An Interview with E. L. Doctorow

Kate Brody and Dana Isokawa, Issue 34

 In discussing his fiction with us, E. L. Doctorow encapsulated his philosophy: “Writing is not a matter of inventing; it’s a matter of discovering.” Throughout his prolific career—he has written twelve novels over fiftyfour years—Doctorow has relentlessly pursued such discovery, with novels that explore subjects ranging from the Bronx to Harry Houdini to the Civil War. His latest book, Andrew’s Brain (Random House, 2014), is another new journey. The novel, about a cognitive scientist addressing the losses of his life, pushes the reader into a baffling and poignant series of questions about the novel, the mind, and the mind in the novel. It is both emblematic of the author’s style and completely original, set apart in tone and format from Doctorow’s previous works. He is, in that way, one of the most generous writers working today. Both consistent and surprising, Doctorow re-imagines his fiction to provide fresh, relevant texts for a loyal readership.

 Among many awards, E. L. Doctorow has received three National Book Critics Circle Awards, the National Book Award, two PEN/Faulkner awards, and the National Book Foundation’s 2013 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He is a longtime popular professor in the Creative Writing Program at NYU and he graciously agreed to speak with Washington Square. He met with us on a winter afternoon in his office at the NYU Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House in Greenwich Village.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: How do you feel your writing or your approach to writing has changed since the publication of your first book in 1960?

E. L. DOCTOROW: My first novel happened because I was working as a reader for a film company. My job was to read books, usually in galleys, to see if they were viable film material. As the junior reader in this company I was relegated to reading Westerns, a genre popular at the time. So it was as a means of maintaining my sanity that I would of course sit down and write a parody of the genre. But the more I wrote, the more I was taken with the idea of composing something serious. I wrote about a bleak Western town on treeless land. The inhabitants named it Hard Times, having found the mythological promise of the West not forthcoming as they scratched out a living and tried to fend off lawless wandering sociopaths. They put out a banner over the town’s one street: Welcome to Hard Times. And that became my title. So to answer your question: it was the circumstance of having that job that led to the writing of the novel. And thereafter it would always be in the nature of this kind of unplanned circumstance that would get me going—I would be transfixed by a photograph, or hear a conversation, or even respond to a piece of music. So in that sense my approach hasn’t changed since that first book. I am in a receptive state of mind, and something evocative happens.

But the lesson in that for a young writer might be to find a genre that he or she recognizes as a possibility for serious work. Editors and publishers are comfortable with genres; they are not frightened by them.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Do you wish you had known anything that you now know when you started the first book?

DOCTOROW: Of course, the first book didn’t teach me anything about writing while I was writing it. Only subsequently, on reflection, did I realize what my strengths were. I was not a realist; I was not interested in reportage. I seemed to like to focus things through the prism of my imagination and cure up life, instead of just setting it down in its observable terms. And I suppose I was influenced by Hawthorne, who wrote exactly from that idea, and often about the past. I was very impressed reading him as an undergraduate. He wrote to cure up the life he was describing so that it had some sort of metaphorical, or even allegorical, heft to it. 

Most of the books have since germinated from an image or something, even a phrase, that I might hear in the street, or even a piece of music, and I wonder why it’s so evocative. Billy Bathgate developed from an image of men in formal evening clothes standing on the deck of a tugboat at night. I didn’t know what they were doing there, and wondered who would be likely to be watching them? I thought it would be a boy. This was Billy, who turned out to be the main character in the book Billy Bathgate. And just as the tugboat leaves the dock, he jumps aboard and his dangerous adventure begins.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Is the image usually the jumping off point for the novel?

DOCTOROW: Well there are exceptions. For instance, with The Book Of Daniel, which is about a political case that was in the headlines in the 1950s. In this instance it was just a risen memory of that case many years later. This couple had been convicted of conspiring to give the secrets of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. And they were executed. It seemed to me to be more a story about the state of our country at the time. I thought of the couple’s children, and then I wrote The Book of Daniel from their point of view. So it wasn’t an image that began the book, it was a question—during the Cold War in the 1950s, with the country in such a hysterical state, what did it mean to children that the antagonism of an entire nation was directed at their family?

WASHINGTON SQUARE: A lot of your work comes out of, or relies on its historical context in some way, Andrew’s Brain included. As with The Book of Daniel, is the historical context always something that is at the genesis of the book, too? Or is it all driven by the character or image?

DOCTOROW: It could be everything together. I wrote Ragtime because I happened to be living in a house built in 1902. But the term “historical context”—what does it mean? If you think about it, all novels, all stories, are set in the past. Some are narrowly focused, whether they be personalist, autobiographical, or about family relationships, while others have a wider focus and bring in national events, such as wartimes, and well known people. But what’s the ontological difference? There is none. So I take exception to the term “historical novelist” which is what some people like to call me. When people put labels on you, they’re trying to tame you, make it easier for themselves. So you’ve got to resist that. You must always resist how others label you. As it happens, my books are set all over the country, some in the West, some down South, or up in the Adirondacks, or in New York City, so it would make just as much sense to call me a geographical novelist.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: What do you find hardest about writing, and what do you find most enjoyable about it?

DOCTOROW: What’s best is well beyond enjoyment—when you’re so transported by what you’re doing, that you’re not aware of the passage of time. That you’re out of your self and living in the sentences. What’s hardest is finding out the next morning the page that you thought was so good is not so good. Because writing is hard. Thomas Mann, a great German writer of the early 20th century, defined a writer as “a person who finds writing difficult.” And that’s true. You do have to learn about yourself while you’re writing, and your characteristic ways of self-sabotage. You have to learn to admit when something is not working as it should. The signs are very small and you’ve got to have the courage to recognize them.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Related to that, when you were writing Andrew’s Brain, did you ever find yourself getting stuck? And how did you work through it, if you did?

DOCTOROW: There are a couple places in Andrew’s Brain that gave me a bit of a problem. I had to realize what I was doing formally in that book, which was abandoning most of the conventions of formulaic fiction. It took me a while to recognize the rules I was breaking. For instance, the distinction between the real and the imagined. In this book, no distinction is made.

Andrew is beyond the realm of unreliable narrators—you don’t know what is true, and maybe he doesn’t either.

And time goes back on itself, the story not entirely linear. Andrew is obsessed with images or situations to which he returns again and again. Circus imagery, for instance. Or his uneasy relationship with Mark Twain. Or his attention to the opera Boris Gudonov. Or his preoccupation with his own brain. He’s a cognitive scientist; he doesn’t trust his own thinking. So there’s dissociation there. I had to realize this book was the investigation of a brain at work, with all the miseries, memories, dreams, delusions, and selfexaminations that make up consciousness. And that meant linking ideas and images that had no necessary connection.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: So much of the information in the book is either revealed slowly over time to the reader, or not at all. There’s kind of an expectation that you’re going to get information about where Andrew is, but you never do. Is there a point in writing the book where you know where you’re going, or is everything happening for you the way it’s happening for the reader, and you’re making these realizations as they happen?

DOCTOROW: The second. The way you just mentioned is the way. In fact, it works even on a single line. As soon as you write it down, you’re the instant reader of that line. Sometimes if it’s a funny line, you start laughing.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: When you started writing Andrew’s Brain, did you know that it would be set in the time period around 9/11, or did that develop as you started writing?

DOCTOROW: That developed. That opening scene is one of the last in terms of time. At that point, Andrew’s young wife Briony has died, and Andrew has their baby and he’s bringing it back to his first wife, Martha. So we go through the whole book and 9/11 and there he is at that door, which is the first scene. But I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that Briony had died that way. I knew that she was gone. And then of course there’s a whole love story that takes place, even though you know, as a reader, that she is no longer alive. And you say, this is going to be 9/11, that’s what the book is telling me. So in a sense writing is not a matter of inventing, it’s a matter of discovering.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: You mentioned writing The Book of Daniel out of a sense of anger towards the political climate at the time, and this book, Andrew’s Brain, is close to, though not quite on the heels of, post-9/11. Do you feel like you need a certain distance to digest cultural events, or is writing about them a way of figuring out your feelings towards these things and making sense of them in fiction?

DOCTOROW: You need the distance, at least I do. In this case, well, I didn’t know that Andrew would end up doing a handstand in the Oval Office. Andrew says of himself, that he knows what the social context is. It goes all the way out to the stars. Because he’s a scientist, and he connects everything from politics to existential mysteries. How does my brain produce me, and my thoughts, and feelings, and my whole conscious life? He struggles with that. That is a very current philosophical-scientific problem. Once everyone started to deny Cartesian dualism and the idea of the soul, the question became: all right, how then does the physical brain produce the mind? So far no one has been able to figure that out.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: In the novel, there’s this third person Doc who Andrew narrates to, and who we don’t hear from much, but who responds here and there. Doc seems to almost move the plot along and clarify things. It occurred to me that Doc might be a stand-in for you as the author, as some of his work does feel authorial, and Doc is the first three letters of your last name. I was wondering if that was intentional or not?

DOCTOROW: I've not heard that before, that’s pretty good! But its yours. One man said to me, “What do you think of this: Doc is a ventriloquist and Andrew is his dummy.” And I said, “That’s not bad! Hold to it!”

WASHINGTON SQUARE: In the book Andrew is, as you said, obsessed with Mark Twain. Twain recurs through the book—what drew you to Mark Twain, or why did you incorporate him in this book?

DOCTOROW: I found that Andrew was thinking about Mark Twain, and I wondered why. Perhaps because most people think of Mark Twain as the one writer who is like the carrier of our national identity. That wouldn’t work with Melville. And it wouldn’t work with Theodore Dreiser. But somehow Twain is a writer figure whom we all need for that sense of what it means to be American, to write in the vernacular, to not be fancy, to explain children to adults and adults to children, which is what he does in Tom Sawyer. So in the sense that Andrew's Brain is a national novel, he is the writer who belongs in it.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Some of your contemporaries who have had similarly successful prolific careers have announced their retirement lately, like Alice Munro and Philip Roth. It gets me thinking how differently people view writing, whether it’s a job you can retire from, or whether it’s something that you feel is just part of your life at this point.

DOCTOROW: I’ve never thought about retiring. Most writers die before they retire—Hemingway and Faulkner were incredibly self-destructive. Phil Roth says he’s retired; I don’t quite believe that. Alice Munro might be telling the truth, as she is not well and has said that she doesn’t know if she has the strength anymore, or the ideas. But that, too, may change. Writing fiction is not something you can retire from, really. It’s not a profession, it’s not a career. It’s a calling.