For our November Readers' Review: “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” by Anne Tyler. As we prepare for holiday gatherings, join Diane and her guests to discuss this master work from the author who has made an art of exploring family love and dysfunction.
E.L. Doctorow’s writing career has spanned more than 50 years. He is the recipient of numerous awards, most recently the National Book Foundation’s medal for “Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.” His work includes “Ragtime,” “The Book of Daniel,” “Billy Bathgate” and “The March.” Doctorow’s 12th novel, “Andrew’s Brain,” has just come out. In it he takes us on a journey into the mind of a man who seems to leave destruction and tragedy in his wake at every turn. It’s an exploration of memory versus imagination and the inner workings of the mind. Diane talks with E.L. Doctorow about his latest novel.
- E.L. Doctorow novelist; his many honors include a National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Humanities Medal.
E.L. Doctorow talks about what the publishing climate was like around the time that Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” came out. The book coincided with the release of Doctorow’s novel, “Billy’s Bathgate.” The two authors shared a French publisher and Doctorow recalls bookstores were practically empty. “While I was determined to back Salman and speak out against what was happening to him, I was really angry at him for ruining the possible sales of my novel.”
The celebrated author says he’ll often “write to find out what” he’s writing about when an inchoate book idea calls to him. He alternates between a retreat in Sag Harbor, N.Y., and a busier city life in New York City. He says Sag Harbor is very quiet and “if you don’t write, you go mad.”
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from ANDREW’S BRAIN by E.L. Doctorow. Copyright © 2014 by E.L Doctorow. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. E.L. Doctorow is the award-winning American author of a dozen novels, including "Ragtime" and "The Book of Daniel." His new novel imagines the mind of one man struggling with the tragedies he's caused and memories that haunt him. Along its unpredictable path, the story intersects with several significant moments in recent American history. His book is titled, "Andrew's Brain." E.L. Doctorow joins me in the studio. I'm sure many of you will want to be part of the program. Give us a call at 800-433-8850.
MS. DIANE REHMSend us your email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. It's so good to see you again.
MR. E.L. DOCTOROWThank you very much.
REHMI'm so glad I have you here, especially for this book, which I must say I found absolutely fascinating to be in, as I felt I was, in the presence of someone who is exploring his own mind. I almost felt I was inside your brain.
DOCTOROWWell, to a certain extent I suppose that's true. And thank you for saying that. It is a about a man who's very sensitive to his own consciousness and struggles with the problems with the day as, for instance, the great issue now between those people -- those philosophers and scientists who feel it's all in the brain and those who still hang on to the idea of the soul -- so the idea of a soul being fiction in the neuroscientific world. And, yet, the question is how do you get from the brain to what we all feel, to our consciousness -- how, what we love, what we hate, when we have moods and feelings and thoughts?
DOCTOROWHow do you make that transition from this, as Andrew calls it, three-pound knitting ball up there in the skull to what we think of as consciousness?
REHMAnd how did the idea of exploring Andrew's Brain come to you?
DOCTOROWWell, it started many years ago, as these things usually do. I was working for a film company and for a very nice man who sat down at lunch one day and told me that he'd inadvertently killed his infant child by feeding it the wrong medicine. And yet he was the kindest, sweetest, well-disposed gentleman that you could possibly imagine. And it turned out that this wasn't the only disaster that had followed him. He sort of had this trail of awful events in this gentle life. And I was thinking about that. And it intrigued me. And so I'm afraid I gave all those problems to Andrew.
REHMWould you read for us from that portion of the book where Andrew relates the beginnings of his difficulties?
DOCTOROWYes. Andrew has come to stand in the snow in front of a door with yet another infant child from his late second wife, who has died. And he's at the door of his ex-wife, whose child with him was destroyed. And he needs help. And he gets involved with Martha, his ex-wife, and Martha's husband. And this is the conversation or the monologue that ensues. I should say that the book is composed as a dialogue, really, or more like a monologue, where someone does most of the talking -- that's Andrew, and someone does most of the listening -- that's the mysterious interlocutor...
DOCTOROW...who might be a shrink or got knows what. So here is Andrew talking to Martha's -- who he calls Martha's large husband. "Everything you believe about me is true. It is true I accidentally killed my baby girl that I had with Martha. In good faith, I fed her the medicine I believed had been prescribed by a pediatrician. The druggist sent over the wrong medicine and I was not as alert as I should have been. I'd done a day on my dissertation in cognitive science. I'd spent hours at the lab, plus department meetings and so forth. And I dutifully fed the medicine into her tiny mouth with an eye dropper.
DOCTOROWAll night I did this every two hours until the child stopped crying and was dead. I didn't know it was dead. I thought it had finally gone to sleep. I was tired and laid down myself. It had been my task to stay up with the sick child, because Martha was exhausted. She'd been teaching her master class in piano all day. And I was the man, after all. What woke me was Martha screaming. It was not human, it was the sound of a huge forest animal with its leg caught in a steel trap, and maybe not even an animal of the present time, but something like its paleontological version.
DOCTOROWMartha's large husband said, looking into the blue mirror behind the bar, 'When an animal's leg is caught in a trap, do you know what it does to free itself? It chews its leg off. But, of course, it is forever disabled and unable to reasonably provide for itself and live a normal life.' 'You mean Martha,' Andrew said. 'Yes. And so I have been crippled as well, having in love married an irremediably damaged woman, who can no longer practice her profession, thanks to Sir Andrew, the pretender.' 'Is that who I am, Sir Andrew, the pretender?'
DOCTOROW'Yes. Whose well meaning, gentle, kindly disposed charming ineptitude is the modus operandi of the deadliest of killers. Let's have another.' When Andrew picked up his glass to down his drink quickly, so that he could honor his moral debt to Martha's large husband by having another, which he didn't really want, the glass slipped from his hand.
DOCTOROWIn his attempt to grab it, Andrew hooked a bowl of peanuts off the bar with the edge of his jacket sleeve and, flustered by the sudden obligation to right two things simultaneously, he lost them both: the glass and its contents, including its ice cubes and wedge of lime, following the cascade of peanuts into Martha's large husband's lap."
REHME.L. Doctorow, reading from his newest novel. It's titled, "Andrew's Brain." It's hard to imagine someone whose life is filled with such extraordinary tragedy. And one cannot know whether he has sense enough to relate this to a therapist, the so-called Doc, or whether he is in fact going through his own brain, his own mind, his own conscious.
DOCTOROWYes. Yes. That's good. The thing is that Andrew sometimes switches to the third person, which is one of the devices in this book, which I think perhaps disorients some readers. This is not mimetic fiction. It's not social realism. After a while, you practice this art and you want to move on. You want to do something that you haven't done before -- that fiction hasn't done. There's so much that is done now by television and by movies that is mimetic -- that simply records the way life's supposed to be. It's an opportunity actually, now, for fiction to move past that.
DOCTOROWAnd I think that's what several of us are trying to do. Fiction is, if I can go on about this, I mean it -- fiction is the most conservative of the arts, if you think about it. What's happened in music since the 19th century is tremendously transformative, both in classical music -- you had Stravinsky, you had Shostakovich breaking down the old rules, the old romantic ideas of what symphonies and concertos should be -- and then in popular music, the old -- you had ragtime and you had jazz and you had swing, and then you had the crooners singing popular songs, and then it was all blown away by rock and roll and doo wop and rock and roll.
DOCTOROWAnd art, too, of course, beginning with the impressionists and going on to Picasso and Braque and then on to the abstract expressionists and the conceptual artists -- there has been constant change in the arts. But fiction has more or less stayed the same. There've been modernists like Gertrude Stein or James Joyce, Virginia Woolf. The predominant practice has been to report on what presumably is the real world. So the idea in modernism or post-modernism is to find a realer world than the real world. And that's upsetting some people.
REHMAnd upsetting some reviewers.
DOCTOROWYes. And in a certain sense, this book, more than most that I've written, judges the reader. Yeah, it does.
REHMHow does it judge the reader?
DOCTOROWWell, in terms of the capacity to immediately adapt to some of the non-conventions in this story. For instance, there's no distinction made -- because it's always Andrew talking -- no distinction made between what is real and what he's only imagined. That's a little upsetting for people who like their orientation.
REHME.L. Doctorow, we're talking about his newest novel titled, "Andrew's Brain." You are welcome to be part of the program. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMWelcome back. E. L. Doctorow is with me. His first name Edgar is one I don't use very often because I love those initials E. L. And this is a book I have to tell you I was absolutely mesmerized by. It's titled "Andrew's Brain." It totally abandons the usual form of development of plot and ideas and characters. It moves around in ways that are unexpected except for one thing. Andrew has a history of tragedy and it takes you all the way through the book.
REHMThere is a passage that I have marked. It's about Little Dog. And it has to do with another instance of Andrew's loss. Would you read it for us?
DOCTOROWSure. Andrew, as a child, has gone sledding and caused an automobile crash and the death of a driver who's trying to avoid him on the sled. So his parents moved out of the Jersey suburb where he's no longer really wanted to New York City to -- his father is an academic so here's Andrew talking.
DOCTOROWWe moved to New York, Greenwich Village. My father said it was because we'd be closer to his job at NYU, but I knew it was because our family was persona non grata after that crash. I said as much and my father said, son lots of kids were sleigh riding and it could've been any one of them in the path of that car. It just happened to be you. He didn't believe this anymore than I did. He knew that if any kid was likely to cause a fatal crash, it would be me.
DOCTOROWYour father was an academic. He did science, molecular biology. He said science was like a searchlight beam growing wider and wider and illuminating more and more of the universe. But as the beam widened so did the circumference of darkness. Albert Einstein said that. I was lonely in the city and had no friends and so my parents got me Dog, a dachshund. They said it was my responsibility to care for it, walk it, train it to obey.
DOCTOROWThat was interesting trying to see what kind of brain it had. Not much, was the answer. It had the nose that seemed to serve as a brain. The nose brain's primary function of course was to process smell. Because I had that dog I noticed all the other dogs in the park and they all went around smelling one another in the urological codes they left at the base of water fountains, tree trunks, chess tables and so on.
DOCTOROWWhat they did with these signals was nothing that I could see. Maybe it was just a kind of conversation or like emails. They'd compute the old factory signal, pee out the response and walk on. This was Washington Square Park and lots of people came there with their dogs. There was a dog run like everything else in the city, a measured space for whatever you wanted to do. he would sound like the confirmed New Yorker.
DOCTOROWMy puppy with its short legs tried to get into the game on that run. It was funny to see him waddling after some big dog who turned and ran past him the other way before he could turn his sausage body around. What did you name your dog? I hadn't gotten around to that. I was finding out that I didn't respect him all that much. I mean, you couldn't insult him, which was a sign of his mental deficiency. He would never take offense no matter what I said to him or how I yanked on the leash.
DOCTOROWSo in this time I'm speaking of, I was walking him home one afternoon through the park. We had a university apartment on the west side of the square, more trees on that side, which made it darker, quieter. There were few people. This is not a Tom Sawyer episode I'm about to relate. I rather thought that. I saw something under a bench that looked like a Spalding, a valuable pink rubber ball. I wasn't sure. I got down on my knees to investigate, poking my hand under the bench and that's when I must've let go of the leash.
DOCTOROWNext thing I knew my dog let out a cry, a tenor squeal, a weird unnatural sound from a dog. And when I looked around I saw his leash waving about in the air. I didn't question why but grabbed for it, an automatic reflex, and felt transmitted to my arm as if it was my own pounding post, the wing beat of a hawk that had him. That's what it was, a red-tailed hawk. You would think I could've yanked the dog loose, maybe bringing the hawk down too, unless release the creature. But it's talons were dug into the dachshund's neck and for a moment I was given to understand implacable nature.
DOCTOROWYes, I was in touch with an insistent rhythmic force, mindless and without personality. For a moment I held the hawk suspended as it beat its wings while unable to rise. I won't swear to it, but I think I was actually lifted to my toes before I let go and watch the bird shoot up to the top of the tree, the leash hanging down like a vine. My dachshund immobile in shock as the bird pressed its neck onto the branch and pecked at its eyes.
REHMAndrew feels as though he is an agent of destruction.
DOCTOROWYes. He sees himself as the inadvertent -- he never means for these things to happen. But it's an interesting idea that good well-intentioned people would have this kind of history in their lives. And that's really what got me started on this book. The interpretations of the book are interesting. People have written me in telling me they've read it twice, you know, to get it. And then they ask you to accredit their interpretation. And one person said, Doc, the person Andrew's talking to, is in fact the ventriloquist and Andrew was the dummy. That was interesting.
DOCTOROWAnd another person said, well a certain point Andrew says to Doc, am I a computer? And Doc says, you're a human being. And Andrew says, well of course you would say that. So someone decided that this was all a computer. Actually the issue of how to make the brain connect to the mind is the -- runs through this book. This is the great issue now for if you believe the materialists, you've got to figure out how brain becomes mind. And there's a lot of research on that, a lot of effort and a lot of discussion between the philosopher's mind and the neuroscientists.
DOCTOROWBut Andrew has this take, he said, if that ever happens, if we ever do figure out dendrite by dendrite, synapse by synapse how this transformation is effective, how consciousness is created, if we learn that then of course computers can be built to emulate that. This is -- and then what happens is all the stories we've told ourselves since the beginning of time, since the bronze age are finished, the Bible, it's all over because consciousness will be an achievement of a machine.
DOCTOROWThis is not just movie stuff, you understand. This is -- these are people in this field who are talking about this and arguing about this.
REHMI have just seen the movie "Her" where a man who is very lonely, who suffered a -- suffering through a divorce falls in love with a voice within a computer. And you put me in mind of that because if it comes to that, we're in big trouble.
DOCTOROWWe certainly are, yeah. On the other hand, you don't want to discourage research and the desire for truth and knowledge, but it is a -- it does hark back to the very first episode in the Bible, doesn't it, where the tree of knowledge is forbidden and yet, we eat the apple.
REHMI'm certainly not going to even come close to giving away any of the latter portions of this book, but you do get into some very real events. Somehow agent of destruction comes around full circle.
DOCTOROWYes, it does. And I know what you're alluding to and we shouldn't talk about the ending, which has been misinterpreted by some people. But another way to think about the book is a series of interlocking images or situations that Andrew comes back to again and again like motifs. He's -- there's an image in his mind of a little girl who draws beautifully little circus scenes. But she sees someone watching her and she takes her crayon and her fist and scratches everything out. And that possesses Andrew.
DOCTOROWAnd then his concern -- his obsession with Mark Twain is constant all through the book. And he finds some sort of redemption and consideration Mark Twain...
DOCTOROWWell, Mark Twain, of all our writers, is I think the closest to being the carrier of a national soul, that spirit, that idea of how to live. And Andrew holds onto that very critically. And then finally settles on Mark Twain's ability to amuse his little girls when he's reading to them before they go to sleep. And his being silly and making things up and pretending to look up words he makes up in the dictionary. And that kind of charming creation of giving the children some sense of safety and being snug in bed.
DOCTOROWAnd Andrew who has lost one little child and then has in effect given the second up to his first wife, remembers that and longs for that kind of peace.
REHMI can remember asking you once in regard to "Billy Bathgate," whether you had had fun writing that book. Somehow I don't think this book was fun.
DOCTOROWWell, you do have a career in a book. Every book is its own career in your. And some are -- "Billy Bathgate" just -- it was a breeze for me, that book. It was like a -- as if I was a member of a book club and this was my bonus book, "Billy Bathgate." And it just flowed. But some books are a struggle and fight you. And "Ragtime" was like that. And to a certain extent this is -- as you find yourself questioning your own being and your own honesty and your own capacity not to be a pretender.
REHME. L. Doctorow and the book we're talking about is titled "Andrew's Brain." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have many callers. I want to open the phones, 800-433-8850. Let's go to Atlanta, Ga. Hi there, Michael, you're on the air. Michael, are you there?
MICHAELI am. Can you hear me?
REHMCertainly can. Go right ahead, sir.
MICHAELThank you so much. This is so exciting as I get to speak to you and E. L. Doctorow at the same time.
MICHAELI just have to express my undying and admiration to Mr. Doctorow, particularly for "Ragtime" which I think is -- was a sea change in American literature. And it just -- the combination of fictional characters that had no names with real life living individuals from the period gave me an appreciation for literature, for history, for the period. It was a spectacular just tour de force, just an incredible piece of work.
MICHAELAnd I wanted to ask how you liked the translation of "Ragtime" from novel to movie to Broadway Show and how you reacted to those various other interpretations.
REHMThanks for calling.
DOCTOROWWell, I didn't look very kindly on the movie. And I thought it was a failure since it didn't balance all three families, the original story, but sort of concentrated on one. And on the other hand, the trouble with movies is that they -- you know, they seem to be filming reality. And "Ragtime" is not a realistic book. It is more like a more historical chronicle. So the people who did the musical actually had an easier job of staying close to the spirit of the thing. And the -- when you have scenery and people going around singing about their feelings, the audience is relieved of any sense of this being actually on the street realism. So they -- and they did a beautiful job.
DOCTOROWI have to confess that when they came to me and asked if I would give them permission to do this, I had some misgivings. And then I remembered that Victor Hugo and George Barnard Shaw were faced with the same problem. And of course they were safely dead when the shows signed on. But nevertheless I gave these very talented people the right to do this and they came through. There's some beautiful music. It's not the book really. The book's a little tougher and harder and naughtier and not quite as soft in the end but it's a great show. It's really, I think, an American opera.
REHMHow do you write these days? Are you writing every day at the same hour for the same amount of time?
DOCTOROWYou go to work just as everyone does, and you can't not do that. If you -- for every day that you miss it take you two days to get back.
DOCTOROWYeah, for me. I'm a very slow writer. And...
REHMSomeone once told me when I was writing, to stop in the middle of a sentence so that when I came back the next day the thought would be there.
DOCTOROWYeah, that's very good advice. Hemingway says that in an interview that always stop when you know what's coming next. That's one of the tricks, yes.
REHME. L. Doctorow. His latest novel is titled "Andrew's Brain." Short break here. We'll be back with more of your calls, your email. Stay with us.
REHMAnd we are back with my guest today, E. L. Doctorow. We're talking about his brand new book, which has thrilled some people, confused others and dismayed even others. What have been your reactions to that range of reviews?
DOCTOROWWell, traditionally a good review makes you feel good for five minutes and a bad review you remember for several years. But this time I find that the range of responses has been very interesting. And the intensity of the responses is what's important to me, whether they're negative or positive. I can bare anything but indifference. And so it's all going quite nicely. Oddly enough, the book has just been published in London. And for some reason the Europeans seem to catch onto this…
DOCTOROW…book a little more than we are.
REHMInteresting. Let's go to Philip, in Miami, Fla. Hi there. You're on the air.
PHILIPWell, let me tell you, I haven't been feeling well. I have tachyarrhythmia. I've been having trouble controlling my heart rate. I've been headaches and sinuses. So after I walked my dog this morning I went back to bed and woke up and put the radio on and it was right in the middle of the little thing about the dog in the park. And I knew where it was going. And as he was describing it I had my four little dogs looking at me and my three cats, also. And I almost wanted to run over and turn the radio off. It was very disturbing, but I'm glad I didn't and got over that. Now, I'm back to normal. Also, it's good to hear your voice over the phone to my ear. Appreciate it.
REHMWell, there you are. Some parts of literature can do that to you…
PHILIPWell, that's for sure.
REHM…can seem extraordinarily disturbing. It disturbed me. I have a tiny little long-haired Chihuahua and could feel that piece in my soul when I first read it. Stay calm. Let's go to Tim, in Concord, N.H. Hi, Tim. You're on the air.
TIMHi, Diane and hi, E. L. I was truly struck by E. L.'s conversation about the arts. And I had a question for him regarding whether he thought he, or maybe an author like Kurt Vonnegut, have tried to push fiction out of its conservatisms and that whether there are other authors he thinks are worthy of reading that are trying to do that.
DOCTOROWThat's a very good question. There are authors who are attempting to sort of push the envelope. One of them is a brilliant short-story writer named George Saunders who published a book recently called, "The Tenth of December," that's quite remarkable and clearly sort of advances the art of storytelling quite brilliantly.
REHMHe was on this program.
REHMI want you to know.
REHMYes, of course.
DOCTOROWWell, he's really fine. And there are other people as well. As a matter of fact, the scene right now, the sort of authors in their 30s and 40s, is a lot livelier than it was when I first came up many years ago. I think there's more good writing down now than was being done when I came along
REHMTim, does that answer it?
TIMIt sure does. I was so struck by his description of the arts that I had to call in. And I'm a first-time caller and thank you for sharing.
REHMI'm glad you called. Thanks a lot. And I have an email here from Mike, in Baltimore. He's listening on WYPR. He says, "I found "City of God," a wonderful, thoughtful, intensely engaging novel, but it doesn't seem to have gotten the play that other of Mr. Doctorow's novels have gotten. Would you comment?"
DOCTOROWWell, that's true. It's a difficult book. I'm very fond of that book. In a certain way it does predict "Andrew's Brain," in the circulation of images of light motifs so that the plot doesn't advance on a single linear track, but circles around, reiterating, coming back to situations or images and slightly changing them each time. And that book becomes very, very expansive as it starts narrowly and gets wider and wider. But it is a tough read. But people are finding it and I'm hearing from them. So that's very pleasing. The point of all these books, if they're any good, you can't really totally pin them down.
DOCTOROWFor instance, "Andrew's Brain," is, in part, a love story. We haven't talked about that, but Andrew does run out west to get away from the misery and falls in love with a young college student. And they eventually get together.
REHMShe is described so beautifully. And her skin so perfectly and her warm face.
DOCTOROWBriony is her name, yes. And then that goes along. And against his every profound wish that sort of turns bad, too, but not from any direct fault of his own.
REHMAnd yet, he feels as though it's his fault.
DOCTOROWYes, he does.
REHMEven though it has nothing to do with any of his actions. And let me just ask you, since 9/11 figures into this novel, where were you?
DOCTOROWI was writing in a little town about 100 miles from New York, Sag Harbor, Long Island, an old whaling town. And at 8:00 o'clock in the morning the phone rang, and my wife who was in the city called me. And she said turn on the television. That's all she said. But the very tone of voice, I knew something really awful had happened. And I did. And I saw it. And I immediately got in the car to go to the city, only to hear on the radio that all access to the city was blocked. And they were not allowing any people in. So I stopped and wrote down what I thought would be a route to avoid the roadblocks, being a confirmed New Yorker I had all these ideas of side streets and so on.
DOCTOROWAnd obscure bridges and I was just about to attempt this incursion when that block was lifted and it was easier to get back into the city. And my daughter, with her family, lived, at that time, in Greenwich Village, was just beyond the area of greatest danger. So actually we all got through that. And then a wonderful photographer named David Finn, when around taking pictures of all the shrines that had been set up and the posters put on boards and the flowers sitting in front of the fire stations and so on. And he took these pictures and asked me to write commentary for them, which I did.
DOCTOROWAnd we published this book called "Lamentation," With Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations providing the introduction. And all of the profits to this book, such as they were, went to the survivors, the families of people who -- survivors of the people who died.
REHMDo you think that this country will -- I don't know how to put this. I mean, so much has happened as a result of 9/11 that has affected huge swaths of our country. Do you think we're ever going to recover? And the world, not just our country.
DOCTOROWYeah, I do think this kind of fever, this terrorist anger and fever will abate. I remember when hijacking was all the rage. And that seemed -- plane hijackings. And of course these are enormously complicated problems and the whole rise of that Middle East sensibility affecting the Western world, you know, has got to confound us, really. But you just have to hope that you don't become what you're fighting, like with the invasion of privacy, with keeping records and data-mining the emails and phone calls of every citizen and all that kind of drift into sort of police status.
DOCTOROWQualities that would affect normal life in a democracy. So that is one of the problems of fighting this thing, legitimately, without becoming what you're fighting.
REHMIt's made us all perhaps a little more paranoid.
DOCTOROWWell, yeah, paranoia, that's a good work to catch a lot of what's going on, yes.
REHMAnd there is a great deal of mistrust of the U.S. government by its own citizens that has arisen since 9/11, since the beginning of that question, why do they hate us, then translated into why didn't we know. And that brings you right back to us and what we did know, what we didn't know, and how what we did know was not used.
DOCTOROWYeah, that's absolutely true. You remember the situation of Salman Rushdie?
DOCTOROWAnd the jihad against him and a bunch of us writers in New York City had demonstrations under the auspices of PEN, the writers' organization. At that moment I think that was the first time I, and many people, understood that sensibility coming out of the Middle East and how different it was from the way we think here. That extreme sensitivity, that sense of outrage, perhaps somewhat directed at the difference in wealth and achievement of the Western world, as opposed to the Mideast. But I remember that was the first time that I understood that there's something really going on, that we'd have to be aware of the -- it was an enormous shock, really, that's find a writer being threatened with death.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I don't think I've ever told this publicly, but as you raise Salman Rushdie, it was the one time I was told on the morning that he was due here to be on the air that I couldn't have him on. That I needed to cancel him because the danger was too great. And I said, "If you force me to cancel him, I am leaving."
REHMI refused to back down and he came on.
DOCTOROWHe came on, wonderful. Yeah.
REHMAbsolutely. And he was wonderful and of course people needed to hear him.
DOCTOROWWe have the same French publisher. And I remember going to dinner in Paris, and in front of the door there was an armed guard. And the door had been changed to steel. Well, the French publisher of Salman's book was in fear of his life. But oddly enough, "Billy Bathgate," the book you mentioned had come out the same week that the "Satanic Verses" were published. And no one was walking into bookstore. And while I was determined to back Salman and speak out against what was happening to him, I was really angry at him for ruining the possible sales of my novel.
REHMNow, is there a new novel already in the works?
DOCTOROWThere is one. It's sort of at the beginning of things, yeah. It's at that stage where something is calling to you, but you don't quite know what it is. And so you're writing to find out what you're writing, actually. That's the way it is.
REHMThat must create a lot of insecurity on the part of a writer.
DOCTOROWWell, I don't know if it's insecurity. At this point I'm really so used to it. It's quite an irrational way to live, actually. But it's the way I've been going along for many, many years.
REHMNow, when you're in this stage does that mean you don't socialize very much or does it mean you sort of keep to yourself?
DOCTOROWWell, you do pick and choose a little. As I mentioned, the house in Sag Harbor, that's a good retreat as long as it's not summertime. And it's very quiet there. And if you don't write you go mad. Living in the city has its problems. There are a lot of writers who just avoid New York and want to get the work done. Somehow I seem to be used to it, but it's probably more difficult for my wife when I say I don't want to go to this, I don't want to do that. I remember once -- I don't know if I ever told you this.
DOCTOROWShe was on a radio program in New York. And the subject was living with an author. And Rose Styron was there and Helen was there and Nan Talese, Gay Talese's wife was there. And the host said, "It's often said of writers that they're beasts and neurotic self-involved egomaniacs." And without even being introduced to the audience my wife said, "Oh, you know my husband?"
REHME. L. Doctorow. And the new novel, "Andrew's Brain." Thank you so much for being here.
DOCTOROWIt was fun.
REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
Most Recent Shows
The Food and Drug Administration will require movie theaters, chain restaurants and pizza parlors to include calorie counts for food and beverages – including alcohol. Please join us to discuss costs and benefits of the new rules.
Actress, model, and author Brooke Shields on her relationship with her mother and the childhood that made Shields the woman she is today.
After months of tension, a St. Louis County grand jury decides not to indict Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown. Diane and her guests discuss reaction to the verdict from civil rights groups, protesters and law enforcement.