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Novelist E.L Doctorow, Master Of Historical Fiction, Dies At 84


And now let's take a moment to remember E.L. Doctorow, who has died at the age of 84. E.L. Doctorow's books brought much of America and its history to life.


E.L. DOCTOROW: I think really of myself as a national novelist, as an American novelist writing about my country.


That is E.L. Doctorow, and he was a contender to be the national novelist. He set his books in turbulent American times.

INSKEEP: You could set those books in chronological order and gain a provocative vision of the history of a changing nation.

MONTAGNE: Doctorow's novel "The March" was set in the Civil War. A fictional mixed race girl follows General William T. Sherman's real life march through the South.

INSKEEP: His novel "The Waterworks" illuminated New York City soon after the war in what was called the Gilded Age. Obscenely wealthy old men pay a mysterious scientist to give them eternal life, which he delivers only in the most technical sense.

MONTAGNE: And then there was "Ragtime," one of four Doctorow novels that became movies. In the early 20th century, a patriotic fireworks maker creates an idyllic suburban life for his family.

INSKEEP: It is, to be clear, a white suburban life. On an early page, the narrator describes life this way, quote, "tennis rackets were hefty and the racket faces elliptical. There was a lot of sexual fainting. There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants."

MONTAGNE: But soon the narrator is forced to revise that, quote, "apparently there were Negroes. There were immigrants." And an unforgettable black character, Coalhouse Walker, soon arrives driving a Model T Ford and demanding his rights.

INSKEEP: The author of these and other novels was a child of the Depression. E.L. Doctorow was born in 1931 in the Bronx. His family was poor, but as he once told NPR, he had access to books.


DOCTOROW: I was reading constantly everything I could get my hands on. And, you know, at that age, something else happens if you're going to be a writer. You're reading for the excitement of it and to find out what happens next, just racing along. And then another little line of inquiry comes into your head. You say, well, how is this done?

INSKEEP: Well, how is it done? It took Doctorow time to find the answer. As a young man he served in the Army, then as a book editor before publishing his first book at age 30.

MONTAGNE: Many books later he was able to describe his writing technique. He talked with our colleague Scott Simon about a novel published last year.


DOCTOROW: The ideal way to get involved in this sort of work is to write in order to find out what you're writing. You don't start with an outline and a plan. You start from these images that are very vocative to you. And in this case, it's the first line in the book where Andrew's saying I can tell you what I'm about to tell you, but it's not pretty. And suddenly you find yourself with your character.

MONTAGNE: In this case, the book was set inside the mind of a man who was trying to get a story out. Doctorow, of course, spent his life pulling stories from his own mind.


DOCTOROW: I seem to appreciate quiet. And when I'm writing I like to seal everything off and face the wall and not to look outside the window so that the only way out is through the sentences.

INSKEEP: And the late E.L. Doctorow left behind a lifetime of sentences. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.