Listening to the books

For E.L. Doctorow, writing requires paying close attention to what the novels have to say - not the other way around

November 08, 2006|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,Sun reporter

Listening to E.L. Doctorow is like listening to a scratchy, old LP, the needle traversing ever-narrowing circles.

The voice over the telephone receiver is pitched low and is full of unexpected catches, of stops and starts - not unlike the experience of reading his novels and essays.

The much-lauded, much-awarded author of such works as Ragtime, The Book of Daniel and The March will be in the area twice in the next few months. Tomorrow, he will appear at the Enoch Pratt Free Library before about 200 invited guests, where he will receive the library's Lifetime Literary Achievement award. And, on Jan. 12, he will read from his recent work and attend a reception in his honor at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington.

Doctorow's fiction deals with epochal events in American history, from the anti-Communist hysteria of the early 20th century to the Civil War and Sherman's march to the sea.

"What he cares about more than individual characters is the particular context in which those characters lived," says Michelle Tokarczyk, an English professor at Goucher College and the author of E.L. Doctorow's Skeptical Commitment.

She thinks Doctorow will be remembered for taking the post-modern literary style - characterized by experiments in structure and language, by playfulness and self-consciousness - and infusing it with political and social concerns.

"Doctorow helped move post-modernism into a completely different place," she says.

This month, Doctorow's third book of nonfiction, Creationists, was published. It contains essays written between 1993 and 2006 on geniuses as diverse as Herman Melville and Albert Einstein. Creationists is crammed full of great, big, fat ideas about the creative process, and the author - reserved, charming, and to the point - recently shaved 40 minutes from his busy schedule to discuss his newest opus.

In Creationists, you write that inspiration is a "jealous taskmaster" that enslaves artists and scientists and locks them away from the preoccupations of daily life: Going to the doctor or socializing with friends or picking up the dry cleaning.

It's as though creative undertakings demand a concentration so intense that it robs those who paint or compose or stare into a test tube of energy for other things. At the same time, some artists have said that when they are between projects, they feel as though they're merely skimming the surface of their own lives.

Is it difficult for you to mentally switch back and forth between writing and the rest of your life?

The experience of writing actually is the experience of being liberated from yourself, and it confers strength and acumen. When you're writing, you're not the wretched, neurotic, miserable person you usually are.

But, there is a degree of selfishness involved, of single-mindedness. It's hard to write and live at the same time, though it's probably the most difficult for the people you're living with.

Sometimes, writers require solitude and sometimes we require company, and that doesn't always synchronize with the needs of the people around us.

You describe a completed novel as almost a kind of visitation from above. In Creationists, you write: "The effort of one's mind seems, on completion, the work of outside forces. ... The book, the formula, becomes something out there, as if it appeared of its own volition."

The book that you're writing tells you what it wants to be and has to be and what voice it has. This is very important: Never inflict on a book what you want it to be. Because if you're wrong, the book won't get written. I think of it as "staying on the nerve of the book."

I started to write The Book of Daniel in the third person, and it was awful, it was terrible. I almost threw it away. I was in despair.

Then I started to type something almost in self-mockery, and it turned out to be the first page of the novel.

There's almost a ventriloquist thing going on. It's not your voice that you're writing down, but the book's voice.

But, from a reader's standpoint, the great pleasure of reading isn't just the story itself. It's also that reader's encounter with the author - with a particularly arresting and engaging mind, an idiosyncratic and intriguing sensibility.

It's often impossible to imagine that book having been written by any other writer, living or dead. In that sense, artworks seem to arise from the artist's very DNA, to be as intimate and personal as a fingerprint.

The ideal reading experience is when the reader duplicates the experience of writing the novel - and vice-versa. The author writes to find out what he is writing about, and the reader participates in a novel not knowing what will happen next. The writer starts the novel, but each reader finishes it.

That's a fascinating thought. Can you elaborate?

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