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?
Yeah, actually, my parents are from there, and so is my girlfriend.
Oh, wow, so you have deep roots. Whereabouts did your parents live?
In the 50s, around Eighth Avenue.
Uh-huh, uh-huh. The house that has been demolished was on 34th Street. I didn't want to give the exact address in the book. But it was 34th, between Fourth and Fifth.
What neighborhood in Brooklyn do you live in?
I live in Park Slope, and I've been here for a long, long time. But when I first came to Brooklyn, more than 30 years ago, I lived in Carroll Gardens, which was all Italian then, completely Italian. And then, after some years, I moved a little closer to Brooklyn Heights, into Cobble Hill. I was there for about five years, and then came to Park Slope, about 25 years ago.
What brought you to Park Slope eventually?
[pause] I'm trying to think. My wife and I were renting a place in Cobble Hill, and we lost it because it was the top two floors of a brownstone, lived in by the owner, who occupied the bottom two floors. He had always told us from the very beginning that one day he wanted to take over the whole place. And so that day came and we had to leave, just at the moment my wife was pregnant with our daughter. So we had to scramble to find something, and we found an affordable apartment in Park Slope and moved over here.
What about the neighborhood made you stay for so long?
I like it, I like it. It's a little more lively than Cobble Hill or Carroll Gardens. And there is the park, which is the great advantage. And I've always felt that Park Slope was like a miniature Upper West Side, it has that kind of bustle and density to it.
Does living in Brooklyn affect your work?
No, not at all. I've lived in so many places over the years, in all kinds of rooms, all kinds of apartments and houses. The work is really "the notebook," the world is in that. And the notebook is open on your lap, it's open on a desk, it's all the same thing... I don't think where I work affects how I work at all.
What are some of your favorite spots in Park Slope? Bookstores? Coffee Shops? Bars?
We have two bookstores left in Park Slope. We used to have more. Right now we have the Barnes and Noble that's been there for about, I don't know how many years—ten years? Twelve years? And then the Community Bookstore, which is an essential part of the neighborhood. And I know they're hanging by the skin of their teeth. But they're still there and I don't think they're gonna go out of business 'cause I think they have many loyal customers who prefer to shop there, because people know how important it is to keep an independent store here.
Bars? There used to be Snooky's! I used to like to go there. But that's gone... A lot of old people, you know, the real old-time Park Slope drunks used to hang out in Snooky's. I always had a fondness for that place... And then, for a number of years, there was this terrific little restaurant called the Second Street Cafe, and I used to go there for lunch often, and that too has closed down. So, it's a bit sad that places are disappearing.
In Paul Auster's new novel, the neighborhood stands in for war-torn America.
Oct 27, 2010