Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo

Past Event: Monday, October 20, 1997

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BiographyThe son of Italian immigrants, Don DeLillo was born in 1936 and grew up in the Bronx. He enjoyed a childhood of sports, family, and games and graduated from Fordham University in 1958. Profoundly influenced by the arts, music, and film cultures of New York, DeLillo’s novels reflect the forces that shape the American psyche: consumerism, media’s omnipresence and its packaging of reality, threats and fears of environmental toxins, weaponry and waste, and the radical uncertainties of the post-Kennedy era.

Before the publication of his first novel, Americana (1971), DeLillo wrote advertising copy. He lived and traveled abroad for three years, in Greece and the Middle East, during the late-1970s and early 1980s. “What I found,” he has said of this period, “was that all this traveling taught me how to see and hear all over again. . . . I would see and hear more clearly than I could in more familiar places.” In 1985, DeLillo received the National Book Award for White Noise. A nomination in 1988 for his novel Mao II (1991), brought DeLillo the coveted PEN/Faulkner Award.

In a recent novel, Underworld, DeLillo conjures up a dazzling picture of cold-war America. His latest play, Valparaiso, premiered in January 1999. The Body Artist, his latest novel, was published in February 2001. He is also the recipient of the Aer Lingus / Irish Times Prize, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He and his wife live outside of New York City.

Excerpt from The Art of Fiction (volume CXXV), an interview with Adam BegleyOn writing: “Writing is a concentrated form of thinking. I don’t know what I think about certain subjects, even today, until I sit down and try to write about them. . . . A young writer sees that with words and sentences on a piece of paper that costs less than a penny he can place himself more clearly in the world. Words on a page, that’s all it takes to help separate himself from the forces around him, streets and people and pressures and feelings. He learns to think about these things, to ride his own sentences into new perceptions.”

On the novel: “The novel’s not dead, it’s not even seriously injured, but I do think we’re working in the margins, working in the shadows of the novel’s greatness and influence. There’s plenty of impressive talent around, and there’s strong evidence that younger writers are moving into history, finding broader themes. . . We have a rich literature. But sometimes it’s a literature too ready to be neutralized, to be incorporated into the ambient noise. This is why we need the writer in opposition, the writer who writes against power, who writes against the corporation or the states or the whole apparatus of assimilation. We’re all one beat away from becoming elevator music.”

On his work habits: “I work in the morning at a manual typewriter. I do about four hours and then go running. This helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle–it’s a nice kind of interlude. Then I work again, later afternoon, for two or three hours. Back into book time, which is transparent—you don’t know it’s passing. No snack food or coffee. No cigarettes—I stopped smoking a long time ago. The space is clear, the house is quiet. A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it. Looking out the window, reading random entries in the dictionary.”

On his audience: “My mind works one way, toward making a simple moment complex, and this is not the way to gain a larger audience. I think I have the audience my work ought to have. It’s not easy work. And you have to understand that I started writing novels fairly late and with low expectations. I didn’t even think of myself as a writer until I was two years into my first novel. When I was struggling with that book I felt unlucky, unblessed by the fates and by the future, and almost everything that has happened since then has proved me wrong. So some of my natural edginess and pessimism has been tempered by acceptance. This hasn’t softened the tone of my work—it has simply made me realize I’ve had a lucky life as a writer.”

Selected WorkThe Body Artist (2001)Valparaiso (1999) Underworld (1997) Pafko at the Wall (novella, 1992) Mao II (1991) The Rapture of the Athlete Assumed into Heaven (play, 1990) Libra (1988) The Day Room (play, 1986) White Noise (1985) The Names (1982) The Engineer of Moonlight (play, 1979) Running Dog (1978) Players (1977) Ratner’s Star (1976) Great Jones Street (1973) End Zone (1972) Americana (1971)

LinksNew York Times featured authorSalon.com review of UnderworldSalon.com essay on DeLillo’s writing