Spotlight on Paul Auster -- The eerie author of ''The Brooklyn Follies'' talks about his coincident-laden writing

By Gregory Kirschling
January 06, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

Many years ago, Paul Auster’s sister-in-law was teaching English in Taipei when she struck up a conversation with another young American woman. These two soon discovered that they both had sisters who lived on the same floor of the same building on the same street back in New York City. This is a true story hinging on an incredible coincidence, and Auster’s got dozens more of them, enough to have already filled a slim, eerie 2002 nonfiction volume called The Red Notebook. In his fiction, too, Auster is fascinated by odd flukes and spooky acts of chance. In the opening of his latest, a warm and fast-paced novel called The Brooklyn Follies (Holt, $24), a 59-year-old man named Nathan, who’s just moved to Brooklyn seeking (as he puts it in the first sentence) ”a quiet place to die,” stumbles across his estranged but beloved nephew, Tom, in a bookstore. This random twist of fate is important: The encounter leads Nathan to engage in life again.

When I meet Auster at his four-story brownstone in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, I’m hoping that something small along these lines — haphazard, Twilight Zone-y, or appropriately Austerian and coincidental — might occur. Other journalists have gotten that lucky. ”I did an interview with somebody from England not so long ago,” says Auster, 58, gearing up to tell another unusual, real-life tale. ”We were going to have lunch together, the journalist and I, and we went out, and we get to the corner. Suddenly, someone rushes up to me and pulls a book out of a bag, and it was one of my books, and he said, ‘I just bought this”’ — the receipt was in the bag for proof — ”’and here you are! Please sign it for me.’ So I signed it for him on the street. And the journalist was very amused, so I said, ‘I didn’t pay him to do this. This was just an accident.”’

”Weird things,” he concludes, ”are happening to me all the time.” When Auster was 14 and at summer camp, a boy two or three feet away from him was struck by lightning and killed. Another few inches, ”and I wouldn’t be here talking to you,” says Auster, a thin man with mysterious eyes, a silent-film star’s sharp profile, and an addiction to dark Schimmelpenninck cigarillos (he smokes 12 to 20 a day). ”It helped shape the way I look at the world. The unexpected is around us at any moment, and contingency plays such a large part in whether we’re alive or dead.” Many of his novels — including his 1990 masterpiece, The Music of Chance — fall in line with this somewhat bleak worldview. The Brooklyn Follies is something of a departure, he admits, in that ”the tone is somewhat jocular, yes.” Auster says he’s always wanted to write a comic novel.

Of Auster’s previous work, Follies most closely resembles the screenplay he wrote for the 1995 film Smoke. Both projects are nimble mash notes to Brooklyn, the New Jersey native’s home since 1980. ”I like the rough and tumble atmosphere of the streets, this kind of wise-guy swagger in Brooklyn,” he says. ”I like the tremendous diversity. I like listening to people talk. I like watching them argue,” he adds, laughing softly. ”I like the amazing, funny things people say.” And Brooklyn likes him, too. Recently, the borough’s president, Marty Markowitz, declared an official Paul Auster Day for 2006. ”He’s a true Brooklyn character and that’s why I’m naming a day for him,” explains Markowitz. ”When you meet him you know he’s a Brooklyn character. He’s got this Brooklyn spirit and Brooklyn attitude.”