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."
His latest, "The March," is an account of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's ruthless slog through the South as the Union razed parts of Georgia and South Carolina to break resistance and end the Civil War. It's a sprawling story -- Doctorow calls it "my Russian novel" because it weaves together so many lives -- and a departure for an author who has focused mainly on New York in the early 20th century. But Sherman and the destructive swath he burned into the ground seemed irresistible.
"He was a brilliant man, a complex man," Doctorow says, sipping a cup of decaf. "The march justified him as a military man, but he had a great deal of guilt about it, and when the war was over he immediately left his troops and went down to do rescue-and-recovery operations. He wanted to rehabilitate the people he'd been destroying and dispossessing."
Doctorow speaks softly and methodically, and has the air of a guy who will indulge your curiosity on a time-limited basis. ("Shall we get down to business?" he asks soon after the opening pleasantries.) He looks eager to return to whatever had his attention before he started publicity rounds for "The March." He is pensive, a bit mischievous and very tweedy, and you can tell there are layers to the man that he isn't going to reveal.
What he gives you is the occasional grin that has a hint of the wry and devious about it. He pauses at length to compose his thoughts, staring into middle distance as though readying a second draft of his next sentence. His characters, you can't help but notice, are vastly more colorful than he is, or at least the version of himself that he presents over this particular cup of coffee. He comes across as refined and somewhat aloof.
"He's a very shy and very private person, but I wouldn't take that as a sign of weakness," says Sidney Lumet, director of "Network" and "Twelve Angry Men," who collaborated with Doctorow on the screen version of "The Book of Daniel."
"He is not a gentle man. He only seems gentle."Mysterious Muse
The spark for Doctorow's novels comes from places that are mysterious to him. For "The March," it was an image on a Smithsonian Web site of a Civil War photographer. That led him back to a book he'd read about Sherman 20 years earlier, by the historian Joseph T. Glatthaar.
"Somehow I found myself starting to write and these people appeared to me with no effort on my part," he says. "Why someone says something instead of another thing, who is this person -- I don't know. It just sort of happens. You don't write with a sense of possession. You write with a sense of discovery."
What he discovered in "The March" was a way to turn Sherman's army into a living and lethal animal, a catalyst for history that doubles as a monstrosity with a heartbeat and an appetite. As the army threshes its way through woods and towns and civilians, a surgeon in the novel elaborates on the analogy for a disconsolate Southerner named Emily Thompson:
"Imagine a great segmented body moving in contractions and dilations at a rate of twelve or fifteen miles a day, a creature of a thousand feet. It is tubular in its being and tentacled to the roads and bridges over which it travels. It sends out as antenna its men on horses. It consumes everything in its path."
Sherman hovers over the action, a tortured man who can't sleep and who worries that "victory is a shadowed, ambiguous thing." The general, in a closing reverie, imagines that Southerners will cling to a sense of aggrievement that "will empower them for a century," words intended to be prophetic.
"Think about the history of black people after that war," says Doctorow. "How Reconstruction was sabotaged -- segregation, poll taxes and lynchings -- right up on to the civil rights liberations of the '60s. Reagan and Nixon and the Bushes using subtle race messages to capture the white South. You could make the case that the South won the war."The Reader, the Writer
Doctorow lives with his wife of more than 50 years and has two daughters. He plays a lot of tennis when he's isn't typing or hawking the hardbacks, and he adheres to a fairly rigorous work schedule: at the desk by 8 a.m., a few hours off in the middle of the day, then an afternoon session that lasts until 7:30 p.m. Everything is revised seven or eight times.
When he isn't touring, his life is pretty anonymous.
"I can walk into a bookstore and hand over my credit card and they don't know who the hell I am," Doctorow says with a shrug. "Maybe that says something about bookstore clerks."
He chose writing as a career at the age of about 9, he says, and aside from a two-year stint in the Army and work as a reservations clerk at La Guardia Airport, he's made words a full-time career. Among Doctorow's earliest jobs was reading books for Columbia Pictures, which hired him to unearth novels worth turning into films.
For three years at a book-a-day pace, Doctorow flagged a handful of novels for his bosses, but only one ever led to a deal: a Western called "They Came to Cordura," ultimately turned into the 1959 movie starring an aging Gary Cooper.
"It was one of the worst movies you've ever seen," Doctorow groans. "It was just an embarrassment. And that was the result of my three years of work."
During those script-scouting days, Doctorow realized he could make up stuff just as well as any of the authors he was paid to read. So he wrote "Welcome to Hard Times," a Western about a stranger who terrorizes a small town, later turned into a movie starring Henry Fonda. It was the first of several unhappy experiences with Hollywood. Aside from "The Book of Daniel," Doctorow sounds disappointed with the celluloid renderings of his work, including "Billy Bathgate," which starred Dustin Hoffman and Nicole Kidman, and "Ragtime."
"People have always said my work is cinematic, except the directors I've worked with," Doctorow sighs. "They tell me how difficult it is to translate because so much of my books are interior. So much of the action is in the mind, in the moral realm."
Doctorow started "The Book of Daniel" while toiling as an editor at Dial Press, which he left in 1968 for a teaching job at the University of California at Irvine, where he could spend mornings at his typewriter. He felt like he'd arrived.
His actual arrival date, however, was 1975, when a fictional account of America in the years leading up to World War I was published to raves, eventually selling more than 4.5 million copies. Some critics were troubled by the way "Ragtime" monkeyed with the past -- it imagines a meeting, for instance, between Freud and Jung at Coney Island, sharing a ride through the Tunnel of Love. But Doctorow isn't suggesting that this is the world as it was; this is the world as he's contrived it.
To his fans, these liberties have a larger point. "His big topic is challenging the official version of things," says John G. Parks, a professor at the University of Miami and author of "E.L. Doctorow -- Literature and Life." "Because it's usually the victors who tell the story and he feels that serious authors have a chance to challenge the official version of any story."
Put another way, he makes stuff up to get to the truth. Or to get to his truth, anyway. Doctorow has written publicly and forcefully about his politics, which lean strongly to the left. The war in Iraq had already started by the time he'd begun "The March," though he declines to go into particulars about the links between his latest book and the current fighting overseas. He'll leave that work to readers. But there's no mistaking where he stands on the war, or where he stands on the president and the men and woman shaping the administration. In the middle of this discussion he brings up Karl Rove and the investigation into Rove's role in the Valerie Plame media-leak investigation.
"I'd like to see him get nailed," Doctorow says dryly. "Bad man."