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Off the Page: E.L. Doctorow

With E.L. Doctorow
Award-Winning Author of Ragtime
Thursday, May 20, 2004; 11:00 AM

E.L. Doctorow writes about the American scoundrel. Some are gangsters, as in the novel Billy Bathgate, which won the PEN/Faulkner award. Some are simply suspect magic-makers, such as Houdini in his renowned Ragtime.

You will find more than a few scoundrels in his new book, Sweet Land Stories--innocent in that American way, but scoundrels nonetheless.

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Doctorow was online Thursday, May 20 at 11 a.m. ET to answer questions about his new collection.

The transcript follows.

Host Carole Burns is a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Carole Burns: Hello booklovers and welcome to today's "Off the Page."

E.L. Doctorow is calling in from New York City, ready to answer questions. So we'll get right to it.


Landover, Md.: Mr. Doctorow,
Assuming you agree with the moderator that you write about scoundrels, what is it in their characters that is attractive to you? Do you think the scoundrel character illuminates something particularly American, or just generically human?

Carole Burns: Oh dear, I'm put to the test.

E.L. Doctorow: It's because I'm a law-abiding citizen. Just the occasional traffic ticket is all I'm guilty of.

I don't think of a general scoundrel character. I think in terms of the specific people in my books. Each of them unique and special in my mind. There's nothing generic about them. In SWEET LAND STORIES, while in one of the stories people are particularly murderous, they are that out of a sense of righteousness and normality, that this is the way they live so as to perfect their lives. The other people in the stories seem to be trying to improve their station in life, or find some meaning in themselves, and I think I deal with them and their imperfections with some compassion. If there's any insight to be gained from the scoundrels in the first story, it is that evil is always committed with the sense of self-justification.


Bulgaria: Where is that "sweet land?"
Do you worry or do you have any fears about the impact of your books on the audience?
Kindest regards from Bulgaria

E.L. Doctorow: Right here in the United States of America.

There's a kind of hymn we have, My Country Tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Liberty. Which means, we all have the liberty to make a mess of our lives.


Gaithersburg, Md.: What writers of the past have been your greatest influence; what writers do you currently admire; what writer(s) do you stop and say, "Wow, I wish I could do that!"

E.L. Doctorow: It's a long list of writers from the past who've influenced me. The great 19th century writers in England, Dickens, George Eliot and earlier than that, Fielding, in France Flaubert, Stendahl, in Russia, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, and nothing unusual about this. In America, Hawthorne, Melville, Mark Twain, Dreiser, Scott Fitzgerald.
A book I wish I could have written is Cervantes' Don Quixote.


Louisville, Ky.: I think it's safe to say that the Dos Passos USA trilolgy influenced Ragtime, at the very least. I'm wondering to what extent not just the individual stories here, but the landscape created by their group, has a similar root.

E.L. Doctorow: Add Dos Passos to that life. Dos Passos enlarged the possibilities of the novel for all of us who came after. He did separate his historical passages and his documentary materials from the rest of the fiction, but we brought down that wall.


Langley, Va.: Which of the writers you mentioned: Dickens, George Eliot, Fielding, Flaubert, Stendahl, et al, should be still required reading by thinking men and women today? I guess you know the schools stopped this stuff when I came through about 50 years ago.

What about Proust? Did Virginia Woolfe get it right when she said after Proust, what else is there?

And have you read Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, a book I finished about a month ago?

E.L. Doctorow: Yes, I've read the Last Tycoon.

Did Woolf get it right? No. Among the great 20th century writers she's obviously right up there. The work of hers that impresses me most is MRS. DALLOWAY. That's an extraordinary book. She wanted to write a novel without a subject and render life without a plot, and I think she succeeds. I'm sorry she's been sort of Hollywood-ized.


Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Doctorow,

Most of your stories are centered around urban environments during the early 20th Century. Why do you find this period of time so interesting and how has it affected your work?

E.L. Doctorow: That's not entirely true. It is true that with WELCOME TO HARD TIMES and WATERWORKS were set in the late 19th Century, and RAGTIME takes place in the first decade or two of the 20th century. And then three of the novels BILLY BATHGATE, WORLD's FAIR and LOON LAKE are set in the 1930s. THE BOOK OF DANIEL comes up to the 1960s. CITY OF GOD takes place more or less in the present. And while one of the stories in SWEET LAND STORIES takes place 100 years ago or so, the rest are set in the present day. So that really the books span over a hundred years of life here. This is not a narrow period of time when you look at all the books together.


High Falls, N.Y.: Why do the three children have to die in the fire? And was that the whole purpose of "adopting" them in the first place?
Aunt Dora is wicked mean!

Carole Burns: High Falls -- a.k.a. plot-spoiler, but we'll forgive, because this doesn't ruin the actual ending of the story, which is marvelous--is talking about "A House on the Plains," the first story in Doctorow's new collection.

E.L. Doctorow: I'm as sorry about that as you are.


Plattsburgh, N.Y.: I read Billy Bathgate in part because I was told it had a "local" connection. My understanding was that part of your research was done in Malone, N.Y. Is that true?

E.L. Doctorow: Yes. The stuff about the Dutch Schultz's trial, although I didn't really have to research anything. I just read the newspaper accounts of what went on up there.


Carole Burns: "Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden" is such a Washington story. How did it come about? And will you read it at your PEN/Faulkner reading in D.C. Monday night? (May 24, tickets: 202-544-7077)

E.L. Doctorow: It came about as many of my stories and books do, with an image in my mind that I found evocative without knowing quite what it meant, and so I wrote the story to find out. The image was of a small body wrapped in a white shroud with a little Nike sneaker sticking out of the bottom. And then apparently I realized it was in the Rose Garden. And that's how the story came to be.


Dallas, Tex.: I really enjoyed your short story that was published in the New Yorker a few months ago- the one about the abused red-headed woman and her exploitive relationships with both women and men. I was amazed that a man could write with such knowledge and understanding about such a uniquely female experience.

E.L. Doctorow: Thank you.

Theoretically, I should be able to get into anyone's mind as a professional writer. That's what the game is. Writing about people who are not you, times before you lived, places you've never seen. And after all, I've lived among women all my life.


Empire Central: Hi: I have a couple of your books unread, I'm afraid, but which of your books would you recommend someone read first? And, if I may, Ms. Burns, what do they do at these writer "colonies" briefly? Many thanks.

Carole Burns: Briefly: At writers colonies, people write. Really.

E.L. Doctorow: For that you would talk to your local librarian.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Doctorow, the Times Books series on the American Presidents shows that you will write the one on Lincoln. Can you give us any idea when that will be published?

E.L. Doctorow: I've withdrawn from that project. I may someday write about Lincoln, but not right away.


Washington, D.C.: What did you think of the Ragtime broadway musical?

E.L. Doctorow: I thought they did a pretty fair job. It certainly came out better than the movie. They stuck to the story fairly closely. Of course, the book is written as a historical chronicle of sorts, and maintains a distance from the characters. You can't do that in a musical where everyone goes around singing about their feelings. So there's a satirical erotic nerve in the book that is not in the show. But nevertheless, I'm impressed with the creative team who did this work, and I'm grateful for their determination to be faithful to the story. The music and lyrics are quite fine. And I'm particularly gratified that they lifted lines from the book.


Stone Ridge, N.Y.: This past semester I used your book Reporting the Universe as the "spine" of my class for Suny/Ulster "Writing For Social Change." My class had vigorous, red-hot discussions about many of the points you raised--and it all started with the infamous Prairie Dog incident. Remember the correction by the reader that you ignored? Although you may be "leery of perfection" what about a sense of truth?

E.L. Doctorow: The question has to do with an incident in my first novel, which takes place in the 1870s in the West, and I describe a fellow sitting out on the flats by his campfire and he's roasting a prairie dog. I received a letter from a reader saying I did'nt know what I was talking about because the haunch of a prairie dog wouldn't fill a teaspoon. This reader was an elderly lady from Texas, and I wrote back, that what she said was true about prairie dogs today but they were much bigger in the 1870s and there's been a genetic decline in the species and that's why there as small as they are.

That is the truth, regardless of what you may have heard.


New York, N.Y.: Will you have any reading-book signing events in NYC?

E.L. Doctorow: I did a reading at the 92nd Street Y a couple of weeks ago. I have no other plans to read in New York.


New York, N.Y.:
Are you aware of the work of Cory Doctorow (his bio), whom I've read is a distant relative of yours? He's an up and coming writer of science fiction and technology journalism. Do you use the internet in your own writing, whether in the world of the characters, or for your own research, or as a source of literary criticism and thought?

E.L. Doctorow: Apparently he's a young Canadian science fiction writer whom I have never read. When I was giving a reading in Toronto or Montreal, his parents came by to suggest our connection. For all I know we may be related distantly but I have no way of checking that out.


Carole Burns: You've only published one other collection of stories. What brought you to do this one?

E.L. Doctorow: I've always found the classic form of the modern short story constrictive. It calls for the entry point being very close to the denouement, and turns on a moment of revelation, or as Joyce says, an epiphany. I was asked to edit an anthology of short fiction and to choose, from about 150 stories, about 20. You read them blind and you don't know who wrote them or where they appeared. And the stories I chose were largely written by first-generation Americans or newly arrived people from Latin America, the Caribbean, and elsewhere.

They were not writing the classic American stories. Their stories had more extension to them, and harked back to the tales of the 19th Century writers. And that apparently had a subconscious effect on my understanding of what could be done on the form. And the result is this volume of SWEET LAND STORIES.


Carole Burns: Thanks so much to E.L. Doctorow for appearing online today. And for the many questions -- those we got to, and those we missed.

Get announcements about upcoming authors on "Off the Page" by signing up for our e-mail list. Email me at offthepage2004@yahoo.com.


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