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.