The Process of E.L. Doctorow

The highly regarded and award-winning novelist, E.L. Doctorow, whose books were on our shelves while I was growing up, spoke the other day at Michigan State University, and raised some interesting points about what “is” historical fiction. His point is that all fiction is historical–except the genre writing of that name which seems to be pure trash in his opinion–even stories set in the future. He uses historical settings for his stories, and I believe he resists the reduction of value associated with the genre.

What I found amazing was his description of how he writes. He started Ragtime by writing about the place where he lived at that moment, and then worked backwards in time to discover the interesting, albeit imaginary, things that happened in that place. He tossed in historical figures the way a chef might make a stew, looking in the pantry for ingredients, and using whatever he found.

Thus he spent a few years working his way into a story, and his result was one of the best selling novels of its time. It was made into a movie and a Broadway production.  He spent a few years crafting the story, and said that most of his novels are written that way.

I am going to make a leap and assume that Doctorow has what Hemingway called a built-in, fool-proof, bullshit detector. As his thoughts lead to story, he sees the problems as they evolve, and can go back and correct them. I assume it’s best to correct as soon after they are composed so that the entire story does not devolve into a mess. But maybe that’s why it took him three years. Still, three years is a bargain for creating a brilliant and entertaining story.

Now, where can I find me one of those bullshit detectors?