'It's useful to use the past because it is a complete palate,' he says in his quiet, measured tone. 'We live in this past as much as the present - when you walk down the street you see the past in every building. Who can get through life without looking in the mirror and seeing a father or mother? But my books aren't bound by their period or by history. And I wouldn't call any of this nostalgia.'
At 63, Ed Doctorow looks like an academic - the slight stoop, the beard, the benignly quizzical expression, the preference for wearing cords and baggy sweaters. This befits an author who has taught at Yale and Princeton and still teaches English at graduate school in New York. He lives in Westchester County outside New York with his wife, Helen, but writes in a small office he has had for years on Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village, a part of the city which still retains its bohemian feel even though SoHo and Tribeca have upstaged it as New York's artist colonies.
Here he writes facing a blank wall, 'so that the only way to look out is through the sentence', his imagination roaming the city - 1950s Queens (The Book of Daniel), turn-of-the-century Manhattan and Westchester (Ragtime), the Bronx in the 1930s (World's Fair and Billy Bathgate). 'New York City is the field for my imagination,' he says, 'though I would accept the tag of 'New York writer' only with qualifications.'
One US critic describes Doctorow's fiction as 'drenched in the history, the spirit, the character of America', and he has won numerous literary prizes, including the National Book Award, in the US. In Britain, his work is probably best known through mediocre film versions of some of his books. About his ninth and latest novel, The Waterworks, he remarks drily: 'Someone asked me if there was a film in it. I said 'I hope not'. '
The Waterworks is based on a short story of the same title that appeared in his 1983 book Lives of The Poets; it was a fiction about the impossibility of writing which earned favourable comparisons to writing on the same theme by John Updike and Philip Roth. It is an atmospheric mystery story, set in New York shortly after the Civil War. In it, the editor of a newspaper searches for his star journalist when the latter disappears after telling friends he saw his dead father riding in a carriage through the streets of the city. Over the city and the novel towers the image of the waterworks. In reality, this huge reservoir stood on the site of what is now the New York Public Library, and until the 1890s provided water for the burgeoning city.
'I've been trying to write The Waterworks for 10 years. The image that inspired the story was a drowned child. I didn't know where it came from or where it went. This novel is a very private way to attempt to discover the meaning of the story I wrote because of that image. I thought about writing it before doing World's Fair, then again before Billy Bathgate. But I had to find McIlvaine, the newspaper editor and narrator of the story, before I could proceed.'
Doctorow is articulate about writing, which for him involves launching out into the unknown. 'That wait for McIlvaine - you have to find the voice that allows you to write what you want to write. If you don't find the voice you don't write the book. Even then, I don't begin with a plan. You write best when you write to find out what you're writing. It's a writer's dirty little secret that language precedes the intentions. I was two-thirds of the way through Waterworks before I realised that it had something of the nature of a 19th-century tale. Something of Dr Jekyll on the edges, the idea of mystery, suggested the word tale.'
As an admirer of Twain, Dickens and Stevenson, he was of course pleased by this discovery. His respect for 'the masters' came from his father, a man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of music who also loved literature enough to name his second son after Edgar Allan Poe.
World's Fair, Doctorow's most autobiographical work, describes his upbringing in New York in the Thirties and the neighbourhood in which he lived. His father owned a music store which survived the Depression but floundered in 1941.
The Doctorows were a well-read family and all were good storytellers. Edgar, influenced by his first name, decided at the age of nine that he was a writer - but that he wouldn't need to write for several years to prove it. 'Then, later, my older brother was a model for me. After the Second World War he studied at writing college and wrote a novel at the kitchen table about a returning veteran. It may have been a form of adjustment.'
Doctorow graduated from Columbia with a degree in literature. But, in his view: 'It was a step backwards. Passion and instinct got buried by my education. I knew everything about writing - I could discuss theories and give critiques. Now I don't know any of that. I just do it.'
When he was 25 he went to work for Columbia Pictures as a reader, writing synopses of novels for Hollywood people too busy, or too lazy, to read the books themselves. 'I had to read all these awful, awful westerns and I was becoming seriously ill. So in a fit of anger and frustration I wrote Welcome to Hard Times, a parody to end all westerns.'
Welcome to Hard Times was published in 1960, and was later made into what Doctorow regards as the second worst film in the history of Hollywood (since you'll be wondering: he nominates Swampfire with Johnny Weissmuller as the worst). He became a senior editor at NEL and then editor-in-chief at Dial Press. 'I reached my level of incompetence so, in 1971, took a leave of absence to write The Book of Daniel - and never went back.'
His work as an editor has made him objective about his writing (which he refers to as his 'trade'). He rewrites and reshapes extensively. 'I write fiction, a system of knowledge more comprehensive than any other system of knowledge because it accepts all data and rejects nothing. History, psychology, events, daily life, myths, dreams and even the mutterings of old men on the street. It uses it all. That's why D H Lawrence called fiction 'the whole hog'.'
Each novel has its beginnings in an image - the drowned child in The Waterworks, men in black tie on a tugboat in Billy Bathgate. But the image itself is not enough to start him writing. 'The completion of a book leaves me not elated but depleted and exhausted. It usually takes me a while to recover. The next novel always springs from a moment of pure, absolute and essential desperation.'
He is not desperate yet, so he is busy giving talks and readings. In April he was in Greece, this month he is in Britain for the Brighton and Hay-on-Wye festivals. In his talks, he will doubtless emphasise his belief in the accidental nature of his fiction. To illustrate this, he now tells an anecdote about the publication of Welcome to Hard Times, when he got a letter from an old woman in Texas.
'Young man,' she wrote, 'I was with you all the way until you said 'Jenks roasted the haunch of a prairie dog and had a good meal'. At that moment I knew you hadn't been west of the Hudson River, since the haunch of a prairie dog wouldn't fill a teaspoon.' Doctorow chuckles. 'So I did the only thing I could. I wrote back and said 'That's true of prairie dogs today, ma'am, but . . .' ' He pauses for effect. 'The point being that I wrote the book crucially because I knew nothing about it. That's how writers write: by trying to find what it is they are writing.'
'The Waterworks' is published by Macmillan at pounds 14.99. E L Doctorow will be appearing at the Hay Festival on Sunday 22 May at 8pm, to discuss 'Recovering the Past' with novelists Barry Unsworth and Christopher Bigsby.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content