still want me then, I’ll do it; I’ll speak out as often as I can from that platform.
Q: Is there anything that compelled you particularly to write about the events in this novel—did you feel you could tackle this material with a degree of perspective, 50-odd years on?
A: After I published Sunset Park, my last novel, I wrote two autobiographical works: Winter Journal and Report from the Interior. I was revisiting my childhood and thinking about it more deeply than I ever have in my adult life, and I think that ploughed the ground for this novel. And then, I thought of the idea of multiple Fergusons rather than just one, and I got so excited, I just plunged in and started writing. I knew it would be big, but I had no idea it would be this big.
Q: This novel is much bigger than any other that you’ve published—which is unusual for someone with such a long career already.
A: Late style, they say, gets simpler and shorter, and here, I’m getting more abundant as I get older!
Q: Do you derive pleasure from bucking that trend?
A: Yeah, I have to say. I feel in some sense I’ve been preparing all my life to write this book, and I didn’t know I had it in me until I started doing it. The whole thing felt so right. I was not wracked with the same kinds of doubts I usually am. I just plunged in and put my head down and went. I can’t tell you how much the book really was improvised as I was going along. I didn’t have a clear outline of the plot—just the general shape and thrust of it. But things kept changing as I was working, and I kept finding things every day as I was working. It was a real adventure.
Q: Well-known stories with multiple versions of the same character—such as O. Henry’s Roads of Destiny, which you allude to in 4 3 2 1—have narrative paths that fork when the protagonist makes a decision. Here, your narratives hinge on events that are out of the character’s control. How did you adopt that strategy?
A: I, along with most people, have often speculated, “What if? What if my father had died when I was seven years old? What if I had grown up in a different town?” etc.—all the different variables that are possible. The great question is, how do you get born? Well, usually, the way your parents have met is pretty fluky. Often, it’s because you missed the bus, and so you have to sit and wait. And this beautiful woman sits down to wait as well, and you strike up a conversation, and a year later, you’re married. But if you had made the first bus, you never would have met that person. And therefore, their child never would have been born. It’s fun to think about these things [laughs].
Q: One of the things that comes out of this is how different the Fergusons are from each other. For instance, one of them—but only one—finds that he’s bisexual. Generally, when people ask themselves “What if?” they mean, “What if I had done x? Then would I be in situation y?” But they don’t think about how they themselves would be drastically different as people.
A: Exactly. What if I had been born during a war and I lived in an occupied city, and people were being taken out and shot every day? Everything would be different—even after the war ended, my future would be very different. Look at what these poor people in Aleppo are going through. The children, the ones who survive, are going to be absolutely altered by what they live through, and you and I, luckily, have never had to deal with that.
Q: You’ve said your memoir The Invention of Solitude  was the foundation of all your work, and in it, you portray your father as ultimately unknowable. This is true of Ferguson’s father, and also to an extent of Ferguson’s love interest, Amy Schneiderman, who’s always somehow slightly out of reach.
A: Yes. It’s kind of funny: there’s a comic side to it in that in one instance, she’s a girlfriend; in another, she becomes a cousin; in another, a stepsister. She just keeps popping up. She just cannot not be in the story. I’ve never known anyone quite like Amy, but there she was: a fictional character coming fully to life in my head, and it was fascinating to track her, because she’s slightly different in each instance.
Q: One of your Fergusons becomes a fiction writer, and you insert some of your own juvenile fiction into the book. Besides this, you include such things as a syllabus of what one Ferguson reads at college, and a breakdown of finances that allow him to go to there. Were you conscious of writing an encyclopedic novel?
A: Well, I’d never use that particular word. I just kept saying to myself, “I want it to be full. I want it to be thick.” And then there was this contrary impulse in me, which was to make it as lean and fast as I could. I know the book is an elephant, but I hope it’s a sprinting elephant, that it doesn’t digress. I have so many more characters, stories and incidents I wanted to write about, and I realized that if I put it all in, the book would be unwieldy. So I kept stripping things away rather than adding, which is kind of ironic, given the bulk of the thing.
One of my friends said that the thing he liked best about the book was the sense of development, that you got a great sense of what it’s like to be four years old, or seven or eight or 18. I was happy to hear that, because I did try very hard to focus in on the kinds of thinking that distinguish, say, a 14-year-old from an 18-year-old … or the torments of puberty. Just the baffling fact that your body’s changing and you have no control whatsoever over what’s happening, and it’s at once frightening and exciting.
[When] Ferguson 4 is doing his college interview with Princeton, he says what he likes about [German writer Heinrich von] Kleist is that even though people say you should show and not tell, Kleist tells and tells and tells. This is what my book does too: it tells and tells and tells. There’s really very little dialogue when you consider how big it is, and it’s mostly located inside the consciousness of each Ferguson, as each one of the stories unfolds. So it’s not a traditional novel in that sense.
Q: Is it difficult to write that way, flying in the face of what’s considered literary best practice?
A: Well, the fact is, I’ve always written this way, but never on this scale. My great influences as a writer are fairy tales, and very old forms of storytelling. I’ve never really thought of myself as a novelist so much as a storyteller, and that’s what I’m trying to do in this book. I wanted to create a kind of legendary, mythic quality, and so the first phrase of the book is [about how] “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather” came to America on Jan. 1, 1900. Then it said he bought a piece of fruit, thinking it was an apple, and it turned out to be a tomato, and it exploded on his overcoat. But of course, you [couldn’t] buy tomatoes in New York City on Jan. 1. So its legendary quality means that things are kind of muddled. It’s achieved the status of legend, and that’s why there are these occasional references to the gods in the book. “The gods are watching. The gods are irrational,” Rose decides in the first chapter, and they bestow their gifts on us when and where they will, but we have very little control over it.
When I was 14, I was out in a summer camp, and we were on a hike in the woods, and we got stuck in a very severe electric storm, and the boy right next to me was struck and killed by lightning. This was, I think, the most important thing that ever happened to me: the thought that reality was so unstable, and that from one instance to the next, you could be dead. Everything could change in a blink. I’ve been meditating on this all my life, and I think so much of my work is a reflection of that moment. But I wanted to address it directly here, and so [one Ferguson] undergoes a similar experience in that his friend drops dead, unexpectedly, at age 14, right next to him. That’s the heart of the book, I think.
Q: One of your Fergusons finishes writing a book and feels that he has a void inside him; he needs to find a new project to fill it up. Does that happen to you as well? Do you find yourself looking to the next project?
A: Yeah, I always feel let down, although with this book, not right away. I felt pretty happy that I had lived long enough to finish it. I think it’s going to take a while before I know what I want to do. You mentioned The Invention of Solitude, and [my work has] been a big circle; I’ve come to this from that, and I don’t really know what to do next. I think I have to reinvent myself, start all over again.
Q: As Auster 2?
A: Yeah. I don’t know. Maybe try to write short stories or something like that—something I’ve never done.