In Don DeLillo's 'Angel,' Stories Of America Alone

Nov 14, 2011
Originally published on November 14, 2011 5:27 pm

Over the past 40 years, prolific American author Don DeLillo has written more than a dozen novels, including White Noise, Falling Man, Libra and Underworld. But his latest, The Angel Esmeralda, is a departure from his expansive novels. It is a collection of short stories — nine brief flashes, which, like DeLillo's longer works, center on characters who feel out of sync with the worlds around them.

Arranged chronologically, with the earliest written in 1979 and the latest written just this year, the collection traces the arc of American life over the last three decades, as well as the arc of the author's career. In many ways, the collection is a return to DeLillo's own beginnings. Short stories were actually the first form of literature that he began writing.

"When I started thinking about myself as a writer, the work I did was almost exclusively devoted to the short story," DeLillo tells NPR's Guy Raz. "I think many writers in those years started with a story — the American short story [is] such a classic form."

It wasn't until after several of his short stories had been published in literary magazines that DeLillo decided to make the jump to writing novels. Though his first novel took him several years to complete, he stuck with the longer form for decades — and occasionally returned to the short story.

"At the end of the '70s, I wrote the first short story I'd done in quite a long time, and that turns out to be the first story in this book, called 'Creation,' " he says. DeLillo began to write short stories more regularly after that, and his new book pulls from this career-spanning endeavor.

The Angel Esmeralda explores themes of isolation and loneliness, which DeLillo attributes in part to the nature of his lifestyle as a writer. "A writer spends so much of his or her time alone in a room," he explains.

In his 1979 work "Creation," a couple is stranded on an island, trying to find a plane to fly back home. A woman who visits art museums alone meets a man who does the same in his story "Baader-Meinhof." In another work, "Human Moments in World War III," two men orbit the Earth in a space capsule while war rages below.

But DeLillo also explains that the concepts of solitude or loneliness lend themselves particularly well to the abbreviated form of the short story. "One or two characters are usually quite sufficient for the demands of a particular idea," he says.

The novel-writing process is lengthy and daunting, DeLillo says. His acclaimed 1997 novel, Underworld, took him five years to write — he wondered if he would live long enough to finish it. But crafting short fiction is just as much of a challenge, he says. Short stories are structured differently than novels — while his novels follow a certain symmetry, DeLillo says his short stories rarely develop a pattern.

"It's one episode, usually, [with] one or two characters," he says. "The idea in most cases is to get to the end as quickly as possible."

Even when he's writing long novels, DeLillo says he never works from outlines. "Whatever I know may be in notes [or] pieces of paper that I scribble on in a subway car," he says.

DeLillo collects these scribbles and records them in a larger notebook that he later refers to as he writes. But sometimes when an idea strikes, he goes straight home and gets working.

"There was a day where I was walking home from the grocery with a shopping bag and got an idea and wrote it — I had no notepad — on the shopping bag, took it home and used it," he says. "Whatever that phrase was, it's somewhere in Underworld."

DeLillo's hard work has paid off, and today his name is mentioned alongside great American writers like Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon. The esteem is something DeLillo had never envisioned, but he says even as he started out, he had lofty goals.

"The best [American] fiction in my view is the fiction that takes into account the enormous vitality and the enormous challenge of American life," he says. "The writers I admire, from Sinclair Lewis and up to Norman Mailer, were not afraid to take on that challenge. ... When I was working very, very slowly and fallibly on my first novel, this is what I had in the back of my mind — the challenge of this culture. It's probably why I titled the novel Americana."

With the release of his new short-story collection, DeLillo will mark his 75th birthday. In the decades since he published Americana, he says, little has changed — in his own life, that is. "Just walking around, eating a meal, sitting at the desk to do some work, I'm no different," he says. "Of course I'm aware of the actual chronology in which I'm embedded, but it's not usually a particular source of concern or annoyance. Most of the time, I could be 22 — 23 at the most."

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And I'm Guy Raz. Open up Don DeLillo's new book, "The Angel Esmeralda," on the inside cover, you'll find a list of novels, also by Don DeLillo, it reads, and there, you'll find the titles of 15 celebrated works of American fiction - "Falling Man," "White Noise," "Underworld" - 15 huge novels spanning a lifetime of writing. But DeLillo's latest book for the first time is not a novel. "The Angel Esmeralda" is a collection of nine short stories, nine brief flashes, which, like DeLillo's longer work, center on characters who feel out of sync with the worlds around them.

The stories are arranged chronologically. The earliest was written in 1979. The latest finished just this year. They trace the arc of American life over the past 30 years and also, as Don DeLillo told me, the arc of his career.

DON DELILLO: When I started thinking about myself as a writer, the work I did was almost exclusively devoted to the short story. I think many writers in those years started with a story - the American short story is such a classic form. And I wrote a number of stories and managed to get a couple published in literary magazines. And at a certain point, I decided to take a leap, the existential leap into the novel, and that took - it took me a long time to write my first novel. When I finished, I stayed with the novel for a time, through the 1970s. At the end of the '70s, I wrote the first short story I've done in quite a long time, and that turns out to be the first story in this book called "Creation." And then occasional stories subsequently.

RAZ: There are many characters in this book who are alone, or at least isolated, and you mentioned "Creation." In that story, you have a couple struggling to get a plane ride off of a tropical island. In another story, there's a woman who visits art museums alone, and then she meets a man who does the same thing. There's another story about two men in a space capsule orbiting Earth during World War III. I can't imagine being more isolated than that.

Characters like this appear in your earlier stories and also in your more recent ones. What is it about solitude or loneliness that you find appealing as a subject?

DELILLO: Well, it's a subject in part because a writer spends so much of his or her time in - alone in a room. But beyond that, I think it's so suitable for the short story form. And so one or two characters are usually quite sufficient for the demands of a particular idea that will find itself in abbreviated form.

RAZ: When you look at a book like "Underworld," a huge book, sweeping book, and, of course, you look at these nine stories, I wonder about the difference in the challenges. I mean, writing a huge book versus writing a small sort of flash of a moment in time. Is one more difficult than the other, or are they just different kinds of challenges?

DELILLO: They're a different kind of challenges in a very important way. Once I knew that "Underworld" is going to take so long to write - it took five years - I truly thought that I would have to live long enough to finish it. And, of course, this doesn't happen when one writes a short piece of fiction. And the other difference is a novel, as it takes place in my mind, always begins to develop a structure. I begin to feel it happening in the relatively early stages. I have it in my mind that this novel will obey a certain symmetry perhaps.

With a short piece of fiction, this rarely happens. It's one episode usually, one or two characters. And I think the idea in most cases is to get to the end as quickly as possible.

RAZ: Do you always write in outline before you actually start?

DELILLO: I don't do an outline at all. I've never done outlines. Whatever I know may be in notes, pieces of paper that I scribble on in a subway car or anywhere else. The sense of an outline is all mental.

RAZ: How do you take those scribbles that you described from the notebooks and transfer that to the novel?

DELILLO: Well, that's a good question because there are times when I will look at a note I made two or three days earlier and wonder what the hell I was thinking.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DELILLO: But most of the time, what I do is just write them down in a larger notebook that sits at the edge of my desk. And then at certain points, I go through those phrases and those lines of dialogue and figure out that they either do or do not belong in whatever it is I'm writing at the moment. There was a day when I was walking home from the grocery with a shopping bag and got an idea and wrote it - I had no notepad, so I wrote it on the shopping bag, took it home and used it. Whatever that phrase was, it's somewhere in "Underworld."

RAZ: When you hear people talk about great American writers, inevitably, the names Philip Roth and Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon are mentioned. It must be gratifying, but is it also strange sometimes?

DELILLO: Well, it's strange in the sense that it's something I certainly never envisioned when I was starting or even much later. And what I think about American fiction is that the best fiction, in my view, is the fiction that takes into account the enormous vitality and the enormous challenge of American life. In other words, I'm talking essentially about big books, although, of course, not exclusively.

But the writers I admire, from Sinclair Lewis and up to Norman Mailer, were not afraid to take on that challenge. It seemed to me when I was working very, very slowly and fallibly on my first novel that this is what I had in the back of my mind, the challenge of this culture. It's probably why I titled the novel "Americana."

RAZ: You said in an interview actually with NPR, almost two years ago, that you felt like you were still 22 in your own mind. So I guess that would make you, what, 23 now?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DELILLO: Very good. Yes. It's hard to explain quite what I meant by that, except that most of the time, just walking around, eating a meal, sitting at the desk to do some work, I'm no different. And these are fairly important activities. Of course, I'm aware of the actual chronology in which I'm embedded, but it's not usually a particular source of concern or annoyance. Most of the time, I could be 22 and 23 at the most.

RAZ: That's Don DeLillo. His new collection of short stories is called "The Angel Esmeralda." And this month, he turns 75. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.