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Take Five: Don't call Don DeLillo's fiction 'postmodern'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 17, 2010 - As the recipient of this year's 43rd Saint Louis Literary Award, author Don DeLillo has a message for longtime Cardinals baseball fans. 

"I want to tell them I still have warm memories of Stan Musial, Whitey Kurowski and Harry Brecheen," the 73-year-old Bronx native and Yankees fan said Thursday in a telephone interview.

As the author of such acclaimed novels as "Libra," "Underworld," "White Noise" and more, DeLillo has been praised for his ability to take actual events -- the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, even Bobby Thomson's legendary home run in 1951 -- and spin them into stories of universal significance.

After graduating from Fordham University, DeLillo started his career as an advertising man in the "Mad Men" era but soon turned to writing fiction. In addition to his novels, he has written essays, plays and screenplays, including one for a movie titled "Game 6," about the Boston Red Sox and their futile attempt to win the 1986 World Series.

Despite the recurrence of baseball in his fiction, DeLillo said he has not always been a diehard fan, even for his Yankees. Now, he said, "I follow baseball and professional football in a relatively serious way. There have been periods I have been a dropout from baseball in particular, but lately I've been following the team again."

DeLillo said he writes according to a fairly strict schedule -- three or four hours in the morning, then a couple of hours more in the late afternoon. Unlike some authors, he doesn't mind breaking off from his work without knowing what will come next.

"I trust in the fact that as I reread what I did the previous day, what's coming next will erupt upon the page." But, he admits, "that doesn't always work."

He uses a secondhand Olympia manual typewriter that he got in the mid-1970s, often writing just one paragraph each on sheets of paper.

"It gives me a better look at the page, and lets me concentrate more deeply," he said.

Before he began using the Olympia, DeLillo used a second Royal typewriter that had very small type. He prefers the larger type he has now, he said, "not that I have trouble seeing it, but I have a greater sense of the letter shapes. Words are sort of abstract pictures."

Earlier in his career, DeLillo was described as an elusive interviewee. When he won the National Book Award in 1985 for "White Noise," his speech was simply this: "I'm sorry I couldn't be here tonight, but I thank you all for coming."

He still does not relish the process of talking about himself or his work, he said, but "it's something I do in a spirit of cooperation with my publisher, or in this case with an organization."

"I will go back to writing as soon as this is over," he said at the end of our telephone conversation.

The Saint Louis Literary Award was first presented as the Wilma and Roswell Messing Jr., Award in 1967. Last year's recipient was Salman Rushdie, and others include William Gass, Richard Ford, Eudora Welty, Howard Nemerov, Edward Albee, August Wilson, Margaret Drabble and Tom Wolfe.

In your novel "Falling Man," the central event is the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Why did you choose it? Despite the increasing numbers of novels about that day, is it too soon to use that event in literature?

DeLillo: I felt a strong urge and a strong need to write about it. But I don't know that the public in general is ready to accommodate the terrible nature of the event itself. I think it will take time. It took me, I don't know, nearly 25 years to think that I could write a novel about the assassination of President Kennedy. For Sept. 11, an idea gripped me and I felt compelled to follow sooner than I expected.

I've always believed that an idea determines its own tone and structure and that the last thing I would ever want to do is stretch an idea beyond its natural limits. I supposed that is why in the last decade I've been writing shorter novels; it's simply that the ideas demand that kind of compactness. My novels seem to have developed around subjects and themes of time and loss, which is not intentional. It simply happened. My next novel may be a monster, but then again it might be a book of short stories.

Do you write shorter novels because the public seems to have a shorter attention span, or because people now read on electronic devices?

DeLillo: I would never write in response to what I believe the public wanted or needed. 

I do think that in the near future, if it hasn't happened already, people will be able to use technology to design their own novels, perhaps with individuals themselves as the main character. In other words, everything is being individualized and narrowed. Where does that leave the world itself? The world is shrinking into a kind of technological funnel. I think people are drawn into their technological devices, and this becomes a kind of subjective universe, into which much of the rest of the world simply does not enter. I'm not sure what it's leading to ultimately, but it certainly would seem to indicate that people's capacity to learn and get a sense of a wide world seems to be narrowing somewhat drastically.

Your fiction often has been described as "postmodern." What does that term mean to you? Is it something you would use?

DeLillo: It is not. I'm the last guy to ask. If I had to classify myself, it would be in the long line of modernists, from James Joyce through William Faulkner and so on. That has always been my model.

I think of postmodernism in terms of literature as part of a self-referring kind of art. People attach a label to writers or filmmakers or painters to be able some years in the future to declare that the movement is dead.

What does an award like the one you are getting here mean to you?

DeLillo: It's a confirmation of the work and the effort that one puts into the business of writing, day after day and year after year. When it comes to a particular award, previous winners are always a very positive indication that this is a worthwhile award to accept, and certainly that's true of this award, with Saul Bellow, Tennessee Williams, W.H. Auden, Joan Didion and many others.

There are times when groups will attach the name to an award as a simple invitation to read. These are not occasions I prefer to be a part of. At the beginning of my career, writers did very little self-promotion, and that was certainly preferable in my case. I don't think I did an interview until some time in the 1980s. I know I didn't do a public reading until around 1990, and I haven't done very many. It can be satisfying in a way to encounter readers in three dimensions, but I do it only rarely.

When I heard a few weeks ago that Bobby Thomson had died, your name was the first one that came to mind. Your account of his pennant-winning home run for the New York Giants in 1951 -- part of "Underworld" and also published separately as the novella "Pafko at the Wall" -- is a classic blend of sports and literature.

DeLillo: I got a postcard yesterday from a friend of mine who is traveling on an extended journey. He was in a very remote part of Tazmania, and on local radio or TV it was announced that Bobby Thomson had died. He ended his postcard with the words, "It truly was the shot heard round the world."

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