For novelist Don DeLillo, sometimes a single picture is worth more than a thousand words

October 27, 2012

Novelist Don DeLillo says some of his densest, most complex tomes have been inspired by viewing a single image. Often it's a photograph, or sometimes a painting, or even the blocky, visceral letters of the Greek alphabet carved into the frieze of a temple. The novelist behind classics like Underworld and White Noise was in Chicago last week to accept an award from the Chicago Public Library. Donna Seaman, senior editor for Booklist, spoke with DeLillo and teased out this thread in the author's work.

Take a listen to an extended excerpt from Seaman’s interview with DeLillo,  and check out some of the powerful images that spurred him to write.

On the influence of French New Wave cinema:

“I grew up in the Bronx, and we had movie theaters – plenty of them – and we went to the movies frequently, the young guys. Suddenly, a bit later, when I was living in Manhattan, European movies appeared, strikingly different from westerns and Hollywood musicals and so on. Truffaut, Godard, Antonioni – so many good directors. And it began to occur to me that ‘film’ as it was now being called, could have the depth and range of an album. This was new to my mind.”

On the newspaper headlines that inspired the novel Underworld:

“Something made me go to the library. Some sense of importance beyond the [famous Brooklyn Dodgers vs. New York Giants baseball game]. I went and found the front page for The New York Times the day after the ball game, Oct. 4, 1951. . . The second headline across the page was ‘Soviets explode nuclear bomb.’ I saw these two headlines, literally, in a pictorial way, the way they were matched, each followed by three columns of type, and of course some sort of historical resonance taking place. Bobby Thompson’s home run became known immediately as the ‘Shot heard ‘round the world,’ which was a kind of American vanity, assuming that everyone in the world was aware of this ballgame. This got me started on Underworld.”

On the influence of Baader-Meinhof, Gerhard Richter’s painting series about the left-wing German militant group: 

“The first time I saw these paintings I wasn’t that influenced by them; I wasn’t that impressed by them. But when I saw them again and then again, I began to see things I hadn’t seen the first time. I don’t know if I could tell you what I saw – I’m not an art critic . . .  And so I wrote a short story about a woman sitting alone in a gallery. I tried to discover who she was and what would happen.”

On the influence of a single image of September 11th:


“Something in this photograph just hit me. There were much more dramatic photographs; I don’t know why it was this one. About a day later it occurred to me: the briefcase was not his. This is what inspired me to write the novel [Falling Man]. Essentially to find out whose briefcase he was carrying.”

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Don DeLillo spoke at an event presented by Chicago Public Library earlier this month. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.