Don DeLillo on life, art, and literature

Robert McCrum (the Guardian) travels to New York and interviews American writer Don DeLillo. Ironically, for an article about ‘manipulating reality’, McCrum is vague and even mistaken when trying to summarize DeLillo’s career, but the article redeems itself when the conversation begins. DeLillo discusses the inspirations behind his work, the contemporary political landscape, and his place in American literature
DeLillo now lives in Westchester County in New York State with his wife, Barbara, a landscape designer, but he has not completely left his childhood neighbourhood, a place he insists still “looks the same, though the people are different”: an influx of new immigrants, Serbs, Croats and African-Caribbeans. Every year, he goes back to meet old school friends from the streets of his childhood. “We meet on a major street and have a meal together and a laugh,” he says. Inevitably, the conversation will turn to baseball, DeLillo’s first love – what he calls his “second language”. Baseball, he says, “was just so natural, because we all grew up with it. We played it; we listened to it on the radio, and then we went to Yankee stadium. It was a taken-for-granted pleasure”.

DeLillo still had to make his journey “into America” and that was hard. “It took a long time,” he says. “I was very slow to begin. I lacked the discipline for the enormous commitment one has to make. Even when I had all day to write, and sometimes all week, I took forever finally to enter my first novel.” That was Americana, published in 1971 when he was 35.

“It was only after two years’ work,” he confesses, “that it occurred to me that I was a writer. I had no particular expectation that the novel would ever be published, because it was sort of a mess. It was only when I found myself writing things I didn’t realise I knew that I said, ‘I’m a writer now.’ The novel had become an incentive to deeper thinking. That’s really what writing is – an intense form of thought.”

Don DeLillo, Point Omega
Don DeLillo, Point Omega

DeLillo likes to keep this intensity to himself, which has given him the label “reclusive”. But he resists this. “I’m not reclusive at all. Just private.” As a celebrated writer, and a shy man, he wants to keep it this way, with his fans held at arm’s length. “This is the age of consumer fiction. People want fiction that’s easily assimilable.” That holds no interest for DeLillo. “Point Omega challenged me in the writing and I assume it will challenge some readers as well.”

He relishes complexity and goes into a long account of Teilhard de Chardin’s work and the idea of the “omega point”, concluding, after an explanation of the “noosphere”, with a note of triumph, that “these are not easy ideas to understand, but that’s what we are dealing with”. For DeLillo, the mystery of the process is a vital ingredient in fiction. “We are bound to wonder: where does this material come from?”

As a champion of “difficulty”, albeit in an American mode, he is an heir of modernism and says that he sees himself as “part of a long modernist line starting with James Joyce”. Unlike his friend Paul Auster, there’s no part of his creative make-up that owes much to the 19th-century American masters. “I was too much of a Bronx kid to read Emerson or Hawthorne.” Instead, he listens to jazz: “Charlie Mingus, Miles Davis, the same music I listened to when I was 20.”

This comes as a reminder that DeLillo stands in the middle of a postwar generation of American writers, ranging from the senior (Philip Roth) to the junior (Paul Auster), all of them from the suburbs. “We are not native,” DeLillo explains. “We have no generations of Americans behind us. We have roots elsewhere. We are looking in from the outside. To me, that seems to be perfectly natural.” [Read the Interview]

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