E.L. Doctorow: 1931-2015

INTERVIEWER

Isn’t there an enormous temptation as a fiction writer to take scenes out of history, since you do rely on that so much, and fiddle with them just a little bit?

DOCTOROW

Well, it’s nothing new, you know. I myself like the way Shakespeare fiddles with history; and Tolstoy. In this country we tend to be naive about history. We think it’s Newton’s perfect mechanical universe, out there predictably for everyone to see and set their watches by. But it’s more like curved space, and infinitely compressible and expandable time. It’s constant subatomic chaos. When President Reagan says the Nazi SS were as much victims as the Jews they murdered—wouldn’t you call that fiddling? Or the Japanese educators who’ve been rewriting their textbooks to eliminate the embarrassing facts of their invasion of China, the atrocities they committed in Manchuria in 1937? Orwell told us about this. History is a battlefield. It’s constantly being fought over because the past controls the present. History is the present. That’s why every generation writes it anew. But what most people think of as history is its end product, myth. So to be irreverent to myth, to play with it, let in some light and air, to try to combust it back into history, is to risk being seen as someone who distorts truth. I meant it when I said everything in Ragtime is true. It is as true as I could make it. I think my vision of J. P. Morgan, for instance, is more accurate to the soul of that man than his authorized biography … Actually, if you want a confession, Morgan never existed. Morgan, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit: all of them are made up. The historical characters in the book are Mother, Father, Tateh, The Little Boy, The Little Girl.

-From George Plimpton’s 1986 conversation with E.L. Doctorow, author of books including Ragtime, The Book of Daniel, The March and Billy Bathgate. Doctorow died Tuesday in New York at age 84.

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