Tag Archives: E.L. Doctorow

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.

May Days

May is a mixed bag.  Here’s my list of the coming month’s anxieties and anticipations …

1. Opening the patio.  The rains here are officially finished.  We won’t see another drop — not one! — until probably November.  No kidding.  It’s time to get the big oak trestle table and cushioned chairs out of the garage, and invite the neighbors over for what we call “chosen-family dinner.”

2.  Reading outside.  This kind of goes with #1.  I’m 150 pages into Alexandra Stryon’s READING MY FATHER (which, so far, is to die for), and today I was able to sit outside under the crimson-colored, Japanese Maple, warm breezes blowing through, with this book on my lap …. aka, heaven.  Even if you’ve never read Styron, you would appreciate this daughter’s plunge into her father’s life.  Beautifully written, and revelatory.

3.  Mothers Day.  Good god, Mothers Day.  I dread it, or hate it, or both.  Oh, I hated it when my mother was alive, too, but for different reasons.  Mothers Day used to feel like an obligation, one established by Hallmark Cards and predicated on guilt.  Once a year we were all required by mass marketing to prove how much we loved our mothers, how much we thought about them, missed them, couldn’t exist without them.  We had to choose the right card.  We had to get that card in the mail on time — the two-day-late card being far, far worse than no card at all.  Now, of course, I wish I had to buy the damned card.

4.  Good friends and family.  We’re meeting one of our favorite couples for a long weekend.  There will be too much food, too much wine, and too much laughter.  We’ll also be in Indiana to visit my son and in-laws —- in-laws who don’t seem the least bit like in-laws at all.  Since my mother passed, these family visits are invaluable to me.

5.  AmyG !  In a couple of weeks, AmyG and I will be meeting at an undisclosed location.  🙂  I’m sure there will be (a) buku coffee, (b) hugging, (c) gossip, (d) photos (at least one!), and (e) commiserating about our writing lives.  Maybe her beautiful office / desk organization will rub off on me.

6.  E.L. Doctorow, for a reading one night and an “in conversation” the next day.  I will have to read his masterpiece, RAGTIME.  I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read a word of E.L. Doctorow.  Have you?

7.  Am I skinny yet?  This is about the time I start to panic about summer clothes.  Okay, I’m already really, really panicked.  I’m never as thin as I want to be when May rolls around.  Why do I always, always imagine I’ll magically be a size 6 — ha!! — by now????

8.  Gifts of this magi, running late.  This week I’ll be delivering gifts to my favorite professors, first editions of books they love.  Sometime tomorrow I need to sit down and write them the notes to go with the books, telling them how much and why I appreciate them, how much I’ll miss them now that I’m gone.

9.  Graduation.  Though I officially graduated in December, all the ceremonies are later this month.  For us MFA’s, we’ve got 3 official events, though I will only be attending one:  the big, all-school one.  Early on a Saturday morning, I’m going to don my robe and the big, brown-trimmed Masters hood, and take my place in line.  I have always loved school so much — I’m kinda sad it’s finished, even at age 45.

10.  WORK.  So much re-writing to be done on my book.  Thankfully it’s work I’m looking forward to plunging into.  And speaking of writing, here’s a little bit from Alexandra Styron’s book about her father’s (my icon’s) work habits:

The big living room was Daddy’s domain.  Here he read, watched the news, clinked ice around in his Scotch glass, and hid from the rest of us.  During the day, he wrote in the study in the little house.  But when evening came, he’d set his manuscript pages up at the bar and pace the gold shag carpet, making revisions to the day’s work with Mozart blaring on the hi-fi.

Here’s to family and friends, to the coming of Summer, to our literary and teaching heroes, to reading and working.  Maybe I’ll try a Scotch and some Mozart.