The following interview with E.L. Doctorow appeared in the March 6, 2006, issue of TIME
Taken together, his 11 novels, which include Ragtime and Billy Bathgate, retell the past 150 years of American history. Doctorow‘s new work, The March, narrates General Sherman’s Civil War campaign and just earned the author his second PEN/Faulkner prize for fiction. Doctorow spoke to TIME’s Lev Grossman about his novel, his generation and his country’s newest war.
SO … WHAT DO I CALL YOU? E.L.? Well, my first name is Edgar. My father liked [Edgar Allan] Poe’s work very much. He liked a lot of bad writers. But Poe is our greatest bad writer, so that’s my consolation.
WHY THE CIVIL WAR? You can’t think seriously about this country without pondering the Civil War. The sin it expunged, the sin it became. It’s our DNA.
AND IT’S OUR NATIONAL TRAUMA. Well, the fracture in our society widened. It’s still there–that crack still goes down the middle of it. You could call the war a trauma. It was, of course. But it had an epic quality to it. It was more than a trauma, really. Sherman’s march was not only a devastating military campaign, it was like a great scythe that cut down and uprooted an entire culture. By creating thousands of refugees, black and white, who attached themselves to the march, it became another reality, another state of being. A floating world. Everything was reversed. The stability and security came to these people from movement rather than from ordinary life rooted on the land. Identities were transformed. Nothing like it had been seen before on the continent, and nothing like it has been seen since. Except for Hurricane Katrina.
I’M SURE THERE ARE NOVELISTS ALREADY TAKING A CRACK AT KATRINA. Probably there will be. Certainly I’m not the kind of novelist who turns around quickly. I’m not the sort of writer who can walk into a party and take a look around, see who’s sleeping with whom and go home and write a novel about society. It’s not the way I work.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A HISTORIAN WRITING HISTORY AND A NOVELIST? The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.
YOU WRITE FICTION ABOUT ACTUAL EVENTS. THAT’S BEEN A TOUCHY SUBJECT LATELY, SINCE THE FLAP OVER JAMES FREY. Well, he’s not my responsibility. That book was mislabeled. It should have been spoken of as a kind of autobiographical novel. People know that novelists are liars. And that’s why we can be trusted to tell the truth.
BUT YOU HAVE A RESPONSIBILITY TO THE REAL PEOPLE IN YOUR BOOK, LIKE GENERAL SHERMAN. Oh, it’s a very serious responsibility, and I take it very seriously. Sherman fascinated me. I had read his memoir. He was a brilliant writer–he was almost as good as Grant. They were the best writing generals we’ve ever had. And I tried to do justice to that and to acknowledge the conflicts within him. He thought the Confederacy was an act of treason and had to be dealt with, and the way you fight a war is without limit.
YOU HAVE ACCUSED PRESIDENT BUSH OF “MORAL VACANCY.” WOULD YOU CONTRAST HIM WITH A GUY LIKE SHERMAN? There’s a passage in the book about the inability to understand death, when Sherman is giving a kind of a soliloquy. His troops have taken a fort just before entering Savannah, and they lie down to sleep beside the dead bodies of the Confederates who were defending the fort. He’s drinking a cup of wine, smoking a cigar and thinking about the difference between sleep and death, and how hard it is to understand death. Some people make the effort to understand it. Others don’t.
YOU’RE PART OF A GREAT GENERATION OF NOVELISTS–ROTH, UPDIKE, MORRISON. DO YOU FEEL AN AFFINITY WITH THEM? We all work off each other. And if we’re each doing our work well, we create a kind of a surge that lifts everyone up. We’re all lifted up by the community of us. Even in competition.
ARE YOU SURPRISED YOU’RE STILL WRITING GREAT BOOKS IN YOUR MID-70S? How old are you? UM, 36. Ah, yes, well, that’s a 36-year-old question.