Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Interview by Harold K. Bush, Jr.

"It's All a Mystery"

A conversation with Don DeLillo

Born in 1936 and raised by Italian American immigrants in the Fordham section of the Bronx, Don DeLillo is one of the preeminent American novelists of his generation. His eighth novel, White Noise (1985), was a breakthrough both commercially and artistically for DeLillo, earning him the National Book Award and a place in the academic canon of contemporary authors. White Noise was followed by a string of highly acclaimed works, including Libra (1988), Mao II (1991), Underworld (1997), and, most recently, Point Omega (2010). Hal Bush talked with DeLillo at Saint Louis University, where he received the St. Louis Literary Award in October 2010.

When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer, and what you got started as a writer?

I wrote some short stories in my early twenties and sent them to magazines, and to my amazement, when I was around 23, one of these stories was accepted. It stunned me, I remember receiving a letter in the mail. And I wanted to say, "Wait a minute. I was only kidding, I can do better." That was my immediate response. And the story was published. But I didn't get around to working on my first novel until quite a while later, for reasons that are not so easy to explain. I was living under ideal circumstances for a writer: I lived very cheaply; I quit my job, I was free; I was paying 60 dollars a month rent; and I was going to the movies instead of writing. Eventually I realized the importance of working every day—I'm not sure why it took me so long, but eventually it happened. And I was two years into my first novel when it occurred to me that I was a writer. That's when I knew. I was perfectly willing to believe that this novel would never get published, because I was writing in the dark, in many ways, but I was learning things about writing that I hadn't realized before. And it happened—I am not exaggerating—a little like a revelation. I remember where I was, which street I was on, walking along, when I knew I would be a writer, and I knew I would keep going, whatever happened with this particular book. It took me two more years to finish it, and eventually it was published. And here I am.

So what street was it?

It was Second Avenue, around Thirty-Sixth Street, in Manhattan. There's a plaque.

Talk a little bit about your craft as a writer—and specifically, how do you envision the purposes of your art? What do you try to achieve?

I suppose what I do in the simplest sense, which is also perhaps the most important sense, is to write clear, interesting sentences. This is where it all starts. One has an idea, and it begins to develop, and I may take notes every so often, write down possible names as characters begin to develop; but it doesn't really mean much until I put words on paper. Hemingway's old dictum is still strongly in mind, which is "get black on white"; and that's what I do. I have an old manual typewriter; I hit the typewriter keys and march the words forward. Words not only have meanings, they even have visual elements. I can see words that connect in a sentence by what they look like, not only by what they mean, and by the sound they have. And that's what I do, sentence after sentence, day after day. And as I do this, I begin to understand the characters more, I begin to sense the structure of whatever it is I'm writing. Sometimes this takes a long time, other times it's apparent very soon. And it's all a mystery. I think of fiction as a mystery, and I wait for answers.

When you talk about writing great sentences, I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about the American or other writers that you encountered as a young person or a student—writers who wrote great sentences.

The first name I have to mention is Hemingway. He was inescapable back then, in a positive sense. A friend and I, when we were at Fordham, used to walk across campus speaking to each other in Hemingway dialogue. And it was part parody of Hemingway, but it was also part tribute. And this friend of mine used to write like Hemingway, and could not break himself of the habit—he's now on safari. And there was Faulkner. Too difficult to imitate, actually. But in a way, overwhelming everything, was James Joyce. And I remember clearly my reading of Ulysses, the first three chapters in particular, just the language itself that seemed to fill the room with sunlight. I don't consider that any of these writers were a direct influence on the way I write, but simply on making me want to write, which is more important, perhaps.

So what about those who were more direct influences on the way you write—particularly postwar novelists. I know before you've mentioned people like Norman Mailer or Saul Bellow.

In the '60s, as I started to write and became increasingly serious, I led a fairly quiet life. Of course I had friends, but I rarely traveled, and I spent a lot of time working, reading, and seeing movies—serious movies—and during all this time, as I was almost semi-cloistered, there was Mailer, out in the middle of everything: politics, religion, sex—every imaginable subject in that very energetic decade passed through Mailer and got the benefit of his comments and his books and the trouble he caused and the attention he got. I felt like Mailer's secret shadow. Of course nobody knew who I was, and that's the way I liked it, but I admired what he wrote. The nonfiction, the articles he wrote, the poems he wrote, the letters he wrote, and of course the novels. I never considered Mailer a model for my own work, but I considered him an invigorating presence who seemed just around the corner.

Bellow was another important writer in that time—again, not a direct influence, but he brought a new voice to American literature. And many others—too many to remember.

Some readers say …

They're wrong.

… that you are a dark and pessimistic writer.

I don't feel dark and pessimistic. I feel I'm painting a portrait of the world that I know, not one that I'm creating out of sheer mental invention or for the sake of effect. This is the world around me, this is the world that I see. And of course it may be quite different from the world that others see. I lived a while in Greece, in Athens, and there was an overhanging sense of terror and threat: plane hijackings, wars in the general area, revolutions. And in Athens itself you could stand on your terrace, if you had one—and nearly everyone did—and hear a boom somewhere in the distance: another car had been blown up by a group called November 17, a leftist group. So this found its way into the novel I was writing at the time, The Names. I was influenced by everything I saw and heard then, because I was in a new environment, and it informed my work in rather immediate ways.

White Noise is probably your most famous book. On college campuses like this one, it gets taught a lot, and has probably been assigned more often than any of your other works. I would argue that it has become one of the most iconic American novels of the past 30 to 40 years. What do you think accounts for its wide appeal?

This is a question I could not answer honestly. I don't know. I just know what went into the book. I never know how people are going to respond to a particular book.

Was there a particular scene or event or episode that got you thinking about "white noise" as a subject?

I returned from three years in Greece. I returned because I needed to feel like an American writer again, I needed to get back into this culture. And one of the things I noticed when I got back was the sort of dazzle, the brightness, the vividness of an ordinary American supermarket, which I hadn't glimpsed in over three years. So I saw it with fresh eyes, and it had an effect on me. I felt I was learning the culture all over again, listening to people speak and the manner in which they spoke. And I felt the urge to start writing. I found myself describing a street in a town somewhere.

But as things began to develop, I became aware of the frequency of toxic spills. Seemed to be happening everywhere. You know the way the media treat certain events: an event becomes reported, and then over-reported. Everybody reports it. And you get the impression that there's nothing in the world happening except this particular event or situation. And then they just drop the matter, and you get the impression that the event has stopped happening. Which is not the case, of course. And so this was a period in which they were reporting toxic spills, something I hadn't thought about in years. And no one else seemed to pay any attention, because it had been reported and reported and over-reported. And a toxic spill eventually became the centerpiece of the novel.

In an interview, you once said this: "I think as time has passed, the novels Libra and Underworld seem more meaningful to me. They say something essential about the conflict in our culture." What is that essential something that these two novels together tell us about conflict in our world today?

Libra comes out of the '60s, of course, and in a sense so does Underworld. But Libra focuses on a single disaster: a single event, caught on film, which people are still challenging—seven seconds of gunfire which we haven't yet unraveled. Writing a piece of fiction about it, I never believed that I was writing something more truthful than a historian's work, or a journalist's, but just something that searches for the impact of history on intimate lives. And it occurred to me that not only in writing about that moment, but about what started to happen after that moment throughout the '60s and into the '70s—assassination attempts, Vietnam protests, racial violence, crime in the streets—a theme was beginning to build in my work, simply that we live in dangerous times. And Underworld—of course, it's about a huge, overarching sense of disaster, the possibility of nuclear war, the Cold War, cities destroyed. In fact I was writing a novel about conflict, but it took me a long time to understand this. The novel begins with a baseball game, a field of conflict, of competition. And then there is the conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which is alluded to one way or another. And perhaps most important, the conflict in the main character's heart about the disappearance of his father—what is the nature of his disappearance? Was he taken away and murdered, because he owed money to men in organized crime? Or did he abandon his family, which the character, Nick, does not want to believe and refuses to accept, and this is the conflict that ultimately drives the novel.

Let's talk a little bit about Mao II, and the first scene. That's one of my favorite passages in all of your writing: a mass wedding conducted by the Unification Church, the Moonies, in Yankee Stadium, which was based on an actual event. That first section ends with the famous line, "The future belongs to crowds." Can you talk a little bit about some of the book's themes?

I clipped photographs. There was a photograph in a newspaper, I don't remember where, of a Unification Church wedding: many hundreds of people in regimental form, lining up to get married. The photograph was perhaps five inches by six inches or even smaller and was just crammed with people, and I wondered why a wedding scene would resemble an army going into battle. And roughly at the same time, as I remember, I saw another photo in the New York Post. A couple of photographers had staked out a town near where J. D. Salinger lived. I suppose they had a general idea of Salinger's appearance. And of course he was a figure who'd become perhaps more famous for not being visible than he had been as a writer. And this made him someone to be stalked, and that's what they did. They found him, and they snapped his photograph, and he charged the camera. He was outraged. And this was the photo that appeared in the Post. The juxtaposition of the Unification Church wedding and the photograph of the reclusive artist seemed worth thinking about and eventually writing about.

For a long time you had a bit of a reputation as a reclusive writer. The writer in Mao II may be like Salinger, and he is often compared to Thomas Pynchon. I think some readers think of that writer as being a lot like you. But in recent years, you often come to public events like this, and you've done interviews much more than in previous times.

For many years, nobody wanted to talk to me. And I didn't want to talk to them. We were all very happy.

And then that changed. Perhaps when that changed was Libra. When I wrote a novel about the assassination of the president, I did feel a certain responsibility to say something and to answer whatever questions would be asked. And I agreed to do just a couple of interviews, that's all. But I've never been a recluse. It's just a story that people repeat because other people have repeated it before them.

One more question: What are the questions that you wish interviewers would ask, but that they never ask?

One of these would be: Are we finished now?

Harold K. Bush, Jr., is professor of English at Saint Louis University. He is the author most recently of Mark Twain and the Spiritual Crisis of His Age (Univ. of Alabama Press).

Most ReadMost Shared