‘I write to find out what I’m writing’

In his exceptional novel «The Book of Daniel,» American author E.L. Doctorow tells the story of a family tragedy turned national tragedy. The book, which established him as one of the leading contemporary American authors, was recently published in Greek by Polis. Inspired by the trial and subsequent execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in Cold War United States in 1953, «The Book of Daniel» is a sensational narration of the trial and execution of Paul and Rochelle Isaacson, through the eyes of their older son, Daniel and his sister Susan. Through the use of a variety of narrative techniques referring to a postmodern tradition, Doctorow juxtaposes a personal tragedy with a greater, collective loss. The author recently shared his thoughts on writing and on today’s America in an e-mail interview with Kathimerini. I understand you were born and raised in the Bronx in 1931. You grew up during difficult but also fascinating times: the Great Depression, WWII, the Cold War and so on. It was also a time of great writing. Looking back now, how would you say that the historical-political background of the 1940s-1950s shaped you as a writer? As a child during the Depression I was only vaguely aware of how difficult life was for my parents. There was no money but there were books and music – my mother was a fine pianist – and whatever sacrifices had to be made were made on my behalf. But I knew somehow that how we lived was not entirely under my parents’ control. This became clearer with the onset of World War II. Though there was now a cosmology comfortable in its reductiveness – good versus evil, democracy versus fascism – the knowledge of hideous injustices such as the Holocaust is what must have led me to the reading of Kafka and to a perception of the awful mysteries of human behavior. And then the Cold War, and the race for nuclear weapons and the way anti-communism became an almost religious test for everyone in America – it was as if, unable to relinquish our warring spirit after the victory over Hitler and Japan, we had turned on ourselves. All of this had to have given me a wide and wary appreciation of social reality. And my tendency as a writer to prefer the large canvas. At what age did you actually decide that you would be involved with literature and writing? Were there any writers or other artists that influenced you at the time? I was very young – about nine years old – when I began identifying with writers I was reading. So I was reading not only to find out what would happen next but in wonder of how it was done. I was reading everything I could get my hands on – from Dostoevsky and Cervantes and Jack London to cowboy stories and comic books. And of course once I decided I was a writer I didn’t feel it necessary actually to write anything to prove that I was. Not until middle school did I begin to write stories – usually in imitation of Edgar Allan Poe, after whom I was named. My first publication was in my high school literary magazine. You wrote several works before «The Book of Daniel» came out and had an impact that changed, if I have understood correctly, your status as a writer. That’s the critical/social part of the deal. But was it also a book that in terms of narrative, structure etc led you as a writer to different paths? «Daniel» was my third novel. It taught me the value of speaking in a voice not my own. I have since almost always preferred a fictive narrator for my work. Also it was the first book of mine to rely on narrative discontinuity as a means of maintaining the tension of a work. Was the Rosenbergs’ case at the core of your idea to write «The Book of Daniel» or was it rather a combination of ideas? I began writing «The Book of Daniel» in 1967, when both the war in Vietnam and the anti-war movement in America were going full blast. The anti-war movement came up out of the college campuses and, though it split into several ideological factions, people spoke of it, generically, as the New Left to distinguish it from the Old Left of the 1930s. The differences intrigued me. The Old Left took its energy from the Great Depression of the 1930s, when American capitalism was thought by almost everyone to be deeply in need of revision, and by American communists to be deeply in need of revolution. Inspired by Marxist theory, the Old Left was a Europeanized, intellectually voiced movement whose factions were either in thrall to, or schismatically embittered by, the Soviet Union. By contrast, the New Left of the 1960s arose as a spontaneous eruption of students who were enraged by our Vietnam incursion – self-declared anti-intellectuals who brought with them a new music, rock and roll, and the nose-thumbing fashion of jeans and long hair. Conflated eventually with the great civil rights struggles of the time, it was a home-grown, self-directed, improvisatory street movement, this New Left, whose genius, if not some of its doctrinal mutations, was anarchic. I thought a book that would span the two eras and their different styles of radicalism well suited my idea of the novel as a large canvas. It was a challenge and a risk to propose to oneself a novel that would contrast the dissidence of the two Lefts but I knew of no more exacting a way to portray 30 years of my country’s life and times. Yet I had needed a framework for all this turmoil, a story, and I had not been able to begin until I found it – that specific narrative to hold everything I had been thinking about. You have stated that when a novel of yours takes place in the past it is necessarily about the present. Is the «The Book of Daniel» such a book? In the book you write about the early 1950s and also the late 1960s, but the book was published in the early 1970s. In what way can those different times speak to our own era? For instance, some American intellectuals have compared the McCarthy era to the post-9/11 Bush era… Yes, there are echoes, unfortunately. Given a war, in this case the «war against terrorism,» there is a depressingly familiar constriction of civil liberties. We hear the shrill jingoist voices that equate independent critical thought with treason. Talking about George W. Bush, you delivered a commencement address critical of the current US president at Hofstra University in May 2004. Do you think that America will have the chance to switch direction after the Bush era and also, would you consider yourself as a representative of the American left? The Bush policies seem to have been widely discredited in the recent congressional elections in which his party was defeated. So that’s a reason for hoping for a new direction. I do not consider myself a representative of the American left – true leftists find fault with me. It is only from the right that I’m given that honorific. Your novels have the characteristic of a text with a complex form which some critics have included in the postmodernist tradition, and at the same time the subject matter of these novels deals mostly with social and political issues. Is there a particular, specific approach of yours toward the writing of a novel or is it different every time? A novel may begin with a phrase, or an image or a presiding anger or a sense of recognition for a story in the newspaper. But never with an outline. I write to find out what I’m writing. Some of the novels go along in a clear, linear way, others develop a more complex structure. Each of them demands to be realized according to its nature. If I have sometimes used postmodern devices it is always, as with «Daniel,» in the service of traditional narrative. Four of your novels have been turned into movies. What was your impression of them? I understand that perhaps »Ragtime» was the most ambitious of them all, but «Daniel» had a certain strength to it too. I have no regard for any of the four movies except for the film «Daniel,» for which I wrote the screenplay and which Sidney Lumet directed. It is a far from perfect movie – we made some mistakes – but there are painfully beautiful moments in it From Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Whitman, Thoreau, Crane and James to Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner and to Styron, Mailer, Roth, Bellow, Doctorow, Updike and so many other writers of a very advanced level, surely, for a nation that is 250 years old it is an impressive picture. Why do you think America has produced so much great writing in such a short period? If you are right, it may have to do with the metaphysical disquiet that comes with a secular democracy. We are required to tease out the ontological premises of the Enlightenment. A leading American writer Born in the Bronx in 1931 and raised in a second-generation Russian Jewish family, Edgar Laurence Doctorow attended Kenyon College, where he became a student of John Crowe Ransom, and did postgraduate studies at Columbia University. He worked as a reader for Columbia Pictures before becoming an editor for New American Library and Dial Press. Nowadays his life is divided between writing as well as teaching at institutions such as Yale University’s Drama School, Princeton University, Sarah Lawrence College, the University of California and New York University. He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1998. Works Doctorow’s first novel, «Welcome to Hard Times,» was published in 1960, followed by «Big as Life» in 1966. Nominated for a National Book Award, «The Book of Daniel» was published in 1971, followed by «Ragtime» (1975) and «Loon Lake» (1980). In 1986 he received the National Book Award for «World’s Fair» and three years later he earned the Pen/Faulkner Award as well as the William Dean Howell Medal for «Billy Bathgate.» Doctorow is also the author of various essays and plays. In 2005 he received the National Book Critics’ Circle award for Fiction for «The March.» His other works include «Drinks Before Dinner» (1979), «American Anthem» (1982), «Lives of the Poets: Six Stories and a Novella (1984), «The Waterworks» (1994) and «City of God» (2000). The following works have been published in Greek: «The Book of Daniel» (Polis), «Ragtime» (Epilogi-Thyrathen), «World’s Fair» (Nefeli) and «Billy Bathgate» (Bell).