Listen to what the man says: Don DeLillo, the rarely interviewed author of 'Underworld' and the new 'Cosmopolis,' takes the cultural pulse

By Chris Nashawaty
Updated April 11, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

Notoriously press-shy and something of a master when it comes to interpreting the tea leaves of our times, Don DeLillo has been painted as a cross between J.D. Salinger and Nostradamus. And while the first part may be an exaggeration — after all, he did agree to talk to us — the second still seems dead-on. In novels like White Noise, Libra, and Underworld, DeLillo grapples with Big American Themes and still manages the trick of telling us what we know, somehow before we know it. His latest novel, Cosmopolis, takes the New Economy into its crosshairs just as we’re feeling most fleeced and hungover. We sat down with the author to discuss the agony and ecstasy of writing, his old typewriter, and the psychic inevitability of America’s latest war.

EW You don’t do a lot of interviews…

DeLILLO Correct.

EW Is it because, as someone who writes about our culture, you don’t want to be submerged in its celebrity swirl?

DeLILLO It’s not a strategy so much as a personal disinclination. I must have done about two and a half interviews in my life until Libra.

EW Do you think authors are prescient about the culture? People drew parallels between your novel Great Jones Street and Kurt Cobain’s suicide. And you have written a lot about terrorism…

DeLILLO I don’t think anyone is prescient. What artists sometimes do is see things a little sooner than other people see them, that’s all. I was in Greece in the late ’70s and early ’80s and [terrorism] was everywhere. It didn’t have that powerful of an effect on [Americans] because it was happening far away.

EW Cosmopolis seems the opposite of a prediction. It’s a look back at our recent stock-market implosion, in which a 28-year-old billionaire in the back of a limo loses his fortune in one day while stuck in traffic.

DeLILLO When I started writing the book all I knew was, a man is traveling crosstown, and in the next split second I knew the trip would take him all day. As the idea developed it began to occur to me that this would be the last day of a particular era. And that’s why I set the book in the spring of 2000. The culture was seething with money. Chief executive officers became global celebrities and the Dow kept climbing and the Internet kept getting swifter.

EW Underworld begins with the sentence ”He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.”

DeLILLO Yeah, it’s the last thing I wrote.

EW What do you mean?

DeLILLO I had a manuscript that was 1,400 pages and I thought, Well, I need something a little more spacious for a first sentence. I must have 20 pages of first sentences. Pages and pages. I eventually got on the right track. But then getting the right words took another enormously long time because I was uncertain about it. And part of me just went, ”F — – it! There it is.”

EW You’re always called a ”very American writer” who tackles ”great American themes” like baseball, the Cold War, and the JFK assassination. What do you think about what’s going on in America right now?