Long associated with Brooklyn, Paul Auster named his latest novel after the neighborhood in which it's set, Sunset Park, which is just south of Park Slope, where Auster has lived for the last quarter-century. Among other things, the book concerns a group of twentysomething squatters struggling to get their lives together during the present Great Recession. We recently talked to Auster about his favorite New York church, how Brooklyn affects his prose, and why he prefers to live near the park rather than in Cobble Hill.
Did you spend a lot of time in Sunset Park before you got the idea for the book?
Well, a lot of time would be an exaggeration, but I'd been there, you know, a lot, over the years. In fact, when I was directing a film back in the late 90s, Lulu on the Bridge, we shot in Sunset Park for quite a while. So I got familiar with the neighborhood back then.
So, once you got the idea for this story, did you do more research into the neighborhood?
Research, again, is an exaggeration [laughs]. I walked around a lot, sniffed around. And I have some friends who live there, mostly young people. And so, you know, they took me around, they showed me the spots. I was fascinated by much of it, you know? That enormous cathedral, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, which is one of the great names in the city. The Chinatown is extraordinary; I don't think many people know about it. Have you been there? [Yeah.] Yeah. And then, of course, the extraordinary Green-Wood Cemetery, which is one of the most beautiful spots in New York and very few people seem to know about it.
What is it about the cemetery that appeals to you?
I think it's its enormous size. When you think that there are 600,000 people buried there, it really just does give you pause, doesn't it? It's immense; it's this gigantic necropolis, more than half the size of Central Park.
Have you spent any time in Sunset Park now that the book is finished?
I went back there a couple of weeks ago because I was doing an interview with NPR, and they like to go to the places they do the interviews [laughs], even though you can't see where you are. But I guess they like the sounds. And one of the things we did was visit the street where I'd found the house I used as my model for where my characters were living. I knew in advance that it had been demolished some months ago, but going there and seeing that vacant lot was a shock, I've got to say, even though I was prepared. When I stumbled across the house, it was a boarded-up place, exactly as I describe it in the book, a wooden shack, looked like something tossed off the Midwestern prairie and plunked down in New York. But I never got in because it was boarded up. But I took some photographs of it and used them as I was writing the book—I had them on my desk to refer to. And, so, for it to be utterly obliterated, it's really something that knocks you down a bit. 'Cause I suppose I could really imagine people living in that spot, and this vacant lot just made me realize, well, it was all imaginary [laughs].
When I read the book, I got the idea you used Sunset Park as a symbol of the country as a whole, a country in transition but also a country in ruin.
Well, you're free to interpret it that way! I don't know if Sunset Park is symbolic so much as one of many such places around the country. But, it's the kind of neighborhood where it would be possible for young people to do what my characters were doing. If you were in a fancy neighborhood, it wouldn't be possible. Have you spent much time out there yourself?
In Paul Auster's new novel, the neighborhood stands in for war-torn America.
Oct 27, 2010