While the chance to see marvelous talent exists every day in Las Vegas, it isn’t as often that the talent is literary. When I found out that the keynote speaker for this year’s Vegas Valley Book Festival was going to be E.L. Doctorow, I wasted no time making the date of his talk at the Clark County Library on November 8th a red-letter day on my calendar.
Carol C. Harter, president emerita of UNLV, introduced Doctorow to the audience assembled in the library’s large lecture hall. Harter, whose book about Doctorow was published in 1990, was the easily the best person in Las Vegas to welcome him. She listed a few of Doctorow’s many achievements and honors, including the National Humanities Medal in 1998. She mentioned his first novel, a western called Welcome to Hard Times. Although a New Yorker through and through, Doctorow spent his undergraduate years in Ohio at Kenyon College. He’s now on the faculty of New York University.
After he took his place at the lectern and the applause died down, Doctorow mentioned that he always seems to have speaking engagements on the same night as Bruce Springsteen concerts. He was probably alluding to the scattering of empty seats in the auditorium, and I wished every one of them had been filled. While I don’t begrudge Tony Curtis a single fan, I look forward to a day when Las Vegas can muster an over-capacity crowd for legendary authors as easily as it does for venerable movie stars.
“We’ll talk about how this writer writes,” Doctorow began, adding that this meant his talk would be somewhat autobiographical. “I thought I was a writer when I was very young,” he said, even though what it really meant was that he was a reader. “I read all the time.” Television was not as pervasive then, and digital technology simply wasn’t a factor. He liked radio drama, but mostly devoured books—especially those that exercised his imagination. From adventures to sports stories and Jules Verne to Mark Twain, he read everything that caught his attention. He was heavily into mysteries and horror stories when he came across a book called The Green Hand. The title suggested something gruesome, but the book turned out to be the story of an inexperienced novice aboard a sailing ship. Thus began an obsession with sea novels, and so it went, “one passion to another.”
Not surprisingly for a boy in New York City, the public library was one of Doctorow’s favorite haunts. He’d wander through the stacks, enchanted by row after row of books bound in that old utilitarian style. Voltaire, Cervantes—he read whatever caught his eye. He looked for books by Jack London, but when he came across titles like The Idiot, he couldn’t resist trying out Dostoevsky. He liked everything by Alexandre Dumas, and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables put his own life in perspective. “I bonded with those authors,” Doctorow said. “I felt as though I was writing the book along with the author.”
When Doctorow was in middle school, his brother, who had returned from World War II, began writing a novel based on his experiences. As he watched his brother type at the kitchen table, he gradually realized that being a writer was a genuine, practical possibility. Another factor that encouraged this line of thought was that everyone in his family was a good storyteller. He not only appreciated the ability to “spin something out of nothing,” he cultivated the talent in himself.
“Because first of all,” Doctorow said, “we novelists are storytellers.” Stories were the very first means people had of knowing who they were and what was happening to them. “In the Bronze Age, the age of Homer and the Old Testament,” he said, “Stories were all anybody had. They connected present to past, visible to invisible.” Now we’re scientifically oriented, he went on, but our minds are still structured around storytelling.
Doctorow used the memoirs of a nineteenth-century woman living on the Kansas plains as an example. She described floods and droughts, but it was her story about her husband’s bout with malaria that stood out. The woman, forced to shoulder the man’s tasks, put the baby in bed with him. “His shiverings dropped the baby off to sleep,” she wrote, a vivid image that, Doctorow said, “has the ring of fiction. What makes it real is when an object is worked upon by another object.”
Doctorow’s conviction that he was a writer even before he wrote anything may have been influenced by the fact that he was named after Edgar Allen Poe. He once asked his parents why they chose Poe, given his drug habits and “strong necrophiliac tendencies,” but “Poe is our greatest bad writer,” he added, “so that’s some consolation.”
Doctorow attended the Bronx High School of Science, which was the sort of school where students sometimes boasted about how they were going to win Nobel Prizes, and some actually did. While taking a course in journalism, Doctorow was supposed to conduct an interview. Selecting the doorman at Carnegie Hall as his subject, Doctorow wrote up an interview with Karl, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany who had amazing stories to tell about all the musicians and other artists he’d gotten to know over the years. After he turned it in, his teacher, calling it the best student interview she’d ever read, wanted to publish it in the school newspaper. She also wanted to send a photographer to Carnegie Hall to get a picture of Karl. “He’s shy,” Doctorow told her, but eventually the truth emerged. “There is no Karl. I made him up.” Because really, it was too tedious to actually interview somebody, he went on, adding that the episode offers major clues about his life as a writer. He got an F, but he had written a really good story.
Doctorow immersed himself in cerebral and analytical pursuits at Kenyon College, where he studied literary criticism and philosophy. After that, he said, “I had to recover my innocence.” While working as a reader for a film company, he decided to write a western, even though Gambier, Ohio, was the farthest west he had ever traveled. If Kafka could write about America without leaving Prague, he reasoned, why not? The book, Welcome to Hard Times, was released to favorable reviews. Doctorow got a letter from a woman in Texas who liked the book until she got to a section that described people feasting on the roast haunch of a prairie dog. Prairie dogs are tiny, she complained.
“That may be true of prairie dogs today, madam…” Doctorow’s reply began, using the incident to illustrate his feelings about research. His approach is to do just enough but not bother with anything more. “A writer must write to find out what he’s writing,” he said, speaking of the paradox that arises from the fact that, “Nothing good can come from what you already know.” Identifying elusive inspiration as “the Muse,” Doctorow spoke about the need to embrace a “profligate openness to words.”
Turning to The Book of Daniel, his novel about the Rosenberg trial, as an example, Doctorow related how he wrote 150 pages that were all “dull, boring, and awful.” He gave up, he said. Then, in a recklessly desperate stab at starting over, he began to type. He wrote the first page in the voice of the couple’s son Daniel, which ended up being the voice he would use to tell the whole story.
“I never wrote a book that didn’t write itself,” Doctorow said, summing up the mystery of how the writing process works for him.
Doctorow’s novel Ragtime got its start in his house in New Rochelle, when he was staring at the wall wondering what to write. He wrote about the wall, then the house, and the rest grew out of that. “Writing is full of false starts and mistakes,” he said, even using the word “torment” to describe the writer’s life.
“A book is like a printed circuit through which the reader’s life will flow,” Doctorow said, adding that reading and writing, communally speaking, amount to the same thing.
In closing, Doctorow shared thoughts about where things stand now in the world of fiction. He commented on the blurring of genres, that Freud’s case histories, for example, are remarkable stories. Politicians, weather reporters—all rely on storytelling to convey their messages.
“Digitized telegraphy—the twittering of language—bode ill for the extended format of a novel,” Doctorow said. But technology goes on, and “I am not a pessimist in this regard. Books prevail, and are themselves great technology.”
Doctorow answered questions posed by audience members following his talk, and afterwards signed books. I left the Clark County Library feeling recharged by his talk. I realized, by the time I got home, that the reason I carried so much away with me was that I had been listening to a master storyteller do what he does best—tell stories. Although he commented near the end of his talk that, “We all carry ideas in our heads, and most of them should stay there,” I’m very glad that E.L. Doctorow has let some of his escape onto paper. Some people were born to write, and, as he knew from a tender age, he is one of them.