Don DeLillo Biography

"I became a writer by living in New York and seeing and hearing and feeling all the great, amazing and dangerous things the city endlessly assembles. And I also became a writer by avoiding serious commitment to anything else." --DeLillo to Jonathan Bing, 1997


Photograph by Thomas Victor / back cover of "The Day Room"


This biography is largely an oral auto-biography, stitched together from the various interviews. All the passages below that are in quotes are from DeLillo himself, and the other text is from the interviewer noted below each entry.


"I was born on Nov. 20, 1936." Except for a short stint in Pennsylvania when he was quite young, he was brought up in the Fordham section of the Bronx, a neighborhood of mostly Italian- Americans.
(from Passaro, 1991)

"My parents were born in Italy. My father came to this country in 1916, I believe, when he was a young boy of nine. There was my grandmother, my father and his brothers and sisters. There was a total of about seven people, including a dwarf, and a child my grandmother picked up in Naples along the way.
"My father eventually went to work for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company as a sort of auditor in an enormous office at one desk along with a hundred identical desks here in New York."
(from Burn, 1991)

He lived near Arthur Avenue, with its popular food shops and restaurants. It was a childhood of sports, family and games. He played "every conceivable form of baseball," basketball and football. "No one had a football around there. We used to wrap up a bunch of newspaper with tape and use that. That was our football."
(from Passaro, 1991)

"Being raised as a Catholic was interesting because the ritual had elements of art to it and it prompted feelings that art sometimes draws out of us. I think I reacted to it the way I react today to theater. Sometimes it was awesome; sometimes it was funny. High funeral masses were a little of both, and they're among my warmest childhood memories."
(from LeClair, 1979)

"I think there is a sense of last things in my work that probably comes from a Catholic childhood. For a Catholic, nothing is too important to discuss or think about, because he's raised with the idea that he will die any minute now and that if he doesn't live his life in a certain way this death is simply an introduction to an eternity of pain."
(from Passaro, 1991)

As a boy, Don DeLillo II lived a street life - playing cards, playing ball, shooting pool. "I was not a great pool-shooter, unfortunately. It's one thing I wish I'd worked harder to develop."
(from Burn, 1991)

"The games I've written about have more to do with rules and boundaries than with the freewheeling street games I played when I was growing up."
(from LeClair, 1979)

Q: Did you read as a teenager?
A: "Not much at first. Dracula when I was fourteen. ... And yes, the Studs Lonigan trilogy, which showed me that my own life, or something like it, could be the subject of a writer's scrutiny. This was an amazing thing to discover. Then, when I was eighteen, I got a summer job as a playground attendent--a parkie. And I was told to wear a white T-shirt and brown pants and brown shoes and a whistle around my neck--which they provided--the whistle. But I never acquired the rest of the outfit. I wore blue jeans and checkered shirts and kept the whistle in my pocket and just sat on a park bench disguised as an ordinary citizen. And this is where I read Faulkner, As I Lay Dying and Light in August. And I got paid for it. "And then James Joyce, and it was through Joyce that I learned to see something in language that carried a radiance, something that made me feel the beauty and fervor of words, the sense that a word has a life and a history. And I'd look at a sentence in Ulysses or in Moby Dick or in Hemingway - maybe I hadn't gotten to Ulysses at that point, it was Portrait of the Artist - but certainly Hemingway and the water that was clear and swiftly moving and the way the troops went marching down the road and raised dust that powdered the leaves of the trees. All this in a playground in the Bronx."
(from Begley, 1993)

"[Oswald]'s first brush with the law came when a truant officer collected him at the Bronx Zoo. He lived on 179th Street and I lived on 182d, slightly to the east. He was there roughly from January 1953 to the end of that year. I don't think I ever saw him."
(from Mitgang, 1988)

He attended Cardinal Hayes High School ("I slept for four years there") and later Fordham College, where, he says: "I didn't study much of anything. I majored in something called communication arts."
(from Passaro, 1991)

Mr. DeLillo attended Fordham University, where, he says, "the Jesuits taught me to be a failed ascetic." He hated school but readily reels off a list of early influences. "I think New York itself was an enormous influence. The paintings in the Museum of Modern Art, the music at the Jazz Gallery and the Village Vanguard, the movies of Fellini and Godard and Howard Hawks. And there was a comic anarchy in the writing of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and others. Although I don't necessarily want to write like them, to someone who's 20 years old that kind of work suggests freedom and possibility. It can make you see not only writing but the world in a completely different way."
(from Harris, 1982)

"I think more than writers, the major influences on me have been European movies, and jazz, and Abstract Expressionism."
(from Passaro, 1991)

"I have a vivid memory of seeing Charlie Mingus. The bandstand was over the bar. I got as close as standing next to Miles Davis and Elvin Jones. As the Village Vanguard there seemed to be no place for the musicians to congregate between sets, and so they went to the men's room. They used to talk there and I used to listen. I was washing my hands, slowly, while I was getting an earful. I loved the music. I still do."
(from Burn, 1991)

"Probably the movies of Jean-Luc Godard had a more immediate effect on my early work than anything I'd ever read."
(from LeClair, 1979)

The year after he graduated, he got a job in advertising, because he couldn't get one in publishing.
(from Passaro, 1991)

"That was in another life. I don't want to discuss it."
(from Leith, 1991)

"I found myself in west Texas for a very brief time and it had an effect on me. I was there to work on an ad for Sears truck tyres. And I came upon this extraordinary spectacle in the desert of a nine-mile circuit on which they tested these tyres. These guys drove around and around this circuit in the middle of the desert. And occasionally one of them would fall asleep and drive into the desert and his vehicle would turn over and he'd die. It had a certain fascination for me."
(from O'Toole, 1998)

Q: Where were you on November 22, 1963?
A: "Eating lunch on New York's West Side with a couple of friends. In a seafood restaurant called Davy Jones. I don't have a clear memory of the rest of that day; I guess I watched a little television. On Sunday, late Sunday, I did watch the Ruby shooting of Oswald for a couple of hours; but I didn't watch much of the funeral, which was Monday."
(from Arensberg, 1988)

"I was eating lunch with two friends in a restaurant on the west side of Manhattan and actually heard about the shooting at a bank a little later. I overheard a bank teller telling a customer that the President had been shot in Dallas. And my first curious reaction was, 'I didn't even know he was in Dallas.' Obviously, it was totally beside the point. But the small surprise then, of course, yielded to the enormous shock of what those words meant."
(from DeCurtis, 1988)

"I was working in an ad agency and I was having lunch with two people, and one of those individuals was herself shot and killed 10 years later, murdered during a robbery in her house. So the other person and I have a sense of being survivors of something - something personal and significant.
"That same weekend of the assassination, I had to fly to Detroit. It seemed to me the whole nation was steeped in death, and the last thing I wanted to do was get on a plane. And sure enough our engine caught fire, and we had to return to the airport and make an emergency landing."
(from Burn, 1991)

In 1963, DeLillo was "working as a copywriter in an ad agency. And that was the next to last year of my advertising career, which was short, uninteresting."
(from Goldstein, 1988)

He quit the job after five years or so and "embarked on my life, my real life."
(from Passaro, 1991)

"I did some short stories at that time, but very infrequently. I quit my job just to quit. I didn't quit my job to write fiction. I just didn't want to work anymore."
(from Passaro, 1991)

He began his first novel "around 1966. It took a long time, because I had to keep interrupting [it] in order to make a living."
"I did all sorts of assignments. One day I would be writing about pseudo-colonial furniture, the next day about computers."
(from Goldstein, 1988)

"I don't always know when or where an idea first hits the nervous system, but I remember Americana. I was sailing in Maine with two friends, and we put into a small harbor on Mr. Desert Island. And I was sitting on a railroad tie waiting to take a shower, and I had a glimpse of a street maybe fifty yards away and a sense of beautiful old houses and rows of elms and maples and a stillness and wistfulness - the street seemed to carry its own built-in longing. And I felt something, a pause, something opening up before me. It would be a month or two before I started writing the book and two or three years before I came up with the title Americana, but in fact it was all implicit in that moment."
(from Begley, 1993)

Until [DeLillo] was married--in 1975, to Barbara Bennett, then a banker and now a landscape designer--DeLillo lived in a studio apartment in the Murray Hill section of New York.
(from Passaro, 1991)

"At the time I lived in a small apartment with no stove and the refrigerator in the bathroom and I thought first novels written under those circumstances ought to be novels in which great chunks of experience are hurled at the page. So that's what I did. The original manuscript was higher than my radio."
(from LeClair, 1979)

"Even when I was well into my first novel I didn't have a system for working, a dependable routine. I worked haphazardly, sometimes late at night, sometimes in the afternoon. I spent too much time doing other things or nothing at all. On humid summer nights I tracked horseflies through the apartment and killed them - not for the meat but because they were driving me crazy with their buzzing. I hadn't developed a sense of the level of dedication that's necessary to do this kind of work."
(from Begley, 1993)

"When I was about halfway through Americana, which took roughly four years to do, it occurred to me almost in a flash that I was a writer. Whatever tentativeness I'd felt about the book dropped away. I finished it in a spirit of getting a difficult, unwieldy thing out of the way, in a spirit of having proved certain things to myself."
(from LeClair, 1979)

"When I was working on the book [Great Jones Street] there were beggars and derelicts in parts of the city they'd never entered before. A sense of failed souls and forgotten lives on a new scale. And the place began to feel a little like a community in the Middle Ages. Disease on the streets, insane people talking to themselves, the drug culture spreading among the young."
(from Begley, 1993)

"I started reading mathematics because I wanted a fresh view of the world. I wanted to immerse myself in something as remote as possible from my own interests and my own work. I became fascinated and ended up writing a novel and a play about mathematicians."
(from LeClair, 1979)

Q: There's a three year period between Great Jones Street and Ratner's Star. Did it take you all that time to write it?
A: "It took a little over two years of extremely concentrated work. I'm amazed now that I was able to do the book in that period of time. I was drawn to the beauty of scientific language, the mystery of numbers, the idea of pure mathematics as a secret history and secret language."
(from Begley, 1993)

They [DeLillo & Bennett] lived in Toronto for a year around 1975, when she worked for Citibank.
(from Kirchhoff, 1991)

For three years while writing The Names Mr. DeLillo lived in Greece and traveled through the Middle East and India. "What I found, was that all this traveling taught me how to see and hear all over again. Whatever ideas about language may be in The Names, I think the most important thing is what I felt in hearing people and watching them gesture--in listening to the sound of Greek and Arabic and Hindi and Urdu. The simple fact that I was confronting new landscapes and fresh languages made me feel amost duty bound to get it right. I would see and hear more clearly than I could in more familiar places."
(from Harris, 1982)

"There were periods in Greece when I tasted and saw and heard with much more sharpness and clarity than I'd ever done before or since. And I wanted to discover a sentence, a way of writing sentences that would be the prose counterpart to that clarity."
(from DeCurtis, 1988)

"The thing that's interesting about living in another country is that it's difficult to forget you're an American. The actions of the American Government won't let you."
(from Harris, 1982)

"I lived abroad for three years, and when I came back to this country in 1982, I began to notice something on television which I hadn't noticed before. This was the daily toxic spill--there was the news, the weather, and the toxic spill. This was a phenomenon no one even mentioned. It was simply a television reality. It's only the people who were themselves involved who seemed to be affected by them. No one even talked about them. This was one of the motivating forces of White Noise."
(from Rothstein, 1987)

"While I was working on White Noise, I decided to interrupt the novel and write a non-fiction piece for Rolling Stone. Then I began to think seriously about Libra three and a half years ago."
(from Mitgang, 1988)

"I'm not an obsessive researcher, and I think I read maybe half of The Warren Report, which totals twenty six volumes. There are acres of FBI reports I barely touched. But for me the boring and meaningless stretches are part of the experience."
(from Begley, 1993)

The most valuable part of his research, [DeLillo] said, was spent in Dallas and New Orleans, where Oswald also stayed for awhile. "Three of the places where Oswald lived in Dallas are still standing--a rooming house and two other houses. It was very haunting to see them and the one in New Orleans."
(from Mitgang, 1988)

"Libra will have a lingering effect on me partly because I became so deeply involved in the story and partly because the story doesn't have an end out here in the world beyond the book - new theories, new suspects and new documents keep turning up. It will never end."
(from Begley, 1993)

Although he is not as reclusive as Bill Gray, DeLillo did not do promotional tours until Libra was published.
(from Kirchhoff, 1991)

(DeLillo's first public reading was reportedly on Nov. 26, 1990 at the 92nd Street Y, where he read from Libra and the yet-to-be-published Mao II).

He had returned the night before from San Francisco, the final stop on a reading tour and promotional merry-go-round. "I'm retiring. This is the beginning and end of my promotional career. I've been trying to develop a spirit of co-operation. But I'm going to, ah... sink into the sunset. I'm not happy being a public figure."
(from Burn, 1991)

Q: What are your working habits now?
A: "I work in the morning at a manual typewriter. I do about four hours and then go running. This helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle - it's a nice kind of interlude. Then I work again, late afternoon, for two or three hours. Back into book time, which is transparent - you don't know it's passing. No snack food or coffee. No cigarettes - I stopped smoking a long time ago. The space is clear, the house is quiet. A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it."
(from Begley, 1993)

"Sometime in late 1991 I started writing something new and didn't know what it would be - a novel, a short story, a long story. It was simply a piece of writing, and it gave me more pleasure than any other writing I've done. It turned into a novella, "Pafko at the Wall." At some point I decided I wasn't finished with the piece. I was sending signals into space and getting echoes back, like a dolphin or a bat. So the piece, slightly altered, is now the prologue, to a novel-in-progress, which will have a different title. And the pleasure has long since faded into the slogging reality of the no-man's-land of the long novel. But I'm still hearing the echoes."
(from Begley, 1993)

Q: But you'll keep on writing?
A: "I'll keep writing something, certainly."
Q: I mean, you couldn't take up gardening?
A: "No, no, no, no, no."
(from Begley, 1993)


The following interviews were used:
Bing, 1997
Begley, 1993
Passaro, 1991
Burn, 1991
LeClair, 1979
Harris, 1982
Goldstein, 1988
Mitgang, 1988
DeCurtis, 1988
Leith, 1991
Rothstein, 1987
Arensberg, 1988
Kirchhoff, 1991
O'Toole, 1998

For a detailed review DeLillo's comings and goings from 1997 to the present, please see the Events.
Back to DeLillo's America

Last updated: 24-FEB-98