Author Study Guides

From the National Book Foundation Archives

Interview with E.L. Doctorow (Part 1 of 2)

— Interview by Diane Osen

Like the narrator of his National Book Award-winning novel World's Fair, essayist, dramatist and novelist E(dgar) L(aurence) Doctorow was born and raised in New York City during the Depression. Graduating with honors from Kenyon College in 1952, he returned to New York City to continue his studies at Columbia University. After working as a script reader for Columbia Pictures, he became an editor with The New American Library and subsequently editor-in-chief of The Dial Press before leaving publishing to pursue writing full-time.

His first novel, Welcome to Hard Times, published in 1960, was both a parody of an American western, as well as a compelling exploration of the moral fate of its characters. His interest in the American experience-and in unconventional narratives and moral values-also distinguishes the novels that have followed, including The Book of Daniel, Loon Lake and Billy Bathgate-all Finalists for The National Book Award-as well as Ragtime and The Waterworks. His most recent novel, City of God, was published to wide acclaim earlier this year.

Published in 1985, World's Fair reflects vividly Mr. Doctorow's belief that "art and life make each other." Characterized by the author as an "illusion of a memoir," the novel traces in uncanny detail the daily experiences of a Jewish boy from the Bronx named Edgar, who occasionally shares the narration with his mother Rose, brother Donald and aunt Frances. The story of Edgar's growth from a toddler to a nine-year-old, with more than a passing acquaintance with sex and death, is "E.L. Doctorow's protrait of the artist as a young child," observes critic Richard Eder. "The author's alter-ego, Edgar Altshuler, grows into an awareness that the world stretches far beyond the protective confines of a Bronx Jewish household. Doctorow evokes Edgar's gradual maturing with something close to magic."

In addition to The National Book Award, E.L. Doctorow is also the recipient of honors including the National Book Critics Circle Award (twice), the PEN/ Faulkner Award, the John Guggenheim Fellowship, the Edith Wharton Citation for Fiction, and the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1998, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal at the White House.

 

Diane Osen: The narrator of your novel World's Fair reads all the time-which makes him, by his own lights, a typical American boy. Were you a typical American boy as well? And did you share Edgar's early interest in sea stories and adventure stories and stories about sports?

E.L. Doctorow: Yes. I was fortunate to grow up before television was all over America and in every home, and I was also fortunate to be part of a family of readers. This was during the Depression, when nobody had any money, but somehow there were books in the house, shelves and shelves of them. Books that were there before I was. My father would bring home new books, my mother borrowed books from the rental library, I was read to as a child, and as soon as I could read myself I was given a card for the public library. I read indiscriminately. I read Alexander Dumas' swashbucklers, I read Dickens's David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Maupassant's stories, Jules Verne, Jack London, the Sherlock Holmes adventures, the Baseball Joe books, Bomba the Jungle Boy-everything. And I would read in binges.

My grandfather, my father's father, was of the immigrant generation that came over in the 1880s. He was a great reader, a printer by trade and something of an intellectual, and he too had a considerable library. Not only books in English but Russian books and books in Yiddish. It was in his house that I first heard the name Tolstoy. Lev Tolstoy, my grandfather called him.

At any rate I remember one Sunday's visit with my parents to my grandfather's house. At this time I was very keen on horror stories, they were all I wanted to read. My father showed me one of my grandfather's books. He said to me, "You like all that horror stuff. Here's one called The Green Hand. That sounds horrible enough. You want to try it?" I said I did, and so while all the grown-ups were having tea and talking, I sat in the corner and opened this book. Of course, it wasn't a horror story about a green hand, it was a novel about a novice aboard a sailing ship, a greenhand. So as a result of that sly trick of my father's I was off on stories about the sea. That particular volume was one of a set of sea novels my grandfather had. I was to go through them all. And that's the way it went, from one passion to another. Mark Twain, of course, Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz books. I stumbled on Candide one day, a somewhat menacing book to a child. I remember reading an illustrated version of Don Quixote and another time taking home a library book that I thought had an intriguing title: The Idiot. So I read it.

Of course, somewhere in all of this I began to identify with the authors who were writing these books. That is to say, there was something in my mind-even as I was entranced wondering what was going to happen next-that could appreciate the art of those narratives that I found so riveting. I don't know if that occurs to all young people as they read, but certainly for writers-to-be, there's that additional line of inquiry in the brain that goes along with the reading: How is this done? Could I do this? A little green shoot of literary ambition, barely acknowledged, almost unconscious in fact, that allows you to identify with the author of the book, so that the act of reading becomes an act of writing, too. As if you and the author are related, almost as if you are with an older brother or an older sister.

I do in fact have an older brother, who served in the Army Air Corps in World War II when I was still a child. At the end of the war, he came home and took a writing course at City College. And I used to see him typing at the kitchen table at night, working on a novel; of course, it was a novel about veterans adjusting to peace-time after fighting overseas. That's what a lot of young men's novels were about at that time. And I realized that if our own family war hero took the act of writing seriously, then it was not just a child's fantasy, but a responsible adult activity. That made quite an impression on me.

 

DO: After you graduated from Kenyon College, you studied drama and acting at Columbia University before you became a script reader at Columbia Pictures. How did those experiences shape your approach to storytelling?

ELD: When I went to Kenyon we were very much under the influence of the New Criticism. The poet and critic John Crowe Ransom taught there. We did textual criticism at Kenyon the way they played football at Ohio State. Actually it was valuable training, but it called upon resources of the mind, analytical capacities, that are not what you need or want when you write. It leaves you with a degree of self-consciousness as you write that can be inhibiting.

I was a student actor as well at Kenyon, and at Columbia University and I became, for a while, seriously interested in writing for the theater. But the novelist doesn't rely on other people to realize his work, as the playwright does. And so I found myself writing fiction. By the time I got that reader's job at Columbia Pictures I was well along in a novel, a more-or-less autobiographical novel. But it took me some time to work up the courage to admit it was not working. It was not working at all. Because I was a professional reader, I knew how many bad books were being published and so I was not about to be discouraged. I had learned also, working under deadlines, how to synopsize a novel by reconstructing its story with economy, as a tale told on two single-spaced pages, which really sharpened my editorial skills. But here's the thing that happened that was really crucial: In that job, you see, I had to read a lot of westerns. The film companies were making them, they were a reliable movie product. And so whatever was being published in the genre had to be covered. All this vomitous stuff.

One day I sat down right there in the office and wrote a western story, because I thought I could lie about the west better than the people I was reading. It was a parody, a western to end all westerns. And then the man I was working for, the story editor, read it and said, This is good; you ought to turn it into a novel. Of course, "parody" as a term covers a wide range of possibilities, and somewhere along the line I saw the book developing not as a satire but as something done in counterpoint. What intrigued me finally was the idea of taking a disreputable genre and making something out of it, writing quite seriously in counterpoint to the reader's expectations.

And, of course, this book was teaching me something about myself: I was not the kind of writer who could walk into a party and listen to the talk and see how the people were dressed and what they were up to and who was sleeping with whom and then go home and write a story about it. I was not given to literary realism; I was not a reporter, I needed distance, I needed a dramatized voice to work in. Whatever light came to me would have to shine through a prism of invention. Even in World's Fair, the most autobiographical of the books, I used myself as material for the composition, as I would use anything else from any other source.

In any event that's how my first novel, Welcome to Hard Times, came to be written-out of the circumstance of my employment, a creative circumstance, something unbidden, unexpected. Most of the books since have been generated similarly-not from any plan, but by the accident of an experience that carried some sort of creative spark. For example, Ragtime, which I found myself writing after staring at the wall for several days-in desperation, writing about the wall, and then the house it was attached to. This was our home, we were living in New Rochelle, then, in this house that was built in 1906. Soon enough I was thinking what things must have looked like in New Rochelle in 1906, in fact what the whole country was like in 1906, and so there I was off the wall and into the book.

 

DO: What was the creative circumstance that led you to write "A Writer in the Family?" And how did that story, which features some of the same characters and situations, evolve into World's Fair?

ELD: I actually did lose my father, like the boy in that story, but I wasn't that young; I was 24 when my father died. And I was asked by my aunts to write a letter pretending to be my father, so that my old grandmother, his mother, who was in a nursing home, would be spared the news of his death. The idea, you see, would have been that my father and all of us had moved far away, out of state. And I knew that was wrong, so I refused. They were able to withhold the news of his death easily enough on their own, if that's what they wanted to do.

I thought about that incident for many years and realized that because I had refused my aunts' request there was no story. But if a fictional kid said yes, he'd do it, you had a story. That's an example of how you transform material from your own life. As I wrote the piece the age was lowered to 13, and as the writer in the family-that is, as a boy who'd shown up very well in his various school compositions-this boy was able to imagine his father living out West in Arizona and writing what life was like for the family out there in the 1950s. And all the time they're still in the Bronx and mourning the father and visiting his grave.

Well, you see, one thing leads to another, and it seemed perfectly logical next time out to be writing about that same family while the father was still alive and healthy. That would bring the family back to the Thirties and Forties. And with a few age adjustments, getting into the family dynamics there in the Depression, and having the young writer in the family winning a prize in the World's Fair essay contest on the theme of the Typical American Boy that allows them all to go to the Fair.

 

DO: You've written about the novel as a "false document," Kenneth Rexroth's phrase for a work of fiction, like Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, that gains authority by representing itself as a factual account. What inspired you to write World's Fair as a novel disguised as a memoir, interspersed with accounts by family members?

ELD: Novelists have always tried to give their work authority by means of whatever strategy seems appropriate to their times. Defoe did this by denying his own authorship and claiming to be only the editor of Robinson Crusoe. There was a well-known castaway living in London in those days by the name of Alexander Selkirk, and so it was simple enough for Defoe to invent another castaway whose actual living existence was proposed as if Defoe had only edited the book. Cervantes did the same sort of thing with Don Quixote when he claimed-in Book Nine, I think-to have bought the manuscript for six reals in a shop in Toledo and to have had it translated from the Aramaic.

One of the devices used in World's Fair to persuade the reader of its authority is the interposition of passages in which members of the family speak in their own voices, as apparently transcribed on tape. This was my acknowledgement of the power I had recognized, around that time, in the collections of oral histories that were being published-how impressive I found the testimonies of supposedly ordinary people reporting on their lives.

> Interview with E.L. Doctorow continued (Part 2 of 2)