The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 9, No. 4

Smoke: Paul Auster and Me

by Wayne Wang

Untitled Document

In the mid-seventies I had just graduated from the California College of Arts and Crafts with a degree in filmmaking and was still living near the campus in the Claremont area of Oakland. I couldn't get a job in my own field, so I found one teaching English to new immigrants in San Francisco's Chinatown.
     Every day I would go to the Highway 24 on-ramp and hitchhike over the Bay Bridge to work. From the beginning, I made it a point never to tell the people who picked me up my real identity. At first, it was simply from wanting to stay anonymous. As time went by, it became an interesting game. I made up A or B identity and, depending how I was feeling that day or who the driver was, I would pick one for that ride. I was alternately a premed student, a carpentry apprentice, a house painter, and a photographer. These were all occupations I had had or knew something about. Once in a while, I would get into a car with a driver who had picked me up before. Then I had to try to remember who I had been on that previous ride or somehow bluff myself out of trouble.
     "Oh, yeah, I did do some house painting on weekends, but I'm really studying carpentry with this master cabinetmaker."
     During that same period, I spent quite a few of my Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners at the local Salvation Army. I was a foreign student halfway around the world from home and too proud to admit to friends I had nowhere to go for the holidays. Sometimes I volunteered and served meals. Sometimes I simply ate dinner with the other folks who––like me––had nowhere else to go. For these occasions, I would always use one of my alternate identities. But I found I was not alone in this game; these meals invariably turned into stages for storytelling. I could never determine how much or what part of each person's story was fact or fiction. But at the core of it, there was always a kernel of truth. 
     One Christmas, I met a young woman in her twenties who had the word LOVE carved into her wrist. The wound was still fresh and bloody; she was emotionally upset, but she refused to talk about herself. I started to make up a story about my problems. I told her I was an accountant for a money-management firm, and that I had just lost everything: my car, my money, my apartment, my job, and I might soon end up in jail because the Feds were investigating me. We spent the whole night walking and talking in the streets of Berkeley. By the end of the night she felt so bad about my problems, it seemed that she could deal with her own problems better.
     Years later, on Christmas Day 1990, with the first Iraq war looming, I was reading an exceptionally thin New York Times. I saved my favorite part, the Op Ed section, for last. Rather than the usual commentaries, it was a full page of fiction: "Auggie Wren's Christmas Story" by Paul Auster.
     I found a lot of resonance for myself in the story, reading it four times over, combing carefully through every detail. I dug up some books Paul had written. He was obsessed with identity and often applied his own name to obviously fictional characters in his novels and short stories. I became intrigued as to who the real Paul Auster was; over the next few weeks, I set out to find him. I had prepared myself for a potentially impossible task. Surprisingly, I found him easily. His agent turned out to be very nice. She said, "I'll give you Paul's number and you can contact him directly."
     I called Paul and pretty soon we had an appointment to meet at his office, in Brooklyn. I took the subway to Park Slope and found his address––a quiet, residential building. Paul opened the door to his single room, inviting me inside. He was a handsome, scholarly man in his forties, smoking a Schimmelpennick. The windowless office was sparse, with a writing desk, two chairs, and not much of anything else. He showed me the composition book in which he wrote longhand every day from nine to four. Then during the latter part of the day, he explained, he would type what he'd written onto a nice sheet of paper. Everything about Paul reminded me of different details from characters in his books.
     We went to lunch at a Greek diner around the corner and both ordered cheeseburgers. Once we settled into our food, my curiosity compelled me to ask him what part of the Auggie Wren story was true.
     "None of it," he answered without a blink.
     "But the part where the New York Times editor called to ask you to write the story has to be true."
     "Yes, that part is true."
     As the lunch went on, I began to realize that Paul Auster was one of the most honest and down-to-earth people I had ever met. Like me, he was fascinated by the changing identity of author and character, and the ambiguity between truth and fiction in storytelling.
     Over the next four years, with funding from some Japanese investors, we worked and reworked a script for a film adaptation of "Auggie Wren's Christmas Story." We stayed with our mutual interest in author, character, and storytelling, while developing related plotlines: Rashid and his story with his father; and Auggie's old flame, Ruby, and her daughter.
     The version of the script I loved most included the story "Ghosts" from The New York Trilogy. As Rashid began staying in Paul Benjamin's apartment, Paul was finally able to write. And the story he wrote was "Ghosts." Just as Blue in "Ghosts" monitored every movement of Black, Paul did the same with Rashid. And as time passed, the observer and the observed became one and the same, each affirming the other's existence, though they met under different names and disguises. This version was too long, however, so did not survive to production of the film we made, which we called Smoke.
     I spent a lot of time with Paul over the writing of the script, the production of the film, and especially the editing process, in which he was involved on a daily basis. "The man who does nothing, who merely sits in his room and writes," as Paul Benjamin described himself, was now free. He traveled every day to the set, the editing suite at Sound One in Midtown. We ate, drank, laughed, and worked hard. I felt like I knew Paul really well, and yet I knew very little about him. Despite the chaos and constant flux that is at the very heart of making a film, Paul had a rigid and specific guideline for how his work would be interpreted, and for his interactions with the outside world. He attempted to control that which cannot be controlled; and as a result, he sometimes seemed rather distant. Or at least that was my perception of the Paul I knew.
     I remember one time on the set, I saw Paul getting very frustrated with an actor. Paul had written all of this character's dialogue expressing anger without any swear words. The actor, however, simply couldn't say the lines the way Paul had written them. The more Paul tried to correct him, the worse it got. Paul kept trying until he was beet red in the face. He finally walked away whispering the dialogue to himself over and over, as if affirming the certainty of it.
     Unable to make life exactly the way he wants it––I believe––Paul turns to his fictional world, a world where every last detail is subject to his control. Perhaps, then, his interior mind, the fictional characters of his subconscious, the beings who live in the world of his stories, are more truly Paul Auster than Paul Auster himself. They can act out and exist in their world, and Paul is most alive when he is in their world, too.
     We finished the Smoke shoot a few days ahead of schedule; I proposed to the producers to shoot another film using the extra days. It would be centered on the Auggie character and the smoke shop, but completely improvised. This would later be released as Blue in the Face. Paul and I made up only situations with proposed conflicts among the characters, and the rest was up to the actors. The producers described it as "letting the mental patients out of Bellevue." This was really difficult for Paul, especially since I was sick during some of the shooting. He would never admit to it, but I think this was probably the hardest thing he had ever done.
     There is an image of Paul Auster from those days that I will never forget. We were auditioning people for Blue in the Face, and in walked RuPaul in drag. As he began step-kicking his heels like a Rockette over Paul's head, I caught a glimpse of Paul: he was grinning ear to ear in total abandonment.

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