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E.L. Doctorow lights out for the heartland

'Sweet Land Stories' a series of old-fashioned, non-urban tales
/ Source: The Associated Press

On a leisurely spring afternoon, author E.L. Doctorow sits for an interview in his office at New York University, a professorial figure with his high forehead and soft beard, his wry smile fitting for a man who always seems to be debating how much he’s willing to tell.

With books by Stendhal, Tolstoy and other favorites stacked on shelves behind him and his own books on shelves in front of him, it is a comfortable setting for the author of “Ragtime,” “Billy Bathgate” and other acclaimed best sellers. A professor of creative writing at NYU, the 73-year-old Doctorow has been publishing novels for more than 40 years and remains committed to storytelling at a time when readers seem preoccupied with politics, diets and spirituality.

“Fiction writers have always faced obstacles of this sort,” he says. “So part of the game is figuring out how to move the audience.

“I stay away from theory, from any aesthetic plan or ideal of what fiction should be. The books always come out of very private mental excitement. I just pursue it and if it turns into a book that’s great.”

Although known for historical novels based in New York City, Doctorow has always been willing to experiment. He has written a Western ("Welcome to Hard Times”) and science fiction ("Big as Life”). He has written in third person and first person, about religious quests ("City of God”) and matters of the flesh ("Billy Bathgate”).

Another departure
His current book, “Sweet Land Stories,” is another departure, fiction set mostly in such unlikely terrain (for Doctorow) as Alaska and Kansas. Instead of urban legends stocked with the likes of Henry Ford and Harry Houdini, he presents a series of old-fashioned, non-urban tales.

“I edited an anthology of short stories in 2000 ("The Best American Short Stories”) and I realized that some of the writers I was enjoying most were from other countries — from the Caribbean, from Latin America, from Eastern Europe, Korea, China.

“And they were not doing the classic modern short story. ... These people were writing stories more like the tales being written in the 19th century. They didn’t start close to the end of the action. They took their time. And I felt, ‘Yeah, why not?”’

Doctorow did not do any firsthand research for his stories. Instead, he began with an image or a historical event, as in “A House on the Plains,” based on the true story of a murderer who hides out in rural Illinois.

The characters in “Sweet Land” are outsiders, finding — or losing — their place in a world that has granted them little actual power. “Walter John Harmon” is the story of a cult commune in Kansas. In “Jolene: A Life,” a young woman from the South survives three marriages and ends up in Hollywood, dreaming of the movies.

Doctorow’s prose in “Sweet Land” seems nothing like that of his previous works, but there is no single “Doctorow” voice. He is expansive in “Ragtime,” terse and epigrammatical in “Lives of the Poets,” reflective in “World’s Fair.” In “Sweet Land,” he is plain and naturalistic, as if the open territory of the stories inspired a direct approach in his work.

“I had taken up with her knowing she was this crazy lovesick girl,” he writes in “Baby Wilson,” narrated by the husband of a woman who swipes a baby.

“It was against my better judgment. I was too accustomed to having my life made easy. I was stuck in my tracks by the smitten sweet smile and the pale eyes. With straight brown hair she never fussed with but to wash it. And she wore long cotton dresses and no shoes in the business district. Karen. A whole year ago. And now she had gone and done this thing.”

A political commentaryDoctorow is a longtime liberal and the book’s final story, “Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden,” comes closest to political commentary. The main character is a special agent, B.W. Molloy, who tries to discover how the body of a dead boy ends up on the grounds of the White House. Molloy finds himself frustrated by a secretive administration and oppressed by Washington, D.C., as a whole.

“Classical, white and monumentalized, it looked like no other American city. It was someone’s fantasy of august government,” Doctorow writes. “He kept to the federal business streets, where the ranks of dark windows between the columns of the long pedimented buildings suggested a nation’s business that was beyond the comprehension of ordinary citizens.”

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow, named after Edgar Allan Poe, was born in New York in 1931. His father ran a music store, his mother was a pianist. In those pre-televised times, Doctorow grew up amid discussions of art and politics, in what he has called “a lower middle-class environment of generally enlightened socialist sensibility.”

He majored in philosophy at Kenyon College, in Gambier, Ohio, and studied drama at Columbia University. He has long complained how movies have ruined his books ("Ragtime,” “Billy Bathgate”), but Doctorow actually started out in film, serving as a script reader for Columbia Pictures. While there, he read so many Westerns he decided to write one himself, a “knockoff” called “Welcome to Hard Times” that was released in 1960.

“It was a rookie novel,” Doctorow says. “I think it holds up. It’s been in print ever since, but it didn’t teach me much as a writer.”

A literary force
After “Big as Life,” an admittedly failed attempt at science fiction, Doctorow emerged as a major writer in 1971 with “The Book of Daniel,” a panorama of politics, family and morality during the Cold War era.

Over the next 20 years he became the rare writer blessed with both a popular and critical following. “Ragtime,” published in 1975, is a million-selling novel that won the National Book Critics Circle prize. “Billy Bathgate,” another best seller, won the NBCC in 1990.

He has been called a “historical” novelist, but his books are just as preoccupied with the future. “World’s Fair” centers on the imagined utopia of the famed 1939 exhibit. “The Waterworks,” set in New York in the 1870s, is both a detective story and a parable about the dangers of science and technology.

“Doctorow, as much as anyone, shows how silly the distinction of historical fiction is,” says Kevin Baker, author of the acclaimed “Paradise Alley,” a novel set in New York in the 1860s. “His books are inhabited by real characters, and you’re conscious of the age they’re living in, but you never feel he’s writing about some distant time, set in amber. You feel it’s all happening now.”

Doctorow considers himself an American writer — not a historical writer, or a “New York” writer, even as several books about New York history can be found on his shelves. While New York is commonly disparaged as something apart from the rest of the country, Doctorow sees it as no less American than the Midwest or the other backdrops for his current story collection.

“New York has always been the big contact city. That’s why it’s so alive. It’s where the immigrant cultures have made contact with the native residents. This is an infusion of energy and cultural data,” he says.

“If you think of the country as always renewing itself, perfecting itself and achieving something, you think of New York. If you think of the most pluralistic place in the country and the most predictive of the ways the rest of the country will be in a generation of two, it would be New York.”