Billy Bathgate Discussion With EL DoctorowE.L. Doctorow met with Gotham Gazette's Reading NYC Book Club to discuss his novel Billy Bathgate; what it means to be a New York author; what happens when novelists write history and historians write fiction; and his recommendations for the best NYC books and the worst movies of all time (one of the movies was made from one of his books). Below are excerpts edited by Doctorow himself.
Gotham Gazette: Welcome to Gotham Gazette's Reading NYC Book Club. We are honored to have E.L. Doctorow as our guest this evening. Mr. Doctorow's works include Billy Bathgate, World's Fair, Ragtime, City of God and, more recently, Reporting the Universe and Sweet Land Stories. Among the honors Mr. Doctorow has received are the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award twice, and the PEN/Faulkner Award. His books have also been adapted into movies and one, Ragtime, became a Broadway musical.
Mr. Doctorow is a New York native, and much of his work deals with New York. In fact, the book we read this month, Billy Bathgate, is about a boy growing up in the Bronx who joins the criminal gang of Dutch Schultz.
Mr. Doctorow, generally what we talk about is New York City, and you grew up in the Bronx. Billy Bathgate is about a kid growing up in the Bronx, more or less, so I was wondering how much your own childhood inspired the story. Did any events from your childhood end up in the novel?
Doctorow: Well, if you're asking did I join Dutch Schultz's criminal enterprise, no. Dutch Schultz was from an earlier era. He had lived for a while in the neighborhood of my local library on Washington Avenue. But I did read about his career. He was a sociopath, and he was not cooperative with other gangsters; they felt he was a threat to the gangster community, which is why they eventually took him out. But the book began as an image in my mind. Sometimes that's the way things happen: some small thing, something very evocative, a piece of conversation or an image in your mind or a piece of music, gets you going.
In the case of Billy Bathgate, I had this image of men in black tie standing on the deck of a tugboat at night. I didn't understand what they were doing there. Were they taking one of their members out to the harbor to dump him? Who was seeing this? It turned out to be this boy who jumped on the boat at the last minute. In this way he became acquainted with Dutch Schultz.
Gotham Gazette: Aside from that book, how much do you think that New York, and your identity as a New Yorker, factors into the way you write?
Doctorow: I don't know, because I don't have anything to compare it to. I'm not a regional writer as a southern writer might be, or a western writer. This city does not confer a literary regional identity. I never thought of it as a setting - I always thought of it as life.
GG: You've written about New York over a long period of time - you've written about the city in many different stages. Do you have a favorite period to write about?
Doctorow: Not really. I have written three novels that take place in the 1930s: this one, World's Fair, and Loon Lake. But there's no plan. I was a child in the 1930s, and maybe that has something to do with it.
GG: I remember reading an interview with you where you said that whatever was happening in the world when you were 13 informs their worldview for the rest of their life. Do you still believe that?
Doctorow: Are you sure I and not someone else said that? It's a proposition to be tested, I think. Kids do learn very quickly, and suffer the life over which they have no control: it's given to them by their parents and so on. But I don't think development stops at the age of 13. That's a very biblical number, isn't it?
HISTORICAL FICTION AND HISTORY
GG: Many of your novels have either historical characters or actual events in a fictional setting and I actually saw you quoted once as saying " history written by historians is clearly insufficient."
Doctorow: The interesting thing is that over the last few years some historians have started to write fiction because they have felt that way, or they have felt that they should be a little more forthcoming about their creativity. Historiography is very creative. Nietzsche said that there are no facts without meaning. That means that you have a context, a point of view that illuminates some facts and dims others. The Japanese have written textbooks for their children which have nothing about their culpability in World War II, the fact that they bombed Pearl Harbor - which began things - or that they committed atrocities in Manchuria in 1937.
It's rather naive to think that there is a base reality that is not amenable to any construction that's put on it. We have now in the universities "Black Studies Programs", "Afro- American Studies". That didn't exist before the 1960s; it was as if there was no data, no materials coming out of the slave communities in the 19th or 18th centuries In fact, there was an enormous amount of material, it was totally ignored and the histories that were written were written from the point of view of white plantation owners and generals. To this day the contribution of Chinese immigrants in the 19th century to the building of this country has not been really recorded. So when you leave things out, you're really mythologizing.
Book Club Member: When you're mythologizing, you're using mythology to explain away that lack of information?
Doctorow: When you leave out things, you're making up a story. Myth is often a means of glorification, self-congratulation, and certainly provides a means to create a culture that sustains itself and continues to produce itself.
Book Club Member: When you're writing, how do you determine when you have done enough research and the material is enough for the purposes of your narrative?
Doctorow: I've known several cases of writers who decide to write about something and they research the hell out of it and when they're ready to write, they can't move because they are so burdened. I start writing. Whatever I need somehow comes to hand.
GG: We had Kevin Baker, who wrote Dreamland, speak with us earlier this year. His novel also has both historical characters and events - Sigmund Freud is one of the characters, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire is one of the events. He said that he felt the responsibility not to make up people's personalities, but he could move events in time to create a narrative flow.
I'm interested in how you approach writing a character who actually existed, in terms of describing their personality if you can't find out. If you don't feel that you can get a full picture of this person's personality, how much do you just kind of go with your feelings?
Doctorow: I do find out. There are all sorts of ways of finding out. There is a public record of the lives of public people. They've had their picture taken. They've been elected to office. They've gone to jail. They've sat for their portraits or they are a certain behavioral type that you know well.
GG: But how important is it to you that the character you're creating, that has the name of an actual person in history, that this character is actually close to the way this person was? They say that, I forgot the statistic, but I read something recently that said that most people of a certain age, between 18 and 26 get their news exclusively from the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Is there any concern that you have that people will get their history of the 1930s from your novels?
Doctorow: Well, it would be nice if they did. I know what I know about 19th century Russia because I've read Tolstoy and Dostoesvsky. Jon Stewart is very funny, and he's topically oriented to the day's politics, and very, very useful. I'd much rather that people get their news from him than, say, Bill O'Reilly.
The important thing is that over the years there's a consensus about literature. Some of it makes it and most of it doesn't. The books that make it have, in some way, struck people as somehow true. Dutch Schultz might have not said all the things I'm attributing to him; I think he does all the things I'm attributing to him. But are we really going to be concerned about the reputation of Dutch Schultz?
GG: Well, what about your police commissioner of New York City character? Some of your other books have characters who do have more of a reputation.
Doctorow: That's true. But historically famous people made fictions of themselves long before the writers get to them. If you really want to read fiction about JP Morgan, for instance, try his authorized biography.
MAKING MOVIES AND PLAYS FROM BOOKS
Book Club Member: How do you feel about the movies that have been made from your books?
Doctorow: Four of my books have been made into movies.
There's actually one that I like. That's the film that Sydney Lumet made of the Book of Daniel, called Daniel. It's not a perfect movie by any means, but there's some beautiful stuff in it. The others are a disappointment: Ragtime and Billy Bathgate. Welcome to Hard Times is the second worst movie ever made.
GG: What was the worst?
Doctorow: A picture called Swampfire with Johnny Weissmuller.
GG: What did you think of the musical Ragtime?
Doctorow: I liked it. It followed the three families rather faithfully. The music and lyrics are very fine. But, the spirit of the show is not the spirit in the book, because the book keeps its distance from characters. It was written as a mock historical chronicle with a satirical sort of impudence. You can't keep your distance in a Broadway musical when everyone goes around singing their every feeling. So it tended to be a little softer and sweeter and the ending was kind of sentimental. But it's a good show.
GG: Could you tell us a few books on New York City, or that take place in the city that you like and that you'd recommend?
Doctorow: Washington Square by Henry James. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, where the great event is the decision by a wealthy woman to build a mansion in the wilds north of 42nd Street (This, in the 1870s). Melville's Bartelby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street. You would do well, too, with William Dean Howell's A Hazard of New Fortunes, Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky or Call it Sleep by Henry Roth.
More recently, Bernard Malamud's The Assistant, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man or the last book of Don DeLillo's: Cosmopolis. It was knocked around pretty good in the reviews, but it is worth reading. It takes place in a limo moving east to west across 42nd Street. He's a bold writer. And Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, a Chicago novel that ends in New York, a truly great work.-November 30 2004
Comment on this article and New York City fiction on the Books message board.