"Driving into Newark that night was like entering one of the lower circles of hell," writes Auster in his new novel, Man in the Dark, in which he's given his own vivid memories of buildings in flames, hordes of men running wildly through the streets, the noise of shattering glass as one store window after another was broken, the noise of sirens, the noise of gunshots, to a 72-year-old retired book critic, August Brill.
Every night Brill, recovering from a car accident at his Vermont home, lies alone in the dark, turning the world around in his head as he struggles through another bout of insomnia, "another white night in the great American wilderness". When sleep won't come, he tells himself stories.
Stories in which he imagines that America is not at war with Iraq but with itself. He also tells his grieving granddaughter (her boyfriend has been killed) stories about his life, his marriage and his betrayal of his dead wife.
The story about the Newark riots involves Brill's sister and her husband. The true story that the Brooklyn-based Auster speaks about for the first time when we meet at his four-storey, brownstone home, involves his late mother, the bright, sparky Queenie, and her second husband, a lawyer, whom she married after divorcing Samuel Auster when Paul was still in high school.
As we talk, the 61-year-old, New Jersey-born writer puffs on one of the Schimmelpenninck cigarillos, which he chain-smokes over the next couple of hours. The house is empty. His novelist wife, Siri Hustvedt – the other half of New York's most glamorous literary couple –- is on a book tour in Germany and their ravishing singer-songwriter-actress daughter, Sophie (20), is in Barcelona filming a movie of which she is, of course, the star, although she's still a college student. (His son Daniel, by his first marriage to the writer Lydia Davis, lives elsewhere.)
So he has all the time in the world for this interview, which ends with us listening companionably to Sophie's latest CD, of which he's justifiably proud. Then he dashes off upstairs to bring me a catalogue by a Spanish fashion company for which the raven-haired Sophie recently modelled.
"Come, I have something I want to show you," he says, moments after I arrive, leading me into the long hallway, indicating a wall of old family photographs, some sepia-tinged, including those of Siri's Norwegian-American family. He shows me a photograph of his mother and stepfather taken in 1962 or 1963, with John F Kennedy during a visit to Newark. "Isn't that a great photograph!" he exclaims. He has used it in his novel, where it becomes a photograph of just his step-father with JFK.
The night the violence erupted, Auster was having dinner with Queenie and his stepdad in New York. Their car had a two-way radio so news came through immediately of the riots. There was no time to take Auster home to his New York apartment, so they raced to the police station in Newark. The 20-year-old saw cells crammed with prisoners, every one of them a black man, and at least half of them with clothes torn, blood trickling from their heads, their faces swollen, as he writes in Man in the Dark.
"I was there. I saw it all – I saw the mayor weeping in his office. I saw a State Trooper colonel come in and say, with chilling contempt in his voice: 'We're going to hunt down every black bastard in this city.' I probably shouldn't have been shocked, but I was. So that was my war."
It's the closest Brill – and therefore Auster himself – ever came to war. "Not a real war, perhaps, but once you witness violence on that scale, it isn't difficult to imagine something worse, and once your mind is capable of doing that, you understand that the worst possibilities of the imagination are the country you live in. Just think it, and chances are it will happen," he reads from his book."
In Man in the Dark, Auster's country of the imagination is a dystopian America in the throes of a bloody civil war. It's a short, intense book about war, about grief, about love, about loss, engaging with his twin themes: mortality and chance. He is, after all, the poet of synchronicity and teasing coincidence.
The story of the race riots and a particularly horrifying Second World War story – told to him by his French publisher – in the book are examples of how his life and experience inform his work. Nonetheless, he insists, sprawled in a green armchair in his art-filled living room: "All my novels are works of fiction – they are definitely not autobiographical. They are imaginary, although Man in the Dark was a gift; it came to me so quickly.
"I have a fierce attachment to this book, which I think of as a duet with my last book, Travels in the Scriptorium. In this short book, an old man wakes in a strange chamber, with no memory of who he is, so he pores over the relics on his desk."
He wrote it after trying to raise funding to film his screenplay, The Inner Life of Martin Frost. "I was on the phone all day every day to producers, getting nowhere. Finally, Siri said: 'You have to get out of the house. Go to work in your office (he writes in a spartan rented room near his Park Slope home]. Go doodle, you noodle!' she said. 'You can't keep knocking your head against a brick wall.' Siri was right – always is! – so I wrote Scriptorium; then came Man in the Dark, which is a much more political book.
"I think all my books answer one another, they bounce off of one another, as if in conversation. I feel they're all connected in some way, through some underground current." He pauses and barks with laughter: "Me, I guess!"
The author of a dozen bestselling novels, three autobiographies, collected poems and four screenplays, all of which he has filmed himself, he has been translated into 30 languages and is regarded as one of America's foremost men of letters, its principal chronicler of an austere metropolitan angst. He has made a career out of writing out of coincidence, in novels as diverse as his New York Trilogy (City of Glass, Ghosts, The Locked Room), The Music of Chance, The Book of Illusions and Oracle Night, as well as The Brooklyn Follies, written in 2005.
In all of them, he breaks the unwritten rule that writers should not write novels about writers. "I'm interested in exposing the works, I guess," he admits. In City of Glass, for example, the leading character, an author called Quinn, impersonates one Paul Auster in a private-eye assignment and ends up living – shades of Samuel Beckett – in a dustbin. (Auster edited the four-volume edition of the works of Beckett to mark his centenary in April 2006. At my mention of this, he speeds off upstairs in his black Converse trainers to bring me the sumptuous, green leather boxed set to inspect.)
There's a novelist, John Trause (an anagram of Auster), in Oracle Night writing a novel, Oracle Night, while a novelist, Peter, in Auster's novel Leviathan is married to Iris (Siri backwards). In The Book of Illusions a film – The Inner Life of Martin Frost – is being made.
He finally found a Portuguese producer to back Martin Frost and made his movie – starring David Thewlis; there's a part in it for Sophie, too – in 2006. It will be given one screening in London, in October, when Auster is on a visit to Britain. "Making it was one of the greatest adventures of my life," he says, although directing is unlikely ever to deflect him from his main preoccupation – he is compelled to write, he says, and is already at work on another novel.
We have the critic Brill, the ageing narrator of Man in the Dark, coining phrases in the middle of the night, making up stories about other worlds, other realities.
"These are not books about writing books. The most crucial question for me is whether to use the first person or the third; often my books slide between the two. Once you are writing in the first person, then the narrator is a writer," he says.
"My books are always about something other than the stories-within-stories, or the books-within-books. For instance, in Man in the Dark, this idea of America at war with itself has been growing within me for the last seven years, because George W Bush was not elected President. He simply was not! The election was stolen, a legal coup. This country has gone way off track. How different the world might have been had Al Gore become President – 9/11 might not have happened because they had the intelligence about it and it was ignored.
"Bush," he fumes, "has disgraced America in the eyes of the world. America is a disgrace. It pains me because I love this country so much and to see us go so wrong so fast has been burning like acid in me, so I put all of that into Man in the Dark. Why isn't Bush in jail? Why isn't Cheyney in jail?
"It makes me so angry, so you are right when you say this is a book full of grief and rage for America, although I think the heart of this novel lies in a tender, lyrical passage towards the end when Brill says, 'Thoughts are real, even thoughts of unreal things'."
"There is no single reality," he writes. "There are many realities.
"There's no single world. There are many worlds, and they all run parallel to one another, worlds and anti-worlds, worlds and shadow-worlds, and each world is dreamed or imagined or written by someone in another world. Each world is the creation of a mind."
What a pleasure it is to be in a world that is the creation of Paul Auster's mind. After all, as Nathan, the narrator of The Brooklyn Follies, notes: "One should never underestimate the power of books."
Man in the Dark by Paul Auster is published by Faber and Faber, priced 14.99.
Paul Auster on...
Inspirations: There were few books at home but there was a decent public library. My early passionate encounters were with American writers: Hawthorne, Melville, Hemingway, who of course touches every young person. I think it's because he's such a stylised writer. It's a very self-conscious style, so as a beginning writer you become aware of manipulating words to create an effect.
Writing: It's a strange, solitary job but if I couldn't write, I would stop breathing.
It's no longer an act of free will for me; it's a matter of survival.
But it's a strange existence, spending most of your life alone in a room putting words on pieces of paper.