From the archives: E.L. Doctorow and William Kennedy
By Edward Schwarzschild
Welcome to a regular Trolley column that will feature highlights from the New York State Writers Institute’s extensive archives.
What are the NYSWI archives? For 35 years the Writers Institute has hosted some of the finest writers and filmmakers in the world, bringing them to Albany for talks, panels, colloquia, and more. That adds up to more than 2,000 events, and all of them, thanks to efforts led by associate director Suzanne Lance, have been recorded and collected in the archives. (Digging Deep to Digitize: Writers Institute works to make immense archive publicly accessible, Albany Times Union, January 20, 2018)
Up until now, the NYSWI archives have been an under-utilized resource, in part because the changes in technology over the years have made it difficult to access the material both in-person and online. Recently, however, the Institute has committed itself to digitizing the archives and making them more readily available. This regular feature is just one part of that commitment.
We’re launching this feature with a series of William Kennedy’s most memorable Institute interviews with our visiting writers. We’ll start with E.L. Doctorow (1931-2015), who was the editor of Kennedy’s first novel, The Ink Truck (1969) and who, of course, had his own storied, prize-winning career. Doctorow visited the Institute on several occasions: in 1989 and 1990 when he was the New York State Author, again in 2006, and one last time in 2014.
The interview excerpted here took place during the 2014 visit. Doctorow was on book tour for Andrew’s Brain, which would be his final novel. But, as you’ll see, the conversation between Kennedy and Doctorow ranged far and wide, moving easily over the shared decades of their friendship. As with so much of what you can find in the Institute’s archives, the interview overflows with wisdom, laughter, and a love of literary conversation.
Edward Schwarzschild is the author of the novel "Responsible Men" and the story collection "The Family Diamond." He recently finished writing "In Security," a new novel set in the world of the TSA. He’s an associate professor at the University at Albany, and a fellow at the New York State Writers Institute. Web site.
E.L. Doctorow and William Kennedy
Recorded on February 27, 2014 at the Morgan State House in Albany during Doctorow’s visit to the NYS Writers Institute.
Kennedy: That famous line of yours comes back to me about "driving in the night by the headlights."
Doctorow: That was the interview with [George] Plimpton at the Paris Review. I finally figured out how to explain to people what happens. It’s been heavily quoted and misquoted. I said, “It’s like driving a car at night, you only see what the headlights light up, but you can make the whole trip that way.” People bring in fog and storms. They add all sorts of elements to it, but that was it and people do understand. You write to find out what you’re writing, but it is hard work. You don’t want to claim that it’s just a breeze.
Kennedy: It’s very hard work and I understand just how hard it is.
Doctorow: You have to keep working. You can’t stop.
Kennedy: What do you think of Philip Roth deciding to retire? I just couldn’t make sense out of that. It doesn’t seem real.
Doctorow: I think it’s very funny. I never saw a story on the front page of The New York Times where someone announced that he wasn’t going to do something anymore. It was a rather odd situation. It seems to me he still has a lot of energy, but he has said some things about the state of the art in general and made some statement, I didn’t quite get the gist of it, but that what we did was all finished. Eventually he says he would stop writing, but I think he’s writing notes or dictating things for his biographer which is a kind of creativity. I’m more likely to believe that Alice Munro has really quit because she’s not well and she said something about not having any more ideas. I believe her, but it’s quite possible the sun will come up the next day and she will be working. Writers are liars generally about everything.
Kennedy: Philip also said that he felt that it was taking him too long to write and he was sort of exhausted in his imagination and it just got to the point where he said, “I’m not going to do this anymore.” But I don’t see how a writer could ever say that.
Doctorow: No. You do slow up. I’m slower now than I was twenty years ago. It takes me longer to get through a day’s work. I know this for a fact for other guys who are in our generation, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the quality of the work. If you continue to have what Hemingway gracefully called a “shit detector,” as part of your equipment, then you’ll be all right.
Kennedy: He lost his detector. He couldn’t make it work.
Doctorow: That was sad.
Kennedy: He had so many attacks on his brain, not only from drinking but also from the plane crashes and everything else.
Doctorow: Yeah, he was a wreck. I also think he began to hear his own voice, which is very bad for a writer. He realized what he was writing was Hemingway writing. Although, I remember reviewing the last book that was edited posthumously by Tom Jenks, The Garden of Eden. I was a little angry because that book had been cut to make it a Hemingway book, whereas apparently, it looked like he was beginning to change. He was becoming something of a feminist and it looked like he was trying to break out. It was a shame that they edited that book to make it look like a classic.
Kennedy: I didn’t know that they edited for those reasons. That’s a new development for me.
Doctorow: Yeah, it probably shouldn’t have been done.
Kennedy: I reviewed The Dangerous Summer the same way, posthumously, and that was the book he couldn’t finish. He followed the bullfighters throughout Spain and he was writing it for LIFE Magazine. He was supposed to write 30,000 words and he couldn’t stop. He wrote 300,000 and he never was able to finish it, but they narrowed it down to a viable book, which was pretty good actually.
Doctorow: I remember reading that book. I just wrote an introduction to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and I found out that Faulkner had accused Hemingway of being a coward and that he never took any chances as a writer. He was giving an interview at the University of Virginia and word of what he said got back to Hemingway and really pissed him off. Faulkner said, “I wasn’t questioning your courage as a man, only as a writer.” So Hemingway was apparently satisfied with that. The only thing being attacked was his life’s work. But Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is the closest thing to the perfect American novel that I know about and he’s not sentimentalizing the self the way he thought Hemingway was. He’s just looking at these people and it’s devastating.
Kennedy: I like Miss Lonelyhearts as a perfect novel.
Doctorow: Miss Lonelyhearts? I think it’s good, but I don’t think it’s perfect. Sometimes in a public situation I say there are three perfect novels in the English language. One of them is Pride and Prejudice. Everyone says, “What are the other two,” and I never tell them. But Faulkner’s book is one of them. I don’t know what the third is. I haven’t figured that out.
Kennedy: The Great Gatsby? Gatsby’s pretty close.
Doctorow: Yeah that’s close, but I’m a little tired of it.
Kennedy: Can you say more about the perfection of As I Lay Dying?
Doctorow: Well, maybe the way to get to that is to think about when he wrote it. He claims to have written it in six weeks or eight weeks. He lied. But he was writing it in the basement, where he was feeding coal into one of the buildings of the University of Mississippi. You see Hemingway’s life was very organized. Hemingway was organized to live to his pursuits, whether it was hunting and fishing, whether it was drinking, whether it was writing, but Faulkner had a messier life than that. He was struggling to make ends meet. He bought this old house and he was doing the plumbing and the electricity. He started out as a poet, but he knew a lot about the South. In the 1930s, the South became the symbol of what was wrong in American life during the Depression. There was poverty and rural damage and lack of electricity. There were photographers going around taking pictures, so this was the public idea of what the South was like. He would have none of that. He knew better what the South was. He stripped away all that political kind of context. He just showed this poor white family involved in this situation where the mother dies and they’re going to take her forty miles away to be buried with her people, but her husband also has the idea that when they get to that town he can buy a new set of teeth. One of the children is pregnant and the point is that there is no glorification of the self. There’s no John Steinbeck reportage of what life is like. It’s just head on looking straight ahead at these people. It’s a stunning piece of work. He thought Hemingway was wrong to romanticize the self. Faulkner is basically a tougher guy. It’s a great thing to be able to do that, to have that ability. Maybe we all should try for it.
Kennedy: I just wondered how you are affected by the new developments in publishing and how you perceive them. Has it done anything to your plan for your future? Are you still the same writer, continuing and unchanged? How has it affected you?
Doctorow: Publishing has really changed. I think very fondly of the 1960s when I was in publishing and running the Dial Press and doing exciting things like discovering a book called The Ink Truck and being very proud of being responsible for the publication of that book. We also did a hoax book called The Report from Iron Mountain, which was purported to be a government document during the Vietnam War, stating that peace was not only impossible but undesirable. We got John Kenneth Galbraith to write the introduction. He was in on it. The book went right to the top of the best-seller list. John Leo put it on the front page of The New York Times. He was skeptical. The apocryphal story was that Lyndon Johnson walked into a cabinet meeting one day, threw the book down on the table and said, “Who leaked this?”
We had a lot of fun. I was publishing [James] Baldwin and [Henry] Miller and Thomas Berger, a lot of good people. Baldwin would come for lunch and it was a small office. He’d come at 11 a.m. and go around from desk to desk and everything stopped. We’d go out to lunch and it would last until 3 and he’d come back to the office and around about 5:30 we’d all go out for a drink and that would turn into dinner. So lunch with Jimmy Baldwin would end at 2 o’clock in the morning. You don’t find that in publishing today, since it’s been corporatized and conglomerated. It’s not as much fun. A lot of very good books are still published. I know people in publishing and they are book people just the way we were. It’s funny that they have more money, these conglomerates, but they’re more frightened about what they do. There’s a lot of pressure on editors to produce money-making books. You and I are not affected by that, but for someone coming up now, it’s a problem. You can come up with a book and someone will buy it and if that first novel doesn’t do something critically or financially, that writer’s not going to find it very easy to publish the second novel.
Even with Homer & Langley I was astonished by what marketing has become. It’s all on the internet. Someone came up to me and said, “There’s this furniture site and they have 8 million followers and they sell a lot of furniture, but they’re interested in authors answering a few questions and if you answer a few questions you will be on that site.” So I said, “Well what are the questions?” They were inane questions like, “What is your favorite book?” and other questions of that order. It’s all this eBook stuff and it’s kind of discouraging. Even the language that the internet has brought has changed things. I mean a search engine is not an engine, a platform is not a platform, text is a verb, and a cookie is not a chocolate chip cookie. So they’re taking over our language somehow. Things have changed.
Because of conglomeration, there are fewer places to go to sell your book. There are these imprints now and they’re all basically part of the same corporation. That’s been going on for a long time. I remember 51 percent of Dial was owned by Dell. We were offered a three-book deal, so I started to bid for that, but so did Dell and it became a little silly. Finally Mrs. Meyer, who was running Dell, called me in. She said, “You can’t keep doing this Edgar. You’re bidding against me with my own money.” By then I had lost my interest in the deal, so I said to Helen Meyer, “You publish sports magazines, don’t you?” She said, “Yes.” I said, “I will stop bidding if you get me two tickets on the fifty yard line for the next Giants game.” And she did.
Kennedy: I saw that you were in a theatre school or drama school at Columbia for a year.
Doctorow: Yes, I was going for a Masters in English drama.
Kennedy: How did that contribute to your eventually writing a play? Did you ever write any other plays?
Doctorow: That was early in the game. I was interested in theatre and I wanted to write plays not novels. I had done a lot of theatre work at Kenyon as an undergraduate. As a matter of fact, when Paul Newman graduated I began to get some decent roles in the drama club. What I liked about the Columbia Masters was that half of it was in the theatre and half was studying drama with Eric Bentley and Moses Hadas and a lot of good people. For the thesis one wrote a play, but I never got around to that. I was drafted. Helen and I met in the theatre there at Columbia.
Kennedy: Was that during the Korean War when you were drafted?
Doctorow: Yes, the Korean War. I was not sent to Korea, I was sent to Germany with the Seventh Army.
Kennedy: So was I.
Doctorow: I somehow figured out that you could write a play and the work was just beginning, whereas if you wrote a novel you just had to get past an agent and an editor. When you do theatre you had producers and you had directors and you had actors and you had to somehow persuade them all that this was worth doing. So I ended up writing novels, but in the late seventies I wrote this play, Drinks Before Dinner.
Kennedy: Why did you write it?
Doctorow: I wrote it as another example of something unplanned. I found myself reading a transliteration of some speeches of Chairman Mao in some magazine and it sounded very familiar to me. I realized it sounded like Gertrude Stein’s prose. I would compare them both and I decided to see if I could write like that. I wrote this screed and someone was really upset about just about everything. I found myself writing answers to what this guy was saying. Then I began to give them names. I called this moral hysteric Edgar. I thought that was only fair. That’s the way the play developed. It’s sort of a play of ideas. It’s theatre of ideas, where people take their identity from their positions in the argument. There’s nothing about childhood or none of that Tennessee Williams pathos. Fortunately Mike Nichols got interested in it and we put on a production at the Public Theatre. Christopher Plummer played the lead. There were a lot of good New York actors, like James Norton, Charlie Kimbrough, Maria Tucci, and Zohra Lampert. I discovered that my original instinct was correct; it’s just too much to accept collaboration. I’m not built that way. I found myself wanting to direct and Mike found himself wanting to write the play. It has been done on radio; BBC did it. Occasionally I hear about some college troupe doing it. It’s best if it’s not staged, if it’s like a staged reading. There was one out in the Hamptons a number of years ago where the late Ben Gazzara played Christopher’s role. Betty Comden was also in it. It really worked because they were just sitting in chairs and reading. Because Mike was the director, people thought it was going to be some comedy. Tony Walton did a beautiful set. The curtains went up and Mike was the director and Tony Walton’s set was onstage and everyone was leaning forward to get a nice, sophisticated, Park Avenue comedy and that’s not the play. So we didn’t do too well. I remember being very gloomy about it and I was walking down Broadway and Irwin Shaw came out of a bar. Remember Irwin Shaw?
Kennedy: Sure, very well.
Doctorow: He said, “Kid, come here. Come here,” and we went into the bar and he ordered me a drink. He said, “Kid, never do this again. They’ll cut your heart out.”
Kennedy: And you never did it?
Doctorow: Except for that one mistake, I’ve never done it again. I forget who your agent was….
Kennedy: Roberta Pryor.
Doctorow: Roberta Pryor, yeah. It’s not often that you find something that excites you and The Ink Truck was a great story and it was excellently written and it was a first novel. When you’re publishing, to find a first novel that’s good is exciting. Did we publish it well? Were you satisfied?
Kennedy: Well, yeah. I didn’t know the difference between being published well and badly. There was not a lot of advertising or anything like that, but it was out there. I got quite a few reviews on it and some very good ones. Also, I don’t know if you were still around when Don Hutter was also in on that. I sold Dial my unfinished next novel which was Legs. You must have been gone by then.
Doctorow: I’d left probably by then, yeah.
Kennedy: You went off to do The Book of Daniel.
Doctorow: Yeah. I went out to California. Poor Hutter, he died very young. He was a good editor. The publisher, Richard Baron, is still alive. He’s about 91 or 92. That was a long time ago, wasn’t it?
E.L. Doctorow, left, and William Kennedy in Albany in 2014 (Paul Grondahl)
Trolley Editor Paul Grondahl sat in on that 2014 interview and wrote a piece for the Albany Times Union about Doctorow and Kennedy and their 50-year association, A literary friendship spanning five decades
The following year, Grondahl wrote a story on Doctorow’s death: William Kennedy on E.L. Doctorow and the Albany vodka popper incident