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Remembering Paul Auster

· Book Lovers,amreading

When I was an 18-year-old community college student (De Anza College in Cupertino, California, down the street from the Apple headquarters), not really sure what I wanted to do with my life, I took a "Contemporary Literature" class.

The professor, Barbara Loren, assigned us a 25-page term paper as our quarter-long project. The assignment: read five books from a living author, and analyze them.

Across the street from De Anza was a fantastic bookstore: A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, in what was then the Oaks Shopping Center. I loved this bookstore, and after class, I traipsed over there and began my search for a living author who had written five books I could use for this monster paper.

It didn't take me very long—I started in the A's—and came across a guy with a name remarkably similar to my own. I picked up The New York Trilogy. (This was late 1990, when Auster only had six novels published.) The first line of the first book in the trilogy, City of Glass, completely captivated me:

"Much later, when he was able to think about things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance."

I burned through those six books and wrote my essay on the themes of solitude and the overlapping of names (shout out to Jacques Derrida and the signifier/signified arguments). And I was VERY excitered two years later when Leviathan was released—the novel that's been my very favorite since I couldn't put that book down in 1992. Another opening line that sucked me in:

I remember closing that book, blown away by what I'd just read (and I definitely need to read it again)! I loved the "metafiction" aspects of his work, and his voice influenced my writing in college as I graduated with a degree in creative writing. There's a mystery aspect in Auster's work, too, though it's decidedly "literary fiction."

I followed Auster as he wrote the screenplays for Smoke and Blue in the Face, sitting in the art-house theaters in Palo Alto. (I never saw the movie version of his novel The Music of Chance—for a very long time, it was unavailable for rental or streaming, even though it had some major early 90s Hollywood star power with James Spader and Mandy Patinkin—but I see it can be streamed on Roku, so I know what I'm doing later this week!) I really liked Auster's work on NPR's National Story Project, and bought the story collection Auster curated (I Thought My Father Was God). I saw Auster in a live interview in the late 2000s—I got him to sign his 2005 novel The Brooklyn Follies. Shortly thereafter, I discovered Siri Hustvedt, who I liked even better than Paul Auster... then I discovered Hustvedt and Auster were married. (In the Woodhead & Becker Mysteries, Bernadette Becker has a daughter named Sophie, a little nod to Auster and Hustvedt.) To this day, they're my two favorite authors.

While my early short stories tried to imitate Auster, he taught me that I needed to nurture my own voice and foster my own relationship with my environment, much like Auster did with New York. Seeing him speak was part of the reason I started writing mysteries instead of trying to outliteraryfiction Auster.

His essays are spare and insightful, as is his poetry. He's translated many French works, including Sartre and Mellarmé. His two-part memoir, Hand to Mouth, is a wonderful read. I'll miss his writing and his insight, and I'm glad he's got more than 50 published works to keep me remembering his writing.

Photo: Paul Auster with other authors at the 2012 Brooklyn Book Festival.