Paul Auster: "I think of the right-wing Republicans as jihadists"

The legendary author tells Salon about Obama disappointments, growing old and talking sex with Philip Roth


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David Daley
August 19, 2012 5:01PM (UTC)

It's the summer of 2002, just weeks after the death of his mother, and months after the attacks that scarred the city he's so closely associated with, and Paul Auster is suffering panic attacks. There has been a succession of debilitating illnesses, and he's on prescription medication as he drives his wife and teenage daughter from Connecticut back to Brooklyn. Only blocks from his apartment, he makes an ill-advised left turn, misjudging the speed of an oncoming van, and suddenly, "as if Zeus has hurled a lightning bolt at you and your family," there's a thunderous crunch, and the car's careening the wrong way, hurtled into a street-side pole.

Despite fears that he'd killed his family, ultimately everyone emerged from this brush with death fine -- except perhaps for the novelist himself. It's among the many moments of aging, of loss of control, that led to his remarkable new memoir "Winter Journal" (it will be in stores Tuesday). This is not a book that rages against the dying of the light. It looks back wistfully, regretfully, and with honesty and tenderness. The frame is Auster's own body, and how our decaying bodies tell the stories of a life. But it is also the story of how marriages decay and love is reborn, of discovering sex and feeling desire evolve, of falling for books and channeling the creative impulse over decades. And it extends a tremendous and prolific late-career run for the novelist.

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We met at a Park Slope cafe not far from his Brooklyn home on a recent rainy afternoon, where the conversation skipped easily from his new book to the New York Mets, and from literary politics to the presidential race.

This is not your first memoir, and over the years, you've talked about memoir's responsibility to the truth. But I wonder if you feel a different responsibility to memoir when it includes your wife and your daughter and recent history -- very intimate stories about falling in love, a marriage and a terrible accident making a left turn in Brooklyn, with your wife and daughter in the car.

I’ve done "The Invention of Solitude" and then there was -- I think of it as autobiographical work -- "The Red Notebook," and then there was "Hand to Mouth," so this in effect is the fourth step at autobiographical writing. I don’t know what compels me to do it, but, every once in a while this urge to do it rises up in me and I go with it. And they’re all different. Each one is a different approach, often to similar things, sometimes the same thing from different points of view. Yes, you have a tremendous responsibility, not only to the living but the dead as well.

Yes, both of your parents have important roles in this book.

Yes, of course it’s easier to write about the dead because they’re not going to be offended by anything you say, but you are in a delicate position of not wanting to hurt people's feelings and at the same time telling the truth. So there’s different things, I think, that have to be avoided and every book is a matter of choices. No book includes the entire world. It’s limited. And so it doesn’t seem like an aesthetic compromise to have to do that. There’s so much other material to write about.

How does the process work? You write that your wife (novelist and essayist Siri Hustvedt) is also your first reader. Was that ever uncomfortable? Did she ever ask you not to tell a story?

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She's my first reader, my best friend and, you know, it’s been a long friendship now. And I had more, I took it out. At times it got so gushing that I thought, No, I have to tone it down a little bit. But my daughter’s hardly in the book at all. It’s not about my children at all. It’s really about my own physical being.

That's been a theme of your work: the way the body is tied to the unconscious.

I’ve always said this. I mean, I really, truly believe that writing comes out of the body; of course, the mind is working as well, but it’s a double thing and that doubleness is united. I mean, you can’t separate persona from psyche; you just can’t do it. And I think every writer, every poet, would tell you that. Feeling the words in the body when they’re coming out -- it is a musical experience with language, and music is physical.

So it seemed like a natural idea to use the body as a way to tell the story of a life?

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Yes, but it’s bits of a life. Autobiographical fragments, arranged in a kind of fugue-like way that’s like a musical composition. And, of course, not every single entry is strictly about my body, but I can argue, for example, that listing all the places I ever lived, where I was sheltered --

Physical spaces that housed your body.

-- or writing about my mother, it was in her body that my body begins. So it seemed a legitimate part of the project to include those things.

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You've also talked about being a writer who writes a book start to finish, one paragraph at a time, first page to the last. Was a book like this -- which jumps and cuts and moves in so many directions -- written the same way?

I made very few changes in the order – a few times I would put something too early or too late, but the vast majority just came out in a way. You know, I’m an old guy and I’ve been doing this for a long time and you just feel it, I can sense, you know. I can’t argue about it, I can’t give you a justification, I know it feels right for me. And if I’m off, I know it’s off. And if I’m hitting it, I know I’m hitting it. This book just kind of came out almost as it is.

When did you know the last line: "You have entered the winter of your life."

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It was late. I didn’t know how I was going to end it. It was very late in the game.

It feels like the kind of line that could be the entire animating purpose behind a book.

Exactly, but it didn’t come till about a week or two before I finished the book. Sometimes the last line is there from the beginning and other times ...

So why this book now? Was it feeling like you've entered that winter of your life?

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I don’t know. As I’ve said, I can never answer why. I wanted to do it, so I did it. Was it the idea of, you know, reaching the age I’ve reached? I don’t know. I’m not sure. I do know that, oddly enough, all these 40th anniversaries that were taking place in the last few years have been throwing me back to the old days a lot. I’ve been speaking about things that haven’t been preoccupying me a lot, and maybe haven’t spoken about. "Invisible" really goes back to Columbia in the late 1960s.

So, you know, I’m living in the present, thinking about the past, hoping for the future. And then too, there’s another thing I’d like to say: Most of the time, the way I seem to generate books is to bounce off the one I’ve done before, so to negate it, to do the opposite, to reinvent it. The book that came before it ["Sunset Park"] is the first book that consciously I wrote in the now, capital “N,” and it was also immediate, all so much about our present moment, that the impulse was to go back afterwards.

And before that, "Invisible," has that same kind of fractured narrative as the new book.

It’s true, because it goes back in the past, it goes leaping forward, it covers a lot of years.

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I want to talk about some of the specific stories in the book. There's an important scene at a friend's dance recital in the late 1970s. You've been completely blocked as a poet. Nothing is coming. But something happens in that hall, with the beauty of the form and the silence, and you end up liberated -- and on a different path as a writer.

I wanted to write about that as clearly as I could in the book because it really was an important moment in my life, in my inner process as a human being. To this day I don’t understand what it was. Consciously I say to myself, it’s because of the tremendous gap between the beauty of the performance and the inadequacy of the words the choreographer used to try and explain it, as if I was comprehending two realities at the same time. One was highly entertaining and the other thoroughly boring, and the words were the boring part. It somehow set me free in some way to think about the world in a slightly different way. Maybe until then I’d been too wrapped up in words, and run into a dead end because of it. And suddenly the proverbial weight was lifted off my shoulders and I felt light again and ready to do anything, take any risk, experiment with anything I wanted to do, and it was a tremendous moment.

And this all happens right as your father dies.

I went home after seeing the piece, and for the next two weeks or so wrote, wrote, wrote this first prose piece. It was the night I finished writing it that he died. It’s so bizarre, isn’t it?

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It's tragic. But what's also interesting is that those words emerged as prose. Had you stopped thinking of literature, of poetry?

Yeah, I was just freed of everything, and I just do whatever is most important to do. You know, I pretty much do whatever strange thing I feel compelled to do. You know I have to say that, just to be fair about all this, in my younger years I spent a lot of time writing fiction and I wrote a lot of prose in my late teens and early 20s and in that work are the seeds of several of the novels I later published. "City of Glass," "In the Country of Lost Things" and "Moon Palace" were all conceived when I was an undergraduate, but I couldn’t finish the books, I kept changing my views of what each should be. I just started too young, inexperienced, flailing about, failing, failing, failing and flailing -- and yet I think all that work was not wasted time at all.

So it’s not as if I just sat down one day and said, "Oh now I’m going to write fiction or prose." I’d been doing it; it’s just that I was never happy with the results, never showed it to anybody, I never even went to the point of typing it up. It was all handwritten in notebooks, but just tremendous amounts of material.

And as it turns out, your father was never able to see the success of the son he feared might end up in the poorhouse.

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Exactly, he talked about the poorhouse all the time, my father. Down the road in that next town over, Irvington, N.J., there was a big brick building and my father said, “See that, that’s the poorhouse, and if we’re not careful that’s where we’re going to all wind up.” Every time we passed that building, that’s what he said and I think he thought I was going to wind up there. But you know, every father-son relationship is a deep business, and we all want the approval of our fathers, the love of our fathers, the respect of our fathers; very few of us get it. At least if he’d lived a bit longer he would’ve known that I kind of got through all this. If my information about his birthday is correct, and it’s a little fuzzy, he would be turning 100 this month, exactly.

You'd always had a sense about the randomness and instability of life, because at 14, you're standing next to a friend who is struck and killed by lightning.

Yes, I think that’s probably the most important thing that happened to me as a young person. I think it changed my opinion about the world more radically than any other event that I ever lived through. And at the time of course you don’t really think about it but it’s something I keep dwelling on; I go back to it in my mind again and again, all the ramifications.

Chance and coincidence are two themes that you often come back to in your work. Could some of that have been born in that moment?

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It’s possible. Listen, chance is an element of life. What I try to do is study what I call the mechanics of reality as carefully as I can. I have no ax to grind with it. I’m not sure I even have a position about it. I’m just saying, listen, what does the world look like? Well, chance is clearly a big element in everyone’s life. It’s not the only element. We have free will, we can decide what we want to do, we can make choices, we can have ambitions and goals and strive to get from A to B to C to D and know that we’re going to have to study eight years to become a doctor and it’s a lot of hard work

But then often as you’re on your road, whichever road you pick, something happens. You’re walking around and a tree falls in the road and you have to go into the woods to get around the tree. And you meet someone in the woods -- or something else happens in the woods -- that changes your course and you never quite get back on that road again. This is how I see life happening for people. And so I try to incorporate all these things and this way of thinking in the books that I write, but not insisting on it. Physically these things happen. You see, I think one of the problems with so-called realist fiction, which is the dominant aesthetic especially in America for a long time, in those books, the eccentricities of life are often eliminated for a kind of typological portrait of human beings. The weird and uncanny don’t play a part in it. And I think when people object to other kinds of writing, it’s because they’ve read so many of those books and they’re not looking at the world -- because the world is a crazy place.

Sure, it's realist writing that actually gives only the appearance of reality.

Yeah, you know, one day you wake up and planes are going into the World Trade Center. Not to speak of the very word "accident," which has a philosophical meaning, too. You know, accident means "that which is not necessary to contingent fact," and yet accidents sort of rule the world, don’t they? You fall down the stairs and break your leg and you can never walk well again. One second of your attention. I follow baseball and sports -- but particularly baseball -- and I’ve seen brilliant careers ruined by fluke injuries. Pete Reiser smashing into the wall in the mid-'40s, the most brilliant player of his generation.

Mickey Mantle gets his cleats stuck in a drainage system at Yankee Stadium in 1951 ...

Exactly, just destroyed his knee and he was in pain for the rest of his life. So I rest my case.

Baseball plays a big part in this book. You had thoughts of making it a career.

I had a very promising beginning. I was very good when I was small. And I remember, you know, when I was about 10 going to a summer camp and I played a lot of baseball and they put me on a team with the 12- and 13-year-old kids. Shortstop and lead-off hitter. I wasn’t as big as everybody else but I was good enough to compete with the older kids. And I did well and then by the time I got to high school I started losing interest. Girls, smoking, alcohol, books -- you know, all the wonderful pieces of adult life -- and it just seemed boring after a while. The team I played on in high school was filled with the least intelligent people in the school. The baseball team was filled with dummies. The locker room became tedious. So tiring to listen to those awful jokes. You know, going on the bus to play a team in another city and the players pulling down their pants and mooning the passing traffic.

You say you were distracted by girls. But you also write about how the women of New Jersey were not especially interested or forthcoming.

Where did you grow up?

Hartford.

So a similar place, and you’re much, much younger than I am. When were you born?

1970.

That’s a long time after me and it’s still rough. I remember having a talk with Philip Roth, maybe a couple of years ago, we were talking about this, sex in high school or the lack of sex in high school. He was talking about the blue ball phenomenon, which I’d never really heard about until then.

This I want to hear. What did Philip Roth have to say about blue balls?

That’s it, every boy he knew lived in torment and frustration, I guess we all were. I don’t know, is it any different now?

I think it is.

I think it is. It’s so much better.

I’m going to have another one. Young man, waiter, can I have another one, please?

What isn’t necessarily in this book is the time around that age when you must have decided --

-- to be a writer.

And maybe that is important to the subject of the book you're writing now --

I would say the next book, it’s more the story of my early inner life and dawning consciousness and early intellectual life. But it gets awfully boring to write about this stuff.

I think people are interested in what makes somebody a writer, especially when, I mean, clearly you get a sense in your teenage years that it’s something you wanted to do.

It’s very baffling to me. Neither one of my parents went to college. Neither one was a reader. So, you know, I tried to think why I was interested. I don’t know. I remember writing a poem to great joy when I was 9 years old – it was one of the worst poems ever written – and thinking this is a great thing to do.

My grandmother, my mother’s mother, the one whose death I talk about in the book, she gave me books. She gave me a set of Robert Louis Stevenson, I think for my 8th birthday. It was too hard for me. I couldn’t read it until I was about 10 or 11, but I had the poems, the Children’s Garden of Verses, and I loved it. I loved it, and I think in a way, the idea of a grown man projecting himself into the mind of a child was my first experience of what literature was, that you’re actually thrusting yourself into another consciousness. And that’s what it’s all about.

We didn’t even have a bookstore in our town, but the stationary store sold some books. I coveted a big, fat Modern Library giant edition of Edgar Allen Poe’s poems and stories, and I bought it when I was 9, the first book I bought with my own money. $3.95. It’s a big moment, and again Poe was too difficult for me then, but I just loved reading it. And so there I was even at 12, you know, I wrote a long short story, which I called a novel, and I gave it to my sixth grade teacher and she said, “Oh this is really good, you should read it to the class in installments,” and I did that. So already at that early moment I was thinking of myself, well, not as a writer but as someone who liked doing this.

But the moment when I understood that it was something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life was when I was 15 and I read "Crime and Punishment." I remember putting the book down -- I read it in a fever -- and I said, "This is what novels can be. That’s how I want to spend my life; there’s nothing greater than doing this.”

Which leads to something you write in the new book that I wanted to ask you about:  "No doubt you’re a flawed and wounded person. A man who’s carried a wound with him from the very beginning. Why else would you have spent the whole of your adult life bleeding your words onto the page?" Why else?

Yeah, that’s a good question, isn’t it? But I’ve always been of the opinion that artists are damaged people in one way or another, and we need to do what we do in order to hold ourselves together. Most people don’t have to do this kind of thing; it’s not pressing on them. I mean, most people are perfectly content with the world as it is, and artists -- whether they’re writers or painters or filmmakers or musicians, go off into other realms --

 -- and explore the pain.

That’s right. [Andrei] Tarkovsky, the great Russian filmmaker, said human beings make art because life isn’t perfect. Because if it were perfect we wouldn’t need it.

Another passage I particularly liked: "Even you, who’ve lived inside your body for 64 years, would apparently be unable to recognize your foot in an isolated photograph of that foot, not to think of your ear or one of your eyes or elbow, also familiar to you in the context of the whole, but utterly anonymous when taken piece by piece. We are all aliens to ourselves, and if we have any sense of who we are, it is only because we live inside the eyes of others."

Well, it’s true, we don’t know ourselves and we don’t see ourselves. We don’t look in the mirror all day, probably no more than a minute a day.

We live in these bodies we don’t really know.

We don’t pore over photographs of ourselves, and photographs are distortions of who we are anyway. So we don’t know ourselves and we don’t see ourselves, and we all make the world together. We make ourselves. Each self makes itself in relation to others. You know, we are able to think because of other people, we are able to speak because of other people, we are able to know ourselves because of other people, we are able to say, "I am lonely," because of other people. So, I try to, ultimately, remember that even in the greatest aggravation, remember that even in the greatest isolation, you are connected to others, and maybe when you are isolated, even more connected than ever.

What else did you learn about yourself in the process of writing this book? Because you did all of these things that you say we don’t often do: You looked in the mirror, you went through each scar on your body and thought about where it came from, and how the body stores the narrative of a lifetime.

I would say this: My life has been a very ordinary life and I think of myself as anyone, everyone. I think I was trying to write something about what we all share, rather than what separates us, drives us apart. And that I felt, I suppose, more and more part of humanity, part of the big things I’ve been doing all these years, I’m not alone, so it becomes a rather simple but illuminating feeling to feel that connection – with the land, with the air, with other people. Because we all have bodies and all our bodies fail us and hurt us and cause us pleasure and pain, and these are the conditions of life. I just never hear anyone talking about this.

One of the things you do in the book is just rattle off lists of the things that bring pain or pleasure. All the things you might do with your right hand.

The lists. I’ve always liked lists.

It becomes a very effective technique, because even though it is perfectly and purely personal, we all have out own lists.

Do you know the French writer Georges Perec?

No.

You’ve got to read him, you’ll like him very much. Perec was a novelist and essayist, and he died very young, 46 in Paris, son of Polish Jews. Peretz became Perec, his father died at the front in 1940 when the Germans invaded. He had a terrible, terrible childhood, born in 1936. He’s one of the most inventive writers of the 20th century. He’s the man who famously wrote a book without using the letter “E.” This is not one of his greatest, but it’s certainly an amazing tour de force. Perec, there are two novels that I recommend highly, one is short and one is long, one is called “W or Memory of Childhood” and the other is called “Life: A User’s Manual.” But in his essays, which are brilliant -- I mean really brilliant, the guy is just fucking amazing. He did a piece, he cataloged everything he ate and drank for an entire year, so he had his list, you know, 47 glasses of cognac,  five crème caramel, 16 hamburgers, just on and on and on. It’s a wonderful piece. He’s the kind of person who, he did things for radio, too, just plunked himself on a corner in Paris and recorded everything that happened, what everyone said. Just a genius. So read him, read him.

You've always been a friend to literature in translation, to small presses. Do you retain your optimism for the future of the novel, of independent publishing, in this age of Amazon and e-books.

I'm an optimist about the novel because I keep reading good ones. I’m amazed at how effervescent the form remains. It’s just continually reinventing itself. I’m a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, you know, I’m in that stuffy organization, and this past year I agreed, trying to be a good citizen, to judge for prizes. It was an enormous task. We had something like 18 literary awards to give, but I read a lot of new novels,  and there’s a lot of good work out there. There were two writers that really struck me and they’re still both starting out, but such talent, such formal brilliance in both of them. Both books have done extremely well. These are not obscure things that you won’t know: Teju Cole, "Open City," and "The Buddha in the Attic" by Julie Otsuka, terrific. I mean, she pulls off that very difficult thing of writing a book in the first person plural. It’s a chorus, it’s a very poetic piece of work; it’s beautiful. The old guys and the old girls are doing fine, too.

And this is just here; then elsewhere there are tremendous writers all over the world. I don’t know if many people are reading these things but that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. You know, large numbers of people were never reading the best of the best literary works. They’re reading romance novels. They’re reading "50 Shades of Grey." That’s fine, if people want to be entertained and relax. Life is tough. I don’t blame anyone for going in for that disposable kind of entertainment, in quotes, but then there are the other people who are really hungry to explore the world in different ways. These books are there for them and the writers are producing them. Amazing.

But you also quote (the now late) art critic Robert Hughes on the entertainment/industrial complex. Has the culture destroyed itself in that way?

I became aware of this as a young teenager, how crazy this country is and how its art is. Hughes is right. That’s what it is. I mean, it’s monolithic. We’ve destroyed films now. There are no independent films anymore. Dead. You know the great art of cinema: dead. We’re making movies for 9-year-olds, boys, not even girls. You know, comic books. And they’re bringing in billions of dollars and it’s pretty sad.

What’s an adult to do?

I don’t know. I mean, watch old movies.

There's another passage I wanted to ask about. You write of having "manifold grievances against the evils and stupidities of modern American life," and of the "ascendancy of the right, the injustices of the economy, the neglect of the environment, the collapsing infrastructure, the senseless wars, the barbarism of legalized torture and extraordinary rendition." That is the sound of someone who must have complicated thoughts about President Obama.

They are complicated.

That you understand completely the magnitude of the problems he inherited, and the intransigence of the opposition he deals with ...

I know all this.

But also thought there were things he would do, or never do --

Like not close Guantanamo Bay.

And drone strikes that he’s personally overseeing.

Listen, when I voted for him, I knew I was voting for a moderate. His politics are not my politics, but he’s a hell of a lot closer to me than any of the others, so I’m vehemently behind him. I desperately want him to win. Has he disappointed me? Of course he’s disappointed me. Do I think he’s rather inept politically? Yes. I think he could’ve out-maneuvered those right-wingers. But he had this knighted notion that he could somehow bring everyone together, and he didn’t know that he was dealing with insane people. I think of the right-wing Republicans as jihadists; they’re as crazy as those people. They want to destroy the country that we want to save. And you know they’re not doing it with machine guns and bombs, but they’re doing it by electing insane people to enact insane legislation that is going to do as much damage to us as bombs would in the long run. So that’s my position. I’m for Obama, I wish he were different, but I know that, under the circumstances,  he can’t be different. Anybody farther to the left would never have a chance of winning.

So I’m respectful of Obama, but I think he’s a strange double-person, warm and cold, compassionate and indifferent, tough and soft, all at the same time. And I don’t really understand who he is. When the Democrats had the majority in the House, he had Nancy Pelosi; she’s a real killer in the old style. She’s a female Lyndon Johnson, and I respect her tremendously, I think she’s great, by the way. The way Johnson, again, talk about problematic people, I’m not condoning him, but politically –

Johnson got things done.

He did it by blackmailing everyone. “George, I know you’re sleeping with little boys. You want me to tell the press or are you going to vote for my bill?” You know, “Phil, I know you’ve stolen $10 million from your state treasury, but I won’t say anything if you vote for my bill.” That was how he got it done, and it’s very effective. Obama is too much of a Boy Scout -- and Al Gore before him was too much of a Boy Scout. Because Gore won in 2000. History has changed because of that moment. And Gore didn’t have the guts to fight it out. He made every mistake you could possibly make along the way. The election was his, it was in his hands and he threw it away. He didn’t realize the high stakes that were involved, and that he gave us more insane people who did more insane things, sent us down the road to perdition more quickly.

But we’d better stop, because we’re going to go nuts. We could keep playing this game until we want to go out and slit our wrists. It’s a grim moment.

What is the artist’s responsibility in the middle of a moment like this?

OK, I think the artist’s responsibility is twofold. One: he must continue to do his work. This was a question that came up frequently after 9/11. I remember taking part in a big documentary done by French television, which came to America for the interviews with writers a year after. Now it’s interesting, France interviews all these writers. America, of course, never puts writers on television. There were about 12 of us. And I remember saying then, and I still feel it very keenly now: Making up stories, fictions, whether films or novels or narrative poems, it’s all about the sanctity of the individual, which is what our democracies are supposedly all about, upholding the rights of the individual. And if we don’t have people chronicling the lives of the individuals out there, then we become monolithic states. So therefore the job of the writer is to think small, pay attention and communicate what’s out there, what people are doing.

On the other hand, the second thing is that writers have political opinions and writers are often in positions to speak out in ways that other people are not in positions to speak out. So when the moments have come, I’ve spoken out. I’ve said my piece. I tried to do my little bit to fight for the things I believe in.

I don’t know if you know about my fight with the Turkish prime minister earlier this year. I got into a big fight with him, because I did an interview with a Turkish paper because they published "Winter Journal" right away. I have a lot of readers in Turkey, for reasons I don’t understand, but every book is 10 or 12 printings. And so they came to interview me. I said I refuse to go to Turkey. I’d been invited numerous times over the last 25 years and I’d refused to go because of the way writers are treated. There are more than 100 in prison right now, and therefore I want you to put it in your paper that this is a protest.

This is a provocative move on my part and I knew that people in the government would be upset with me, but I thought the most that could possibly happen was that some pro-government columnist would write some nasty thing about me, say what an idiot I was. But no. The next day, the prime minister got up at a party meeting and blasted me, “Paul Auster’s an ignorant man, we don’t need him to come here, let him stay,” and he said that I'd gone "to Israel last year and that’s the greatest prison in the world." And I said, well, Israel’s troubled, too, but at least they don’t put writers in jail. And back and forth it went for a few days. Look, every country is troubled, every country has problems, your Turkey, my United States, but one thing that is sacred is the right to freedom of expression for all men and women. We can never make our world better without it.

So that was my last little political dust-up. But it all happened right during the week I was turning 65, which is a grim milestone I have to say, and it kept my mind off of that. I was fighting a head of state and felt very invigorated by it.


David Daley

David Daley is the author of "Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn't Count," a senior fellow at FairVote and the former editor of Salon.

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