... conversations with People at the Leading Edgesm

"Transgressive Impulses"

A society is kept democratic and alive with a multiplicity of witnesses and the hope of having a kind of consensual reality built up inch-by-inch over decades and generations, says E.L. Doctorow. Be concerned! he urges.  The conglomeration of media into fewer and fewer corporate hands is increasingly limiting those voices and views.

Where to turn? Books! Mr. Doctorow says they are now the least censored form we have of communicating. It's especially important, he believes, because he is confident artists are most true to their calling when they honor a transgressive impulse -- he knows his work is good when he feels the excitement of "I shouldn't be doing this."

Mr. Doctorow’s influential novels include Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, The Book of Daniel and now The March, his 12th.  Very early on, he says, he discovered that a period of time is as much an organizing principle for a novel as a place. He’s a New Yorker, but features his hometown only when there’s a particular time when the national identity is hottest there....which is very often indeed.

Democracy is of central interest to Mr. Doctorow, and a theme that is a constant undercurrent in what he writes. And sometimes democracy goes crazy.

There are aggregate fictions we all live by, he notes. How we do democracy in America is one of them. While he resists being grandiose, he does believe that a good novel can break down that aggregate fiction and compete with it in some way. That’s useful, he says. No, he does not start writing a novel with “this is for society” in mind. But he does begin in the hope that someone will listen.  

Fiction can be an especially strong influence, Mr. Doctorow believes, because it is able to turn our myths back into history again. If you write fiction, he continues, you can use any vocabulary in the world, any diction. You can use the historian’s facts, dreams, hallucinations, myths, legends, confession, autobiography. You can be a journalist at points.  Fiction writers have ways, he believes, of getting to things nobody else can reach.

He strongly lifted up women’s voices as well as men’s in writing about Sherman, a classic warrior. It is a new take on an old story, an entire civilization transformed by war. Yes, Mr. Doctorow says, you try to make sense of things. But you also render the material. Think about Van Gogh. The artist sets up an easel in a real field, then renders it. One is reality and the other art.  When a writer finishes a book, Mr. Doctorow says, you rely on people to tell you what you’ve done. After all, he says, a writer is a performer, a ventriloquist throwing his voice in different directions.

Finally, suspense helps.  It’s strongest when the reader knows the ending in advance, he believes. There’s something basic and central to the compact between writer and reader when one tells a story everyone knows, and finds more of that story than other people have thought about.

Mr. Doctorow knows this approach has proved itself. Greek playwrights used it. Their audience knew the myths, knew how Oedipus Rex would turn out. And the suspense was almost unbearable, Mr. Doctorow reminds us, adding to the chorus... Stop! Don’t do what you’re doing!  Wait! Wait! Oh, Noooooo......

[This Program was recorded October 11, 2005, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]


  1:13                                                          2:31


E.L. Doctorow

    ... writer. Published in more than 30 languages, Mr. Doctorow’s fiction includes Ragtime, City of God and The Book of Daniel. The March brings Mr. Doctorow’s extraordinary novels to a full dozen. It won Mr. Doctorow a nomination for his second National Book Award and earned him also his third National Book Critics Circle award for fiction. A playwright and essayist as well as novelist, Mr. Doctorow’s other honors include the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Edith Wharton Citation for Fiction, the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts & Letters, and the presidentially conferred National Humanities Medal.


Sadly, E.L. Doctorow died in July, 2015. He helped America understand itself.

Conversation 1

E.L. Doctorow recounts the origins of his interest in General Sherman’s famous march to the sea. Distinguishing art from reality, Mr. Doctorow includes readers and historians in the conversation and points to what is unique about novels.


Conversation 2

He thinks of his characters as a repertory company, Mr. Doctorow says, and expands on how he puts them to work from book to book.  He talks about what the novelist does, learning the craft then moving beyond it.  The analogy of writing and jazz improvisation is explored. Creative accidents have been important throughout his writing career, he says, remembing the origins of his first novel and the value of learning how much bad stuff gets published.



Conversation 3

Artists are at their best when honoring a certain transgressive impulse, Mr. Doctorow believes, relating this concept of offending propriety to a vivid experience of his own as a youngster and throughout his work. He gives a glimpse of Sherman’s character – a classic warrior – and gives a sweeping summary of The Creature created as a result, sweeping along an entire civilization. It culminates in fueling a fury and rage that at least one Confederate general hoped would last for centuries.


Conversation 4

The most suspenseful stories are the ones whose endings we know, Mr. Doctorow says, with powerful examples. While he never set out to do so and he would not want to read them in any order, he can see how his novels can be arranged chronologically. Using _The March_ as his example, Mr. Doctorow shows how novels can help a society stay democratic and alive by presenting a multiplicity of voices. Books, he believes, are now the least censored form of communication we have in the face of conglomeration of the media into fewer and fewer corporate hands.



Conversation 5

Fear became a political tactic in the 1950s, Mr. Doctorow says. He describes cynical politicians from Richard Nixon to the present exploiting Americans’ fears to distract them from larger issues. Democracy goes crazy from time to time, he believes, as he demonstrated in The Book of Daniel.  Fiction can turn myth back into history again, he believes, and explains why this is useful. Americans have always called on their faith to justify their religious perspectives, he says, eager to talk with people now calling on the country to certify their faith. General Sherman is remembered, before, during and after the American Civil War.


Conversation 6

A writer doesn’t want to know too much about what he or she is writing, says Mr. Doctorow, reporting why he reads his own novels long after he’s finished. War is just as much a woman’s experience as a man’s, he reminds us, content to concur with almost any interpretation of his novels, as long as it’s not exhaustive.



Related Links:

The March is published by Random House. It is also available from Random House Audio and in a Random House large print edition.

Another luminous example of creative imagination at work on a closely related subject is Edward P. Jones' Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Known World.

Donald McCaig's Civil War novel, Jacob's Ladder, also includes the voices and views of Blacks.

Like The March, Alexandra Fuller's memoir Scribbling the Cat takes the fun out of war, as does Ha Jin's War Trash.

Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography of Lincoln, Team of Rivals, presents the political and strategic context within which Gen. Sherman was operating.

In Interracial Intimacies legal scholar Randall Kennedy presents the tortured history of love across racial boundaries in America.

And, here's a little background information on Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, the Program co-hosts.


E.L. Doctorow’s insights into America are many, deep and lasting. The Book of Daniel is especially current, trenchant and eternally important. Listening to this wonderful conversation, it’s obvious how very much we enjoyed being with Mr. Doctorow. We all are indebted to his integrity and courage in telling us about parts of the American experience too often overlooked.

The power of Mr. Doctorow’s work was brought home with special force when we saw “Ragtime” on the Broadway stage. By its conclusion, Paula was painfully speechless, knowing full well what lay ahead for his vivid characters. We thank Linda Muir for creating that opportunity.



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