Paul Auster on making noise in the age of Trump

Last Thursday, I interviewed Paul Auster at Town Hall Seattle. Interviewing Paul Auster is intimidating as hell; he's one of the most widely translated American novelists of all time, he's produced a magnificent array of influential novels since the mid-1980s, and he's a world-class thinker on the topic of stories and storytelling. We discussed topics ranging from his stellar new novel 4321 to the secret of writing convincing sex scenes to a harrowing high school basketball game. The event was recorded by KUOW and will appear on Town Hall's site in its entirety, but for now we thought we'd share this timely exchange with our readers.

What you think a writer's role is in the age of Trump?

Far be it from me to tell anybody what to do. I mean, artists are artists. And I think making art, even in the age of Trump, is firmly — he doesn't own everything, you know? He taken over a lot, but he doesn't own it all. And there's value in novels, there's value in music, there's value in painting. Think of a world without novels, or string quartets, or ballets, or plays, or movies. It's unimaginable, really.

My theory is this: that the novel, just by its very nature, is an act that enforces democracy. Because the novel always is about an individual or a set of individuals. And by entering the inner lives of often the most ordinary kinds of people, we're giving them the full dignity of their humanity. I think reading novels is a way to participate in the inner lives of others. People who are not us. And that in itself is a political act.

Ok. Still. Artists are citizens as well. And then it's up to everybody to decide what he or she wants to do outside of the realm of the books that they write. I, myself, have spoken out at times. But I would never urge anyone else to do that unless that person really wanted to.

Now, I've thought long and hard about this new world that we've entered three weeks ago and I feel my life has to change. I can't go on in the way I've been going. But this is my own private thing. So there's an organization I've been involved in for years called PEN — I'm sure most of you know what PEN is. It's really the only human rights organization defending writers around the world.

And at various times I've been vice president of American PEN, secretary, and on the board. And I've been asked to be president a couple of times — to run — but I haven't wanted to because it's a very time-consuming job, and I wanted to do my work. Well, now the position will open up again in about a year — early 2018. And I'm going to throw my hat in the ring, and if they want me, I'll do it and I'll use it as a platform for speaking out. Because it is a great organization, especially the Freedom to Write program, which is defending writers. PEN just got an Egyptian writer out of prison, just a month ago. So I think we can be effective.

As the former head of that program, Larry Siems, said to me once, "our job is to make noise, as much noise as possible. And sometimes people hear us." Beautiful way to think, yeah?