DeLillo’s in the house

The legendary author of Underworld breaks his usual silence to chat with our reviewer about movies, death and baseball

Illustration By Don Button

In Don DeLillo’s world, an interview is not just an interview. It is an exercise in false intimacy. One doesn’t have to sit down with him to know this. One need only read his 1999 play, Valparaiso, about a man who steps onto a plane to go to a city in Indiana but winds up in Chile. The entire play consists of an interminable interview he undergoes as a result of this mistake. “What would happen if I stop asking questions?” the interviewer asks at one point, as if those of us who are not interviewed do not exist.

One of the characters in DeLillo’s latest play, Love-Lies-Bleeding, perches on a similar knife’s edge, but it is not because of an interview: It is his health. A painter named Alex has suffered a stroke, and his loved ones gather to decide what to do when the time comes to decide whether he should continue on life support. A young wife and an ex-wife battle for supremacy while a son looks grimly on. Meanwhile, time winds down.

In an unusual break from his normal policy of silence, DeLillo agreed to meet and talk about this new work. Sitting in an empty office at his publisher’s, looking owlish and slight, like someone who would much rather be sitting in a darkened movie theater than next to a tape recorder, the 69-year-old author of Underworld and White Noise explained why writing plays isn’t as easy as it may seem.

John Freeman: The first line of this play is “I saw a dead man on a subway once.” Where’d it come from?

Don DeLillo: That line has been in my head for several years, and then I just decided to write it down and see what happens. I found the line strangely haunting … to the point where I thought back many years to times when I’d take the subway with my father and wondered if I’d ever seen anything that inspired this. I’d seen sleeping men, but I’d never seen anyone I might have thought was dead.

Your other two plays also seem to deal with death, but more conceptually. Here it’s an actual end that is confronted.

I suppose this is a play about the modern meaning of life’s end—when does it end? How does it end? How should it end? What is the value of life? How do we measure it? Just yesterday I remembered that in one of my earlier novels—I think it’s in Great Jones Street, if I didn’t edit it out—there’s a reference to patients in British hospitals being assigned to beds that are marked NTBR: not to be resuscitated. When I learned this, back in the early 1970s, I thought it sounded like the bleakest landscape out of some futuristic novel. And of course now it is enormously widespread, the idea of people not being resuscitated.

Did you have Terri Schiavo in mind when you were writing?

The fact is I finished this play a year-and-a-half ago and have been waiting for the Steppenwolf Theatre [in Chicago] to get it on their schedule, which they finally did. [It runs April 27 through May 28.] But the Terri Schiavo situation was in the news, yes. I didn’t have her in mind particularly, but I did learn some things from that event.

Reading Love-Lies-Bleeding made me think about how agonized her husband must have felt, listening to politicians talk of her as if they knew her.

Amazing, isn’t it? These are matters that people are going to have to deal with. And it’s probably fair to say you can count on that, most of the time.

Have you ever had to make a decision like this?

No, no, I haven’t. And if I did, I would probably speak of it only privately.

How does your writing day change when working on a play versus writing a novel?

The deceptive element is that, well, it’s only dialogue after all. And much of the work will be done by others eventually. But I think a playwright realizes that after he finishes working on the script, that this is only the beginning. What will happen when it moves into three dimensions: This is the test and the surprise.

Have you been to all the productions of your plays?

Not all. If possible, I go to the first week or so and then come back later. And I think that’s also what directors and actors prefer. But I do want to hear the actors doing the lines.

You have a movie coming out now, too—you’re suddenly all about dialogue these days.

Yes, I wrote this script called Game 6 15 years ago. And somehow, through an odd set of circumstances, a situation developed where the producers who were involved at some level all along had an opportunity to do a series of really low-budget movies that had to be shot in like 20 days. So, they shot this movie the summer of ’04 in New York in 19 or 20 days.

And it’s about a playwright who skips opening night to watch Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.

Yeah, that’s right. Michael Keaton is in it, who is very good. [The movie opened nationwide March 10.] He plays a playwright who is in deep fear that his play will be destroyed by a legendary critic. So, here I am with a play coming out and a movie about this situation.

Maybe it was you and not Johnny Damon who pushed the Red Sox over the edge in 2004?

Maybe. It’s funny. I’d given up on the film—in fact, I forgot about it totally—but when I wrote Cosmopolis, I used a very similar structure; the characters and the situation are quite different, but the structure is similar.

Is he spending the whole day getting to the game?

No, but he’s spending the whole day moving across town from his apartment to ultimately the loft where the drama critic lives, stopping along the way, in what might be the most interesting part of the movie, to watch the game, that game, on television, with 25 other people.

Do you watch sports ever on television?

I can watch a football game, and I’ll hear things that others don’t quite seem to get right away. One thing I noticed watching football is that some announcers have a tendency to use a player’s first and last names—all the time, regardless of the situation. No matter how fast they are talking. It’s never Manning; it’s never Eli. It’s Eli Manning. And there are players with enormously long names, like Troy Polamalu, who plays for the Steelers, and the guy will always say both names.

Outside of professional sports, do you watch television?

I watch movies occasionally, and I watch documentaries. Virtually nothing else. I can’t, you see, deal with commercials, for one thing, and when I watch sports there are commercials. Often I will watch the game without sound at all. I’ve always got a magazine or a newspaper. And I don’t listen to an entire game, particularly baseball, particularly depending on who is announcing a game. McCarver is great.

Are you a film buff?

I am pretty interested in movies. I don’t really have a huge collection, but I’m pretty interested. I did go to see Sátántangó. Did you hear about this film? It’s a seven-and-a-half-hour Hungarian film which showed at the Museum of Modern Art [recently]. Well, I actually saw it … after missing it on a number of occasions. The house was packed, and through the entire seven-and-a-half hours, through two brief intermissions, only one cell phone went off. And I expected the cinephiles in the house to drag the guy out and beat him to death.

Do you rewatch movies?

Occasionally. I just rewatched L’Avventura. … First time in many years, and it was fantastic. The landscape is incredible, and it’s a remastered DVD, very clear, and the ending of that movie is just beautiful.

Did you go to plays growing up?

Yes, a little, because I lived in New York. But not a great deal. The idea of getting the ticket in advance was always a barrier. Something I just don’t want to think about.

Are your artistic influences on your plays the same as with your novels?

No, I’m not sure who influenced me. I’ve seen some reviews that mention Beckett and Pinter, but I don’t know what to say about that. I don’t feel it myself.

You don’t sit there with a copy of No Exit propped open on your desk?

[Laughs] I don’t get it—no. But people will always make comparisons. I felt Joyce was an influence on my fiction, but in a very general way, as a kind of inspiration and a model for the beauty of language.

That reminds me of one of the saddest scenes in this play, where Alex’s relatives start naming all these desert flowers that bloom at night.

Someone pointed out to me that the names of flowers are interesting because they are one of the few things in the play you can actually name. The difficulty is in defining when a person dies, how a person dies, when love ends, what love is. How does one define a relationship between a son and a father? But the plants are things that can be named. And they are all around these people.