Sweet Land Stories
March 18, 2005
About this Book
Five stories of poverty, ignorance, reality and the American Dream are depicted in E.L. Doctorow’s "Sweet Land Stories." These tales will take you all over the country for unique perspectives into human values. From a baby kidnapping couple in California (“Baby Wilson”), to a suspicious redbrick house in Illinois (“A House on the Plains”), to a religious cult commune in Kansas (“Walter John Harmon”), to a young woman’s cross-country journey to find her independence (“Jolene: A Life”), to an FBI agent at a crossroads while investigating a White House security breech (“Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden”), "Sweet Land Stories" is an exploration of who we are as people and how we live. Two of Doctorow’s stories featured in this collection have won awards as the best fiction of the year published in American periodicals and two have been chosen for annual best-story anthologies.
E.L. Doctorow's website
"Welcome to Hard Times" (1960)
"Big As Life" (1966)
"The Book of Daniel" (1971)
"Drinks Before Dinner" (1979)
"Loon Lake" (1980)
"American Anthem" (1982)
"Lives of Poets: Six Stories and a Novella" (1984)
"World’s Fair" (1985)
"Billy Bathgate" (1989)
"City of God" (2000)
"Reporting the Universe" (2003)
"Sweet Land Stories" (2004)
Ron Carlson: Hello. Welcome to Books & Co. I'm Ron Carlson, and today our guest is the writer E.L. Doctorow, one of America's most well-known fiction writers, the author of more than a dozen books, including "Billy Bathgate," "Ragtime," "the book of Daniel," among others. Most recently, a collection of short stories "Sweet Land Stories," published by random house. Welcome.
E.L. Doctorow: Thank you.
Ron Carlson: We're so glad you're in Arizona. Let's start, in a sense, at the beginning in terms of you're very accomplished, you've enjoyed every success through these works, and I want to talk about some of the novels, and the difference between novels and short stories, but let's talk about your apprenticeship, because we're in a community of so many writers cutting their teeth. When did you first see yourself as a writer and what were some of the components of what you consider your apprenticeship?
E.L. Doctorow: Well, actually I never really studied writing at the college level. There was one course at Kenyon with John Crowe ransom, in writing poetry, but I think my apprenticeship came rather early. In fact, I was about 9 years old, and I was a great reader, and somewhere along the line I began to ask not only of all these great stories I was reading "what happens next?" but how is this done? I decided about the age of 9 that I was a writer, and actually once I decided that, I didn't really feel it was necessary to write anything to prove it for many years. Instead, I did read voraciously. Another bit of a push in this direction was the fact I was named after Poe, Edgar Allan Poe. My father was a great reader of Poe. He loved Poe's work.
Ron Carlson: And he named you -- that Edgar is Edgar Allan Poe?
E.L. Doctorow: That's right. Actually he liked a lot of bad writers, but at least Poe is our greatest bad writer. And I didn't know anything about him except that he was -- must have been famous because he was on the deck of cards called "Authors."
Ron Carlson: "Authors," I remember, sure.
E.L. Doctorow: So then when I first started to write in middle school, it was imitation Edgar Allan Poe stories. So the apprenticeship was sort of self-educating. There was no particular mentor, though teachers would encourage me, the Bronx high school, "This is good, Edgar, you should do more of this," and the school magazine did publish my first story.
Ron Carlson: Oh, really.
E.L. Doctorow: "Dynamo" was the name of the magazine at the Bronx high school, the literary magazine. There were so many smart kids there, it was really insufferable living with them. I was struggling with algebra and they were going around, some of them correctly, as it turned out, predicting they would win the Nobel Prize in Physics. But they did publish that first story. And then I did go to Kenyon, which was a great place for a would-be writer, studied English, philosophy, playwriting, acted in the theater, and little by little, these things came together and I was able to produce a book. It was called "Welcome to Hard Times." I wrote it after I got out of the army, and I had been working for a film company in New York as a reader, and in those days in the 1950s, westerns were very popular. So I had to he read all these really bad westerns day after day, and I was becoming seriously ill. So I wrote a parody. I said, "I can lie about the west better than these guys can," and I wrote a parody and showed it to the man who was running the story department. He said, "This is good, you ought to make a novel out of it." And so I crossed out the title of the story and wrote "Chapter 1" and continued from there. At the time, I had never been west of Ohio, and I felt quite privileged to write about the Dakota Territory in the 1870s. And I thought I got away with it pretty well. The reviews weren't bad. It did accredit me as a writer, and I didn't feel that I was fooling anyone after Kafka wrote a book called "Amerika" without having ever left Prague, but I did get a letter from a woman in Texas, and she said, "young man" -- and elderly woman, I could tell by her hand. She said, "I was with you all the way until in Chapter 5 you had Jenks make dinner of the roast haunch of a prairie dog." she said, "At that moment I knew you had never been west of Ohio." so I said, "Well" -- I wrote back the only thing I could, I said, "That's true today, madam, but in the 1870s, prairie dogs were" --
Ron Carlson: Somewhat larger.
E.L. Doctorow: That's right.
Ron Carlson: In that regard, for a fiction writer, I want to talk about what's next in a minute, but we get called out from time to time. I mean, I used the phrase "Canadian Geese" in a story and the proper name is "Canada Geese." So it's interesting to get these letters from observant readers. What obligation do you have to your research? Because you've done a lot of research. You've written a lot about different places.
E.L. Doctorow: I don't know if what I do can be called research. It's so idiosyncratic and subjective. I've known too many writers who have researched things so thoroughly that they're stopped in their tracks.
Ron Carlson: That's what I'm asking.
E.L. Doctorow: And I believe when I'm asked this question "How much have you researched," I say, "Just enough." You start writing, and if you are writing well, I think really you create kind of a magnet force field around you. Whatever you need will come to hand. You'll see something in the street or run into -- I'll give you an example. In "Ragtime," I wrote a scene in which this -- the old silhouette artist Tateh and his little girl take streetcars from New York up to Lowell, Massachusetts, on the interurban street lines, which I knew were very widespread in those days, in the 1910s era, but I felt, well, this is really a stretch, and I’d better find out if it was possible to do this. But I didn't know how to go about researching it. So I was wandering around in the New York public library in the mid-Manhattan branch through the stacks, and my knee banged into a shelf of oversized books that were protruding from the shelf, and there was one with a big orange cover that was very prominent. So I just picked it up and looked at it, and it was a history of trolley car companies in America. And I’d found out, yes, you could go to Lowell, Massachusetts, from New York paying nickels with each new line. In fact, you could go from New York to Chicago by streetcar in those days, and it was a great system, and it was destroyed probably -- J.P. Morgan bought up some lines that he felt were competing with the new haven railroad. He destroyed them. Then the General Motors Corporation went around to cities saying buses are much cleaner and better, which was not true. And so trolley cars, streetcar transportation folded. Too bad.
Ron Carlson: But you found that book by accident.
E.L. Doctorow: By accident.
Ron Carlson: So it's a little different now with the internet. Everyone researches everything on the internet. It's all I hear about. People are "Googling" and finding out this stuff. You don't have a research staff? You just do your own research, correct?
E.L. Doctorow: I don't use a research -- one book I hired a guy to get some old magazines for me. I guess that was for "World's Fair." but, you know, a lot of what you make up is simply applying yourself logically to the situation, and there's really not that much trouble. I never corrected the problem in "Welcome to Hard Times." I left it. You know the Hawthorne story, the birthmark, where this man's married to this beautiful woman and she's absolutely perfect, and he loves her, but she has a little birth mark on her cheek in the shape of a tiny hand, and he's a natural scientist, so he concocts a potion and says, "Drink this and the birthmark will disappear and you'll be perfect." Because she loves him, she drinks it and the birthmark disappears and at that moment she dies. So that's why I've left Jenks out eating the roast haunch of prairie dogs.
Ron Carlson: Leave your beautiful flaws.
E.L. Doctorow You want flaws.
Ron Carlson: Sure, I understand. Talking about research, so many times the question becomes your responsibility to be exact but, I mean, what you're saying is very much more kindred to what I've experienced, that is to say, as you focus on the work, that what you're writing becomes its own research, that you create and find the information you need.
E.L. Doctorow: I think so. You do look things up, but basically you have to trust the act of writing to guide you.
Ron Carlson: You said that you were a voracious reader, and we've talked about Edgar Allan Poe, and it may be you returned to Poe a little bit with a couple of these stories, but what else were you reading that made you -- I mean, this question, which I hear about it all the time, it's so key, where all of a sudden a young person or a person early in their writing career, his or her writing career, will say, "How is this made?" and they'll start to look at the book differently than just a reader, but as a kind of an inquiry. Do you remember any of those books where you thought, "How did they do this?" "How did the writer make this?"
E.L. Doctorow: Well, yeah. I remember reading the sports novels of John R. Tunis, and a lot of boys' books, "Baseball Joe in the central league." I was big on sports. But there were some crucial books that got me thinking. I was very ill as an 8-year-old. I got peritonitis after a ruptured appendix, and my father and mother brought me four paperback books to read. They were sort of like -- they were like little sacred things. They knew I was a reader. It was one of the first paperbacks published by Pocket. They were 25 cents each. One of them was Frank Buck's "Bring 'Em Back Alive." He was this racist animal collector. Terrible man. And then another book that I didn't really like, "Bambi" by Felix Salten. A very saccharine piece of work. But then "Lost Horizon" by James Hilton, which was a big best seller in those days. And then a book that was very mysterious to me because it was about romance, which I wasn't really interested in, but I read it anyway, called "Wuthering heights." I think at that point maybe I was delirious. I began to wonder about the people who could do this for me, make these words just turn into life. Then, of course, I found Jack London, and it wasn't only "Buck" the dog who was loping along with the wolf pack, it was the author. He impressed me at that age, and I began seriously to think about how these things are done.
Ron Carlson: Let me remind everybody we're talking with the writer E.L. Doctorow. His newest book is a collection of stories called "Sweet Land Stories." When did you realize that being a writer was a viable career choice? America today we have this burgeoning industry, creative writing programs and writing -- there's such an awareness. Even 20 years ago it was different. But at that time was there a sense of loneliness? And how did you make the choice saying, "this is an option, I'm going to pursue this, I'm going to write"?
E.L. Doctorow: I don't think it was a choice. It just sort of -- I slipped into it, and I always wanted to do it, and it was what I wanted to do, and it was what I felt -- When I felt most like myself. It was highly personal. There was just one moment in my childhood when I betrayed the calling. I told my older brother that I decided I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer, and he said very smartly, "You just like the sound of the words." And it's at that moment -- but you're right, there were no organized writing programs in those days. There was an occasional writing course. And it was all self-motivated and self-inflicted because it was -- I was married with a child and out of the army and very impractical, and all I had was my mustering out pay. And we found this modest apartment in Jackson Heights in Queens, and there was my young wife and this little tiny baby, and I decided I would support them by writing my first novel. And my wife said, "Well, that's a good idea." And I sat down, and I was going to do this book in six weeks, which was about how much money we had to live on, six weeks' worth, paying the rent and so on, and after the first two weeks I had done a page-and-a-half, and my wife said, "Dear, perhaps there's another way of working this out." And I went off and got a job working for an airline as a reservations clerk and wrote the book at night, first novel. But it was always a -- there was never any sense of community that I had as a young writer.
Ron Carlson: Who were the first writers you met? Where did you first meet the next person who said, "Oh, you're a writer, too"?
E.L. Doctorow: Well, it's a little odd because I broke another rule. Everyone told me if you want to be a writer, don't get a job in publishing. So, of course, I immediately got a job in publishing. On the basis of my credentials as a reader for the film company I got a job as associate editor with new American library, which at that time was the best mass market paperback house, and then I wrote -- met a lot of writers and edited some of them. I met -- I edited Ian Fleming, the doctor -- the "James Bond" guy. I was prepared not to like him, but he was a very gracious man. And a little bit of Ayn Rand, had a little connection with her, and ran into a lot of writers, mystery writers, and people like Erskine Caldwell. Does anyone ever read Erskine Caldwell anymore?
Ron Carlson: Barely.
E.L. Doctorow: I also remember before that job I had a night job in a small hospital, private hospital for alcoholics and narcotics, and I had the midnight to 8:00 a.m. Shift at the switchboard at the reception desk. One day the board lit up and it was William Faulkner, who was a patient there and we had a nice little chat. So that was dazzling for me.
Ron Carlson: Well, you have set -- anyone who glances down the list of your titles would say, "Oh, these are interesting, they're set in very historical periods" and talk about that a little bit in terms of -- for instance, everyone knows your book "Ragtime" and how -- that's part of the reason I asked about the research. But in terms of why you've written about historical periods, historical political periods, and what maybe was your favorite one of your work.
E.L. Doctorow: Well, there again, it didn't happen as a matter of decision-making or planning or -- there was no scheme I had in mind. You see, my books usually began from some state of mental arousal that I don't quite understand. With "Loon Lake" it was just those two words, "loon lake," that I saw on a road sign in the Adirondacks. With "Billy Bathgate," I just had an image in my mind of men in black tie standing on the deck of a tugboat at night, and I couldn't figure out -- that was such an odd juxtaposition, and then I decided they were gangsters and they were on that tugboat because they were going to take one of their friends and dump him in the harbor with cement around his ankles. Then I said, "well, who would see that?" and then I found Billy, who jumped on the boat at the last minute headed down the east river. And without any plan or --
Ron Carlson: So one thing leads to another?
E.L. Doctorow: It starts with a small, very evocative kind of either an image or it could be a phrase of music. With "Ragtime," it was a little different. What happened was that I had finished "The Book of Daniel" and had been totally, emotionally depleted by that book and couldn't write anything for a year afterwards. And at that time we were living in New Rochelle, and I had an office on the third floor in the attic, and it was a particularly bad day, and I was staring at the wall. So I started to write about the wall. That's the kind of day you have sometimes. Well, this house was built in 1906, was the first house on the top of the Broadview Avenue Hill, and I began to think, well, that was the house, and the street looked this way, and down at the bottom of the hill the streetcars ran to the sound, and people wore white in the summer, there was no air conditioning, the men wore straw boaters, Teddy Roosevelt was president, and one image after another popped into my mind, and I was off the wall and into the book.
Ron Carlson: You know, the prose in that book has a different texture than your other prose. Is that true?
E.L. Doctorow: Well, I don't know. I don't look back.
Ron Carlson: It seemed to me almost to have a musical quality. I remember vividly at the time reading it thinking how measured you were, but I've heard you speak elsewhere about this whole idea of moving from the dream or the evocative image or the excited state of mind, and so with a book like a novel, and then we'll talk about these stories, is there -- how much planning is there? Is there a strategy, a map?
E.L. Doctorow: Well, after I turned "Ragtime" into my editor, he said, "You tend to write about the past," and I hadn't realized that until he said that. Because "Welcome to Hard Times" in the 1870s, and all these books can be arranged chronologically now and nothing I planned, but you could start with "Welcome to Hard Times," "Waterworks," which takes place in New York City at that period of time, and then come up to "Ragtime" and then three novels from the 1930s, "Billy Bathgate," "World's Fair," "the book of Daniel" goes from the '30s into the '60s. And the last novel, "City of God," is contemporary. So you do get over 100 years, if you want it, of one man's idea of what was happening in this country. But this was not planned. This was never planned. What I did figure out at one point when I started to think about it is that a period of time can be as much of an organizing principle for a book as a place. Writers talk about their sense of place. But a sense of time can be -- can border the concept for a novel.
Ron Carlson: Right. Let's talk about these stories. I was surprised about Edgar Allan Poe because in this first story, "A House on the Plains," it's a kind of -- what would you call it, a gothic, with the Aunt Dora, the mother, is essentially very affective, and organized murderess.
E.L. Doctorow: That's right. She is.
Ron Carlson: Tell me about the germ of this story.
E.L. Doctorow: Well, the germ of this story happens to be something I read many, many years ago about such a woman named Belle Paulson who lived in the Midwest and made a career out of knocking off immigrant suitors, but worse than that, she also took care of a few husbands and her own children in order to collect insurance money. So my "Aunt Dora" is not quite that bad, although she does get children who are not her own.
Ron Carlson: Well, it's an interesting story because the events are horrible, but the point of view, because we hear it through her son, is kind of -- we can kind of swallow it. He's kind of tender and also he's so oblique in his telling that the clues kind of gather and gather and kind of don't hit us until the end.
E.L. Doctorow: Yeah, it's a surprising story. The clues are all in there. "Earl" is his name, and he subscribes to his mother's philosophy, which is the purpose of life is to improve your station in it. And the other thing that interested me about -- as I was writing this, people who do terribly evil things always do it with a great sense of justification and righteousness. Never imagine that they're doing -- and she is -- has her own universe around herself where everything works and everything is justified and permissible.
Ron Carlson: That's paralleled in the story called "Baby Wilson," which is one of my favorites in the book, where the -- essentially this unreliable woman steals a baby. So we've had cases of this in the news, but the narrator is so endearing as he tries to deal with this problem that's come into their lives that, again, these dire -- this dire moment is kind of made affectionate.
E.L. Doctorow: Well, the idea for that came out of -- I happened to read a line somewhere, some sociologist said -- there are a lot of kidnappings in this country, they go on all the time -- when a woman kidnaps a child, it's not usually for ransom. Whereas, when men are involved, it's a financial scheme.
Ron Carlson: Right.
E.L. Doctorow: That was all I needed to kind -- this hippie girl works in a flower shop and doesn't wear shoes in the business district.
Ron Carlson: Well, I thought -- the victory -- not the victory, but one of the sweetest things about both of those stories is the point of view of these narrators. I want to talk about a story called "Walter John Harmon," about a cult. Although, they don't call it a cult. And the narrator there again is just to the side. It's his wife who essentially gets involved with this prophet, and where is the germ of that story?
E.L. Doctorow: There I don't know. It's just that people of this sort -- this kind of phenomenon seems to have arisen, at least in the public consciousness, in the past 10 or 15 years. There was all that stuff about the guy down in Guiana and the Waco, Texas, thing and a lot of other stories of this sort, and it just -- somehow something gathered in my mind and I started to write this story. I don't know how to put it more --
Ron Carlson: Well, let's talk about this in our last minute here. I love talking about the particulars of these stories. So you get an image and then you're willing based on that image to go in and try to find a story. Is this correct?
E.L. Doctorow: Well, if there is a story. Sometimes you get all excited and it turns out to be nothing.
Ron Carlson: I was going to ask you, what's the percentage?
E.L. Doctorow: the percentage is rather low. I don't want to indicate that I go around in states of inspiration every day. No, it's -- you know, there's a lot of stuff that we throw away. There just is. And I've left out all the details about the hard work, haven't I? You know, Thomas Mann said, he said, "A writer is a person who finds writing difficult." Truer words were never spoken.
Ron Carlson: I think that's a really nice place to stop. This has been absolutely wonderful talking to you about this and thank you very much for coming forward with all this data.
E.L. Doctorow: My pleasure.
Ron Carlson: Let me thank you for watching. Again, I'm Ron Carlson. This has been Books & Co. Thank you for watching.