I did not have a coffee with Paul Auster. I did not shake hands with Paul Auster. I didn’t even really have a conversation with him. But I went to Adelaide and heard him speak (I was just out of the tent in the sun and he was very small but distinguishable) and he was wise, cynical yet generous, amusing and weathered, just as I imagined and hoped for.
And I did exchange a few words with him.
I was waiting in the autograph line wondering what I could say to a man who I had spent so many hours with and who had been so important to me. In the end the exchange went like this:
NH: ‘You’re my favourite writer, Mr Auster – it’s an honour to hear you speak.’
PA: ‘Well thank you. Thank you reading for my books.’
(Paul Auster indecipherably scribbles in my battered copy of Moon Palace.)
NH: ‘In my new novel one of the characters reads Moon Palace.’
PA (looking surprised): ‘Really? Well thank you.’
What happened then? Did he move onto the next person or did I walk away, spoiling a promising opening because there were a thousand people behind me waiting in the hot sun? I don’t know.
The reality is that you can’t hope to know a writer in ‘real life’ with any of the intimacy or depth that you know him or her through their books. It’s just not possible. It’s the wonder of reading and writing. Auster even said something to this effect at some stage, or I think he did.
There was a time when I would have thought of a witty or controversial or brilliant question to ask and I would have asked it, and I would have waited by the tent for hours, and I would have pushed my way into talking to Auster. But I’m 27 now, as of yesterday, and I’m old and shy. I’m mistrustful of people who push their way forward and I’m sick of egos.
I was glad I went, because I had to and because I enjoyed it, and yet it was in an important sense exactly as I feared.