Writers & Company

Don DeLillo on language, immortality and growing up in the Bronx

The author of White Noise and Underworld talks about the matters of life and death that inform his new novel, Zero K.
The author of the celebrated novels White Noise, Underworld and Libra is back with Zero K, a novel about deferring death through cryonics.

Don DeLillo has won most of the major American fiction prizes — including several lifetime achievement awards — over the course of a writing career that spans almost half a century. Born in the Bronx in 1936 to Italian immigrant parents, he started off in advertising but soon switched his focus to fiction. In his new novel, Zero K, DeLillo has turned his attention to the deferral of death — the story is set largely in a secret cryonics facility in the former Soviet Union, where a billionaire businessman struggles to decide whether or not to join his ailing wife, suspended in an indefinite deep freeze.

Eleanor Wachtel spoke to Don DeLillo in Toronto.

DEATH, CRYONICS AND THE TECHNOLOGY OF IMMORTALITY

I don't have any particular prejudice against what we call dying. We know it's going to happen. In Zero K, people are trying very hard to keep it from happening. I didn't know very much about cryonics when I started writing, beyond that it existed and that people have certain hopes for it, but I began to think about an individual who is not ready to die, who is not ill, but who chooses for whatever reason to undergo this process. Not because he wants to die, but because he wants to extend his life in a parallel manner with a woman who is herself in a cryonic pod. She was mortally ill, and he is not, but he makes his choice, and this is at the heart of the novel. 

There's a hopefulness that comes from science and technology and what they can do to a human being. What they can do to prolong life and make it possible for people to simply keep living. It's something that is taken seriously today, and not just in works of fiction. In a certain number of years, it is thought that technology will have advanced to a point at which people being frozen in cryonic chambers will be able to be revived. My question is — who will they be after 20 years of unconsciousness? What will the world be like?

ON BEING A "KID FROM THE BRONX"

There were 11 of us living in a small, skinny house. The situation never seemed even remotely burdensome, because this was all we knew. The two generations above mine were [Italian] immigrants. I had three cousins living upstairs. So there was never a dull moment! We were all sports fans, and we would play in the street with the kids I grew up with. As we got a little older, street games became poker games. After many years, one of the fellows I grew up with had a daughter who was a professor of literature somewhere in upstate New York, and she was reading Underworld. And she told her father that there were passages in this book that sounded like his old neighbourhood. And she mentioned my name, and he remembered me, and we got back in touch.

It defines me more clearly than it used to. I really think it is just a function of getting older — those memories become more complete in my mind, in a curious way. I can recall things very deeply. I meet up with old friends every so often, and we eat in a certain restaurant in the old neighbourhood, and we talk, we remember everything. It's kind of an extraordinary experience, because I didn't feel this way until recent years. 

THE IMPORTANCE OF NAMES

For a fiction writer, names are very important. Applying a certain name to a certain character — how does it happen? I think that in most cases it happens subconsciously. Once the character begins to develop, a name begins to accompany this individual. Usually there's an evolution that has to occur between a writer and the character, and it can take a while. There have been occasions when I've regretted naming a certain character and wanted to change his name. But usually it's too late. 

People are embedded in a certain identity, depending on the name. Why do people change their names? It happens all the time. It's because they're not happy being a certain individual bearing a certain name. And they want a new life.

ON HIS EARLY YEARS AS A WRITER

I began to work on a novel. It ended up taking four years, and after two of these years I understood that I was a writer. No matter what happened to this book. If no one wanted to publish it, I was going to keep going. It was after those two years that I began to write in a way that made me think I could simply keep doing this. It's hard to explain — it's almost a mystical experience. But I began to see sentences in a certain way. I don't read aloud to myself, but I read internally and I found the rhythm in language that I didn't know I had. And this became important. 

Don DeLillo's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the interview: "Unravel," composed by Björk, from the album Björk with the Brodsky Quartet ‎– At The Chapel.
 

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