Of all the episodes in your novels, why did you go back to that particular one, the description of a fictional film in Book of Illusions, to make into a film?
There's a long story behind it. The idea for The Inner Life of Martin Frost began as a movie project. This was back in 1999, after I did Lulu on the Bridge. A German company approached me and said, we're doing a series of 12 films, short films, about men and women. And I think the overall title was something like 'erotic tales'. So I sat down and I wrote the short version of Martin Frost. They approved it, and then they told us the nature of the contract: They would pay one third of the amount of the budget upon signing the contract, one third when we started shooting, and one third when we were finished and they approved of the project. At the same time, Hal Hartley was making a film for the same series and got into a lot of battles with this company. They made him re-shoot things and he was actually in debt by the time he finished. He said to me, Paul, don't sign with them. And I just backed out of the whole thing.
So you put the script away...
I sat with it for a while, and I said to myself: I'm very glad that this happened because now that I look at it, I think it should actually be a feature-length film. I made a lot of notes about how to continue the film. But I had no burning desire to do it at that moment, so I put the script and the notes away and I started writing The Book of Illusions. When I got to the point in the book where Zimmer goes out to New Mexico to look at Hector Mann's more recent films, I thought, Martin Frost is the perfect film to go into this book. But I couldn't do the long version, it would have overwhelmed the novel. So I stuck to the short version.
And thought that was the end of Martin Frost?
Yes, although I thought, too bad, it could have been extended in an interesting way. I wrote two more novels, Oracle Night and Brooklyn Follies. Then I realized that all along I'd been thinking about the film, Martin Frost, and I wasn't ready to start a new novel. So I thought to myself, well, why not sit down and write the script and see how it turns out. And then I remembered that Paulo Branco, the Portuguese producer, had said to me, 'If you ever make another film, come to me, and I'll produce it.' So I went to Paulo with the script, and he said, fine, we'll do it. At the beginning, we thought we'd do it in America but we just couldn't raise enough money.
So raising the money is always a problem -- even if your name is Paul Auster?
I started understanding how much the world of independent films had changed. Even though people said, we like the script, it's very interesting, it was a question of, we won't make any money with this project. We went through many months of no progress on the American front. In that time, I put aside the movie project and wrote Travels in the Scriptorium. A very short book, which came to me in a kind of burst. When I finished the book, I talked to Paulo again and he said, look, if we do it in Portugal, I can do it.
Was it a big challenge to shoot an American story in Portugal?
I had to reconfigure the script to make it seem as though we were in Northern California. All the props were from the United States. The typing paper that Martin uses is American typing paper, not European typing paper. The grocery bag is from the United States. The keys for the house were American keys, even the license plates on the cars which you can barely see are California license plates. And I was very insistent that the typewriter had a QWERTY keyboard.
The story of the film is so fantastic that casting is of the essence if it is to stay believable. Irène Jacob, who plays Claire, is especially amazing because she's so compelling. If Martin had had any doubt about her, he would have kicked her out of the house.
You see, there's something angelic about Irène, she's got some quality, in life, too, it's who she is. And also, her body was right for the film. If I had had some big earth-mother playing Claire, it wouldn't have worked. She had to be little, almost tiny, like a sprite, and so she fit that image of the character.
The fact that Martin trusts Claire stands at the center of the film. There's an almost philosophical moment when Martin has begun to mistrust Claire; he sits down at the dinner table and the chair collapses under him, as if not trusting reality makes it unreliable. What's the relationship between trust and reality?
Well, I suppose trust really is finally blind, isn't it? You can't know anything for sure about anybody. And that's why in the very next scene after the dinner scene, there's a kind of interlude and you see the typewriter spinning in the void, and then there's a voice-over. And it says, more or less, that Martin decided that he wasn't going to question it anymore. He's just going to leap off the cliff. A blind leap of faith. Because he really loves her, and it doesn't really matter who she is. Because she's so luminous and interesting and he's really fallen for her.
In the second pivotal moment, Martin understands something else. Before, he's a writer who doesn't seem to understand how writing works. You know, she's his muse, but he doesn't realize that that's what's going on.
She's sort of a muse, but she's also the story that he's writing.
Martin seems to understand something important; he says, I'm the writer, I can write the ending, and I'm making it a happy ending. So it's really a story of emancipation. He frees himself from the constraints that he's felt.
But then, of course, you get to the end of the film, and you realize that none of it ever happened. It's all been in his head. And that's why it's very important to remember the title. He's a writer who comes up with an idea for a story, but he uses himself as a character in that story. And writers do this sometimes. We all know about that. And so that's where the ambiguity comes in. What happens is so absurd, it's so beyond anything that is rational, there has to be some ground to the whole thing. And the ground is, it's his imagination. In this sense it's similar to Travels in the Scriptorium, even though it's executed in a completely different way, because it is about the imagination, so it makes sense to me that that would be the next thing I'd write after the film script.
Travels is very much about the relationship between authors and characters and in Martin Frost, it sort of turns around. Claire is his character, but then she takes command, especially in the end, where he thinks he can't look at her, but she knows a way. Mirrors don't count, sort of like a reverse Dracula.
Well, I was thinking of Orpheus and Eurydice, but she's more clever than Eurydice. Travels in the Scriptorium came to me in a very unusual way. It was an image of an old man sitting on the edge of a bed in his pajamas, hands on his knees, looking down at the floor. And I couldn't get it out of my head. And I concluded that it might be myself, 20 years from now. But it's about other things, too, it's about old people. It's about memory loss. It's about how so many old people live. Lost, adrift in these rooms, they barely know where they are, they barely know what's happening. It's a political story, too.
And it's very much a story for readers; for people who know your work it's very enjoyable to see familiar characters pop up. Here are characters, some of whom have been beaten up in your books, now forcing you to take responsibility.
And it is a dazzling thought, that the characters a writer invents outlive him. The imaginary conquers the real, so to speak. The new book, Man in the Dark, is a response to Travels in the Scriptorium. I think of them as a diptych. One takes place in a day, the other takes place in a night, both are men confined to a room, and yet they're completely different. Absolutely different, in intent, in tone, everything.
Man in the Dark is much more about storytelling, and I was very moved by the way the spell of darkness and despair is broken the moment August Brill begins to tell a story to an audience. He comes up with the story about Owen Brick by himself, alone in the dark, but because he doesn't have a reader or an audience, it turns in on itself.
Exactly, because he starts implicating himself in the story. And once he does that, he kind of checkmates himself. There's nowhere else to go. Kill or be killed. In this book, the interruptions are very important. He's thinking of the story, and then something happens. He has to cough, he has to pee, or he hears some noise, and he stops thinking about the story, he thinks about other things. Very early on, we have that long conversation that he has with Katya, his granddaughter, about film. Now, those films are all very intimate films about families' private lives. And I think that lays the groundwork for what happens later in the book when he does talk to her about his own life.
When Katya and her grandfather are watching those films, they're also trying to blot out a horrible image that they've seen, but it doesn't work.
It doesn't work; it can't work. Because what they saw is just so terrible, it's unforgettable.
I found the question Katya asks very moving, 'Why is life so terrible?'
And he can't give her an answer, it just is.
But even though it doesn't eradicate Katya's trauma, storytelling can obviously be very powerful. The fact that August tells her his story gives her a hook into something that might enable her to go on.
The idea of having breakfast, after a harrowing night like this, becomes one of the most beautiful things that it possible in human life. They're actually going to wake up and actually going to have breakfast. There are all these lyrical moments at the end, too, after the horrible thing of the video, it's just one paragraph, but it seems to me the whole book is in this paragraph.
It's like the book summarized in poetry.
So would you agree that both August Brill and Martin Frost decide in favor of life in the end?
Yes. Absolutely. I mean, Brill is not giving up. He's down. He's suffering. But he's not giving up. And I think what's keeping him alive finally are his daughter and granddaughter. The fact that they care about him. The fact that he cares about them. We all need these connections. Nobody can live alone. It's not possible. Well, I suppose some hermits who've achieved some kind of equilibrium within themselves, but for most people it's not possible. There are people in my novels who have committed suicide, but they've never been central characters. We all go down into valleys of despair, and if we're not suicidal, we usually manage to crawl back up. That crawling is what I write about a lot of the time.
You throw people into impossible situations...
...and see how they can get out.
Clearly, it's also a response to what's happening now in the US and in the world.
Well, the other element, what finally drew the whole story together for me, was what happened to my friend David Grossman, one of the leading writers of Israel, a great man and one of the people I admire most in the world. In 2006, his son Uri, as a 20-year-old soldier in the Israeli army, was killed during the Lebanon-Israel war. He was killed, I think, the day before the cease-fire. David is a man who has been agitating for peace all his life. For this to have happened to him is such a tragedy. I knew this boy. And David always told me that Uri loved my books. So, in a way, Uri's death becomes Titus's death. I took it very personally. It's a very intimate and emotional book, Man in the Dark.
Are there any more movies in store?
No, I don’t have any ideas for movies. If I do get an idea for a film, I’d probably do it but it’s difficult now, and I am really in a good moment of ferment with my new writing, so I just want to stay in my room now and keep working.
Paul Auster might be best known for his novels (The New York Trilogy and more recently, The Brooklyn Follies and Travels in the Scriptorium) but he has always enjoyed exploring other genres. He began as a poet, translated works of poetry and fiction, written essays and edited short story collections. He has also written and directed several films, including Smoke (directed by Wayne Wang), Blue in the Face (co-directed with Wayne Wang) and Lulu on the Bridge (all starring Harvey Keitel). His latest film, The Inner Life of Martin Frost, is based on an episode in his recent novel, Book of Illusions.
The film is set in a country house that could be anywhere in America. Its owners Jack and Diane (the family photos in the living room show that they're actually Paul Auster and his wife, Siri Hustvedt) have invited the writer Martin Frost to spend some time in the house after the stress of finishing his last book. But his solitude does not last. One morning, he wakes up to find a young woman next to him in his bed. Apparently, Jack and Diane have also given the house key to Diane's niece Claire. Martin grudgingly agrees to let Claire stay, but soon, annoyance turns into fascination and a passionate love affair. Then a phone call from Diane reveals that Claire isn't her niece at all, setting in motion a dramatic chain of events.
The film, which was selected for the San Sebastián Film Festival and shown at the New York New Directors/New Films Festival, received much heed but little praise. Too literary to work as cinema? See for yourself.
The Inner Life of Martin Frost followed by a Q&A with the author
Sept. 28, 6 p.m.
Babylon cinema, Rosa-Luxemburgstr. 30, Berlin-Mitte
The event is the first in the new series, Berlin New York Continental, a joint initiative of Babylon Cinema, Mitte and EXBERLINER magazine, which aim to present new work and films from New York artists. The second in the series will be Wild Combination: Portrait of Arthur Russel, a film by Matt Wolf to be screened on Oct. 25.
Man in the Dark
Paul Auster reads from his new novel, Man in the Dark.
Sept. 29, 8 p.m.
Berliner Ensemble, Bertrolt-Brecht-Platz 1, Berlin-Mitte
This article first appeared in EXBERLINER's September 2008 issue. It appears courtesy of the magazine.
What you need to know about German schools and daycare.
Want to move to Germany but haven’t figured out the details? Check out Expatica’s overview of the German permit system.
In part one of our two part series, we cover the driving culture in Berlin, where to park and buy gas and, most importantly, the laws.
Our comprehensive guide includes information on how to find work, recruitment agencies, employment contracts and labour law.