DeLillo in San Francisco, Oct. 16, 1997

Scribner has posted audio for a portion of DeLillo's talk from this event; here's the link (look for the video box).

On October 16, 1997, Don DeLillo appeared at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. The hall holds perhaps 1000, and it appeared that the seats were about 85 percent full. The woman introducing the author announced that today Underworld had been nominated for the National Book Award. DeLillo spoke unaccompanied from notes for about an hour, and then answered about 10 questions shouted out from the audience. He was in the lobby afterwards, signing books for a long line of perhaps 200. Here are my remembered notes from the talk (all quotes are only approximate).

He began by recalling his days in Athens in the late seventies, early eighties, about long rambling walks that ended up at the Acropolis. Of looking at the Greek letters carved into the stone, how he was trying to learn the Greek alphabet at that time, how the Greeks gave a sculptural quality to the letters. Then he tied it back to his use of an old typewriter (an Olympia), with its layers of hair, flaked skin and dandruff under the keys, his audio-visual relation to the language.

He spoke of hearing a beat or cadence as he writes, about the shape and sound of letters and words. He mentioned the phrase "raw sprawl" which not share letters, but the second word in fact contains the first.

He recalled the origins of the new book, with the 40 year anniversary of the ballgame, looking up the NYTimes with the symmetric headlines. Then about Hoover being at the game, along with Sinatra, Gleason and Toots Shor. Of the final moment of the game, when the Bruegel descends down on Hoover. Here he read a short passage of Hoover's description of the painting, ending with the line about needing the enemy for "deep completion."

He used two quotes: Mussolini: "history is a water wheel of human blood" (or similar), and Russ Hodges: "what is a ballgame to make us feel like this?".

Each part of the address had a separate title: 'Weapons and Waste' was one (he read from a section on Nick Shay taking his granddaughter to the big recycling center). DeLillo described a video tape called The Atomic Bomb Movie, in which many shots of atomic bomb blasts are shown. He quoted the narrator describing a blast: "One of God's most beautiful sights, when viewed from a safe distance."

'Documents' was another. He talked quite a bit about the Warren Report - "when I found the section on Jack Ruby's mother's dental records, I knew I was in the middle of a grand obsession. Soon to become my own." He spoke of visits to New Orleans and Dallas while researching Libra, staying in a hotel overlooking Dealey Plaza, and looking down on the tourists, "always tourists, performing the sad choreography of pointing to the landmarks of the assassination."

'Kennedy and Oswald' was another. He spoke of the Zapruder film at some length, about how it still costs $30,000 to see it even today, about the class difference of Kennedy/film, Oswald/videotape. DeLillo read from Underworld the passage where Klara and Miles go to the loft party where hundreds of television sets are playing a video of the Zapruder film.

He said he was convinced that Oswald would not have walked two blocks out of his way to shoot the President, that the President had to come to him. About Oswald shooting at Gen. Edwin Walker, and then falling out of history. About Oswald as role model for other 'celebrity shootings' like "the young man who shot Wallace, the young man who shot Lennon, the young man who shot Reagan."

He quoted Toni Morrison, a line about using language to break down racist structures. He also quoted Herman Broch, I don't remember the line now. He spoke of Hemingway being defined by his language, not by Paris or the war. He mentioned the beginning of A Farewell to Arms, with its long sentences, with the word 'and' linking the phrases.

He asked what made the difference between Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. He said it was not the locale, or even the characters, but the language.

He read a paragraph or two from Part 1 of Underworld, the drive on the New Jersey Turnpike ending with the part about billboards seeming to form the reality. He spoke quite a bit about fiction coming from the dreams and childhood rembrances, etc. About language coming prior to history and politics.

DeLillo ended the main reading with a section from the end of The Names, describing the visit to the Acropolis, ending with the line "Our offering is language."

The Q&A.

Someone said they were using DeLillo books as a kind of history of America in this century, and he wanted to know about how reliable DeLillo felt he was. The answer - "From what I've said tonight, I hope you can see that I'm very unreliable" and suggested looking at the "Power of History" essay.

Someone asked what he thought of Graham Greene. He said Graham Greene said "Writers must be the grit in the state machine" which he said he was all in favor of.

Someone asked about where his plots come from, and DeLillo said that he knew the sentences came from him, but it seemed that the plots were harder to pinpoint. He said he had found that you need to wait and the plot will reveal itself to you.

Someone asked about what any real-life figures might have thought about Libra. DeLillo said that those people don't really read fiction. Then that he had gotten no death threats or anything. "But I am quite exposed at this moment." This got a laugh.

I stood in a long line to get a couple books signed. When I finally got to the desk, I introduced myself, and we shook hands. He asked if I had received a signed copy of Underworld, that he had put me on a list, and I said I had. I thanked him for it, and for coming out.

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Last updated: 17-OCT-97