E.L. Doctorow

“Writers don’t retire. How can writers retire? I don’t understand the concept.”

E.L. Doctorow’s voice is habitually mild, even watery, but there was a defiant, almost querulous edge to this pronouncement. Though he had already turned 70 when he started writing his big new best-selling novel, The March, he saw nothing unusual in an elderly author undertaking a major project: “I don’t understand why age is a factor if you still have your wits about you.”

Reviewers of The March, and those of us who confidently expected it to win the National Book Award (the prize was stolen by William Vollmann, who’s a generation younger), are in no doubt about Mr. Doctorow’s wits. In The Observer, Lee Siegel called The March—a retelling of Sherman’s brutal subjugation of Georgia and the Carolinas in the waning months of the Civil War—“brilliant and compulsively readable.” Mr. Siegel noted that by the end of the novel, “it’s not really war you come to hate. You despise what seems like the secret complicity between war and everyday life.”

Sitting in the bright window of a Greenwich Village bar on a warm winter afternoon, the passing pedestrians casting long, crisp shadows, Mr. Doctorow looked back on a career that began in 1960 with the publication of his first novel, Welcome to Hard Times. “That was a long time ago,” he said, seeming somewhat surprised by his own endurance.

“I don’t write to make a mark,” he said. “I never thought of it as a career. It’s just something I could do and I felt good doing it.” He worked in publishing as a young man—when he quit in his late 30’s, he was halfway through The Book of Daniel (1971) and had risen to be publisher and editor in chief of Dial Press. “It turned out to be very useful,” he laughed dryly, “to see how many really bad books were being published. It was very encouraging.”

When Mr. Doctorow laughs, his face, normally shaped like an ice-cream cone— the neat V of his beard under a generously domed forehead—changes radically, so that it’s round and merry, not sober and high-minded; his eyes go round, too, behind wire-rim glasses.

“I thought of myself as a writer when I was about 9—I just decided that.” He laughed again. “I didn’t really feel I had to write anything, but I read everything I could get my hands on. I was just living on that nerve, the way I’ve always lived: on that nerve.”

The only way he could explain “the nerve,” he said, was to describe it in terms of the arc of his career: “I published another book, and that was Ragtime [1975], and everything has gone on from there …. Maybe it all goes back to the fact that when I was a child in school, I wrote good book reports.” He added, “It’s that way in a book, too: When you’re on the nerve of the book, you feel good. When you get off the nerve, something’s wrong and you’ve got to go back and see where you lost that electric impulse that drives the sentences, that makes them live. It’s the same way with life.”

A Bronx native—married, father of three—Edgar Lawrence Doctorow has been teaching creative writing for 23 years in the English department at New York University. He’s generally impressed with his students: Every year, three or four of them get published. In fact, he believes that writing programs could be said to subsidize publishers with a steady flow of “workshopped” first novels, all pretty much ready to go to press. “Young writers today know more technically—they know more about writing,” he said. But the implicit comparison with the old days, when writers had careers, often in journalism, suggests that perhaps these youngsters don’t know very much about the world beyond the ivory tower. “The patronage of the university can be dangerous,” he noted.

“There’s always room in the literary dance,” he said, “for anybody who takes a shot at it and does it well, whether you’re 20 or 70.” But, as he also pointed out, “As you get older as a writer, part of the deal is learning about your own psychology, and when something’s not right, you learn to admit it. A still small voice says, ‘Wait a moment—you’re off the nerve.’”

John Crowe Ransom, one of Mr. Doctorow’s professors at Kenyon College in the 1950’s, had a theory about age and literary talent that seems to favor maturity. As Mr. Doctorow explained it, “If you take two people of equal talent or gift and one starts writing at the age of 17, one at 50, at age 51 they’d both be writing at the same level, the same degree of achievement.”

And what exactly would that feel like?

“When you’re writing well,” he said, “you’re out of yourself, you’re not the person you used to be, which is all to the good. There’s no sense of time passing; you’re living in the sentences. And when you’re well along in the book, the only way you can get out of the book is through the last line, and so you stay there and you don’t think of anything except being there. You don’t worry about readers or reviewers or publishers or money or anything. And you look up at the clock and the whole day has passed.”

That description called to mind an oft-quoted Doctorow aphorism: “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.”

“Don’t repeat that,” he said—apparently the remark got him into trouble with mental-health officials. “It was a little flip.” He chuckled, but it was clear that he was actually sorry to have caused offense. Behind his gentle insistence on the importance of the writer—the “independent witness”—lies a preoccupation with moral justice and the responsibilities of citizenship.

An early and steadfast critic of the Bush administration and especially of the war in Iraq, Mr. Doctorow has made his opinions very public in the last couple of years. In May 2004, he gave a commencement address at Hofstra University in which he explicitly condemned the “stories” President George W. Bush told to sell the public on his plan to invade Iraq. The speech was loudly booed. Four months later, he published in The East Hampton Star a moving denunciation of Mr. Bush as “the president who does not feel.” The essay, which has been widely circulated on the Internet, closed with a powerful kicker: “He cannot mourn but is a figure of such moral vacancy as to make us mourn for ourselves.”

These political gestures raised the suspicion that The March, with its graphic representation of the human cost of war, was yet another, more oblique indictment of the Iraq war.

Not so, Mr. Doctorow said: “I had no conscious intention of drawing an analogy …. But whenever you write about the past, obviously you’re going to reflect the present. If there are any analogies to be made, I leave it to the reader.” Make that many, many readers: Random House reports that it has printed 273,000 copies of The March.

Another one of Mr. Doctorow’s aphorisms about writing seems an apt description of his evolving career: “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.