Stephen Chernin, file, Associated Press
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. He bought a ticket to the New York Film Festival this fall and checked out Hungarian director Bela Tarr's "Turin Horse." He twice took in Terence Malick's metaphysical "The Tree of Life" last spring, finding it "too grand, grandiose" at first, but "very powerful" on his second viewing, the kind of film that becomes an extension of memory.
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 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 DeLillo, who spoke from 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.
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."
DeLillo's longtime editor, Scribner editor-in-chief Nan Graham, says she had been thinking about a story collection for around a decade and felt a recent run of short fiction by the author made the new book possible. She sees "Angel Esmeralda" as a chance to introduce 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," 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 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, 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.
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