A Page From E.L. Doctorow

What a treat this week — I saw E.L. Doctorow twice!  Last night he read from his latest short story collection — ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD — which is a pretty funky title considering he just turned eighty.  And today he was in conversation with a professor at the University Theatre.  That’s Mr. Doctorow on the left, spry and sharp as they come (sorry it’s such a blurry picture).  Anyway, here are just a few of the gems he shared with us.

Where do his ideas come from?  First, he’s not a believer in overthinking and story-boarding it out.  And he doesn’t wait for fully cooked plot lines and characters and mull them over for days/weeks/months.  He just sits down and starts typing.  How does he get started?  It all starts, he said, with an image, a sentence, a piece of music … some little spark that fires his imagination.  He jumps into it with absolutely no idea where he’s going.  He said that after he finished THE BOOK OF DANIEL, he was emotionally exhausted.  Couldn’t write anything for a year.  When summer came, he made himself sit in his office where just sat at his desk, stared at the plaster wall, and wrote about the wall.  Then he moved to the woodwork.  Then he realized how old his house was, that it had been built in 1906, which conjured images of how people might have dressed back then:  women in their all-white summer frocks, carrying parasols.  And so it went from there.  A new novel was born.

Speaking of THE BOOK OF DANIEL:  He started writing this story in the 3rd person.  150 pages in, he felt like he was writing the most boring, lifeless story — he hated it, hated working on it — and got so fed up he took the whole stack of pages and threw them across the room.  But why was the story so boring?  Pondering this, it occurred to him that he needed a character’s perspective worth following.  He put a new piece of paper in the typewriter and wrote the opening of the story from the innocent child’s viewpoint.  And it worked!

The spark image for BILLY BATHGATE:  He saw a tug boat in the harbor and imagined several men in dark suits standing on the boat.  This was an odd image.  What would these well-dressed men be doing, dressed in their finest, in the filthy, blue-collar area of the docks?  Then he had it.  A little boy, Billy, was seeing this scene, thinking these thoughts.  They were gangsters, taking a body out to dump, and Billy needed to follow these men, tell this story, to see what happened.  And needed to tell it in the first person, in his own voice.

On doing research:  He often writes about places he’s never been, about people and times he knows little about.  He says that all you really need are some key points and then you need to start writing.  Part of the joy of writing it is, after all, discovery.  So what if he doesn’t get it exactly right.  It’s fiction!  He knows so many writers who have researched a topic to death, only to become so bogged down by the facts that their imaginations become paralyzed.  And then they can’t write.

Did you know that Amazon.Com has an entire page devoted to E.L. Doctorow’s work?  Here’s the link.  I’m  a new fan.

10 thoughts on “A Page From E.L. Doctorow

  1. amyg

    i love these “i saw this author” posts.

    i imagine us all sitting in a circle, wide-eyed and nothing but ears, while you relay all the writer-ly secrets you’ve gathered for us.

    e.l. doctorow–one of my most favorite pen names. it’s the two initials, right?

  2. lisahgolden

    I need to unplug and stop disinfecting everything and just read and write. There’s an E.L. Doctorow book of short stories here on my floor just itching to be read.

    Thank you for this really interesting post! I love hearing about process especially when it sort of reinforces my own goofball method for getting the writing done.

    1. Teri

      Me too, Lisa. It’s hard to hear the writers who spend a months and months storyboarding, or 2 years researching. I always think, “Really!?!?!” I loved the story he told about staring at the wall, writing about the plaster,… It all gets back to that same thing: butt in chair, start typing, see what happens.

  3. Averil Dean

    I like this idea of researching a smidgen to get the ball rolling, and making up the rest. That’s what I do, too. I would burn out if I tried to write memoir (also, I literally have nothing to say about my life) or historical fiction. Too much fact-checking for this lazy girl.

  4. Sandra Bell Kirchman

    What a fascinating talk. It’s very comforting to know that I don’t HAVE to know everything about what I’m writing. I tend to not write about things because I don’t know enough about them, which is a shame because I get inspired by so many things I don’t know much about. Thanks for posting this.

  5. Downith

    What a great post – thanks. I love how he just sat (yes, bum in chair) and wrote about the wall and whatever he saw in front of him until he found something to grab him again. And, I love this bit about it doesn’t matter if he gets it a bit wrong because it’s fiction.

    Just finished first chapter of The Situation and the Story -thanks for the recommendation. Oh and a neat quote on memoir in clas last night from Gore Vidal:

    ” “a memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.”

    (from Palimpsest) As soon as I saw it, I thought of you!

  6. Lyra

    this is so perfectly timed. “So what if he doesn’t get it exactly right.” Man oh man, hair on fire moment. All of these thoughts are going to meet at some point, and I’ll be able to get out of my own damned way. Moment by moment. Plaster, wood trim, house, characters…

  7. erikamarks

    You must have been riveted. There is nothing that fascinates me more as a writer than learning how writers’s novels sparked. His anecdotes are sensational. Honestly, if we could just remind ourselves of this when we can’t feel the story just yet. Looking at the wall, then the woodwork. I really, really love that.

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