Interviews

E. L. Doctorow, The Art of Fiction No. 94

Interviewed by George Plimpton

This interview on the craft of writing with E. L. Doctorow is one of the first in this series conducted in public—which it was, under the auspices of The Poetry Center, in the main auditorium of New York City’s famed cultural spa, the 92nd Street YMHA. An audience of about five hundred was on hand. After a short introduction, Doctorow and his interviewer came out and sat facing each other in two chairs at center stage. The audience was invited to ask questions at the end of the formal interview. Actually, the first question from the floor suggested that the public forum might not be the best place for such an interview. A befuddled lady in the fifth row asked, “What made you write about the firestorm in Dresden?” With the patience of one who has taught at a number of institutions (Sarah Lawrence, Princeton, Yale Drama School, and New York University, among others), Doctorow politely informed his questioner that she probably had Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five in mind, and that the Dresden firestorm had been done “so beautifully” there was little reason for anyone else to try. After the flurry caused by this exchange had died down, the questions from the audience were more germane. They are included with their answers at the end of this interview.

At first meeting, Doctorow gives the impression of being somewhat retiring in manner. Yet, though his voice is soft, it is distinctive and demands attention. His expression is perhaps quizzical (described by The New York Times as “elfin”), yet it is instantly apparent that a great deal of thought has been put into what he is about to say. The fact that a large audience was listening during the interview seemed not to discomfit him in the slightest.

 

INTERVIEWER

You once told me that the most difficult thing for a writer to write was a simple household note to someone coming to collect the laundry, or instructions to a cook.

E. L. DOCTOROW

What I was thinking of was a note I had to write to the teacher when one of my children missed a day of school. It was my daughter, Caroline, who was then in the second or third grade. I was having my breakfast one morning when she appeared with her lunch box, her rain slicker, and everything, and she said, “I need an absence note for the teacher and the bus is coming in a few minutes.” She gave me a pad and a pencil; even as a child she was very thoughtful. So I wrote down the date and I started, Dear Mrs. So-and-so, my daughter Caroline . . . and then I thought, No, that’s not right, obviously it’s my daughter Caroline. I tore that sheet off, and started again. Yesterday, my child . . . No, that wasn’t right either. Too much like a deposition. This went on until I heard a horn blowing outside. The child was in a state of panic. There was a pile of crumpled pages on the floor, and my wife was saying, “I can’t believe this. I can’t believe this.” She took the pad and pencil and dashed something off. I had been trying to write the perfect absence note. It was a very illuminating experience. Writing is immensely difficult. The short forms especially.

INTERVIEWER

How much tinkering do you actually do when you get down to nonhousehold work—a novel, say?

DOCTOROW

I don’t think anything I’ve written has been done in under six or eight drafts. Usually it takes me a few years to write a book. World’s Fair was an exception. It seemed to be a particularly fluent book as it came. I did it in seven months. I think what happened in that case is that God gave me a bonus book.

INTERVIEWER

Did you feel as though He were speaking to you as you wrote things down?

DOCTOROW

No, no. I imagine He just decided, Well, this one’s been paying his dues, so let’s give him a bonus book. But Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks. Stendhal wrote Charterhouse of Parma in twelve days. That’s proof God spoke to them—if proof is needed. Twelve days! If it wasn’t God it was crass exhibitionism.

INTERVIEWER

In World’s Fair you make a very interesting shift: writing from the points of view of Rose and Donald and Aunt Frances and then the protagonist. So you have several voices, really. Is it difficult to shift from one to the other?

DOCTOROW

In the past few years I’ve been interested in the work of the so-called oral historians. The statements people make about their own lives to oral historians have a certain form that I think I have figured out. Now the basic convention of World’s Fair is that it is memoir: that is what it pretends to be in the voice of the protagonist. My idea was to lend that voice verisimilitude by dropping in some oral-historic statements by other members of the family. I composed these to read as if they were spoken into a tape recorder. You always try to find ways to break down the distinction between fiction and actuality. Another advantage of those voiced intrusions is to provide a kind of beat or a caesura in the ongoing narrative; I thought that was a good thing to do.

INTERVIEWER

So there is an ongoing change and shift in the forms of voice.

DOCTOROW

To me the more interesting change has to do with the voice of the major narrator, the protagonist, Edgar, who as he recalls more and more of his childhood, as he passes from infancy to youth, takes on the voice of an articulate child. The diction changes, the tone changes, as if Edgar is gradually possessed by his memory. So there’s a kind of two-voiced effect, I think, the man recalling, but in the boy’s higher pitch. I really like that. I didn’t know I was going to do that.

INTERVIEWER

You didn’t? Well, how calculated is all this?

DOCTOROW

Do you mind if I loosen my tie?

INTERVIEWER

Allowable.

DOCTOROW

It’s not calculated at all. It never has been. One of the things I had to learn as a writer was to trust the act of writing. To put myself in the position of writing to find out what I was writing. I did that with World’s Fair, as with all of them. The inventions of the book come as discoveries. At a certain point, of course, you figure out what your premises are and what you’re doing. But certainly, with the beginnings of the work, you really don’t know what’s going to happen.

INTERVIEWER

What comes first? Is it a character? You say a premise. What does that mean? Is it a theme?

DOCTOROW

Well, it can be anything. It can be a voice, an image; it can be a deep moment of personal desperation. For instance, with Ragtime I was so desperate to write something, I was facing the wall of my study in my house in New Rochelle and so I started to write about the wall. That’s the kind of day we sometimes have, as writers. Then I wrote about the house that was attached to the wall. It was built in 1906, you see, so I thought about the era and what Broadview Avenue looked like then: trolley cars ran along the avenue down at the bottom of the hill; people wore white clothes in the summer to stay cool. Teddy Roosevelt was President. One thing led to another and that’s the way that book began: through desperation to those few images. With Loon Lake, in contrast, it was just a very strong sense of place, a heightened emotion when I found myself in the Adirondacks after many, many years of being away . . . and all this came to a point when I saw a sign, a road sign: Loon Lake. So it can be anything.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any idea how a project is going to end?

DOCTOROW

Not at that point, no. It’s not a terribly rational way to work. It’s hard to explain. I have found one explanation that seems to satisfy people. I tell them it’s like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

INTERVIEWER

How many times do you come to a dead end?

DOCTOROW

Well if it’s a dead end, there’s no book. That happens too. You start again. But if you’re truly underway you may wander into culverts, through fences into fields, and so on. When you’re off the road you don’t always know it immediately. If you feel a bump on page one hundred, it may be you went off on page fifty. So you have to trace your way back, you see. It sounds like a hazardous way of working—and it is—but there is one terrific advantage to it: Each book tends to have its own identity rather than the author’s. It speaks from itself rather than you. Each book is unlike the others because you are not bringing the same voice to every book. I think that keeps you alive as a writer. I’ve just read the latest Ernest Hemingway publication, The Garden of Eden—it’s actually a fragment of a work he never completed—and in this as in the others he spoke with the Hemingway voice. He applied the same strategies to every book, strategies as it happens that he came upon and invented quite early on in his career. They were his triumph in the early days. But by the last decade or two of his working life they trapped him, restricted him, and defeated him. He was always Hemingway writing, you see. Of course at his best that wasn’t such a bad thing, was it? But if we’re speaking of entry to the larger mind, his was not the way to find it.

INTERVIEWER

Does that change you at all? The voice, for example, in Loon Lake is very different from the voice in Ragtime. Do you change as a character yourself?

DOCTOROW

Well, you do participate, I suppose, as an actor does in a role. As the roles change, the actor’s voice and deportment, his physique, even his makeup, everything changes.

INTERVIEWER

But sitting around the house you don’t behave like Joe of Paterson, for example, the hobo in Loon Lake.

DOCTOROW

Well, how do you know?

INTERVIEWER

I don’t know!

DOCTOROW

Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia. You can get away with an awful lot. One of my children once said—it was a terrible truth, too, and, of course, it had to be a young child who said this—“Dad is always hiding in his book.”

INTERVIEWER

But aren’t you very evident in your books? I mean, Lives of the Poets, who is that?

DOCTOROW

I don’t know. It’s somebody who might be me. Or part of me. Certainly in the past two books, I’ve used my own memory as a resource. But that does not mean I’ve written autobiographically. I recognize Jonathan, the narrator of Lives of the Poets, as a character, but he is not me. Not the fellow I see in the mirror. In World’s Fair I gave the young hero my name, Edgar, but I don’t think he’s me either. You use found materials as you use anything else from your own life. Books are acts of composition: you compose them. You make music: the music is called fiction.

INTERVIEWER

Is that to suggest that Ragtime, for example, with all those extraordinary historical reminiscences and facts, is in fact stretched truth? 

DOCTOROW

Oh no, not stretched: the appropriate word is discovered or revealed. Everything in that book is absolutely true.

INTERVIEWER

Where did you ever find out, for example, that Theodore Dreiser, after Sister Carrie was published, was so upset that he rented a room and spent a great deal of time realigning a chair? That’s an extraordinary detail.

DOCTOROW

I know a lot about the sufferings of writers. It’s a subject that interests me. Dreiser wrote this magnificent novel. It was published in 1900; it was then and is still the best first novel ever written by an American. It’s an amazing work. He found a voice, speaking of voice, for that book of the wise septuagenarian. I don’t know how he found it—he was twenty-eight when he began writing. Nevertheless, it is the voice of a world-weary man who has seen it all. The book was a magnificent achievement but the publisher, Doubleday, didn’t like it, they were afraid of it. So they buried it. And naturally it did nothing; I think it sold four copies. I would go crazy too in that situation. Dreiser rented a furnished room in Brooklyn. He put a chair in the middle of this room and sat in it. The chair didn’t seem to be in the right position so he turned it a few degrees, and he sat in it again. Still it was not right. He kept turning the chair around and around, trying to align it to what—trying to correct his own relation to the universe? He never could do it, so he kept going around in circles and circles. He did that for quite a while, and ended up in a sanitarium in Westchester, in White Plains. But the trip to the sanitarium didn’t interest me. Only the man turning the chair. So that’s where Dreiser is in Ragtime, in that room, trying forever to align himself.

INTERVIEWER

For describing J. P. Morgan, for an example, did you spend a great deal of time in libraries?

DOCTOROW

The main research for Morgan was looking at the great photograph of him by Edward Steichen.

INTERVIEWER

That’s all?

DOCTOROW

Well, I needed the names of the various companies he took over, railroads and so on, so I suppose I must have looked that up. But my research is idiosyncratic. Very often in Ragtime it involved finding a responsible source for the lie I was about to create, and discovering that it was not a lie, which is to say someone else had thought of it first.

INTERVIEWER

Isn’t there an enormous temptation as a fiction writer to take scenes out of history, since you do rely on that so much, and fiddle with them just a little bit?

DOCTOROW

Well, it’s nothing new, you know. I myself like the way Shakespeare fiddles with history; and Tolstoy. In this country we tend to be naive about history. We think it’s Newton’s perfect mechanical universe, out there predictably for everyone to see and set their watches by. But it’s more like curved space, and infinitely compressible and expandable time. It’s constant subatomic chaos. When President Reagan says the Nazi SS were as much victims as the Jews they murdered—wouldn’t you call that fiddling? Or the Japanese educators who’ve been rewriting their textbooks to eliminate the embarrassing facts of their invasion of China, the atrocities they committed in Manchuria in 1937? Orwell told us about this. History is a battlefield. It’s constantly being fought over because the past controls the present. History is the present. That’s why every generation writes it anew. But what most people think of as history is its end product, myth. So to be irreverent to myth, to play with it, let in some light and air, to try to combust it back into history, is to risk being seen as someone who distorts truth. I meant it when I said everything in Ragtime is true. It is as true as I could make it. I think my vision of J. P. Morgan, for instance, is more accurate to the soul of that man than his authorized biography . . . Actually, if you want a confession, Morgan never existed. Morgan, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit: all of them are made up. The historical characters in the book are Mother, Father, Tateh, The Little Boy, The Little Girl.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a reader in mind as you write?

DOCTOROW

No, it’s just a matter of being in language, of living in the sentences. With The Book of Daniel, for example, I obviously had an idea I thought I could do something with. But beyond that I couldn’t have had any reader in mind, because I didn’t even know what I was doing for the first several months. In fact, with Daniel I wrote a hundred and fifty pages and threw them away because they were so bad. The realization that I was doing a really bad book created the desperation that allowed me to find its true voice. I sat down rather recklessly and started to type something almost in mockery of my pretensions as a writer—and it turned out to be the first page of The Book of Daniel. What I had figured out in that tormented way was that Daniel should write the book, not me. Once I had his voice I was able to go on. That’s the kind of struggle writing is. There’s no room for a reader in your mind: you don’t think of anything but the language you’re in. Your mind is the language of the book.

INTERVIEWER

When did you come by this? When did you get into the language, as you put it. At college? You speak of Kenyon as a place where people think about writing the way they think about football at Ohio State.

DOCTOROW

What I actually said was that Kenyon was a place where we did literary criticism the way they played football at Ohio State. We did textual criticism. I studied poetry with John Crowe Ransom. I could write twenty-page papers on an eight-line lyric of Wordsworth. Of course it was invaluable training. You learned the powers of precision in the English language. The effect, for instance, of juxtaposing Latinate and Anglo-Saxon words. But criticism is a different conduct of the brain. That kind of analytical action of the mind is not the way you work when you write. You bring things together, you synthesize, you connect things that have had no previous connection when you write. So, all in all, as valuable as my training was, it took me through language in the wrong direction. It cost me a few years of writing time to recover my ignorance, the way I felt about writing as a child. I really started to think of myself as a writer when I was about nine.

INTERVIEWER

At nine? How did this feeling manifest itself?

DOCTOROW

Whenever I read anything I seemed to identify as much with the act of composition as with the story. I seemed to have two minds: I would love the story and want to know what happened next, but at the same time I would somehow be aware of what was being done on the page. I identified myself as a kind of younger brother of the writer. I was on hand to help him figure things out. So you see I didn’t actually have to write a thing because the act of reading was my writing. I thought of myself as a writer for years before I got around to writing anything. It’s not a bad way to begin. It’s to blur that distinction between reader and writer. If you think about it, any book that you pick up as a reader, if it’s good, is a printed circuit for your own life to flow through—so when you read a book you are engaged in the events of the mind of the writer. You are bringing your creative faculties into sync. You’re imagining the words, the sounds of the words, and you’re thinking of the various characters in terms of people you’ve known—not in terms of the writer’s experience but your own. So it’s very hard to make any distinction between reader and writer at this ontological level. As a child I somehow drifted into this region where you are both reader and writer: I declared to myself that I was the writer. I wrote a lot of good books. I wrote Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini. That was one of my better efforts.

INTERVIEWER

It’s amazing how many people have been affected by Captain Blood—Norman Mailer talks at length about it.

DOCTOROW

Does he really? I’m flattered. Did he ever read Smoky by Will James? That was one of my best.

INTERVIEWER

Does this twin-barreled construction mean that you are constantly an observer? That is, do you spend your day noticing things and saying to yourself, Ah, that will work in a book?

DOCTOROW

No, not at all. I don’t think of myself as an observer. I feel things and have to work back from my feelings, my intuitions, to what must have caused them. I’m like most people: I don’t usually understand what’s happening to me while it’s happening. I have to reconstruct it later, like a detective.

INTERVIEWER

But I mean if you went to a dinner party one night and there was an extraordinary argument between a husband and wife, would that not be something you would store away?

DOCTOROW

Well, I might store it away. Of course, I might have walked out of the room first. You do see things. But I’m trying to say you can’t turn around and move too quickly on them. As a matter of fact, anything that you want to use too quickly is suspect. You need time. I had heard a story, for instance, that a housekeeper in a suburb in New Jersey had secretly had a child and abandoned the child in the garden of another home in the neighborhood—swaddled the newborn infant and buried it in the garden bed. The child was discovered alive and the woman was found out—a very sad story. Well, about twenty years after I heard it I gave it to Sarah to do in Ragtime, a novel set in the 1900s in New Rochelle. That’s the way it works. You collect all these things without knowing really what if anything you’re going to do with them—old rags and scraps.

INTERVIEWER

How much experience do you think a writer should have? Would you ever suggest journalism, for example, as a career to begin with? Or send a writer to a war, or whatever.

DOCTOROW

You seem to think the writer has a choice—whether to work here or there or run off to a war. Maybe it’s an American middle-class question, because in most places writers don’t have a choice. If they grow up in the barrio, or get sent to the gulag, their experience is given to them whether they want it or not. Even here we respond to what’s given: I seem to be of a generation that has somehow missed the crucial collective experiences of our time. I was too young to understand the depression or fight in World War II. But I was past draft age for Vietnam. I’ve always been a loner. Perhaps for that reason I subscribe to what Henry James tries to indicate when he gives that wonderful example of a young woman who has led a sheltered life walking along beside an army barracks and hearing a snatch of soldier’s conversation coming through the window. On the basis of that, said James, if she’s a novelist she’s capable of going home and writing a perfectly accurate novel about army life. I’ve always subscribed to that idea. We’re supposed to be able to get into other skins. We’re supposed to be able to render experiences not our own and warrant times and places we haven’t seen. That’s one justification for art, isn’t it: to distribute the suffering? Writing teachers invariably tell students, Write about what you know. That’s, of course, what you have to do, but on the other hand, how do you know what you know until you’ve written it? Writing is knowing. What did Kafka know? The insurance business? So that kind of advice is foolish, because it presumes that you have to go out to a war to be able to do war. Well, some do and some don’t. I’ve had very little experience in my life. In fact, I try to avoid experience if I can. Most experience is bad.

INTERVIEWER

Could you describe the genesis of Loon Lake? A poem runs through the book.

DOCTOROW

What you call the poem was the very first writing I did on that book. I never thought of it as a poem, I thought of it as lines that just didn’t happen to go all the way across the page. I broke the lines according to the rhythm in which they could be read aloud. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was writing something to be read aloud—I think because I liked the sound of the two words together—loon lake. I had these opening images of a private railroad train on a single track at night going up through the Adirondacks with a bunch of gangsters on board, and a beautiful girl standing, naked, holding a white dress up in front of a mirror to see if she should put it on. I didn’t know where these gangsters came from. I knew where they were going—to this rich man’s camp. Many years ago the very wealthy discovered the wilderness in the American eastern mountains. They built these extraordinary camps—C. W. Post, Harriman, Morgan—they made the wilderness their personal luxury. So I imagined a camp like this, with these gangsters, these low-down people going up there on a private railroad train. That’s what got me started. I published this material in the Kenyon Review, but I wasn’t through. I kept thinking about the images and wondering where they’d come from. The time was in the 1930s, really the last era a man would have had his own railroad car, as some people today have their own jetliners. There was a depression then, so the person to see this amazing train was obviously a hobo, a tramp. So then I had my character, Joe, out there in this chill, this darkness, seeing the headlamp of the engine coming round the bend and blinding him, and then as the train goes by seeing these people at green baize tables being served drinks and this girl standing in a bedroom compartment holding the dress. And at dawn he follows the track in the direction the train has gone. And he’s off and running and so am I.

INTERVIEWER

Given this method of yours, how do you know when to stop?

DOCTOROW

As the book goes on it becomes inevitable. Your choices narrow, the thing picks up speed. And there’s the exhilaration of a free ride—like a downhill ski run. You know before you get there what the last scene is. Sometimes what the last line is. But even if none of that happens, even if you find yourself at the end before you expected to, a kind of joy breaks over you, spills out of your eyes. And you realize you’ve finished. And then you want to be sure, you see. You need confirmation. You ask somebody you love to read it and see if it works. I remember when I finished The Book of Daniel. We were living in a house on the beach in southern California. One of those houses with sliding glass doors for windows. I asked my wife if she would read the manuscript. She said she would be pleased to. And I left her sitting and reading with the sun coming through those big windows, and I went for a walk on the beach. It was a Sunday and the beach was crowded; they really use their beaches in California, every inch of them. Back toward the road were the volleyball players and the kite flyers. Boys throwing footballs or frisbees. Then the sunbathers, the children with their sandpails, the families. Then the runners splashing along at the edge of the surf. Or the people looking for little shells in the tide pools in the rocks. Then the swimmers. Beyond them the surfers in their wet suits waiting on their boards. Further out snorkelers’ flags bobbing in the water. Out past the buoys the water skiers tearing along. Or rising into the air in their parachutes. And beyond that sailboats, flotillas of them, to the horizon. And all in this light. It was like a Brueghel, a southern Californian Brueghel. I walked for several hours and thought about my book, and worried in my mind—in that California light worrying about this dark book, very much a New York City book. Was it done? Was it any good? And I came back to the house in the late afternoon, the house in shadows now, and there was Helen sitting in the same chair and the manuscript was all piled upside down on the table and she couldn’t speak; she was crying, there were these enormous tears running down her cheeks, and it was the most incredible moment—never before had I known such happiness.

INTERVIEWER

How much confidence do you have when you finish? I would guess a wife’s tears would help.

DOCTOROW

Well, at that point you’ve made an extraordinary investment of time and emotion, and you’re just grateful to be there. Then the rest of the world rushes in, everything you’ve been holding off: your mind becomes ordinary. You worry if anyone’s going to buy the book; if your publisher is going to publish it properly; you fret about the jacket, the typography, and the copyright, that it be correctly drawn; you worry about everything. But no matter what kind of reaction the book receives, whether people like the book or don’t like it, nothing comes up to the experience of writing the book. That’s what drives you back.

INTERVIEWER

How much time a day do you spend on this pleasure?

DOCTOROW

I would say I’m at work six hours a day, although the actual writing might take fifteen minutes or an hour, or three hours. You never know what kind of a day it’s going to be; you just want to do whatever you set out to do. I type single space, to get as much of the landscape of the book as possible on one page. So if I do a single-space page with small margins, that’s about six-hundred words. If I do one page I’m very happy; that’s my day’s work. If I do two, that’s extraordinary. But there’s always a danger to doing two, which is you can’t come up with anything the next day.

INTERVIEWER

What are the destroyers of this pleasure? Not for you, necessarily, but for writers? I remember we had a dinner once with John Irving and we started talking about how alcohol had diminished so many American writers.

DOCTOROW

A writer’s life is so hazardous that anything he does is bad for him. Anything that happens to him is bad: failure’s bad, success is bad; impoverishment is bad, money is very, very bad. Nothing good can happen.

INTERVIEWER

Except the act of writing itself.

DOCTOROW

Except the act of writing. So if he shoots birds and animals and anything else he can find, you’ve got to give him that. And if he/she drinks, you give him/her that too, unless the work is affected. For all of us, there’s an intimate connection between the struggle to write and the ability to survive on a daily basis as a human being. So we have a high rate of self-destruction. Do we mean to punish ourselves for writing? For the transgression? I don’t know.

INTERVIEWER

But this is not applicable in your own case, obviously.

DOCTOROW

Well, time will tell. I have a few vices, but one of them is moderation.

INTERVIEWER

Do you enjoy the company of other writers?

DOCTOROW

Yes, when they’re my friends.

INTERVIEWER

Does anybody see anything you’ve written until it’s finished?

DOCTOROW

Usually nobody sees anything until at least a draft is done. Sometimes I will read from it in public just to see how it sounds. To get a feeling back from the audience. But I tend to clutch it to myself as long as possible.

INTERVIEWER

You were an editor for a long time, weren’t you? What is the relationship between that and the craft of writing?

DOCTOROW

Editing taught me how to break books down and put them back together. You learn values—the value of tension, of keeping tension on the page and how that’s done, and you learn how to spot self-indulgence, how you don’t need it. You learn how to become very free and easy about moving things around, which a reader would never do. A reader sees a printed book and that’s it. But when you see a manuscript as an editor, you say, Well this is chapter twenty, but it should be chapter three. You’re at ease in the book the way a surgeon is at ease in a human chest, with all the blood and the guts and everything. You’re familiar with the material and you can toss it around and say dirty things to the nurse.

INTERVIEWER

Do you accept advice ever?

DOCTOROW

No, none.

INTERVIEWER

Well, on that decisive note perhaps some of you in the audience have some questions to put to Mr. Doctorow.

AUDIENCE [gentleman wearing dark glasses]

What responsibilities do you think writers or artists should have to those who can’t be heard—like Andrei Sakharov? Do you consider yourself to be someone who should be speaking out?

DOCTOROW

Well, yes. Modernism made us think of writing as an act of ultimate individualism. But, in fact, every writer speaks for a community. If you read Mark Twain, for instance, you know that there’s a whole people behind that voice. I don’t mean necessarily ethnically or geographically, but as a writer you get that feeling once you get going that you’re not just speaking for yourself. You remember the way people waited at New York docks for the ship bringing in the latest Dickens installment? They called up to the crew, “Is little Nell dead?” Or how when Victor Hugo died all of France went into mourning. That’s what I mean. There’s a profound relationship. The writer isn’t made in a vacuum. Writers are witnesses. The reason we need writers is because we need witnesses to this terrifying century. Novelists have always written about intimacies, about personal relationships. Since in the twentieth century one of the most personal relationships to have developed is that of the person and the state, we have to write about it, and some of us have. It’s become a fact of life that governments have become very intimate with people, most always to their detriment.

AUDIENCE [a young student]

Do you see a danger in the proliferation of creative writing graduate programs around the country?

DOCTOROW

Are you a writing student?

AUDIENCE [the same student]

Actually, I’m trying to decide whether or not to become one . . .

DOCTOROW

Well, there is a danger. Since World War II the university has become the great patron of writers. Originally the poets worked out this scheme for staying alive. Robert Frost was drawing big audiences for his readings. Dylan Thomas came and read from this very stage at the 92nd Street Y. Suddenly there was this whole new possibility: it was like the poet’s equivalent of the invention of the computer chip. Poets got university jobs teaching poetry. Then they invited other poets to come and read. A network sprang up. Writing programs came into being. The poets built up this alternate communication system of poetry. We novelists never paid much attention. Poets are much better friends to each other than we are. We are always relating to our publishers. So we came to this kind of late. Nevertheless we are in it now. There are writing programs all over the country. The great danger is that you are creating and training not just writers but teachers of writing. In other words, someone goes into a graduate writing program, gets an MFA in writing, and immediately gets a job on another campus teaching other young people to get their MFA’s in writing. So you have this whole other thing—teachers of writing begetting teachers of writing, and that’s bad. On one hand you see the results of that, generally speaking, which is that the writing of young people today is much more technically assured than it’s ever been. You’ll see what I mean if you read Faulkner’s first novel. It’s a terrible, clumsy book. Most first novelists who come out of university training are craftier than he was. On the other hand the horizon of the university-trained writers is diminished; the field for their work and attention is generally the bedroom, the living room, the family. The doors are closed, the shades are pulled down, and it’s as if there were no streets outside, and no town, no highway, no society. So that’s the danger. But then you start thinking of all the good writers who have come out of the university writing programs, and how valuable they are and how fortunate we are to have them, and you can’t condemn the system totally. [To the student in the audience.] Why don’t you just consult the I Ching before you make your decision?

AUDIENCE [gentleman in back]

Have you ever consciously set out to develop a style, or have your books been more organic?

DOCTOROW

I don’t want a style. This was something that I was trying to explain earlier, that I want the book to invent itself. I think that the minute a writer knows what his style is, he’s finished. Because then you see your own limits, and you hear your own voice in your head. At that point you might as well close up shop. So I like to think that I don’t have a style, I have books that work themselves out and find their own voice—their voice, not mine. So I’ll have that illusion, I think—I hope—till the very end.

AUDIENCE [same gentleman]

Isn’t it true that there are many writers who have a definite style, like Henry James?

DOCTOROW

Yes! And look at the botch he made of things.

AUDIENCE [lady in sixth row]

How was your experience writing a play different from writing a book? Would you write another?

DOCTOROW

That play happened roughly the way the books happen. I happened to be reading a translation of a speech that Mao Tse-tung made to his troops in the field in 1935. It had an extraordinarily familiar sound. I thought that he wrote just like Gertrude Stein. To test that proposition I went to my copy of Stein’s essays, opened it at random. They both repeated nouns instead of using pronouns. In fact they repeated everything—nothing was ever stated just once. Pieces of the sentences changed during each repetition, and it turned out the unit of sense was not the sentence but the paragraph. So I reasoned that any rhetoric common to the leader of a billion people and Gertrude Stein was worth trying. It turned out, of course, that, as a Sinologist told me, not just Mao’s prose, but all transliteration from the Chinese sounds like Gertrude Stein. Nevertheless, I was on my way. I found myself writing a monologue. The speaker was angry at everything and everybody—a real sorehead. Then I began to hear opposition in the same rhetoric to all his assertions and claims. I wrote these down, and to keep everything straight I started giving the positions in this argument names. The sorehead, I thought it was only fair to give my own name. One thing led to another and these dialogues became a play in which a man pulls a gun at a dinner party; he sort of hijacks the dinner party and then ties up the honored guests, their children, and so on. This is not the way plays are usually written. Nor is it a typical American play. It’s not a domestic biography. It doesn’t have pathos in it. People don’t talk about their childhoods. They take their characters from their ideas. They speak in this ceremonial way. It ran down at the Public Theater for six weeks. I had a wonderful cast. Christopher Plummer was in it, Mike Nichols directed it, and it was terrific. The critics—or what pass for critics in New York theater—hated it. It is now a kind of cult play in university and regional theaters, and I like to see it when I can. All in all it was a wonderful experience, and I hope never to do it again.

AUDIENCE [gentleman waving hand]

What’s the name of it?

DOCTOROW

Drinks Before Dinner is what it’s called.

AUDIENCE [woman in red scarf]

Have you ever had the experience of losing a story because you talked about it to somebody before you’ve written it?

DOCTOROW

Yes. When you’re talking about a story you’re writing it. You’re sending it out into the air, it’s finished, it’s gone.

INTERVIEWER

Is that actually so? You couldn’t tell a story at a dinner party that you thought you could use?

DOCTOROW

Occasionally, you want to show off. The moment’s too good, and you want to impress somebody. So you take one of these secret, private things, and present it to the table. It’s over, it’s done, you’ll never be able to use it. It’s a very reckless thing to do. Maybe you’ve made a decision that you don’t really want it, you don’t really need it. Because there are certain stories that we all have that we never use, that are more valuable to us not being used. But by and large it’s better to restrain yourself.

INTERVIEWER

The discipline must be extraordinary, because so many of the stories are so wonderful, very much the sort that should be told at dinner parties. I’m thinking of the story you have of the robbery on the Long Island Expressway, of the Chevrolet that bumps the Mercedes. It’s in the monologue in Lives of the Poets.

DOCTOROW

But I didn’t tell that story before I wrote it, because if I did I could not have written it.

INTERVIEWER

You must be very poor at dinner parties, holding on to those stories.

DOCTOROW

On the other hand, you never know when I might pull a gun.


Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.