The Master of Reflection : E.L. Doctorow, a Specialist in Envisioning Life in the Past, Offers Some Modern Thoughts

Times Staff Writer

E. L. Doctorow was talking about "Billy Bathgate," his seventh--and many critics are saying, his best--novel, yet another of his tales set in the 1930s.

"Maybe," he mused of his fixation with America's past, "I'm just a little slower than everybody else."

The author, who tends always to think "the most recent book is the best thing I've done," is quick to say he is pleased by acclaim for this book. But he sees "Billy Bathgate" more in terms of it being the book through which he has been "released, set free."

The novel is about an adolescent's coming of age as a gangsters' gofer in the Bronx and, with its boy protagonist, it is in a familiar Doctorow mold. But it is a mold he is at last ready to break, he says, noting, "There are certain ideas, themes, preoccupations . . . that recur in the books that I think I'm finished with."

The '30s are "a decade I'm very fond of, the decade I was born into," he says, but "I have a feeling that the next work I do will definitely be contemporary . . . this is certainly the last book I'll ever do that takes place in the 1930s, I'm sure of that."

'A Delicious Book to Do'

He speaks of his concept of a novel as "a young man's education in the world, his sentimental education. I did that in 'Loon Lake' (1980). I did that in 'World's Fair' (1985). I've done that here . . . and whatever it was that drove me to that perception of how to construct the novel, I feel I've done that."

"Billy Bathgate," he says, "was a delicious book to do. . . . I wrote the book . . . in about 10 months, which is very, very fast, for me especially. . . . This book did not fight me; it did not resist. It did not dig in its heels."

The book is, in fact, everything that "Big as Life" (1966) was not. The latter, Doctorow's second, and worst, novel, was about Manhattanites thrown together in crisis after the appearance of a pair of human giants in the Hudson River. He was in his early 30s when he wrote it, and, he says, it is the only one of his novels he "probably would like to forget."

He notes that "fortunately, it had a very small original printing. I've never allowed it to be reprinted. It's a very rare book now." He laughs as he tells of finding a copy "in pretty good shape" in a remainder bin for 19 cents.

Unlike Norman Mailer, whom he edited in the '60s, Doctorow did not burst on the literary scene as a wunderkind with publication of a stunning first novel. Doctorow's first was "Welcome to Hard Times," a frontier-town story set in the Dakota territory in the late 19th Century.

It became a Henry Fonda film, which Doctorow calls "the second worst movie ever made," after Johnny Weismuller's "Swamp Fire."

But in 1975, "Ragtime" established Doctorow as a leading contemporary novelist. The Jazz-Age novel was made into a 1981 James Cagney film that, Doctorow says, "in retrospect was a disappointment to me . . . there are ways in which I don't see what the connection is to the book at all. But there were some great moments in it and (director Milos Forman) never dealt with it in a shoddy or cheap way. I think he very seriously intended to do honor to the book."

Already, film rights to "Billy Bathgate" have been sold to Disney's Touchstone. Asked the price, Doctorow just smiles and says softly, "I'd prefer this interview to deal with literary matters. . . ."

One literary matter he is eager to discuss is the controversy around Indian-born, British novelist Salman Rushdie and the capitulation of some American booksellers in the face of terrorist threats by Muslims, who consider Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" blasphemous.

Doctorow was among the writers defending Rushdie at a rally in Manhattan in late February. "Deplorable," he says, of booksellers' pulling Rushdie's book from shelves. "I am willing to grant anyone in any practicing religion who says of a work that it's blasphemous that it's blasphemous," he says. ". . . But I don't think any author deserves to have a death contract put on his head for something he's written."

He has read "about a third" of the Rushdie book, he says, and was "not terribly fond" of it. But censorship worries Doctorow, wherever he sees it. "You see all over the world examples of writers who are in trouble with somebody or other . . . they're put in jail, they're exiled, they're tortured. Yet the only true hope, it seems to me, is absolute freedom of ideas and expression . . . one would hope that particularly religious leaders could accommodate that view to the demands of their own belief."

He adds, "Books, even in this country, are censored all the time by local school boards and parents worried the children will read four-letter words in some teen-age novella in the high-school library.

"My own feeling is that children have a lot more to worry about from the parents who raised them than from the books they read."

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was 9 when he decided to become a writer--"I was a great reader and I thought about doing what these people were doing as real cool. Of course I didn't have to write anything for many years to feel like a writer."

The road to becoming a writer included a stint as a reservations clerk at La Guardia Airport, an editor's chair at New American Library, and, at 33, the post of editor-in-chief at Dial Press. All the time, he was moonlighting as a writer.

Along the way he became "E. L." Doctorow. "It was a young man's decision," he says. "I decided that Doctorow was a difficult name and would only be compounded by the juxtaposition of the name Edgar with it. It would sound like someone falling down a flight of stairs. Also, a lot of writers I admired at the time kept a certain distance from their audience by the means of initials . . . D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, F. Dostoevski. . . .

"I was named after (Edgar Allan) Poe. Poe was a writer my father admired, and my mother went along with him. I said to her one day, 'Do you realize you named me after a drug-dependent alcoholic necrophiliac?' And she said, 'Oh, Edgar, stop your kidding.' "

The turning point for Doctorow, whose friends and acquaintances still call him Edgar, was 1969-70, when he quit his job and with his wife, writer Helen Henslee, and three young children, came to California. There he finished writing "The Book of Daniel," a novel inspired by executed spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

"We spent the year out there living on the beach. It was a very good year," he recalls. "It just worked, the way you dream of. I wrote well. It was a crucial moment in our lives, where I made that transfer from editing and publishing to full-time writing."

Doctorow was a visiting writer at UC Irvine in the period, which he remembers for its political turmoil--the U.S. bombing of Cambodia, the Kent State killings--and for such personal California discoveries as "that the ocean went the wrong way, the sun set in the wrong place."

He has a reputation as a political novelist, a term he objects to "only in that I object to any modification of the word novelist (as that) reduces its breadth."

His leanings are liberal and he has spoken out against apartheid and nuclear-weapons buildup. "Yeah," he concedes in an uncharacteristically inelegant manner, "I do shoot my mouth off, that's true."

So, what's the message of "Billy Bathgate," a book built loosely around the life and times of big-time gangster Dutch Schultz and his demise at the hands of a rival mob? Is it about corruption in America?

"There is no message," Doctorow says, adding, "You know what Sam Goldwyn said about messages, don't you? 'If you want a message, go to the Western Union.' What I would say now is, 'If you want a message, go to the fax machine.' "

Certainly, he says, "It deals, as all serious novels do, with our spiritual lives, major components of our spiritual life being thievery, murderousness, lust . . . if you want to call that political. I think it's kind of biblical myself, very primitive, basic biblical perception."

"It's very peculiar, " Doctorow is saying. "My first book, which I finished in my 20s, is in the voice of a man around 50. Now, having reached the noble decade (he is 58), I find myself given to going backward in voice (Billy Bathgate is 15 as his story opens)."

But one thing is going according to nature's plan--the writing is getting easier.

"Things you learn as a young writer in theory you are blessedly able to forget as you get more experience," he says. "Now I just do it. The other thing is learning yourself, your psychology as a writer. Hemingway was a masterful self-analyst of writers and developed a whole system of dealing with himself as a writer. For instance, he would know to stop a day's work when he knew what was coming next."

Finding the right spot to work is important, he believes, "a place that feeds in some evocative way into the work you are doing." Doctorow, who divides his time among his New Rochelle home, a summer house in Sag Harbor, Long Island, and an apartment-cum-office in Greenwich Village, wrote the first half of "Billy Bathgate" in the Village, finishing it on the Island.

"You use up places and you've got to leave them," he explains. " 'Billy Bathgate,' " he notes, "is a New York novel. It felt right to start it in New York, and then, at a certain point, it felt right to get out of New York, to get a refractive or reflective angle on the text."

He has learned other tricks of the trade, such as "the idea of never going back on any given day more than a page or two in the manuscript. It takes a good deal of control. When I first started, I would read everything I had written, even if I'd written a couple of hundred pages, before I would start the day's work. That was a terrible mistake."

Perhaps most important, he says, "you learn courage, a certain brazenness, heedlessness or recklessness about the act of writing that allows you to find whatever it is you have in yourself."

He is not one to squander time fostering his own celebrity. "It's just wrong," he contends. "It's false. It does not sustain you as a writer. It just has nothing to do with anything that's important or meaningful and it can be very harmful. I live a very private life. I treasure my privacy. To the extent that some of it is displayed on occasions such as this when a book is published is so regrettable."

As a writer, Doctorow says, "the real work . . . begins with an image or just some line or voice that you hear. Then you write it down, look at it and see what it leads to."

For example, he was seized by writer's block while writing about Dr. James Pike, the controversial Episcopal bishop who disappeared in the Israeli desert in 1969. As he sat in his writing room in his 1906 house in New Rochelle, Doctorow began pondering the house's history, the lives of those who lived in that time. He wound up writing "Ragtime."

With "Billy Bathgate," it was like this: "I saw the interior of this tugboat, and there were two or three people in black tie. It wasn't a dream, it was a conscious image . . . I didn't know where I'd seen it or where it came from and it sort of stuck with me. That was the genesis for this book.

"The next thing that happened was that I realized that they must be criminals, these men in black tie on this tugboat. That was important. But it wasn't until I had the voice of the boy, Billy, that everything happened and the first sentence I wrote is exactly the first sentence that's in the book now and it gave me everthing. It gave me Billy, it gave me his diction, his age . . . I could hear him breathing. Suddenly, I knew what this book would be. It would be about this kid who attaches himself to a troop of gangsters."

The premiere gangster when Doctorow was growing up in the Bronx was Dutch Schultz, and so he became a key character.

Gangsters fascinate, Doctorow theorizes, because people are attracted to the disreputable. "We're always attracted to the edges of what we are, out by the edges where it's a little raw and nervy. And gangsters bring that quality right into the heart of the society, and we who are law-abiding have this mythic attachment to the irreverent lawbreakers and the audacious dissenters, asocial, nonsocial, antisocial. It reflects that atavism we all still have in us for the idea of transgression, breaking the rules."

He mentions, too, the "tribal life" of gangsters, the system of self-justification that enables them to see their actions as just, those of others as evil. "We're all like that at heart," he says.

The real Dutch Schultz was probably "a little grubbier" than he depicts him, less of a riveting personality. But, he reasons, "You're not dealing with the actual people, of course, when you deal with historical figures. You're dealing with the fictions they made of themselves."

Indeed, Doctorow does not pretend to write traditional history, flinching at the notion of being a "grubby scholar. Research is methodical and exhaustive and systematic, and none of those things are characteristic of my mind, which sort of drifts along the nerves of things and moves in a very fickle way, imaginatively following the muse wherever she goes.

"I learn as much as I need to become excited into some sort of visionary state and that's where I like to be. A lot of the so-called research I do is quite accidental and idiosyncratic."

Occasionally, he notes, a descendant of a real figure about whom he has written takes exception to his "facts." He remembers meeting a distant descendant of J. P. Morgan "who spoke of her mother's throwing down 'Ragtime' with a thump on the table, saying it was absolute rubbish. That was a good moment."

How has success changed E. L. Doctorow? Little, it seems. He still teaches writing at New York University, still finds time for tennis--"I'm an ardent B player."

He speaks with pride of his children, Richard, who does improvisation on stage and has written TV and film scripts ("I think he's very good"); Caroline, a soft rock-folk singer; and Jenny, who is earning a doctorate in clinical psychology. "They're all very impressive," he says.

The real change, he says, is that with "notoriety, which is a word I prefer to success" one is "called upon to do anything but write novels. You're called upon to give speeches and commencement addresses and interviews and to make political pronouncements. . . . Nobody ever says to you, 'Will you write another book?' except yourself--and perhaps your editor."

One thing that never changes, he says, is the writer's high level of anxiety, which he has found, "keeps you at the work and in the work, sort of worrying your way through to whatever it is that you're looking for as a writer and that got you started in the first place."

He is not now writing a novel, nor is he thinking about one. Come summer, he expects to return to "the kind of daily writing that discovers things. . . . I take the position that really what you do is you write to find out what you're writing."

The next work from him, he suggests, "may well turn out to be a play." His one play, "Drinks Before Dinner" (1979), was originally produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival. "Every 10 years or so," he says, "I get this terribly masochistic urge."

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