- Birthday, Books, Quotes, Reading, Writing

Don DeLillo on Writing, Language, Life, Death, and More


Happy birthday, Don DeLillo, maestro of maestros! 87, today! Meeting and speaking (three times!) with Don DeLillo at International Fiction Now: Celebrating the Unspeakable Practices of Robert Coover and the International Writers Project in 2018 was one of the highest points of my reading/writing life.

Here are some quotes from the author’s books (all of which I’ve read, several of which I’ve read several times) and some of his interviews.


“But before everything, there’s language. Before history and politics, there’s language. And it’s language, the sheer pleasure of making it and bending it and seeing it form on the page and hearing it whistle in my head—this is the thing that makes my work go. And art can be exhilarating despite the darkness—and there’s certainly much darker material than mine—if the reader is sensitive to the music.”


“Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.”


“The writer leads, he doesn’t follow. The dynamic lives in the writer’s mind, not in the size of the audience. And if the social novel lives, but only barely, surviving in the cracks and ruts of the culture, maybe it will be taken more seriously, as an endangered spectacle. A reduced context but a more intense one.”


“I would never write in response to what I believe the public wanted or needed.”


“In my experience, writing a novel tends to create its own structure, its own demands, its own language, its own ending. So for much of the period in which I’m writing, I’m waiting to understand what’s going to happen next, and how and where it’s going to happen.”


“I’m not sure what compels me one day to sit down and start writing this or that line and simply follow it…It’s simply a question of following an idea where it leads. I’m not sure I can be anymore enlightening than that. My ideas for any piece have such mysterious origins. A writer decides to follow some ideas and not others for reasons that aren’t always clear to him. It’s often a matter of intuition.”


“A novel determines its own size and shape and I’ve never tried to stretch an idea beyond the frame and structure it seemed to require. (Underworld wanted to be big and I didn’t attempt to stand in the way.) The theme that seems to have evolved in my work during the past decade concerns time—time and loss. This was not a plan; the novels have simply tended to edge in that direction. Some years ago, I had the briefest of exchanges with a professor of philosophy. I raised the subject of time. He said simply, ‘Time is too difficult.’ Yes, time is a mystery and perhaps best examined (or experienced by my characters) in a concise and somewhat enigmatic manner.”


“Making things difficult for the reader is less an attack on the reader than it is on the age and its facile knowledge-market. The writer is driven by his conviction that some truths aren’t arrived at so easily, that life is still full of mystery, that it might be better for you, Dear Reader, if you went back to the Living section of your newspaper because this is the dying section and you don’t really want to be here.”


“The writer is the person who stands outside society, independent of affiliation and independent of influence. The writer is the man or woman who automatically takes a stance against his or her government. There are so many temptations for American writers to become part of the system and part of the structure that now, more than ever, we have to resist. American writers ought to stand and live in the margins, and be more dangerous. Writers in repressive societies are considered dangerous. That’s why so many of them are in jail.”


“Over the years, it’s possible for a writer to shape himself as a human being through the language he uses. I think written language, fiction, goes that deep. He not only sees himself but begins to make himself or remake himself.”


“What do you really see? What do you really hear?…That’s what in theory differentiates a writer from everyone else. You see and hear more clearly.”


“I’ve always preferred to be somewhere in the corner of a room, observing.”


“It is because when I write, I need to see what is happening. Even when it is just two guys talking in a room, writing dialogues is not enough. I need to visualize the scene, where they are, how they sit, what they wear, etc. I had never given much thought about it, it came naturally, but recently I became aware of that while working on my upcoming novel, in which the character spends a lot of time watching file footage on a wide screen, images of a disaster. I had no problem describing the process, that is to say to rely on a visualization process. I am not comfortable with abstract writing, stories that look like essays: you have to see, I need to see.”


“That’s how you write novels actually. You suddenly hit upon something and you realize this is the path you were meant to take. You’d be a fool if you didn’t follow it. Perhaps it’s like solving a difficult question in pure mathematics. There must be a moment when the solution is so simple and evident that you wonder why you hadn’t come upon it before. When you do come upon it, you know it in the deepest part of your being. It carries its own logic.”


“There are two categories of writers, it could be said: The author who is just a voice, and the one who is also creating a picture. I belong to the latter, because I have an acute visual sense. I am not an opponent of the proliferation of pictures in our culture, I am just trying to understand its impact. I like photography, I like to look at photographs and paintings. However, the difference between the world of pictures and the world of printed matter is extraordinary and hard to define. A picture is like the masses: a multitude of impressions. A book on the other hand, with its linear advance of words and characters seems to be connected to individual identity. I think of a child learning to read, building up an identity, word by word and story by story, the book in its hand. Somehow pictures always lead to people as masses. Books belong to individuals.”


“There are writers who refuse to make public appearances. Writers who say ‘no.’ Writers in opposition, not necessarily in a specific way. But there are those of us who write books that are not easily absorbed by the culture, who refuse to have their photographs taken, who refuse to give interviews. And at some level, this may be largely a matter of personal disinclination. But there may also be an element in which such writers are refusing to become part of the all-incorporating treadmill of consumption and disposal.”


“Writers must oppose systems. It’s important to write against power, corporations, the state, and the whole system of consumption and of debilitating entertainments […] I think writers, by nature, must oppose things, oppose whatever power tries to impose on us.”


“I am not particularly distressed by the state of fiction or the role of the writer. The more marginal, perhaps ultimately the more trenchant and observant and finally necessary he’ll become.”


“‘Whatever you set your mind to, your personal total obsession, this is what kills you. Poetry kills you if you’re a poet, and so on. People choose their death whether they know it or not.'”


“[A]ll fiction takes place at the end of this process of crawl, scratch, and gasp, this secret memory of death.”


“I think fiction rescues history from its confusions.”


“I think fiction comes from everything you’ve ever done, and said, and dreamed, and imagined. It comes from everything you’ve read and haven’t read…I think my work comes out of the culture of the world around me. I think that’s where my language comes from.”


“For me, well-behaved books with neat plots and worked-out endings seem somewhat quaint in the face of the largely incoherent reality of modern life; and then again fiction, at least as I write it and think of it, is a kind of religious meditation in which language is the final enlightenment, and it is language, in its beauty, its ambiguity, and its shifting textures, that drives my work.”


“Plots carry their own logic. There is a tendency of plots to move toward death. He believed that the idea of death is woven into the nature of every plot. A narrative plot no less than a conspiracy of armed men. The tighter the plot of a story, the more likely it will come to death. A plot in fiction, he believed, is the way we localize the force of the death outside the book, play it off, contain it.”


“I liked reading books that nearly killed me, books that helped tell me who I was…”


“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. But when we talk about the novel we have to consider the culture in which it operates. Everything in the culture argues against the novel, particularly the novel that tries to be equal to the complexities and excesses of the culture. This is why books such as J R and Harlot’s Ghost and Gravity’s Rainbow and The Public Burning are important—to name just four. They offer many pleasures without making concessions to the middle-range reader, and they absorb and incorporate the culture instead of catering to it. And there’s the work of Robert Stone and Joan Didion, who are both writers of conscience and painstaking workers of the sentence and paragraph. I don’t want to list names because lists are a form of cultural hysteria, but I have to mention Blood Meridian for its beauty and its honor. These books and writers show us that the novel is still spacious enough and brave enough to encompass enormous areas of experience.”


“If any art form can accommodate contemporary culture, it’s the novel. It’s so malleable—it can incorporate essays, poetry, film. Maybe the challenge for the novelist is to stretch his art and his language, to the point where it can finally describe what’s happening around him. I still think that’s possible.”


“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 novelist who writes against power, who writes against the corporation or the state or the whole apparatus of assimilation. We’re all one beat away from becoming elevator music.”


“Yes, I think my work is influenced by the fact that we’re living in dangerous times. If I could put it in a sentence, in fact, my work is about just that: living in dangerous times.”


“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.”


“I feel sad for people and the queer part we play in our own disasters.”


“‘Man’s guilt in history and in the tides of his own blood has been complicated by technology, the daily seeping falsehearted death.'”


“‘Technology is lust removed from nature.'”


“War is the ultimate realization of modern technology.”


“‘Every advance is worse than the one before because it makes me more scared.'”


“Evil is movement towards void.”


“‘[H]ow I would enjoy being told the novel is dead. How liberating to work in the margins, outside a central perception. You are the ghoul of literature.'”


“In this century the writer has carried on a conversation with madness. We might almost say of the twentieth-century writer that he aspires to madness. Some have made it, of course, and they hold special places in our regard. To a writer, madness is a final distillation of self, a final editing down. It’s the drowning out of false voices.”


“Conversation is life, language is the deepest being. We see the patterns repeat, the gestures drive the words. It is the sound and picture of humans communicating. It is talk as a definition of itself. Talk. Voices out of doorways and open windows, voices on the stuccoed-brick balconies, a driver taking both hands off the wheel to gesture as he speaks. Every conversation is a shared narrative, a thing that surges forward, too dense to allow space for the unspoken, the sterile. The talk is unconditional, the participants drawn in completely. This is a way of speaking that takes such pure joy in its own openness and ardor that we begin to feel these people are discussing language itself. What pleasure in the simplest greetings […]—they bridge the lonely distances.”


“The air hums with casual espionage.”


“”People in free societies don’t have to fear the pathology of the state. We create our own frenzy, our own mass convulsions, driven by thinking machines that we have no final authority over. The frenzy is barely noticeable most of the time. It’s simply how we live.”


“Most lives are guided by clichés. They have a soothing effect on the mind and they express the kind of widely accepted sentiment that, when peeled back, is seen to be a denial of silence. Their menace is hidden with the darker crimes of thought and language. In the face of death, this menace vanishes altogether. Death is the best soil for cliché. The trite saying is never more comforting, more restful, as in times of mourning. Flowers are set about the room; we stand very close to walls, uttering the lush banalities.”


“The family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation. There must be something in family life that generates factual error. Over-closeness, the noise and heat of being. Perhaps even something deeper like the need to survive. Murray says we are fragile creatures surrounded by a world of hostile facts. Facts threaten our happiness and security. The deeper we delve into things, the looser our structure may seem to become. The family process works towards sealing off the world. Small errors grow heads, fictions proliferate.”


“Lists are a form of cultural hysteria so let’s just say that the strong work keeps coming and that the novel as a form continues to provoke innovation on the part of younger writers…It’s true that some of us become better writers by living long enough. But this is also how we become worse writers. The trick is to die in between.”


“I want to immerse myself in American magic and dread.”


“Fear is unnatural. Lightning and thunder are unnatural. Pain, death, reality, these are all unnatural. We can’t bear these things as they are. We know too much. So we resort to repression, compromise and disguise. This is how we survive the universe. This is the natural language of the species.”


“All plots tend to move deathwards. This is the nature of plots.”


“‘Stories have no point if they don’t absorb our terror.'”


“Every disaster made us wish for something bigger, grander, more sweeping.”


“Only a catastrophe gets our attention. We want them, we depend on them. As long as they happen somewhere else. This is where California comes in. Mud slides, brush fires, coastal erosion, mass killings, et cetera. We can relax and enjoy these disasters because in our hearts we feel that California deserves whatever it gets. Californians invented the concept of life-style. This alone warrants their doom.”


“To become a crowd is to keep out death.”


“The future belongs to crowds.”


“No sense of the irony of human experience, that we are the highest form of life on earth, and yet ineffably sad because we know what no other animal knows, that we must die.”


“I’ve got death inside me. It’s just a question of whether or not I can outlive it.”


“The power of the dead is that we think they see us all the time. The dead have a presence. Is there a level of energy composed solely of the dead? They are also in the ground, of course, asleep and crumbling. Perhaps we are what they dream.”


“The world is full of abandoned meanings. In the commonplace I find unexpected themes and intensities.”


”The best reader…is one who is most open to human possibility, to understanding the great range of plausibility in human actions. It’s not true that modern life is too fantastic to be written about successfully. It’s that the most successful work is so demanding.’ [It is as though our better writers] feel that the novel’s vitality requires risks not only by them but by readers as well. Maybe it’s not writers alone who keep the novel alive but a more serious kind of reader.”


”I do try to confront realities…But people would rather read about their own marriages and separations and trips to Tanglewood. There’s an entire school of American fiction which might be called around-the-house-and-in-the-yard. And I think people like to read this kind of work because it adds a certain luster, a certain significance to their own lives.”


“These characters are not detached from their surroundings; they’re not in a trance, they’re simply complying with the pattern of their lives, which (like all lives) entails frequent repetition with elements, at times, of obsession. The writer wants to find the pattern and transform it into something revealing or enlightening.”


“The national memory lasts 48 hours, at best. And there’s always something else coming at us down the pipeline. You can’t separate it all out. You get lost in the deluge.”


“When I’m working on a novel, I tend to glide from one sentence to the next. The sentences help me reveal the character. In theater, it’s more complicated, because I don’t know who the actors are. But that’s all part of a play’s evolution. Before anyone takes the stage, the play belongs to the playwright. In the rehearsal period, it’s the director’s play. But then, during the performance, it belongs to the actors.”


“Everybody is different and there are always distractions. But I feel I have an idea in my mind I need to work on. And when I’m able to sit down and put my fingers on the typewriter, things are moving along pretty well. These days I’m much slower. I can’t work at the same pace. But what the hell, I’ll keep going. It’s what’s keeping me alive.”


“It is important to make decisions based on what you feel to be right. The landlord of my $60-a-month apartment offered to eliminate my rent if I were willing to take out the garbage for everybody in the building. It was actually an interesting proposal. But finally I turned him down because I would have to get up at six in the morning and that did not fit in with my writing routine.”


“I like to imagine things, and do as little research as I can possibly manage. I don’t want to learn too much, I want to be free to invent.”


“Getting older hasn’t diminished my need or my urge to write, and I get maybe even more of a thrill from working with words and constructing sentences because I’ve come to understand that so much of this is sheer intuition. Sure, I think about whether this process may not work for me someday, but I also have an idea for something new.”


“People tell me I’ve had a bestselling book, but I honestly don’t know the sales of any of my books. I never cared about that. What I care about, and am happy about, is that I was able to keep doing it, to write fiction. That’s essentially the heart of the entire matter, and this is another aspect of the feeling of sheer good luck that I carry around with me.”


“My characters don’t speak for me, ever. So when one of them says he can “poke his finger through the thinness of contemporary life”, that’s not me. Would I say that if directly questioned? I don’t think life is necessarily thin. There’s too much danger in the world to describe it as thin. I don’t want to alert people to those dangers. I simply want to write fiction. I wouldn’t know how to alert people to anything at all, even if they needed to tie their shoe.”


“Most people see death as a problem, as something inevitable that they wish did not have to happen. I don’t see it that way.”


“Maybe our visual sense is being reduced to the size of a cell phone image. A predominant experience today occurs when we see people making an image of themselves as they extend an arm and aim a cell phone.”


“My thoughts concerning terrorist attacks are the same as other people’s. Immediate and deep. When I attempt to write about such matters, I try to find a sense of the lives and minds of the characters involved. This is fiction that does not want to shrink in the presence of an important contemporary challenge.”


“I don’t feel betrayed by language; what I may feel at times is that I have to think more deeply into the possibilities inherent in an idea, or a scene, or a particular character’s experience from one minute, one gesture, to the next.”


“I believe that certain writers, in their best work, have helped shape the environment in which we live and think. They open daily life, ordinary hours and minutes, to a range of insights that the reader might not otherwise experience. The various AmericasRoth, McCarthy, and othersare all set under a contemporary landscape that waits for younger writers to extend the vision, stretch the language.”


“It’s tougher to be a young writer today than when I was a young writer. I don’t think my first novel would have been published today as I submitted it. I don’t think an editor would have read 50 pages of it. It was very overdone and shaggy, but two young editors saw something that seemed worth pursuing and eventually we all did some work on the book and it was published. I don’t think publishers have that kind of tolerance these days, and I guess possibly as a result, more writers go to writing class now than then. I think first, fiction, and second, novels, are much more refined in terms of language, but they may tend to be too well behaved, almost in response to the narrower market.”


“It’s almost comic, the number of ways in which people can find themselves diminished.”


“When children race out of rooms the noise of their leaving remains behind.”


“Marriage is something we make from available materials.”


“The fear of [the] sea and things that come from the sea is easily spoken. The other fear is different, hard to name, the fear of things at one’s back, the silent inland presence.”


“How strange it is. We have these deep terrible lingering fears about ourselves and the people we love. Yet we walk around, talk to people, eat and drink. We manage to function. The feelings are deep and real. Shouldn’t they paralyze us? How is it we can survive them, at least for a little while? We drive a car, we teach a class. How is it no one sees how deeply afraid we were, last night, this morning? Is it something we all hide from each other, by mutual consent? Or do we share the same secret without knowing it? Wear the same disguise?”


“To be a tourist is to escape accountability. Errors and failings don’t cling to you the way they do back home. You’re able to drift across continents and languages, suspending the operation of sound thought. Tourism is the march of stupidity. You’re expected to be stupid. The entire mechanism of the host country is geared to travelers acting stupidly. You walk around dazed, squinting into fold-out maps. You don’t know how to talk to people, how to get anywhere, what the money means, what time it is, what to eat or how to eat it. Being stupid is the pattern, the level and the norm. You can exist on this level for weeks and months without reprimand or dire consequence. Together with thousands, you are granted immunities and broad freedoms. You are an army of fools, wearing bright polyesters, riding camels, taking pictures of each other, haggard, dysentric, thirsty. There is nothing to think about but the next shapeless event.”


“I long for the days of disorder. I want them back, the days when I was alive on the earth, rippling in the quick of my skin, heedless and real. I was dumb-muscled and angry and real. This is what I long for, the breach of peace, the days of disarray when I walked real streets and did things slap-bang and felt angry and ready all the time, a danger to others and a distant mystery to myself.”


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