MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The housing crisis might not immediately seem like the most scintillating backdrop for a novel. The writer Paul Auster wanted to write about problems facing young people today and to explore the idea of losing a home. The result is his latest novel, "Sunset Park."
NPR's Lynn Neary met with Auster in his own home, not far from the neighborhood where his story is set.
LYNN NEARY: Paul Auster lives in a prosperous neighborhood just a few blocks from Brooklyn's Prospect Park. His shaded street is lined with elegant brownstones, much like his own. Inside, the house is a sophisticated combination of old and new. Auster leads me upstairs to the family room where the walls are lined floor to ceiling with books.
Mr. PAUL AUSTER (Author, "Sunset Park"): Yeah, it's a wonderful house.
NEARY: You have so many books in here. It's beautiful.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. AUSTER: We have books all over the house. We're just bursting.
NEARY: The meaning of home and homelessness is at the core of Auster's latest novel, "Sunset Park." Home, Auster says, is a place where you should feel absolutely safe.
Mr. AUSTER: It's the place where you don't really have to explain yourself or defend yourself. I think that's the ideal that everyone holds in his head is that this is the place where you're welcome no matter what you've done, no matter how rocky things have become for you. And unfortunately, not everyone has this refuge.
NEARY: Auster wanted to explore what happens when the sense of security that comes with home is taken away. The main character in the book, Miles Heller, lives in self-imposed exile from his home and family in New York. As the book opens, Miles is working in Florida, clearing out the possessions of families who have been evicted. Circumstances force Miles to return to New York, where he takes up an old friend's offer to live in a rundown house where he and some friends are squatting, rent-free. In this passage read by Auster, Miles sees the house for the first time.
Mr. AUSTER: This house in Sunset Park is neither suburban or historic. It is merely a shack, a forlorn piece of architectural stupidity that would not fit in anywhere, neither in New York nor out of it. Bing didn't send any photographs with this letter, didn't describe what it looked like in any detail. And therefore, he had no idea what to expect. But if he did expect anything, it certainly wasn't this.
NEARY: Auster based this imaginary house on a real one he saw one day in Sunset Park, a neighborhood not far from his home. A short drive brings us there.
It's an urban mix of small businesses, warehouses and residential buildings, with none of the charm of Auster's own neighborhood. It is not, as Auster says, a desperate place. Instead, he describes it as mournful. We pull up to the lot where the house once stood. It's been demolished, but Auster remembers what the house looked like the day he found it.
Mr. AUSTER: Looked like a farmhouse from the Midwest built about 120 years ago, and I thought, well, this abandoned house would be the perfect place for young people to break into and want to live there, so I used that as the model in my head as I was writing the book.
NEARY: The young people who lived in Auster's imaginary house decided to become squatters for different reasons. The instigator, Bing, saw it as a political act.
Mr. AUSTER: Bing is a contrarian. He's against everything that's happening, so he wants to strike a blow for some future world in which there's more justice and kindness. And this, in his misconstrued way, he conceives of as the best way to do it.
NEARY: Auster's book is set not only in a real neighborhood but also squarely in the middle of real events. At this moment in history, Auster says, the sense of displacement that comes with economic uncertainty is a situation that all too many people are experiencing.
Mr. AUSTER: The germ of this book came with the idea of someone being expelled, thrown out of the place where he lived. But the more I thought about it, the more I meditated, the more I saw that, actually, this problem was growing into an enormous social problem in the United States simultaneously. And so I suppose this inner condition of being dispossessed and also the outer condition of so many people living in this terrible flux of broken mortgages, defaults and expulsion also all coalesced into what the book became.
NEARY: Auster is not known for writing novels that deal with the social conditions of the day. Even so, he doesn't see "Sunset Park" as a departure from his other work.
Mr. AUSTER: I mean, history is present in all of my novels, and whether I'm directly talking about the sociological moment or just immersing my characters in that environment, I'm very aware of it.
NEARY: No one, says Auster, gets through life without facing some adversity. Ultimately, that's what intrigues him as a novelist: The exploration of how people deal with the very real problems that inevitably come their way.
Lynn Neary, NPR News.
BLOCK: And at our website, you can listen to Paul Auster read a chapter from his novel "Sunset Park." That's at npr.org.