DeLillo Interview by Peter Henning, 2003

A note from Julia Apitzsch, who kindly provided the translation:

The following interview is a translation of the German article "'Vielleicht sehe ich einiges klarer und früher als andere.' Der amerikanische Schriftsteller Don DeLillo über die prophetische Kraft seiner Bücher, den 11. September, Freundschaft unter Autorenkollegen und seinen neuen Roman 'Cosmopolis.'" from the Frankfurter Rundschau. Since the original (oral) interview was translated for the German print version, this is a mere re-translation of the German text and should thus not be mistaken as a direct quotation of Don DeLillo. If you want to cite it please refer to the German article (bibliography given below). I translated it just for sharing it with DeLillo fans whose German isn't much better than Jack Gladney's.......Enjoy!

"Maybe I see some things more clearly and earlier than others"
The American author Don DeLillo on the prophetic power of his novels, September 11, friendship among fellow writers, and his new novel Cosmopolis.

Interviewer: Peter Henning
Frankfurter Rundschau, 20th November 2003, No. 271, p. 28-29.

FR: Mr. DeLillo, are a you specialist in catastrophes?
DeL: (laughs). Well, I hope not. But there are people who say my books have a prophetic quality. Your question is aimed at my new novel Cosmopolis and September 11, right?

FR: Is there a connection?
DeL: On that ominous September 11, the book was almost done and even weeks after the event I didn't feel I had to change anything in Cosmopolis. And why should I ? After all, the book is set in 2000, and there was no reason to shift it to the present or to react to what had happened. Nevertheless, my book deals with the events of September 11 on a deeper level.

FR: For example?
DeL: In my novel I describe an economic collapse, the breakdown of the Yen. I was particularly interested in two things: first, what effect does such a shock have on people, above all on brokers and players like Eric Packer and second, the phenomena of simultaneity.

FR: Could you explain that a bit further?
DeL: While my protagonist drives through Manhattan in his luxurious limousine, the Yen crashes down at the other end of the world and inexorably drags him down with it.
I wanted to describe the peculiar atmosphere of March and April 2000, this enormous economic optimism. And I counter this optimism with the crash of the stock market. Seen this way, the novel might have visionary features as it describes a collapse and the reaction to it. But to say that I explicitly anticipated the events of 9/11 ­ say the collapse of a period of enormous economic euphoria in the US through terrorist acts ­ I hardly think so! How could I do this? I started out simply with the idea of letting my protagonist drive across town in one day, a person who is already living in the future and fails to notice how susceptible he is to the destructive mechanisms of the present.

FR: What does September 11 mean to you today?
DeL: For me it marks the actual beginning of the 21st century. Because while the zeitgeist before the events was shaped by a belief in the omnipresent power of money and in America's invulnerability, which was rooted in the late 90s, that belief has now been replaced by fear. On that day we entered a new age of fear and uncertainty. If, up to that point in the US, we were occupied primarily with watching the streams of money in internet cafes or at home in front of the computer, we are now governed by different laws, more humane ones. The collapse reactivated worries and fears that were thought to be lost.

FR: Are you sometimes surprised yourself at how often you anticipate history in your books?
DeL: Authors who like me take their inspirations from the culture that surrounds them naturally aim at reflecting the spirit of the time. The point is to show the things that are happening in such a way that one can understand them more clearly. And maybe I do see some things more clearly and a little earlier than others do. For example, terrorists appear in my books again and again. Why? Well, because they exist! They are there and I take notice of them. Take, for example, the late 70s. That was a really dramatic and quite dangerous period. There were continuous plane hijackings, there was the revolution in Iran, the war in Beirut. These are the things I wrote about at the time.

FR: In Libra you look back on history: the assassination of J.F. Kennedy.
DeL: The fascination I felt, especially while writing Libra, was felt by a million other people as well. Initially, many people wanted to believe the official version of what had happened in Dallas. And at first I felt similarly. Then I wrote the novel and started to think about the idea of a conspiracy, not as a masterplan while writing, but simply out of the logic of the chosen subject. But I didn't intend to be truer than the truth. I speculated, played out some scenarios in the book, juggled with theories, ideas, and assumptions. Many who believed in a conspiracy thought that Lee Harvey Oswald was an innocent man. I didn't. In the novel and in my opinion he fired three bullets at the president. But the crucial question for me at that time was, had there been a second gunman?

FR: Conspiracy theories are again highly popular these days with regard to September 11. Some voices even say that the CIA pulled the strings. What do you say to this?
DeL: It seems like making up conspiracy theories has become the fashion lately. Also with regard to Kennedy's assassination, which faces its 40th anniversary these days, these voices haven't fallen silent. I know someone who claims to have new information from the CIA about this ­and all I can say is: I'm curious!

FR: In your novel Mao II you have one of the terrorists say that there is no difference between action and morality any more. What do you mean by this?
DeL: We live in a world where everybody can think up a worst case scenario. But the fact that we don't act that scenario out differentiates us from terrorists. I believe that these people at first also differentiate between the violence they are willing to carry out and the consequences of this violence. But at some point they force themselves not to see that difference anymore. And a person who is only committed to his own ideas or those of some great resolute leader will at some point be unable to see the difference and thus become a danger to himself and others. This has happened over and over and will happen again and again.

FR: Keyword Iraq: It looks like the American forces are experiencing a kind of second Vietnam. American soldiers are dying on a daily basis in this guerilla war. How do you see the situation?
DeL: I was against this invasion from the beginning. And as you know there were big demonstrations against it, even in the US. But the majority was not willing to criticize our government. This has changed by now. I was in Los Angeles when the invasion began and people were throwing around the slogan of a second Vietnam. It looks like they weren't so far off the mark. For years the US government was engaged in the so-called Cold War, but this scenario has ceased to exist. So they looked for another enemy. Then 9/11 happened and they couldn't immediately see anybody to blame. But then they remembered Iraq, where there existed people in uniforms against whom they could fight. Of course I am greatly simplifying things, but basically that's exactly how it went. But America lost a lot of credibility in the world through this kind of action. It has shown its real face.

FR: But at the moment public opinion seems to be changing, right?
DeL: Yes, the wind has changed. Actions of the government are no longer seen uncritically. Our economy is lousy and this even gives people who, only 6 or 8 months ago, stood firmly behind Bush something tough to think about.

FR: In Cosmopolis your protagonist utters the provocative question: 'Do people still shoot at presidents?' How did people in America react to this sentence?
DeL: Oh well, that's not such a big deal. I only said aloud what has already become commonplace: the fact that company bosses have for some time now been more important and thus inevitably live more dangerously than national or political leaders. And this is what Eric means with his cynical, almost sarcastic statement. But it's true of course.

FR: Cosmopolis is narrated in a concise, laconic tone. In what way has your language changed in comparison to your earlier work?
DeL: I wanted to narrate more compactly and to write shorter, more concise sentences. And I am satisfied with the result because nothing in the book is like anything I did before. I think this is connected to the fact that I was very focused while writing. In Underworld, on the other hand, I wanted to broaden consciousness, open it up, and thus I wrote long, escalating sequences and long, spiral-like sentences. But in Cosmopolis everything is compact because in a certain way this compact and enclosed style corresponds to the protagonist's character. And the fact that the narration encompasses only one single day and is basically set on a single street automatically makes it much denser than my previous books.

FR: How should we imagine the creation of your books? Do you follow a set plan or does the story develop in the course of writing?
DeL: I have to admit that I often can't explain why a book took a turn in this or that direction. There is this deeply rooted impulse that makes me write. And I always seem to contrast dispersed characters or secluded intellectuals with the anonymous mass ­ just think of my novel Mao II. But this is a constellation that I become aware of only in retrospect. I follow my characters and have to admit that I often don't know where they'll lead me while I'm in the process of writing. At some point every character makes his claim in a certain way and I comprehend how and where he moves. And at some point this figure begins dictating to me the events according to his own logic. It's often not a specific knowledge that initiates the writing, but rather a desire to understand.

FR: The book is dedicated to your friend Paul Auster, and he dedicated his novel Leviathan to you. Do you talk about your work?
DeL: I am friends with many authors, and Paul and I have been friends for a long time. But that doesn't mean we talk about our work, no. We rather talk about other, quite ordinary things. I talk a lot about movies and sports with Paul. We both like baseball. I'm actually quite happy to occupy myself with something else. But authors are very different. Some have to show parts of their work to a friend or a critical reader while writing. I am not one of these people, oh no. When I work on a book I don't talk to anybody about it until it's finished. And once it's finished, I don't have much to say about it anymore.

FR: Authors like Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, or John Cheever all revolutionized the short story in their own way. Did you never feel the challenge of the short form?
DeL: That is a question of an author's temperament. When I started writing I wrote only short stories, about 20 or 30 of them. And some short stories have come along also in recent years, eight or nine. But the difficulty with a short story is that it has to show one single moment ­ the crucial one so to speak. That moment in life when something tilts, something breaks, a door closes forever ­ in short, something happens that can't be corrected, a fundamental change in this or that direction. That really demands a lot of an author.

FR: How do we have to imagine your everyday writing life? Do you seclude yourself?
DeL: Oh, I think to shut oneself off from everything is a mistake. Because everybody who writes needs the world around him eventually; after all, it's where we get the impulse and the material. I still know what's happening in the world outside while working on a book. I start work right after breakfast, work for two, three hours, and continue again in the late afternoon. But I'm quite lazy. In the meanwhile I do all the things that everybody does.

FR: Roller-blading for example or even jogging?
DeLillo: (laughs) Oh no, my engagement as a modern human being doesn't go that far, after all. I watch a lot of movies, meet friends and above all listen to a lot of music, mainly jazz. I have recently had a classical period where I constantly listened to Glenn Gould, the Goldberg Variations. I compared his two interpretations from 1955 and the later one from 1982 and found the differences amazing.

FR: In your novels you pay homage again and again to the movie as a form of expressing human desire and perspectives. In Mao II, on the other hand, you emphasize the special power of language. Isn't there a conflict?
DeLillo: Honestly, I would of course prefer people to buy more books rather than go to the movies. While a film can make 42 million dollars on a single weekend, these are sums a publisher can only dream of. But the necessity to tell stories connects literature and film like nothing else.

FR: Do you remember the first piece you wrote in your life?
DeL: Yes, actually I remember it fairly well. I was seventeen or eighteen and I was writing a short story that was supposed to be like one of Hemingway's. Hemingway was really the greatest for me at that time. And, to be honest, my fascination with him has never entirely faded.

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Last updated: 03-MAR-2004