Don DeLillo on Writing

When it comes to writers being obsessed, I have one notion. Obsession as a state seems so close to the natural condition of a novelist at work on a book, that there may be nothing else to say about it.
--DeLillo, from the 1979 interview with Tom LeClair.

DeLillo often comments on the act of writing and the state of the novel. This page gathers some of these remarks into one place.

In the Feb. 2010 interview with Ed Caesar, DeLillo talks about the importance of the novel:

Before he leaves, DeLillo makes an impassioned case for the continuing significance of the novel. "It is the form that allows a writer the greatest opportunity to explore human experience," he says. "For that reason, reading a novel is potentially a significant act. Because there are so many varieties of human experience, so many kinds of interaction between humans, and so many ways of creating patterns in the novel that can't be created in a short story, a play, a poem or a movie. The novel, simply, offers more opportunities for a reader to understand the world better, including the world of artistic creation. That sounds pretty grand, but I think it's true."

(Feb. 23, 2007)

In a June 11, 2007 New Yorker "Final Destination" article on the Ransom Center Archives, author D.T. Max investigates the DeLillo archives, and finds this exchange between David Foster Wallace and DeLillo on writing:

In October, 1995, David Foster Wallace wrote to him, "Because I tend both to think I'm uniquely afflicted and to idealize people I admire, I tend to imagine you never having had to struggle with any of this narcissism or indulgence stuff. . . . Maybe I want a pep-talk, because I have to tell you I don't enjoy this war one bit."

DeLillo responded in November. "I was a semiconscious writer in the beginning," he writes. "Just sat and wrote something, or read the newspaper, or went to the movies. Over time I began to understand, one, that I was lucky to be doing this work, and, two, that the only way I'd get better at it was to be more serious, to understand the rigors of novel-writing and to make it central to my life, not a variation on some related career choice, like sportswriting or playwriting. The novel is different. . . . We die indoors, and alone, and I don't mean to sound overdramatic but you know what I'm talking about. Anyway, all of this happened over time, until eventually discipline no longer seemed something outside me that urged the reluctant body into the room. At this point discipline is inseparable from what I do. It's not even definable as discipline. It has no name. I never think about it. But there's no trick of meditation or self-mastery that brought it about. I got older, that's all. I was not a born novelist (if anyone is). I had to grow into novelhood."

(June 10, 2007)

On the occasion of the death of Gilbert Sorrentino, DeLillo offered a few comments in an obituary article by Elaine Woo that ran in the LA Times on May 24, 2006. Sorrentino died on May 19, 2006.

"Sorrentino was an American master," novelist Don DeLillo said Tuesday of the longtime Stanford University professor of literature and creative writing, who was 77 at his death Thursday in New York City.

"His work has humor, anger, passion and deep-reaching memory. But he wrote against the times," DeLillo said, "against the pressure to be commercially successful. There was an edge in his work that wasn't always easy to accept."

(May 26, 2006)

A snippet of DeLillo on Samuel Beckett appears in the Michigan Quarterly Review, Winter 2004 issue, in the piece "Beckett's Readers: A Commentary and Symposium." Written by Gary Adelman, the piece includes responses he got from a number of authors on their feelings about Beckett. DeLillo's response is featured first, as he had some very positive things to say:

Beckett is a master of language. He is all language. Out of the words come the people instead of the other way around. He is the last writer whose work extends into the world so that (as with Kafka before him) we can see or hear something and identify it as an expression of Beckett beyond the book or stage.

(July 31, 2004)

A letter from DeLillo to Jonathan Safran Foer appears in Foer's article 'Emptiness' (about Foer's collection of blank pages of writing paper from authors). The article appeared in Playboy, January 2004 issue, pages 148-151. The letter's text is as follows:

Dear Jonathan,

A hundred years ago I used yellow paper every day in my job writing advertising copy, and when I quit the job to become a grown-up first and then a writer, I took (I guess) a fairly large quantity of this copy paper with me. The first draft of my first novel was typed on this paper, and through the years I have used it again, sparingly and then more sparingly, and now there are only five sheets left.

Back in those days I was the Kid, and the friends I made on the job are either older than I am or dead (two days ago I wrote and delivered a eulogy for one of them) and so this yellow paper carries a certain weight of friendship and memory. That's why I thought I'd entrust a sheet to your collection.

Don DeLillo

(Dec 1, 2003)

In an article entitled "Performance Anxiety" by Joy Press, which ran in the Village Voice Literary Supplement (Fall 2002), Jeffrey Eugenides is quoted as follows:

"Don DeLillo told me that the first book was a gift and you don't know how you wrote it. The second book you really teach yourself to write. By the time you've finished it, you know you can write books. And I think that's true: After book two, it's like you've finally become a professional writer."
(Nov 4, 2002)

My own personal preference is for fiction that is steeped in history, that takes account of ways in which our perceptions are being changed by events around us. Global events that may alter how we live in the smallest ways. --DeLillo in an article by Philip Marchand in 1991

I write to find out how much I know. The act of writing for me is a concentrated form of thought. If I don't enter that particular level of concentration, the chances are that certain ideas never reach any level of fruition.
--DeLillo in an article by William Leith in 1991

A portion of a letter from DeLillo appears in the April 1996 issue of Harper's, in Jonathan Franzen's article "Perchance to Dream." The article deals with the role of authors, readers and novels in today's America. I quote the DeLillo portion in full:

The novel is whatever novelists are doing at a given time. If we're not doing the big social novel fifteen years from now, it'll probably mean our sensibilities have changed in ways that make such work less compelling to us--we won't stop because the market dried up. The writer leads, he doesn't follow. The dynamic lives in the writer's mind, not in the size of the audience. And if the social novel lives, but only barely, surviving in the cracks and ruts of the culture, maybe it will be taken more seriously, as an endangered spectacle. A reduced context but a more intense one.

Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.

And in a P.S he adds:
If serious reading dwindles to near nothingness, it will probably mean that the thing we're talking about when we use the word 'identity' has reached an end.

Here's a paragraph from Mao II--it's Bill Gray speaking:

Do you know why I believe in the novel? It's a democratic shout. Anybody can write a great novel, one great novel, almost any amateur off the street. I believe this, George. Some nameless drudge, some desperado with barely a nurtured dream can sit down and find his voice and luck out and do it. Something so angelic it makes your jaw hang open. The spray of talent, the spray of ideas. One thing unlike another, one voice unlike the next. Ambiguities, contradictions, whispers, hints. And this is what you want to destroy.
(p. 159)

The following is a letter that DeLillo sent in reply to a reading group. It used to be posted on the web (at, but the link appears to have died so I've taken the liberty of posting the full text here.

23 Oct 95

Dear Jon Jackson

Thanks for sending the observations of your e-mail group. It's always a jarring experience for me to revisit earlier work but I found most of the comments informed and quite enlightening at times. My head is bent with current work these days and all I can say about White Noise from this distance is that the book is driven by a connection I sensed between advanced technology and contemporary fear. By the former I don't mean bombs and missiles alone but more or less everything -- microwaves, electrical insulation etc. One would have to write a long dense essay to explain this connection adequately -- that's why I wrote a loose-limbed and shadow-sliding work of fiction.

I think your Man in Tokyo is correct when he points out that a satisfying ending might represent a kind of deathliness. To which I would add that Libra may be the only book I've done in which plot points are fairly well resolved, but of course this is a special case: I was trying to fill in the lost narrative of Kennedy and Oswald in Dealey Plaza.

For me, wellbehaved books with neat plots and worked-out endings seem somewhat quaint in the face of the largely incoherant reality of modern life; and then again fiction, at least as I write it and think of it, is a kind of religious meditation in which language is the final enlightenment, and it is language, in its beauty, its ambiguity and its shifting textures, that drives my work.

If you want to post some or all of this, fine.


Don DeLillo

Some excerpts from the 1993 Paris Review interview:

Writing is a concentrated form of thinking. I don't know what I think about certain subjects, even today, until I sit down and try to write about them.

I work in the morning at a manual typewriter. I do about four hours and then go running. This helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle--it's a nice kind of interlude. Then I work again, later afternoon, for two or three hours.

Q: Do your typed drafts just pile up and sit around?

That's right. I want those pages nearby because there's always a chance I'll have to refer to something that's scrawled at the bottom of a sheet of paper somewhere. Discarded pages mark the physical dimensions of a writer's labor--you know, how many shots it took to get a certain paragraph right. Or the awesome accumulation, the gross tonnage, of first draft pages. The first draft of Libra sits in ten manuscript boxes. I like knowing it's in the house. I feel connected to it. It's the complete book, the full experience containable on paper. I find I'm more ready to discard pages than I used to be. I used to look for things to keep. I used to find ways to save a paragraph of sentence, maybe by relocating it. Now I look for ways to discard things. If I discard a sentence I like, it's almost as satisfying as keeping a sentence I like. I don't think I've become ruthless or perverse--just a bit more willing to believe that nature will restore itself. The instinct to discard is finally a kind of faith. It tells me there's a better way to do this page even though the evidence is not accessible at the present time.

Q: How do you begin? What are the raw materials of a story?

I think the scene comes first, an idea of a character in a place. It's visual, it's Technicolor--something I see in a vague way. Then sentence by sentence into the breach. No outlines--maybe a short list of items, chronological, that may represent the next twenty pages. But the basic work is built around the sentence. This is what I mean when I call myself a writer. I construct sentences. There's a rhythm I hear that drives me through a sentence. And the words typed on the white page have a sculptural quality. They form odd correspondences. They match up not just through meaning but through sound and look. The rhythm of a sentence will accommodate a certain number of syllables. One syllable too many, I look for another word. There's always another word that means nearly the same thing, and if it doesn't then I'll consider altering the meaning of a sentence to keep the rhythm, the syllable beat. I'm completely willing to let language press meaning upon me. Watching the way in which words match up, keeping the balance in a sentence--these are sensuous pleasures. I might want very and only in the same sentence, spaced in a particular way, exactly so far apart. I might want rapture matched with danger--I like to match word endings. I type rather than write longhand because I like the way words and letters look when they come off the hammers onto the page--finished, printed, beautifully formed.

Q: Do you care about paragraphs?

When I was working on The Names I devised a new method--new to me, anyway. When I finished a paragraph, even a three-line paragraph, I automatically went to a fresh page to start the new paragraph. No crowded pages. This enabled me to see a given set of sentences more clearly. It made rewriting easier and more effective. The white space on the page helped me concentrate more deeply on what I'd written.

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Last updated: 23-FEB-2010