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

April 05, 1989|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — 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."

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