- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 15, 2011

NEW YORK — Don DeLillo is among the world’s most influential and celebrated writers, but only close observers of his jacket photos are likely to recognize his face - roundish and dark-eyed, with lowered eyebrows and a watchful, withholding expression, as if he were the bearer of classified information.

And so an author known for his privacy attends public events without undue worry. Not long ago, he visited downtown Manhattan and had a look at the Occupy Wall Street protests.

“It seemed very different from the anti-war protests in the ‘60s,” says Mr. DeLillo, who turns 75 this month and lives outside New York City. “There’s a less definitive push to it. It’s almost standing and waiting, or sitting and waiting, to see what happens next. I think people are almost asking themselves, ‘What are we going to do next?’ “

Few authors are as in tune with the psyches of crowds or individuals as Mr. DeLillo, interviewed recently at the Rockefeller Center offices of his long-time publisher, Scribner. Known for the novels “White Noise,” “Libra” and the epic “Underworld,” he now has his first collection of short stories out, “The Angel Esmeralda.” The book includes nine pieces, dating from the 1970s to 2011.

Mr. DeLillo hasn’t written much short fiction, but he does value the art form and will pursue it when an idea arises. The difference between novels and stories, he finds, is not in the prose style or in the themes, but in their simplicity. When he begins a novel, he has little idea how it will turn out. A story’s plot, and often its length, is known to him from the start.

“People have said over the years that short stories are more difficult to write than novels. But not for me,” he says. “Once the story is established in a writer’s mind, it’s not that easy to go way off-track. You can mess it up in certain ways, but it’s much easier to mess up a novel than a short story.”

Mr. DeLillo’s editor, Scribner editor-in-chief Nan Graham, says she had been thinking about a story collection for about a decade and thought a recent run of short fiction by the author made the new book possible. She sees “Angel Esmeralda” as a chance to introduce Mr. DeLillo to readers who might have avoided the 800-page “Underworld” or such complex novels as “Ratner’s Star.”

“I am hoping readers a little bit afraid of him will come to him. They think he’s hard, or think he’s elusive,” Ms. Graham says. “I think there’s much more heart and longing than people credit him for.”

His work in “Angel Esmeralda” is set everywhere from prison (“Hammer and Sickle”) to a remote island (“Creation”) to outer space (“Human Moments in World War III”). United by Mr. DeLillo’s fluency in alienation and dread, connection and curiosity, many of the stories tell of people watching, whether from a rocket ship or across a movie aisle. As they silently - sometimes disturbingly - observe, Mr. DeLillo’s characters seem like spies or film directors or writers.

In “The Starveling,” a compulsive moviegoer becomes obsessed with a woman he spots during his regular outings. He invents a name for her (the story’s title). He sits near her in an uncrowded theater. He follows her to the bathroom, where he wonders - as if himself in a movie - what an observer would make of his behavior. In “Midnight in Dostoevsky,” two college students notice an older man in a hooded coat and try to imagine his life. They decide he’s Russian and consider possible names (Ivan, Mikhail). They agree he has a son and that he reads Dostoevsky.

“They’re like private detectives, on an intellectual level,” Mr. DeLillo says. “I’ve never done that myself, but I can easily imagine people wanting to re-create the life of someone who is alien to them. And I’ve seen such a man as the elderly man in ‘Midnight in Dostoevsky.’ And I thought, ‘How interesting it would be to put two young people in this environment and find out what they might make of him.”

Solitude itself is a kind of puzzle, a foreign country for Mr. DeLillo, a Bronx native and son of Italian immigrants. He remembers his childhood as “rich and vibrant,” “tight and crowded and very, very family-oriented.” But, he adds, he didn’t feel he was really living in America.

“I wanted to find America,” he says. “I wanted to do what my parents did. They were immigrants. They came here. I wanted to do that in another sense, as a writer. I wanted to leave that environment.”

Mr. DeLillo started writing stories in the 1960s, but enjoyed adjectives too well to fit the Hemingway model of brevity, and decided it was “time to take a crack at the novel.” His first book, “Americana,” came out in 1971, but required such effort that he refers to “Running Dog” and “End Zone” and other early novels as “entertainments,” evasions of what he went through to complete “Americana.”

Only in the early 1980s, with “The Names,” did he “reach another level of seriousness” and begin the run of novels that made him not just a critical favorite, but a prophet. Before the events of Sept. 11, 2011, as the New York Observer’s Adam Begley once noted, Mr. DeLillo already “owned” terrorism through such novels as “Mao II,” conspiracy through “Libra” and the Twin Towers themselves through “Underworld” and its ghostly cover image of the towers and through the 1977 novel “Players.”

“The towers didn’t seem permanent,” Mr. DeLillo writes in “Players,” imagining the thoughts of a woman who works at a grief-counseling firm based in the World Trade Center. But, she adds, “Where else would you stack all that grief?”

To write, Mr. DeLillo says, “is to think more deeply.” His work joins past and present, modern technology and ancient spirits. In the title story of “Angel Esmeralda,” a version of which later appeared in “Underworld,” a community in the Bronx becomes transfixed when lights from passing subway cars make the image of a murdered girl visible on a Minute Maid billboard.

As surely as fiction writing itself is a form of alchemy, the elevation of reality, Mr. DeLillo is alert to magic in everyday life. Commenting on the death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, Mr. DeLillo noted the looks on people’s faces - “It’s almost beyond religion” - when new products by Apple and others were introduced. He writes about the economic crisis in “Hammer and Sickle” and finds it compelling in part because it’s so hard to explain.

“It certainly seems vitally important, and I think the fact so few people understand it makes it not uninteresting,” Mr. DeLillo says. “People protesting - is there an element in the protest that derives from the fact that no one knows what the hell these financial people are doing, that it’s a kind of esoteric mystery?”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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