Paul Auster is in bed. We talk on the phone and it is in his room that his welcome is best. “I much prefer phone calls,” he says. “So much better than those terrible little squares on a screen.” Known for his elegant and pithy novels – The New York trilogy and Moon palace are over 30 years old now – Auster’s subsequent career saw him take a more expansive form. His preselected Booker 4321 was nearly 1,000 pages of speculative fiction, examining the different paths a life could take. Now, in one of his regular forays into non-fiction, he’s written, at 800 pages, another absolute unit of a book. Its subject, turn-of-the-century novelist and poet Stephen Crane, lived a short life – he died at age 28 and his complete works could be read in a weekend. Auster’s book, however, is huge. It’s also wonderful: half biography, half literary criticism. Auster immerses you in his own obsession with Crane’s extraordinary and radical writings and it’s nearly impossible not to be infected with his enthusiasm.
Auster is the author of 20 novels, has won numerous awards, and lives with his wife, author Siri Hustvedt, in Brooklyn, New York.
Why did you choose to write about Stephen Crane?
I read it very early on, when I was in high school, as many of us did back then. The red badge of courage was required reading for most high school students. But then I lost touch with Crane and hadn’t thought about him too much. After finishing 4321, I was really exhausted and knew that I wouldn’t be able to write for a while so I took several months to pull myself together. During this time, I read a lot of things that I had intended to read all my life. I started reading Crane again. The first thing I read was The monster, which I had never even heard of. I was so overwhelmed by its brilliance – it stormed me and I was shocked at how good, deep and resonant it was. It inspired me to read everything else he had written. My admiration kept growing. By the time I finished his job, I started to investigate his life and realized how fascinating it was. Finally, I decided to write a short review of Crane.
It was my plan: 150 or 200 pages. Then one thing led to another and it became this new member of the Rocky Mountain Range. It’s a huge book, I know. For such a short life, it’s quite strange that I wrote so much. But it’s not just a biography, it’s also a reading of his work: it’s more or less shared between the two.
It’s a book that teaches us to love Crane. Do you recognize yourself as a teacher?
I taught for five years at Princeton. These were writing workshops. I hated them. Five years of teaching and I still hate creative writing. Either you have imagination or you don’t; either you have a good sense of the language or you don’t. I felt like an old man talking to young people in this book. Not in a classroom, but around a table and sharing my insight and enthusiasm for this writer and his work.
It feels like you admire Crane in part for the seriousness with which he takes the writing.
It’s the only way I understand writing. It’s definitely the way I’ve been my whole life and that’s how all the other writers I admire are – kind of a monomaniac. I don’t know how you can make art if you don’t take it very seriously, if you aren’t obsessed with doing it better every time.
Crane was very poor. Do we need to suffer for our art?
In order to release a good job, there must be something about you that feels out of balance. It doesn’t have to be financial distress – it can be emotional or romantic. Whatever the source, the thing that turned life upside down for you was the distress that breeds art.
How did you get through the pandemic?
Unlike most people, I don’t have a job, so I haven’t lost my job. Siri and I are both writers and we have continued to do what we do. I consider us very, very lucky. Here in New York, we were at the epicenter last spring. It was horrible. The only sounds in the street were ambulances. There was no sound anywhere, just the birds that came back en masse during containment. Birds that hadn’t been seen for decades. But otherwise, just dead space, silence and ambulances.
How do you organize your books?
In a strange way and it is a system that I have developed for many years. The books are scattered all over the house. So in the downstairs guest bedroom I have all my sports books, all my detective novels and all my movie books and also Judaica. I thought all of these books would be really interesting for anyone spending the night here. Upstairs, in the large room that we call the library, we only have literature. The art books are along a wall. But I did the literature chronologically. It starts with Gilgamesh, then through the ancient Greeks, Romans, the middle ages, then each of them is broken down by country. Then upstairs we have another library and it’s Siri’s bedroom and it’s all the philosophy and psychology books. We are inundated with books. We keep giving hundreds and it never makes a dent.
Which classic novel have you read for the first time recently?
Towards the lighthouse by Virginie Woolf. One of the most beautiful and heartbreaking novels I have read in my life.
What book would you give to a 12 year old?
I think I would give this 12 year old Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This person would be old enough to read it without a parent’s filter and understand how wonderful and imaginative and absolutely crazy it is. The main thing about giving books to young people is that you really have to show them the pure joy of reading, the pleasure that it can bring you. Nothing too heavy. Sparkling books – that’s what creates the love of reading. If I had to give a book to a 15-year-old, I would give him Candid. That’s when I read it and it changed my life. I laughed, I was shocked and it inspired me. That’s what a good book can do when you’re young.
Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane is published by Faber (£ 25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
Guardian Live will host an online event with Paul Auster on Monday, October 11. Book your tickets here