Here's a really horrid cell phone picture of him on stage:
He read a new short story called "Assimilation" that hasn't even been published yet. It's going to be in the New Yorker in a couple of weeks. It was really enjoyable to actually hear the author present his own work and the story was quite interesting (that sounds less enthusiastic than I intended...) The story was great!
The reading was fantastic, but the highlight of the evening for me was the Question and Answer time at the end. He was so funny and gave some fantastic advice that I just knew I had to share with all of you. I was just listening and enjoying until someone asked the question:
Why do you write?
Everyone kind of chuckled and Doctorow waited until the laughter had subsided. Then he leaned in to the microphone and said,
Applause and laughter. What a great answer!
At that point I thought, this could make a great blog post! So I whipped out my notebook and started furiously taking notes. I think my friend thought I was crazy. It looked like I was preparing for a test. But I got some great quotes for you guys! So here's some of the Q&A:
Q: What authors influenced you?
A: Doctorow's father was a big Poe fan, so he grew up with him. "Poe is our greatest bad writer." When Doctorow started writing in middle school he wrote a lot of things that were heavily influenced by Poe. "'The cellar was dark and dank.' That was one of my great first lines." He read books because the titles interested him. He saw a book called The Idiot and thought, that's a great title. So he picked it up and read it - so he'd be reading Dostoevsky one day and a comic book the next. Some of the other authors that influenced him were London, Twain, Melville, Whitman, Dickens, Hardy, Chekhov.
Then he started writing. He said when a child stops asking "what happens next" when they're reading and starts asking "how is the author doing it," that's usually when you can see they're getting interested in writing. His writing is "just a response to good writing."
"If you want to write novels
you have to read them."
Q: How much research do you do before you let your imagination take over?
A: "Just enough" He went on to say that sometimes you can kill a story by doing too much research, but at the same time you have to do enough to be accurate. When he was writing Ragtime he needed to know if two of the characters could take a trolley from where they were to Connecticut. He didn't know where to find the information and he was wandering around the mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library, not really sure where to go or what to do and he picked up a book that had been left on a table and it was a history of trolley cars.
Q: Do you use an outline when you write?
A: No. Many people do, but he never has. "You want to be in a position where you can find out what you're writing... It begins to tell you what will happen or what needs to be done."
"It's not an entirely rational process
and I don't know if I would recommend it to anyone."
Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
A: There is a "continuum between reading and writing. Just read continually."
"Try to write every day." He talked about just sitting there and letting the cursor blink at you on the screen. "Just say anything that comes to mind." Eventually you'll come across "something that interests you. Something that lights up the page for you. That could be the beginning of a story."
"Constancy is the key."
Q: What was the inspiration for Ragtime?
A: "That book came out of sheer desperation."
He had finished a book and was completely exhausted and unable to write anything for months. He sat down in his office. He likes his desk to face the wall, not the window. And as he sat there staring at the wall he started to write about it. He talked about the wall and described it and then moved from there to the house that the wall was a part of and just kept moving out from there.
After the Q&A time, they had books for sale in the back and he stayed around to sign books. Here's a slightly better picture of him as I waited in line:
Yeah! Another autographed book to add to my collection!
So, Why Write?