I had the privilege of meeting E.L. Doctorow twice — a few years ago in San Francisco and a few decades ago in Toronto when I was an aspiring writer attending my first-ever writing conference. I’ll never forget how, in a vast hall cantilevered above the shores of Lake Ontario, where everyone seemed to be holding their breath listening to Doctorow read from “Loon Lake,” I distinctly heard the sound of birds calling to one another across the water. My body absorbed Doctorow’s voice along with the voices of those birds (Were they loons? Could they be?), and I felt myself becoming a little more of a writer than I had been a few moments before.
Later, I waited in line clutching a pair of paperback books for him to sign, my worn-out-from-re-reading-them copies of “Ragtime” and “Loon Lake.” It was the first time I spoke with an author I admired as much as I admired him, and even though I suddenly realized that everyone else in line was holding elegant hardcovers, I inched my way forward until it was my turn to stand in front of him. I tried to explain about the birds. I wanted to know, did he hear them too?
This took place on Oct. 24, 1981. I’m sure because I still have those yellowing books, which have stayed with me for all these years though I’ve just opened them for the first time in quite a while. I see now that there is no inscription, nothing personal, just his signature and the date and the word Toronto. In my memory, which of course is thoroughly interlaced with my imagination, I told him I wanted to be a writer, and he gave me his blessing.
Edgar Lawrence Doctorow is outlived by his 12 novels, as well as essay collections and short stories and plays. He wrote prize-winning bestsellers about the Civil War and about gangsters and about a nearly mythical New York City, about the Rosenbergs’ executions and about the Wild West. In “Ragtime,” which remains my favorite of his novels and close to the top of my list of favorite novels of the 20th century, Doctorow includes several historical figures in a concoction that is as musically hypnotic as it is sociologically illuminating. Houdini is featured alongside Emma Goldman alongside Stanford White alongside Evelyn Nesbit, J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford; all of these gorgeously interwoven with characters from his own fecund imagination.
I did become a writer. And in particular my most recent novel was very much inspired by Doctorow’s exquisite blending of fact and fiction. While I was struggling with my book some years ago, I met him during a book festival at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center and asked for advice about how to manage writing fictionally about public figures. He said, “I treat them like my characters. The way portrait painters create interpretations of their subjects, that is more or less what I do too.” His words gave me courage and revived my enthusiasm; I plunged ahead with what I was doing, allowing my research to nourish and expand my vision rather than constraining the work of art. I interpreted. I painted.
Critics have lengthily discussed Doctorow’s wide-ranging themes and elaborate style; his sly wit and bold experimentation; his erudition and his politics. I’ve often heard Doctorow referenced in literary circles via his infinitely quotable description of the novelist’s task: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Although I never studied with him in the classroom, I learned from his books that the words and images and characters I choose as a novelist reveal as much about myself as they do about the world I’m mapping. Doctorow covered vast landscapes of time and place with insight and irreverence, depicting tragedy, greed, poverty, crime, beauty — and all of it, yes, a personal collage of history. When the grandfather of Coalhouse Walker Jr. (the gifted pianist from “Ragtime”) makes an appearance on the pages of Doctorow’s much later novel “The March,” I’m guessing that many readers like me were overjoyed to discover that the author chose to revisit one of the forebears of an imaginary Harlem, tracing some entangled roots of American history right inside the pages of his own novels. I am terribly sad that after “Andrew’s Brain,” his last published work, there might well be no more Doctorow on the horizon. But as writer and reader, I am grateful for the dazzling talent he shared with us, the depth and breadth of his navigation. And now, my own mysterious perseverance is calling. The fog stretches on and on. I turn on my headlights, and drive.