Conversations With Don DeLillo?

By Scott Hermanson

Conversations with Don DeLillo
Edited by Thomas DePietro.
Literary Conversations Series,
Jackson, Miss: UP of Mississippi, 2005.

Don DeLillo does not like to give interviews.

I didn’t want to start out like this, but oh, you can taste the irony right away: a collection of interviews with an author who meticulously avoids publicly declaiming about his work. And yet, here he is, declaiming away. The chronicler of postmodern paranoia self-consciously hoisted on his own petard. The discursive levels are sublime, aren’t they? Even his interviews mutate into reflexive meta-interviews about being interviewed. Wait. What if I interviewed Don about this collection of interviews and, yes, began the interview by noting that Don doesn’t like interviews? Heads would explode!

It’s just so easy to knock that one out of the park. It’s a set up far easier than Branca’s famous pitch that opens Underworld. I couldn’t resist, and nearly every one of the seventeen interviews, as well as Thomas DePietro’s introduction, takes a swing at DeLillo’s aversion to interviews.

Though in our defense, DeLillo’s reluctance to talk about his work defines these collected interviews. For despite nearly 200 pages of talk dating from 1982 to 2001, DeLillo does not reveal a tremendous amount of information about his books, himself, or his ideas. In his first interview with Tom LeClair, he says, “When you try to unravel something you’ve written, you belittle it in a way,” (4) and in a way, he never really veers from that idea. When cornered by various critics, book reviewers and friends, he plays close to the vest. David Remnick, in his 1997 interview, notes with almost some dismay that DeLillo’s works often revisit similar themes even to the point of exhausting them. One might argue that the same phenomenon dooms these interviews to much the same. With each new work and new round of interviews, DeLillo seems to allot a soundbite to the novel, an isolated revelation that he recycles into new (or sometimes not) language. The reader comes to the conclusion that DeLillo has found a compromise for his well-known reluctance to talk about his work. The respective interlocutors struggle to get DeLillo to say much of anything new. But he will say a little, and he will say that repeatedly.

Yet these interviews are not without interest. They can be divided into three sections: the early works when DeLillo is read by only a small audience of critics scholars and adventurous readers; the Libra period, where DeLillo’s reputation is solidified as a major contemporary author; and the Underworld period where DeLillo is treated as the mature statesman discussing what history may consider his masterwork. The collection closes with a brief coda focusing on DeLillo as a playwright. Read in chronological sequence, we see DeLillo’s concerns travel from a preoccupation with language and structure to a reflection on the role of the novelist in the wider culture. He moves from a brash and almost insular writer content with being read by only an elite few to a mature reflective writer attempting to gauge his role in the wider canon.

The few insights into his fiction allowed by DeLillo will likely come as no surprise to those who have read his books. Though he elaborates extensively on his obsession with language on a very small scale, any reader of White Noise will recognize that DeLillo cares a great deal about the way a sentence sounds, even the way words look on the paper. DeLillo divulges that he writes on a manual typewriter in order to access the shear materiality of words. “The words typed on the white page,” he says, “have a sculptural quality.” (91). On a larger scale, he is fascinated by the structure imposed on his fictions. He takes great pleasure in the difficult, virtuoso feats of Ratner’s Star and Players, “books in which fiction itself is a sort of game” (5), and says of the inverted structure of Underworld, “This is why I write. To try to do things like this.” (149).

What may be surprising is to hear DeLillo talk in somewhat mystical and even superstitious ways about how his books develop. For a writer with such concern over intricate patterning, he speaks of the composition process as being “organic” and somewhat out of his control. He reveals that the audaciously structured Underworld was begun in chronological order even though the finished novel works backwards through time. In other interviews, he repeatedly invokes a character’s voice as something almost possessive of the writer. He depicts himself at the typewriter struggling with a character until he finds “his voice and his spirit.” (43) When questioned about the method of developing a theme, he claims that “these things curiously invent themselves… a theme will insist on its own development.” (125) And finally, it’s “all intuition, it’s all feeling, there’s no strategy.” (164). At various times he writes about not having any plan for a novel, or wondering himself were the story will end up. It’s almost as if DeLillo channels himself. In describing a moment in Libra, he coins an apt phrase for his writing: “an accidental holiness.” (35)

A second theme that persists throughout these interviews is the role of the writer in the culture. DeLillo began his career on the margins, critically acclaimed, but not widely read. By the time of the publication of Underworld, he had a sizeable audience, and was recognized as a major American author. In DeLillo’s judgment, however, the role of fiction in the culture has largely been supplanted by television and the Internet. The similarities of these dynamics—DeLillo marginalized as an author and the authorial endeavor marginalized in society—have left DeLillo comfortably outside looking in. “This writer is working against the age” he says as a young novelist, “And so he feels some satisfaction at not being widely read. He is diminished by an audience.” (13) Certainly DeLillo delivers this with tongue partly in cheek, yet there is some truth to being damned by the bestseller list. Later he will refine his sentiments to say that the writer is best and proper at the margins of society:
The writer has lost a great deal of his influence, and he is situated now, if anywhere, on the margins of the culture…. I am not particularly distressed by the state of fiction or the role of the writer. The more marginal, perhaps ultimately the more trenchant and observant and finally necessary he’ll become. 130
DeLillo states this in another, more literary way when commenting on his approach to the Kennedy assassination in Libra. Given the post-war generation of authors, DeLillo cites Styron, Mailer and Vidal among others, and his current generation, McElroy, Pynchon, McGuane, which would choose to write about Kennedy and which would choose Oswald? “The second group, my group, would almost invariably choose Oswald,” (46) he says, and therein lies a sea-change that DeLillo sees in the post-Kennedy world; one that has fractured the comfortable illusion of a common reality.

These Conversations may not produce a wealth of revelatory insights, but they have their moments. Along the way we learn some curious facts and some do provide fascinating keyhole glimpses of the writer. On the less monumental scale, we learn that DeLillo smoked marijuana during the 60s and 70s and for a while had a picture of the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges over his desk. More significantly, we learn that DeLillo has repeatedly looked to science for a new language. He discloses that he likes his notes for Ratner’s Star as much as he likes the novel; a very telling comment. He rarely cites other authors as influences, ascribing his style to jazz, experimental film and abstract art. Of his generation he admires Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, William Gaddis and Cormac McCarthy. Of the writers coming up behind him, Richard Powers, David Foster Wallace, Joanna Scott and Jonathan Franzen.

Close readers of DeLillo may find Conversations with Don DeLillo merely reiterating what can be discovered in his fictional worlds. DeLillo’s power as a writer lies in his magnificent attention to language that in turn provides us a mirror-perfect reflection of society. Perhaps he has been wise not to cultivate a more public persona, concentrating his energies and ideas inside the book covers instead of scattering them via the hand of a public intellectual.

Scott Hermanson teaches at Arizona State University.

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