PW:The Book of Illusions is your 10th novel, but you've written, edited or translated some 35 books including poetry, memoir, essays and screenplays. Is the novel your preferred mode of literary expression?
PA: It's invigorating to work in different forms, but the novels are at the core of what I'm doing. That said, I've always been interested in following my impulses and seeing where they take me. Sometimes an idea takes the form of nonfiction; in a couple of instances it took the form of screenplays. But I feel that all of my work is coming from the same source.
PW: This novel is set in large part in the 1920s and the era of silent films. What attracted you to that period of American life?
PA: I'm interested in history, and I've had this imaginary silent film comedian locked up in my head for years. I never knew what to do with him, but I've always wanted to write a book in which he and his films would be featured.
PW: Your protagonist, Hector Mann, experiences a downfall that is almost unbelievably tragic, and you render his story through a more contemporary character, a professor named David Zimmer who is writing a book about Mann and has a tragic past of his own.
PA: Hector's is a grotesque and highly melodramatic story, isn't it? But it's horrible mostly because of his very powerful conscience and feeling of guilt. Everything follows from that guilt. I think most men would act very differently from Hector. There is a strange vibration between Hector and David, an echo.
PW: The book feels thematically linked to some of your earlier novels.
PA: I know this book fits into the whole scheme of my work. At the same time, with every project I've tried to go into new territory. What might be new about this book is the tone of the narrator. Zimmer's a bit older than the protagonists of my previous books. He's writing from the perspective of middle age; there's more behind him than in front of him. The book is more somber, perhaps, more aware of impending death than any other book I've written.
PW: You've been publishing a lot lately. The book you edited for National Public Radio's National Story Project (I Thought My Father Was God, Holt) came out last September, and you've also just published a collection of nonfiction pieces (The Red Notebook, New Directions).
PA: All during the time I was working on the National Story Project, I was also working on the novel, but I have to say, the NPR project was one of the most pleasurable and inspiring things I've ever been involved with. In this overmarketed, celebrity-hungry world of America today, normal people are just pushed out. No one wants to hear what they have to say. It's always been my contention that everybody goes through extraordinary experiences, everybody has something remarkable to tell us if we just take the time to listen. I know in my own case my life has been filled with the most outlandishly crazy events, the most unexpected things happening on a fairly regular basis. I'm happy to report I'm not the only one.
PW: And The Red Notebook—subtitled True Stories—relates some of these "unexpected things" that have happened to you. You are, at heart, a storyteller.
PA: Experience is a great chaos of events, and it's only through storytelling—whether it's the professional storytelling of a novelist or people sitting around telling stories of their childhood—that a story organizes reality. If we didn't have stories to tell each other, I don't think we'd be able to understand the world at all. I have these books I want to write. I feel that as I get older, time isn't as limitless as it once seemed, so I'm bearing down and writing for the time being. There's a compulsion to keep making stories, to keep sitting at my desk every day writing away at fictitious works.