Doctorow chats before Hopkins talk

November 06, 2003|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

E.L. Doctorow, one of America's most celebrated writers, is scheduled to deliver a lecture at the Johns Hopkins University tonight on the topic of "Literature and Religion."

Doctorow is the winner of the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, among many other literary prizes. His novels, including Ragtime and Billy Bathgate, are often set in a richly evoked American past. His writing style is astonishingly diverse from one book to the next, so much so that it's sometimes hard to believe they were written by the same author.

Doctorow spoke by telephone with The Sun earlier this week. Only days before, his name had surfaced in the news for signing a petition of scholars and writers critical of the Smithsonian Institution for exhibiting the World War II bomber Enola Gay without mentioning that it was the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

You signed onto the petition taking the Smithsonian to task for the Enola Gay exhibit. Can you tell me why?

It seemed to me that an institution, an honorable institution like the Smithsonian, which is a repository of our heritage, that it has an obligation to represent our history truthfully. And to simply speak of the plane that dropped the bomb as a technological marvel ... is simply not to tell the whole story. ... It's fiction writers who are not obligated to tell the whole story, not institutions devoted to the presentation of history.

Over the years, there have been a number of times when you have lent your voice to public causes [from supporting humanitarian relief in Nicaragua and El Salvador to calling for a moratorium on federal executions]. Is it uncomfortable to step up publicly like that?

I don't understand how not to add my voice to those issues, when they seem to be urgent. ... But there is a conflict, always ... there's a kind of regret. The constraints of political diction are ... you're not operating as you do a writer of fiction. ... You're not working on all cylinders. A lot of the issues that we struggle with are formulated in tired political terms, and the writer who uses these terms has to feel somehow inhibited or working against his own strengths as a writer, so it's a conflicted kind of feeling.

Let me give an example. I think the phrase "campaign finance reform" puts people to sleep, but in fact, it is that bit of legislation that has been miraculously passed that is the single most important avenue to a freer and more scrupulously democratic process than we have had so far. But to speak of campaign finance reform is to arouse yawns.

So many of your books are set in the past. Why?

I was unaware that I was setting my books in the past until an editor pointed it out to me.

A period of time is as much an organizing principle as a place. It structures, organizes or provides the parameters of the work.

The other thing to say is that all novels are set in the past. Even so, there is such a thing as a historical novel. I don't think I write those. There is a distinction between novels set in the past and historical novels. For instance, Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter about a time that was 150 years before he lived, but as we read the novel after his death, that gap in time diminishes all the time. Hawthorne is The Scarlet Letter. Same thing with Mark Twain. The events of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn occurred 50 years before Twain lived. But those aren't historic novels.

Maybe a novel should be considered historic if it makes literary history.

You have talked about how some of your books begin as images, real or imagined, that come to you. Can you give some examples?

What happens to me is some sort of state of mental excitement attaches to an image or a phrase, ... and it is very evocative in my mind and leads me to write something.

I had an image in my mind for City of God. I was actually participating in a service at a Lutheran Church in New York City, an anti-apartheid service. I saw there a large brass cross on the wall behind the pulpit. It was slightly askew. It was not hanging straight. Where it had moved, the paint on the wall was a slightly different color than the prevailing background. And that stuck in my mind and probably led to that novel.

Another example is Loon Lake. I was driving in the Adirondacks and saw a sign that said, "Loon Lake," and I just liked the sound of those words together.

For Billy Bathgate, for some reason I had an image of men in black ties standing on a tugboat in the East River. I didn't know what they were doing. It was a strange image. Then it occurred to me that they had to be gangsters, and that they were there because the number of one of them had come up. And that got me started on that book.

A number of your books have been transformed into movies and one, Ragtime, into a musical. What is that experience like?

To one extent or another they have all made me uncomfortable. ... They're two different worlds, two different universes.

Your first name, Edgar, is after the writer Baltimore likes to call its own, Edgar Allan Poe. What forces has that brought to bear on you?

I asked my mother a few years before she died, I said, "Do you realize you and Dad were naming me after an alcoholic, drug-addicted, delusional paranoid with strong necrophiliac tendencies?" She said, "Edgar, that's not funny."

In fact, I wasn't aware of Poe's miseries in life when I first read him, but I loved his work. Whenever a child is named after someone, there's a sort of injunction involved. I grew up in a house surrounded by books where everyone was a good storyteller. The name just added to that.

My father liked a lot of bad writers. For instance, he liked James Fenimore Cooper. At least in naming me for Poe, he named me after our best bad writer.

Doctorow is scheduled to speak at 8 tonight in Shriver Hall on the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus. The lecture is free but tickets are required. For information, call 410-516-7157.

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