Correction to This Article
An Oct. 1 Style profile of E.L. Doctorow gave an incomplete description of his family. In addition to two daughters, he has a son.

The Time Travels Of E.L. Doctorow

"You don't write with a sense of possession," says the author of "Ragtime" and "Billy Bathgate." "You write with a sense of discovery." (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

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By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 1, 2005

NEW YORK -- E.L. Doctorow began his writing career with a spectacular failure. At the time, he was a student at the Bronx High School of Science, where a teacher told Edgar, as he was known back then, to profile a colorful person. Doctorow soon delivered a brief biography of Carl, a doorman at Carnegie Hall who had escaped the Holocaust and came to work every day with a thermos full of tea, which he drank Old-Europe style, through a cube of sugar held between the teeth. The great classical musicians of the day, like Vladimir Horowitz, adored the guy.

Edgar's teacher was so enamored of the piece that she told him she wanted to photograph Carl and run the picture, along with the story, in the school newspaper.

"You can't do that to Carl," Doctorow replied.

"Why not?" asked the teacher.

"Well, he's very shy," he said.

"What do you mean, he's shy? He talked to you, didn't he?"

"Not really," Doctorow confessed. "There is no Carl. I made him up."

She slashed an F across the story.

"It seemed to me so much more sensible to make something up than go through the tedious business of interviewing someone," Doctorow says, now 74 and smiling a little slyly at a table at the Metropolitan Cafe on the Upper East Side. "I was just a kid and so maybe I was scared that no one would want to talk to me. And I figured that if there wasn't a Carl the doorman, there should have been."

Nobody realized it at the time, but the outlines of Doctorow's future as a novelist were scrawled like body chalk around this failure as a reporter. The impish disregard for the wall between fact and fiction, the cross-thatching of real celebrities and invented characters, a slight sentimental streak -- all of it would turn up in "The Book of Daniel," "Billy Bathgate," "Ragtime" and the other historically based novels that made Doctorow famous.

There have been some commercial and critical flops along the way, like "Big as Life," a sci-fi novel about the sudden arrival of two naked and motionless giants in the middle of New York Harbor. But that was many bestsellers ago. He's also written for the theater and for movies, published collections of essays and collected a whole trophy room of prestigious literary awards. Doctorow now occupies one of the narrowest subsets in American letters -- the million-selling author who is taken seriously.

"He is the world's literary historian," says Deborah Treisman, fiction editor at the New Yorker. "He's made millions of readers understand the life of the past and he has this incredible gift for imagining himself in other times, but in a way that never seems pedantic or overly determined."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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