NBF ARCHIVES: Author Study Guides

From the National Book Foundation Archives

Interview with E.L. Doctorow (continued, part 2 of 2)

— Interview by Diane Osen

DO: In your essay "False Documents," you also mention the critic and essayist Walter Benjamin, who could have been discussing World's Fair when he wrote, in one of his essays, that "language shows clearly that memory is not an instrument for exploring the past but its theater." What can you tell us in this regard about the extraordinary voice of the novel, and its relationship to the major themes of the book?

ELD: Memory is a very mysterious thing. And certainly I would accept the notion of it being an imagination of the past, which is what Benjamin is talking about. But I'm not sure I can answer your question. I have to warn you that it's fine in retrospect to talk about how you think you put the book together. But the fact of the matter is that for the fiction writer, once the book is composed, the fictive machinery keeps going-it doesn't turn off. Whatever you used to write the book, you're now using your memory to create a fiction about it.

I will say the language you use is a decision you make in the depths of your brain before you even begin. A voice comes to you as something complete, with its own diction and its own level of syntactical simplicity or complexity. And it's all there, whole. Certainly, you might have an idea for something, but if you don't find the voice it won't work, and you will stumble around until you do find it, or else you will just abandon the idea.

With The Book of Daniel, as I've said elsewhere, I wrote 150 pages of a straight chronological narrative in the third person. When I sat down to read it, it was wrong, a mistake. And I thought if I could make this story dull, a story based on a notorious political trial in the 1950s, then I had no business writing. It was a terrible moment in my writing life; I literally threw the pages across the room. And then I sat down at the typewriter, almost in mockery of my own pretensions as a writer, and I found that what I was typing was the first page of The Book of Daniel. It seems obvious now, but what I had to go through in order to find the voice was the discovery that I shouldn't tell the story; Daniel should. And once I had his voice, everything else flowed: the disjunctions of the book, the discontinuities, the apparent artlessness of going into other points of view, and violating the conventions of tense and of person. He would do all these things, whereas I couldn't.

If you find the voice early in the book you're very lucky. And with World's Fair I was. It begins as an adult voice looking back on his childhood circumstances; but as the child grows older and becomes articulate, the voice of the narration actually becomes younger, even though it's still, presumably and conventionally, the voice of an adult recalling his childhood.

It's hard, though, to really analyze the connection between the language and the themes of a novel. I mean, the people who do this work are perhaps the last people in the world who should be consulted about it. When I started writing, I knew a lot more theoretically than I do now. Now I just do it and accept the gift of it. The mysterious gift. And I think that's probably the experience of people who have the calling, as they work year after year.

But maybe this idea of voice or a language or diction preceding any conception of a book connects with what I was saying about Welcome to Hard Times and my discovery of the kind of writer I was by writing it. The voice of Blue, the narrator of Hard Times, was what I needed to write that book-his diction, his soul, his age. I wrote it in my late twenties, in the voice of a man 49 years old. And then there I was writing World's Fair in my fifties, in the emerging voice of someone 40 years younger.

Nevertheless, there are things you do that you don't understand until you're told. It was a critic who described World's Fair as a portrait of the artist as a young boy. I had never thought of it that way, but it's a fair way to look at it.


DO: In a recent interview, the historian David McCullough told me that he thinks of himself as "a writer who has found in the past an opportunity for self-expression that for many reasons, some of which I'm probably not able to understand myself, appeals to me more than any other." What is it about the past that has so often appealed to you as a writer?

ELD: Well, there again, it wasn't until Ragtime, which was my fourth novel, that I realized that I was tending to deal with materials from the past. It was my editor who told me. And it's true that you can take my books and arrange them in a certain order and get one writer's vision of the past hundred-twenty or so years of American life. You would start with Hard Times and The Waterworks, set in roughly the same period. And then you would read Ragtime, for the turn of the century, and then come up to the 1930s for Billy Bathgate and World's Fair and Loon Lake. And then, beginning in the '30s and going on from '60s through the '80s, you would read The Book of Daniel and Lives of the Poets. My new book, City of God, takes place in New York at the present time although it does go back, in certain parts, to an earlier period.

This was never planned; I never set out with an overriding scheme or ambition to do this. Yet one of the things I realized, after I was told my books were being set in the past, was that for me, as an urban writer, a period of time could be as useful an organizing principle for a novel as a sense of place. I must have figured that out unconsciously. That in this huge and volatile society very little connects us-that perhaps all we have to bind us is a few historical images. But the sense of time past can be very dangerous as something that intrigues you if you're not sufficiently aware of its dangers-chiefly, the tendency to romanticize, mythologize, which is what usually happens in that genre. In fact, I don't think I write historical novels. All novels are set in the past, if you think about it. I'll define a novel as historical if it makes literary history.


DO: Both World's Fair and Billy Bathgate dramatize the ways in which, as Edgar might put it, a boy aspires to the power of himself, and learns the world. This is, of course, a theme that Mark Twain explores as well, in The Prince and the Pauper and Huckleberry Finn, among other books. Why is this theme so resonant for you? And what else about The Prince and the Pauper in particular, and Mark Twain in general, has captured your imagination over the years?

ELD: Well, first try to imagine the tremendous impact that a book like Tom Sawyer must have on a child. Twain knew that boys are averse to being bathed. That they like to torture insects and cats. That they like small things they can treasure, like coins and odd pieces of metal or anything that glitters. He understood that children traditionally are repositories of the tawdriest myths in society, that they play around with the idea of ghosts and the use of incantations to drive away warts and so on.

Then, of course, a child recognizes the underlying justice of the book, since Tom is a seemingly bad boy who is really good-which is the way we all feel about ourselves as children; always we are terribly misunderstood. Tom stands between the totally anarchist Huck Finn and the goody-good half-brother Sid, who is really quite malevolent and deceitful as he obeys all the rules. So there is a moral hierarchy in the book any child recognizes-a hypocrite like Sid being able to triumph because of the blindness of adults. Finally, the idea comes through that no matter how mischievous you are and what you're guilty of out of an irrepressible spirit, that you're loved by the slow-to-catch-on adult community as represented, say, by Aunt Polly. So whatever stern measures are taken against you, whatever errors and flaws of youth you have as a boy, you understand, reading this book, that finally there's love and forgiveness in the adult world. That's a very comforting thing for a kid, especially one who himself gets into trouble more or less constantly. And that, I think, is why, among the major American authors, Twain is the most loved-because of the way in this book and in Huckleberry Finn he founded a moral universe from the lives of children.

In fact, an amazing proportion of Twain's work is devoted to taking children quite seriously, no matter how much fun he might be having. And what you find in The Prince and the Pauper is perhaps the most symbolic presentation of the democratic spirit you can imagine, because the two boys, prince and pauper, are finally interchangeable: Tom functions eventually quite well as the prince, and the prince in his turn adapts rather well to the life of poverty and rags. What is being said is terribly anti-European and anti-monarchical: Twain is proposing that a society of class distinctions is essentially a fraud. The prince learns some of this and goes back to his life, where he will rule as an enlightened monarch because of his experience. Of course, one could say that nothing has really changed in the way that society is structured. But I think what a child can take from this book is a strengthened belief in himself or herself, no matter how humble his circumstances. Mark Twain was a great moralist, and enough of a genius to build his morality into his books, with humor and wit and-in the case of The Prince and the Pauper-wonderful plotting.

I'll tell you something writerly that I learned from him, perhaps without realizing it: there are tremendous built-in advantages to writing from a child's point of view. You are allowed to express wonder and amazement for all the ordinary things in the world that most adults don't see or feel anymore. You have a texture to your prose that you might not have otherwise. Of course, you find yourself steering a vehicle that almost drives itself, the bildungsroman, the sentimental education. It's an unbeatable form of literary transportation.

Only when I finished World's Fair did I realize some of this-because, of course, you always begin to write without knowing what you're writing. And as Billy Bathgate, my very next book, came to me, I was well along with it before I realized I was doing the corollary book. Edgar in World's Fair is a good boy and tries always to do the right thing, and to the extent he gets into trouble, it's really very modest and innocent. But Billy Bathgate is about a very attractive, bright, intelligent, delinquent kid who has this odd attachment to the gangster life. I'm not in any way comparing these two books to the books of a great American master, but they do relate, in a kind of a twinned way, to one another. Edgar does have a supportive family-he's enthroned in their love. Billy finds his support among hoods. It's quite possible there's a case to be made that Edgar in World's Fair and Billy in Billy Bathgate are twins of some sort, at the sort of symbolic level of the twins in The Prince and the Pauper.


DO: You've talked about the growing isolation of what you've called our "print culture" and also about the ways in which politicians and journalists and professional spinmeisters are increasingly appropriating the techniques of novelists for their own ends. What do novelists have to do in order to reclaim fiction as the right and proper source of truth?

ELD: Well, the image I came up with 20 years ago was that we were being put out on a reservation, with a remote little plot of land to cultivate. The idea was that the fiction writer should resist by writing to reclaim his territory. There are, of course, many, many different ways to do this. One way is to appropriate for fictive purposes the data ordinarily presumed to be fact-which I did in Ragtime. The basic theory always is to disguise your novel in the prevailing assumptions of your culture-in the styles of knowledge, the dictions, beliefs and presentations of the time. And I continued to do that with Lives of the Poets, which was published at about the time that confessional writing was becoming widespread. I wrote the novella in the mode of the confessional memoir, which got me into a little bit of trouble-people thought I was really doing a diary of my own life.

But you know, what propels a writer is what resists any kind of advice. And it should. Whatever any of us writes should suggest our helplessness to write anything but what we've written.


DO: What propelled you to write your newest novel, City of God?

ELD: In presenting itself in a way that is not immediately clear to the reader, City of God recalls the non-linear narrative strategy of The Book of Daniel and Loon Lake, and to a certain extent, Lives of the Poets. It is, in fact, the workbook or professional journal of a writer at the end of the millennium. Almost inevitably, he's a repository of the predominating ideas and themes and historical disasters of the century. A kind of Everyman of the culture. All of this is recorded as the life of his mind. The event that kicks off the book has to do with a large crucifix that's been stolen from an Episcopal church on the Lower East Side of New York City. This church is a small, run-down church, with a fading parish, a very small group of loyal parishioners and the kind of priest who's usually in trouble with his bishop. The crucifix reappears on the roof of a progressive synagogue on the Upper West Side, and the priest meets with the synagogue's rabbi to figure out ho has done this and what it means.

So that's the mystery. Sensing that there's a possible novel here the writer cultivates their acquaintance and follows them on their quest. But things only become more mysterious, as reflected in the writer's wild flights of imagination and ventriloqual projections.


DO: One final question. You've said that "a book can affect consciousness...[and] create constituencies that have their own effect on history." I'm wondering how you hope your books will affect history, and what kinds of constituencies you hope they'll inspire.

ELD: I was afraid you'd ask that. But the truth is I just don't think about it. It's not an idea I want to apply to my own work. It's dangerous for a writer to think of such things. It's far healthier to feel about a book that you've done the best you can, and whatever happens is not in your hands.

Also, we know, any of us who work as writers, the history of our profession and the perversity of it. How good people write bad books and bad people write good books. How good books disappear and bad books don't disappear. And how for every champion of the very idea of what it is to be a writer-like Emerson-you have some genius working in total obscurity, like Melville, who after a brief early success dies and only happens to be rediscovered forty years after his death. So the unpredictability of the value of any work is the essential message that you get when you think about these things.

And then there's the most chastening thing of all. You know what that is? It's to see books gathering dust on the shelves of some summer cottage. You rent a cabin in the woods, on a lake, and you look at the books moldering on the shelves and you see the names of authors you've long forgotten and authors you never knew existed. Migod, what a fate, to end up on the shelves of a summer rental cottage. If that's one of the possibilities, you would just rather not think at all about the future of your books.


Also by E.L. Doctorow

Welcome to Hard Times (1960)
Big as Life (1966)
The Book of Daniel (1971)
Ragtime (1975)
Drinks Before Dinner - a play (1978)
Loon Lake (1980)
Lives of the Poets: Six Stories and a Novella (1984)
World's Fair (1985)
Billy Bathgate (1989)
Jack London, Hemingway and the Constitution - essays (1993)
The Waterworks (1994)
City of God (2000)


This Study Guide for World's Fair was prepared especially for Windows on the Writing Life Reading Circle members by The National Book Foundation, sponsor of The National Book Awards for Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry and Young People's Literature.

Windows on the Writing Life was made possible by a major grant to The National Book Foundation from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, which seeks to enhance the cultural life of communities and make the arts and culture an active part of everyday lives through support of programs in the performing, visual, literary and folk arts, adult literacy, and urban parks.

This Study Guide is made possible by Book-of-the-Month Club, a longtime supporter of Windows on the Writing Life and other educational initiatives sponsored by The National Book Foundation.

> Interview with E.L. Doctorow (part 1 of 2)