Thursday, November 09, 2006

On Not Interviewing E.L. Doctorow

I'm tempted to talk at great generous length about E.L. Doctorow's novel The March, which came out last year to great praise, and which I spent two days last week reading, but I can't. I'm too pissed.

Doctorow is slated to appear at the University of South Carolina next week for this year's annual Famous Writer's Chatfest, or whatever it's called. Last Monday I got an e-mail from Writer in Residence Janette Turner Hospital, saying she'd managed to snag a chance for me to interview Doctorow by e-mail for the Free-Times so long as I acted quickly. Send your questions right away, she urged, because he needs time to write thoughtful answers. The offer was predicated on the assurance that it would run before his slated appearance on Nov. 15. I aimed for Nov. 8, a full week in advance. I e-mailed his secretary that I was interested, but I had to read the book first, otherwise I'd just be hitting him with dumb questions. She cautioned me that her boss would be in San Francisco over the coming weekend, so the quicker I sent questions, the better.

I immediately went out and bought The March, and sunk into it for a couple of days, jotting all kinds of notes and marginalia. It was quite a book; a powerful mythic recounting of Sherman's March as told from several perspectives, real and fictional, ranging from the General and his troops to the Civil War surgeon Wrede Sartorius (something of a Faulkner homage in that name, and there are distinct if subtle Faulknerian shadings throughout) to a variety of slaves and slave-owning families who find themselves faced with a world turned upside down.

It reminded me of the pleasure I'd had with Doctorow's previous historic riffs and, also, where I was when I read them. I thought mainly of Loon Lake, which I had read for college, in a loosely-designed seminar course on modern fiction (where I also first encountered Lolita, Omensetter's Luck and the all-but-forgotten Wright Morris' The Field of Vision -- books that left a strong impression as being unusual, although I can't much recall what the latter two were about.)

An aside: I doubt many people know Loon Lake; it was his successor to Ragtime, and quite different. Where Ragtime was an extremely palatable book, written in a brilliantly concise, easy-to-read style that assured it would have a long life as a bestseller, Loon Lake seems in retrospect as Doctorow's bid for high art utter seriousness, a story of early-20th Century labor strikes that employed this very thorny experimental style that you had to kind of baby-step your way through (like I'm doing now with Pynchon's latest). I loved it, though, even so; I liked the work it involved and I enjoyed writing about it and discussing it.

Given my thoughts on The March as well, the prospect of this interview seemed to me thrilling, even if it was to be done by e-mail. I had no problem coming up with questions; my only worry was whether I'd have space to print it all, and in the event I didn't, what the editing process would be like. I sent off my questions Thursday morning, and waited.

And waited.

Thursday, then Friday, came and went. Over the weekend I e-mailed Doctorow's secretary, reminding her I had a Monday morning deadline. She wrote back, sympathetically, that she was forwarding all my e-mails to the great man and if he could do it, he would, if not, well, sorry. I talked to my editor, got the deadline stretched to Monday afternoon. Again, zip.

The interview was screwed -- leaving me with only a Shermanesque scowl and reminding me, yet again, that there may be no experience that requires more prep and delivers less payoff than interviewing a writer. Know them through their books and leave them alone; Pynchon really does have the right idea, I think. Two years ago, I interviewed Stanley Crouch at the Free Times office and I could barely get the tape machine to work. Last year I interviewed Francine Prose -- still had tape recorder/phone interview problems; I wound up having to transcribe a whisper. (Not only that, I bought two of her books to read ahead of time and the paper wouldn't comp me.) And now, to top it all, comes Doctorow, in which all the effort goes utterly for naught. It is, I think, a cursed process, writers and I.

I do, however, still have my questions. The overall tone to what follows is probably a little ass-kissy -- I wanted to set a friendly tone, at least, for someone I wasn't going to see face-to-face -- and some of the questions are a little too obvious and maybe silly, but I figured he would just answer whatever he wanted to answer, and I wanted to give him a lot to choose from. Some aren't even questions; just observations I hoped he would intercept and run with.

If he ever wants to answer them, he still can. Otherwise, considering the following a thrown-together reader's guide to a pretty good novel, a novel I enjoyed more than the experience of not hearing from its author.

First of all, The March is absorbing. It reminded me of both Ragtime and Billy Bathgate in that it's a literary novel but also very much of a page-turner, if only because it contains so many compelling stories. So I may as well ask the obvious question: what sparked the idea, or ideas?

What was the major surprise you learned about the Civil War that you did not know before writing about it?

I know the book received strong critical response. What have you heard from readers -- particularly ones below the Mason-Dixon line, where the war is still something of an issue? I found myself wondering what Sherman would have thought about the fact that the Confederate flag he hated so much would be raised at the S.C. State House a hundred years later -- and stay there as late as the year 2000.

The March strikes me as a very well-researched novel, touching on everything from Civil War medical procedures to early photographic methods. Aside from all the reading involved, how much physical research went into it? Did you visit all the places along Sherman's march, and how did that shape the writing? What do you make of the "God-soaked flood-plains of South Carolina"? Also, I noticed you acknowledged the help of medical experts. It was quite an education learning how a battlefield surgeon would deal with a skull fracture, or a spike lodged in the skull.

People often think of World War I as the start of modern warfare, with the introduction of nerve gas, but the novel reminded me it goes back further. There's a passage about "industrial-age killers" with their repeating rifles and munitions -- a war "so impersonally murderous as to make quaint anything that had gone on before."

Both the surgeon Wrede Sartorius and General Sherman are very complex characters, Machiavellian and compassionate. Sherman can see the beauty of the capture of Fort McAllister -- the smoke looking like "the diaphanous dance veil of the war goddess" -- yet he has known death personally, with the loss of his son, and his mind is never far away from that loss. Wrede is horrified by the carnage he sees daily, but he's deeply intrigued, too, because it yields so much information about the mystery of human life. I suppose you have to be of two minds in those jobs.

Speaking of grim realism, the slave characters like Pearl have a lot more of it than the whites do; they're used to seeing brutality on a daily basis. I thought of William Faulkner's description of his character Dilsey and her family: "They endured."

There's something Wrede says that struck me: "Americans lacked something -- perhaps the sense of human consciousness as tragedy." I suppose he was speaking as a 19th century German, with a kind of tough Teutonic sense of despair, maybe, but I wondered, too, if he wasn't speaking for the author regarding a certain basic American attitude, a kind of naive optimism, perhaps, that doesn't permit a lot of philosophical reflection?

I approached the book very much on the story level, but in the last few pages I found myself thinking of it in a larger sense, as maybe reflective in some way of our war in Iraq. After the war, Sherman is thinking of how war gives meaning to a place -- "every field and swamp and river and road into something of moral consequence" -- and also how it never, really, ends: "... our civil war, the devastating manufacture of the bones of our sons, is but a war after a war, a war before a war."

One final question I have to ask that has nothing to do with any of the above. On the DVD of Short Cuts, Robert Altman says he could have done a better job with Ragtime than Milos Forman. Thoughts?

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