WHEN EDGAR LAWRENCE DOCTOROW was writing Ragtime (1975), his most celebrated novel, he puzzled over one tiny point of American history. He wanted to move his character from Depression-weary New York City to Lowell, Mass. via trolley, "from one town to the next, tossing a buffalo nickel in at the end of every stop on the interurban trolley line." The trouble was that he didn't know whether such a trip would have been possible.

He was roaming the inner recesses of the library one evening, pondering the difficulties of that question, when suddenly he caught sight of a brazenly orange book leaning toward him from the business shelf. "It was the color that drew me," he says, still marvelling at the mystical nature of the moment. "When I picked it up, I saw that it was a corporate history of the trolleycar business. Exactly the stuff I needed."

That vignette says much about Doctorow. Although his books are steeped in history -- cameos of New York in a very specific, very interesting time -- they are more the products of his own life and imagination than of any elaborate research. Doctorow summons history as he needs it, wrestling it to fit his own vision, his own mythology, of America. "I don't think of myself as a historian in any sense -- my books are not thorough, not exhaustive. But you know, when you're working well, the things you need -- like history -- come to hand. It's as if you were a magnetic field. Things fly out of the air at you."

He makes it sound easy, but, in fact, Doctorow is a deliberate, hard-working man. His 40-year marriage, his gentle humor, his impeccable manners, his grant-endowed career all attest to a cautiously crafted life.

He was born in 1931 and grew up in "a richly informed household" in the Bronx, the second son of second-generation Americans of Russian descent. His father, the proprietor of a Manhattan music store, was so renowned for his knowledge of the obscure that Rubenstein, Horowitz, Heifetz, Stokowski and Toscanini would wander in to seek his advice. And home was full of books.

At the Bronx High School of Science, Doctorow distinguished himself in poetry, painting and music composition. He read indiscriminately -- from pulp fiction to sports biographies to Cervantes. But perhaps the most motivating event in his creative young life was when his older brother came home from the front lines of World War II to sit at the family kitchen table and write a book. "He never published it, but he made writing -- which for me had always been a dream -- a reality."

Doctorow then went to Kenyon College to study with poet John Crowe Ransom. When he graduated in 1952, he applied for Columbia University's graduate program and got in with the help of Robert Penn Warren.

Within one year Doctorow was drafted to serve as a high speed radio operator in the U.S. Army signal corps in Frankfurt, Germany. When he returned to New York he got a job as a staff reader for Columbia Pictures, whose cowboy movies inspired him to write a novel about the West, Welcome to Hard Times (1960). "Being a motion picture reader was a wonderful apprenticeship for a writer. For three years I got my hands on everything that was being published. Seeing how much bad stuff was coming out gave me great confidence."

He got work as an editor at New American Library, where he edited everything from Shakespeare to the Mentor Science Library to Ian Fleming's James Bond novels. In 1964 he became editor in chief of Dial Press, "a feisty little house, in which I got to edit James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Tom Berger and Bill Kennedy," among others. While at Dial he wrote and published his next novel, a science fiction story entitled Big as Life (1966).

Married, with two small children and an editorial career on the rise, Doctorow was quite unexpectedly offered a position as writer in residence at the University of California at Irvine. "I consulted the I Ching, and it said, 'You will cross a great water.' My wife promptly responded, 'That's the Mississippi. Let's go.' "

Doctorow's next work, The Book of Daniel (1971), which was inspired by the Rosenberg spy trial of the '50s, established him as a major American writer. Since then, his novels have garnered the nation's highest literary honors and been hailed for their gritty vision of old New York: Ragtime (1975), Loon Lake (1980), World's Fair (1986), and Billy Bathgate (1989).

He has never left his editorial persona completely behind, and still speaks of his books in terms of rewriting and polishing: "I can't think of one of my pages that has gotten by with less than 6 or 8 drafts," he says. Days after he delivered Loon Lake to his publisher, he took back the manuscript for six weeks and rewrote it from an entirely different point of view.

Speaking of his forthcoming novel, The Waterworks, he admits readily that he struggled with the voice through several drafts until he finally hit upon the perfect narrator: a New York newspaper editor just after the Civil War. "Once you get the diction and the voice right," he says, "the rest of the book" -- the plot, the history, the context -- "follows. Each book may have a different career in you, but language precedes, and ultimately controls, the book you set out to write."