Writer E. L. Doctorow is still reinventing an imperfect past 'RAGTIME' TO RICHES

June 05, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

New York -- When E. L. Doctorow writes about the past, sometimes he uses his memory -- flawed though it may be. "I have a terrible memory," he told an interviewer once, though it served him well enough to write such evocative novels as "World's Fair" and "Billy Bathgate," both set in the 1930s in his native New York.

Other times, it's images he uses. For instance, his rambling old house in New Rochelle, N.Y., got Mr. Doctorow thinking about the history of the place and then beginning a novel set in the early 1900s. That was "Ragtime," his breakthrough 1975 book, which won him not only great critical acclaim but also wide popular success.

Perhaps no other contemporary author uses the past to such great effect in fiction as does Edgar Lawrence Doctorow.

His novels are not only set in the past, they also embellish it. Historical figures, such as J. P. Morgan in "Ragtime" and Dutch Schultz in "Billy Bathgate," become major characters in his fiction. His novels have been called historical fiction, but they really are reworkings of history through his fertile imagination.

A few years ago, Mr. Doctorow started thinking about the huge reservoir that used to stand at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue in New York. He thought about New York in the 1870s -- a city on the move, relentlessly modern, embracing the latest innovations of the Industrial Revolution. He pictured it to be a time both of fabulous wealth and great poverty, of exciting possibilities and also corruption and social dislocation.

Out of these imaginings came his sixth novel, "The Waterworks," which will be released this month by Random House. Once again, Mr. Doctorow has been drawn back to the past, and once again he has richly reinvented it.

The vividness of Mr. Doctorow's writing, his attention to detail, has won him many admirers among other writers. One is William Kennedy, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Ironweed," whose first book, "The Ink Truck," was edited by Mr. Doctorow in the late 1960s. The two have remained friends since.

"I just find him one of the best contemporary novelists," Mr. Kennedy says. "He invariably is a good storyteller. His prose is wonderfully intelligent and extremely readable, but also always with serious weight to the work."

Like his friend, Mr. Kennedy bases his fiction in the past, and both wonder at times why they've encountered so much curiosity about it.

"Sometimes I give readings, and in the question-and-answer period I often get asked why I write about the past," Mr. Doctorow says in an interview in an apartment he keeps near New York University (he also has the house in New Rochelle and a beach place in the Hamptons). "So I've developed a couple of answers. The first answer is that we live in it. That's a very easy answer, for who has not looked in the mirror and seen the past in your face?

"The Bosnian Serbs are still fighting battles that originated hundreds of years ago. In their fighting now, they're killing Turks [their historical enemies]."

I'm not the kind of writer who can walk into a room and immediately know the brand names of the clothes people are wearing -- and then figure out who is sleeping with whom, and then go home and start writing a novel 15 minutes later. I'm very slow. It takes a long time for me to figure out what happens."

At 63, Mr. Doctorow looks very much the respected literary figure, professor (he still teaches at NYU) and former editor (of Norman Mailer, Mr. Kennedy and James Baldwin, among others). He favors casual slacks and cardigans; his silver beard is neatly trimmed. He is low-key and unassuming, with a dry wit (asked to explain a character in "The Waterworks," he answers with a smile: "I don't know. It's hard enough just to write these books without having to explain them, too").

His speech is much like his writing: considered and thoughtful, if often indirect. He'll give a succinct answer, but it may come after musings that appear at first irrelevant but then are shown to be entirely on the point.

Outside on this bright spring day, Greenwich Village is alive with human activity. The basketball and handball courts are jammed with competitors and spectators; the outdoor cafes have few empty seats. Mr. Doctorow looks out a window, then offers that )) the Village's history as a bohemian center and its bustling street life helped him evoke the feel of New York in the 1870s in "The Waterworks."

"I wrote a good deal of this book here," he says, holding his hand up to indicate he means the apartment. "As a matter of fact, it was very important for me to be here at one point -- just walking around lower Manhattan to get a feeling of the streets.

"I seem to have always written about New York," Mr. Doctorow continues with a slight shrug. "It just kind of fuels my imagination. But there are different New Yorks."

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