The prospect of interviewing Don DeLillo produces a certain anxiety. DeLillo, one of the most heralded American novelists of the past 40 years, has a reputation for being inaccessible, emotionally and otherwise. While by no means a recluse like J.D. Salinger, DeLillo, 75, gives interviews rarely, and on those occasions divulges little about his personal life. And like his famously intense, highly polished, vaguely chilly books — reviewers often describe his characters as cold — there's something about him that discourages intimacy. He is, first and last, a mystery, and seems to prefer it that way.
He's not without humor, however, as a recent phone conversation from his home in Westchester County, N.Y., in advance of his visit to Chicago on Wednesday to receive the Chicago Public Library's Carl Sandburg Literary Award, amply demonstrates. And on the subject of his craft, he can be surprisingly generous, even voluble — which is a good thing, since his work is so intriguingly constructed.
DeLillo's best-known novels include "White Noise" (1985), winner of the National Book Award; "Libra" (1988), about the assassination of John F. Kennedy; "Mao II" (1991), which won the PEN/Faulkner Award; and "Underworld" (1997), which in 2006 the New York Times named one of the two best books of fiction by an American in the previous 25 years.
This year, DeLillo's 2003 novel "Cosmopolis" was made into a film directed by David Cronenberg and starring Robert Pattinson, Paul Giamatti and Juliette Binoche. This month, DeLillo's "The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories" (2011) was issued in paperback.
Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: How are you?
A: I'm OK, but I've been better. I'm working on a novel, working hard and doing my best to avoid distractions. Which you mustn't take as a comment on this conversation.
Q: I'll try not to. Can you tell me anything about the new book?
A: Not a word.
Q: I'm guessing you're one of those writers who don't like to talk about their work in progress because they feel it has a negative effect on the process.
A: In my experience, writing a novel tends to create its own structure, its own demands, its own language, its own ending. So for much of the period in which I'm writing, I'm waiting to understand what's going to happen next, and how and where it's going to happen.
In some cases, fairly early in the process, I do know how a book will end. But most of the time, not at all, and in this particular case, many questions are still unanswered, even though I've been working for months.
Q: You're about to receive the Chicago Public Library's Carl Sandburg Literary Award, and I gather that most previous recipients — who include Toni Morrison, John Updike, Tom Wolfe, Kurt Vonnegut and Roger Ebert — have some connection, maybe quite distant, with Sandburg. Do you?
A: One of my earliest memories as a reader — I don't know how old I was, quite young — was a poem of his, called "Fog," and I remember the first verse, "The fog comes / on little cat feet."
And that might have been my very first encounter with metaphor in a piece of literature.
Q: Of course, he's best known for his poem "Chicago," in which he calls it "the city of big shoulders." Maybe that would have occurred to you.
A: Absolutely. I also have another Chicago connection, which is Steppenwolf Theatre. They've done some of my plays, and these have been good experiences.
Q: John Malkovich adapted and directed "Libra" for the stage.