E.L. Doctorow is the author of eleven novels, three collections of stories, and three volumes of essays. The Book of Daniel (1971) was nominated for the National Book Award. Ragtime (1975) was given the first National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was adapted for a motion picture, as well as for the musical theater. Ragtime has since been named one of the hundred best novels of the 20th century by the Modern Library editorial board. His novel World’s Fair (1985) received the 1896 National Book Award, while Billy Bathgate (1989) won the PEN/Faulkner Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was given the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters for the best novel of the previous five-years. The March (2005) was also awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, the PEN/Faulkner award, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and for the National Book Award. In 2009 he was shortlisted for the International Mann Booker Prize for Lifetime Achievement. His work has been translated into thirty-two languages.
Doctorow is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, The American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1998, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal, which is conferred at the White House. He is currently the Loretta and Lewis Glucksman Professor of English and American Letters at New York University.
Cautious at first, Doctorow opens up with a warm and steady chuckle, seeming to surprise himself by his own candor.
Did you have a sense when you were very young that a writer was something one could be – and did you want to be that?
Yes, I believe so. I was an avid reader. I read indiscriminately. I’d go to the public library and bring home an armload of books and go through them in a few days and then go back for more. I didn’t care what the books were, I read everything— comic books, detective stories, Victor Hugo, Mark Twain, I made no distinctions. I remember finding a book called The Idiot by someone named Dostoyevsky. I think the title suggested to me that whoever the idiot was, it would turn out that he wasn’t.
How old were you then?
I was probably about eight or nine. And I took that one home and read it, though it was a struggle with all those long Russian names and their diminutives. I remember reading a young adult version of Don Quixote. Oh, and I was crazy about Jack London. London was very important to me because it was while reading The Call of the Wild and White Fang and some of his short stories that I began to ask the other question – not what’s going to happen next, but how is this done? And I think if you’re going to be a writer, that question will pop up pretty early.
And so, when I was about nine, I decided I was a writer, though I felt no particular need to write anything by way of verification. [Laughs.]
You had defined it. And that was enough.
I was loyal to the idea, and everyone in my family knew it. Yet there were moments of defection. One day I told my brother Donald that I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. Donald was very smart. He said, “You just like the sound of those words.” And it was true. I loved to say “aeronautical engineer.”
Well, it does sound pretty great.
So, the answer is yes, I did fix on writing. It turned out that I had been named after Edgar Allan Poe. That was my father’s idea because he loved Poe’s work. When we name our children there’s often some sort of unconscious wish involved, isn’t there? A prayer to the gods – send this child this way. Perhaps my father was wishing for me what he hadn’t been able to arrange for himself. He was very well read, philosophically inclined, but struggling to support his family during the Great Depression took everything he had.
It was only years later, long after my father’s death, that I asked my mother, who was then about ninety, how it happened, given all the great 19th century writers, that they had chosen to name me after Poe. I said to her, “Did you and Dad realize you named me after an alcoholic, drug-addicted, delusional paranoid with strong necrophiliac tendencies?” She said, “Edgar, that’s not funny.”
At any rate, when I was in middle school, or what we called junior high school, I started to write stories imitative of Poe, of course – stories that took place in dungeons and crypts and haunted houses. “The cell was dark and dank,” that was a typical opening line.
And did you get appreciation for any of those dark early writings?
I avoided criticism by not showing them to anyone. But then by the time I reached high school, The Bronx High School of Science, I did publish a story in the school literary magazine, Dynamo. I was by then reading Kafka.
I read about that. The story was The Beetle, right?
Yes. Recalling Kafka’s Metamorphosis, his novella of etymological self-defamation. Unfortunately, a few years ago the school put my story up on their website without my approval.
You were not pleased to see it again?
Were they merely insensitive or just being cruel? I had them take it down.
Do you recall what it was like to see this printed thing back when it was first published? What it was like to see your peers reading it?
No, I actually…You know, at that age, if you have any kind of creative impulse, it goes out in all directions. In that same issue I also had a photograph of a painting I had done, and a poem.
You were heavily represented!
And I wasn’t even one of the editors! [Laughs.] I’d fled down the hall to the offices of the magazine and sought shelter there. This was a top notch high school, still is, and its student body consisted in large part of insufferably smart kids, who went around predicting, in some cases correctly, that they would win the Nobel Prize in physics.
That’s a little obnoxious, honestly.
Yes, it was unforgivable. [Laughs.] And so I holed up with the Dynamo gang and drew a line in the sand.
Did you continue to write after you graduated from high school and began college?
Yes. I went out to Kenyon because I wanted to study with a poet there named John Crowe Ransom.
So you made a very deliberate move to go and study with a particular person?
Well, the literary culture of Kenyon appealed to me and Ransom was in large part responsible for that. And so, while everyone was coming to New York to make their lives, I was setting out for Ohio, to this beautiful, rather remote campus.
You studied drama there too, right?
I was active in the theater, yes. Actually I did very little creative writing at Kenyon. A play in verse, a few poems, a story or two – that was it. Mostly what we did there was literary criticism. We did literary criticism the way they played football at Ohio State. It was that serious. I remember writing a paper, of about thirty-five or forty pages, on an eight line lyric of Wordsworth’s: “No motion has she now, no force/ She neither hears nor sees/ Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course/ With rocks and stones and trees.”
That’s some serious training.
Eventually I gravitated to philosophy and that became my major. I also did some acting.
Yes, because at that time I thought I wanted to write for the theater. So I needed some practical experience – what it felt like to be on a stage. I began to get some decent roles in the college productions after Paul Newman graduated.
He was at Kenyon at the same time?
Well, he was a senior when I was a freshman, and he was a veteran, so there was about an eight year difference in ages. We knew then that he was headed for a major acting career. When he left I played the lead in Golden Boy, the Clifford Odets play, I did Gloucester’s son Edgar in King Lear, and Pegeen Mike’s father in Synge’s Playboy of the Western World.
Then you went to graduate school at Columbia.
Yes, that was to study English Drama.
Did you go straight to graduate school from college or was there time in between?
Well, I had been accepted at Yale, which offered a three-year program for playwriting. But there was universal military service back then – this was in the 1950’s – and the draft board told me that they would only give me a year before I had to go into the army. So I didn’t go to Yale, I went to Columbia, where they offered a one-year Master’s degree. You could take half of your credits in the theater – in practical theater – and study English Drama for the other half – which I did.
In fact, that’s where I met my wife Helen, at Columbia – so we have the Selective Service System to thank for that.
From Columbia I went into the Army. After my training I was shipped to Germany and served with the army of occupation. I was a Corporal in the Signal Corps and I was in command of a radio truck. In the radio truck was a Teletype machine. So I’d be out in the field for maneuvers and to alleviate the boredom, I’d sit down at the Teletype machine and write a story. The Teletype printed only caps. That gave the stories a degree of importance. I did them at night, when I should have been worried about the Russians in East Germany. They held their maneuvers at the same time. You never knew when they might cross the line and start another war.
Did you enjoy your time in the Army?
No, I wasn’t a good soldier. I was living off the base, as married men were cleared to do, and my superiors had no way to get in touch with me in the event of an emergency. They kept telling me to get a phone that would connect to the army network and I somehow didn’t get around to doing that. One morning I drove to work and the base was deserted, they had gone out on some sort of alert. So, I was in a lot of trouble.
I’m surprised they didn’t make you live on the base, or make you get a phone.
Yes, well, I think I had to pull extra guard duty, or something like that…they were not happy.
I can imagine. What happened to those stories that you wrote on the Teletype machine, in all-caps?
I don’t know where they are. I donated my papers to the Fales Library at NYU, so they may be there, but I hope not. Now that the librarians have catalogued everything I’ll have to go through the collection, remove the juvenilia.
But when you were writing those stories, did you still have the same mind-set as when you were nine— that you knew deep inside that you were a writer?
Well yes, but it wasn’t as if I had taken vows. I was just going to do it. I certainly didn’t think about doing anything else. I wouldn’t even call it ambition. It was a state of mind, a foregone conclusion.
Did you feel conviction that you could, or was there self-doubt mixed in?
There was a lot of self-doubt because writing is hard. But it was in balance with a strong conviction. It was what I loved doing. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life.
How about the impracticality of being a writer in the very nitty-gritty, making-a-living kind of way? How did you come to terms with that?
Well, I was a little naive about all of that. Helen had come over to be with me in Germany and our first child was born in the U.S. Army Hospital in Frankfurt. When I’d served my two years and we came home, we were living in a flat in Jackson Heights and the only money I had was my mustering-out pay – a few hundred dollars. And there I was, a husband and father, head of a new little family at the age of twenty-four. I said, “We have enough money to live on for six weeks. In six weeks I will write a novel and sell it.”
That’s what I said.
And what did your wife say?
She said, “Yes, dear.”
[Laughs.] Good answer, maybe.
After three weeks, I’d done about a page and a half. So we had this serious discussion, she and I. I went out and I found a job as an airline reservations clerk at LaGuardia airport.
What did that job entail?
You sat at the phone and people called in and reserved seats for flights. There was some sort of primitive computer you used and I remember I had the shift from midnight to seven in the morning or something like that.
Oh wow, that’s rough.
I was trying to write and do that and it got a little tiring. Helen tells the story that one night she woke me up just in time for me to go to work and so she pushed me out of bed and then she went back to sleep, and in the morning she put her feet over the edge of the bed and felt herself stepping on me because I had found the floor quite comfortable. I was a good sleeper.
And you hadn’t gotten up to go to work!
[Laughs.] Why am I telling you this?
Because it’s a wonderful story!
Finally, I got out of that hideous job. A good friend of ours, Bernard Miller, whom we had known at Columbia University, had gotten himself a very modest position as a production assistant at CBS television. In a noble gesture, he called up the network’s Story Department and, affecting an authority he didn’t have, he told them to interview me for a reader’s job.
And they did. Why he wasn’t fired is a mystery.
He was at the time. He went off to England soon after and we lost touch with him. But I met the story editor and she gave me a book as a test and I ran home and I read the book and wrote the required synopsis. You had to write a synopsis and offer an opinion as to whether the book was right for filming, and on the basis of that, I became a full-time freelance reader. I would read a book a day, for either ten or twelve dollars, depending on the length of the book, and write and file the synopsis and report. I was making seventy-five or eighty dollars a week, something more than my salary at the airline.
And then another company, Columbia Pictures, offered me a staff job as a reader, and so I didn’t have to work as hard as I had as a freelancer. And there, at Columbia Pictures, as I’ve said many times, I had to read a lot of westerns, because in those days, the late 50’s/early 60’s, westerns were very popular. I had to read all these lousy westerns and they were making me seriously ill. So, one day, I decided to write a parody of the genre. I wrote a story and showed it to the man I was then working for, Albert Johnston, and he said, “This is very strong, you ought to turn it into a novel.” I crossed out the title of my story, re-labeled it “Chapter One” and continued from there. That turned out to be my first published work, Welcome to Hard Times.
And how long did it take you to write that first book?
Probably – since I was working full time, coming home, reading to children, then sitting down to write – about a year and a half. I’d gotten an option from a publisher, Viking, to show them the completed book. Do you know what an option is? A publisher will look at a chapter or two and if they like what they see they put some money down so that they’ll get first shot at the finished book. The option was modest, a couple of hundred dollars. When I submitted the completed manuscript, they turned it down. I think now it was too strong for them. As best I could tell, a decorous elder critic serving as their editorial advisor had made this decision for them. Well, that was their privilege but they also wanted their money back.
Yes, true. I was enraged. Fortunately, my agent turned around and almost immediately sold the book to a feistier firm, Simon and Schuster.
That must have been a great moment of triumph.
Yes, I went to the local bank, deposited the advance, opened up a checking account – I had never had one of those – and proudly wrote a check and sent it to Viking. Some years later, at a cocktail reception, I ran into the Viking editor. She said, “I guess we made a mistake.” [Laughs.] The book has never been out of print.
Somewhere along the line my intention to write a parody gave way to an interpretation of the Western Expansion that is quite serious. Nothing of the parody is left in Hard Times except perhaps for its structure.
When you were writing that book and you were still working as a reader, did you develop good habits for writing? Did you have a system, a structure that you imposed on yourself?
I must have, I must have developed some sort of discipline without being aware of it – but it was just life and…there was one useful thing about being a professional reader: you saw how many really bad books were being published. That was very encouraging. And to write synopses on a daily basis was useful. The art of that is not to follow the book’s organization but to smooth out the story, start where you can run it all off in a linear way. You learn a lot that way.
I held that job for three years and somewhere in some studio archive are the hundreds of synopses I wrote – in most cases better than the original books.
You worked in publishing for a long time. When did you move from your role as editor to being a writer full-time?
When I was writing The Book of Daniel. I was the Editor-in-Chief of the Dial Press at the time. It was an exciting job – I was editing James Baldwin, Norman Mailer. Putting out books against the Vietnam War. But I had gone about halfway through The Book of Daniel and I realized I had reached the point where it needed my total attention. I couldn’t expect to write this book as it demanded to be written while keeping my job.
Around this time I received a letter from the University of California-Irvine: Would I be interested in coming to California and being a visiting writer for a year? That seemed like a good omen. But we had three children by then and I was making the best wage of my life.
So we consulted the I Ching. Do you know what the I Ching is? It’s an ancient Chinese book of divination. It supposedly can read your future. You have to understand, this was the 1960’s. You threw some sticks down and they arranged themselves so as to direct you to a passage [in the book] that would pertain. We didn’t bother with all that, we were only half serious, and it was just as good to open the book randomly to any page. And the I Ching said, “You will cross a great water.” And my wife said, “That’s the Mississippi, let’s go.”
[Laughs.] And so you did!
We put the three children and our bags and baggage in our car and drove across the country. To my first teaching job.
And what I discovered was that you could teach in the afternoon and the evening and for the first time in your life, you could get up in the morning and do your own work. That’s any writer’s idea of success.
Yeah, that is pretty great.
I finished The Book of Daniel there in California. It would have been a different book had we not crossed the great water.
The Book of Daniel was a very big success. Did you start thinking about your work differently when you knew you would have an audience?
No, you don’t think about the audience. I never have and I don’t think I ever will.
Most books start with an image or a phrase or even a piece of music and you start wondering why this particular image or phrase is so evocative. And so you write to find out. You write to find out what you’re writing. It could be some vague anger that gets you going – I think that was true of Daniel. Billy Bathgate came of an image I had of men in black tie standing on the deck of a tugboat. What were they doing there? Loon Lake – I was up in the Adirondacks and saw a road sign: Loon Lake. I liked the sound of those words. An entire novel was waiting for me in those two words.
So it always starts from some little seed of this kind. It’s not a terribly rational way to work, I know – I’ve never used outlines or started with plans or had an aesthetic strategy directing me. Working this way, you are in a sense possessed, and so there’s no room in your mind for an audience, there’s hardly room for yourself.
That’s rather wonderful, isn’t it? If you were to give some advice to young writers, what would you say?
Read. Press on. Perseverance is all.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Francesca Magnani