'When I write, the story is always uppermost in my mind, and I feel that everything must be sacrificed to it. All elegant passages, all the curious details, all the so-called beautiful writing - if they are not truly relevant to what I am trying to say, then they have to go.' Paul Auster, from a Guardian newspaper interview last year Life: Mystery writer Paul Auster shields his privacy about as much as tragedy queen Dave Eggers. Auster has even exposed the circumstances surrounding his conception: the result of a 'loveless embrace, a blind, dutiful groping between chilly hotel sheets', as he records in The Invention Of Solitude, on his parents' Niagara Falls honeymoon. Auster was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. His father, Samuel, was a landlord who owned buildings with his brothers in Jersey City. His mother, Queenie, could turn her hand to anything from real estate to painting and decorating. The marriage, however, was miserable. Even before the end of the honeymoon, it had dawned on Queenie that she should never have wed. Worse, the daughter she had in the wake of her son was highly unstable and would later suffer a string of breakdowns. The future writer, meanwhile, began to feel, as he discloses in his memoir Hand To Mouth, like 'an internal emigre, an exile in my own house'. He sought solace in, of all things, the satirical comic, Mad. Auster then read English at Columbia University, lived in France for four years and went on, Queenie-style, to hold an extraordinary variety of jobs. They ranged from interpreter for a speech given by Jean Genet to acting as a messman on an Esso tanker and translating the North Vietnamese constitution. You can see why he says becoming a writer is not a 'career decision' on a par with becoming a doctor. He portrays it as a matter of destiny: 'You don't choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accept the fact that you're not fit for anything else, you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days.' But the road is surely now paved with dollars and cheques, given his critical and commercial success enhanced by his Bohemian image. Auster is the hip intellectual par excellence. Selected Work: The Art Of Hunger: Essays, Prefaces, Interviews (1982); The Invention Of Solitude (1982); City Of Glass (1985); Moon Palace (1989); Ground Work: Selected Poems And Essays (1990); The Music Of Chance (1990); Leviathan (1992); Mr Vertigo (1994); The Red Notebook (1995); Hand To Mouth: A Chronicle Of Early Failure (1997); Timbuktu (1999); The Book Of Illusions (2002). Subplot: Academics take Paul Auster seriously. Frighteningly seriously. In his critique of Auster's post-modern autobiography, The Invention Of Solitude, the cultural critic William Dow appends a footnote advising the reader to 'See Christopher Norris' comments on Lyotard, the abyss of heterogeneity, and the futility of understanding history in rational, purposive terms.' Blame this kind of talk on the writer's weakness for the artifice of experimentation. For example, Auster habitually dreams up characters who look clearly intended to be variations on himself, sometimes to the extent of giving them his own name. Paradoxically, he detests the label 'experimental'. He claims to feel 'extraordinarily close' to the sober romantic novelist Edgar Allen Poe and undoubtedly shares Poe's fascination with darkness. Another influence is Samuel Beckett. The mixture makes for deliciously pure, haunting literature reflected by titles such as Moon Palace. Read Timbuktu, his unforgettably eerie meditation on destitution. The book's homeless antihero, Willy, is upstaged and outlived by his faithful companion, Mr Bones: 'part collie, part labrador, part spaniel, part canine puzzle' or, in short, a 'pooch primed for oblivion'.