Don DeLillo, the award-winning author of "White Noise" and "Underworld," made a rare public appearance on campus yesterday.
Bespectacled and wearing a tweed jacket over a woody green button-down, DeLillo sat down for an interview at 185 Nassau St. after a lunch discussion with creative writing students.
He spoke slowly and quietly, actually whispering at first, to preserve his voice for his public lecture in McCosh 50 as the 2002-2003 Belknap Visitor in the Humanities.
From his first novel "Americana" through 10 other novels, DeLillo has focused his insight on the American cultural experience to produce a trenchant vision of the way Americans live.
"I live in it, and I try to understand it," DeLillo said of American culture. In the 21st Century, DeLillo says being an American has a new meaning. "It means to be worried, perhaps as never before.
"In the years of the Cold War there was danger, there was the danger that an enormous cataclysm might take place, affecting virtually everyone on the planet," DeLillo said. "The danger is different now. The danger is much more specific. The world isn't going to be destroyed, but you don't feel safe anymore in your plane or train or office or auditorium."
Usually very protective of his privacy, DeLillo seldom appears in public and rarely gives lectures. He said his willingness to come to the University derived from his designation as a Belknap Visitor.
"The Belknap award has been given to artists whose work I admire a lot," he said. "It's as simple as that."
Previous honorees include sculptor Richard Serra, filmmaker Wim Wenders, artist Frank Stella '58 and fellow writer Harold Pinter.
"This is company that I'm honored to join," he said.
The Program of Belknap Visitors was created to commemorate Chauncey Belknap of the Princeton Class of 1912, said Carol Rigolot, executive director of the humanities council in an email.
Despite his professed love of film, none of DeLillo's novels has been turned into a movie.
"It's all an enormous business enterprise," DeLillo said. "I love movies but I'm not particularly eager to see an adaptation of one of my own books."
He said "White Noise," perhaps his most well-known novel, is always under option to a studio "somewhere."
Often through satire, DeLillo describes the absurdities and ironies of life in America.
Though his tone is sometimes empathetic, his books frequently have a dark side. Themes he has visited include paranoia and conspiracy, obsession with death and terrorism.
In his role as social critic and chronicler of American culture, DeLillo's insights have proved to be prophetic lately. DeLillo wrote of the impact of terrorism and its effect on the public consciousness long before Sept. 11.
Now, the kind of terrorism DeLillo described in "Mao II" is all too commonplace and dominates the media and public discourse.
"Terrorism has taken over our consciousness as never before," he said.
Another eerie and timely instance of DeLillo's prescience regards the phenomenon of serial killing. One of the many characters DeLillo follows in his epic novel "Underworld" is the Texas Highway Killer, an otherwise normal man who drives around murdering people at random as they drive their cars.
The character may have originally been an invention of DeLillo's imagination, but the sniper in the Washington area is just another confirmation of the accuracy of DeLillo's observations.
"What can I say?" DeLillo said, a little disheartened.
Many great writers such as Kurt Vonnegut have decided as they got older to stop writing.
"It could well be a kind of honorable decision on a writer's part depending on his or her circumstances," DeLillo said.
However, DeLillo, 65, said he does not foresee himself stopping writing any time soon.
"I don't see an end in sight for me. Not yet," he said.
During the lecture, DeLillo read from his forthcoming novel, "Cosmopolis," in front of a packed house of students, faculty and guests.
The crowd was reverentially silent during most of the reading but frequently burst into laughter at DeLillo's trademark ironic humor.
DeLillo closed his question-and-answer period on an upbeat note.
"It's fun sometimes to be a writer," he said.