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Writer reflects on his craft— and his name

E.L. Doctorow autographs his books Friday at the Clearwater Main Library.

ATOYIA DEANS | Times

E.L. Doctorow autographs his books Friday at the Clearwater Main Library.

CLEARWATER — If Edgar Lawrence "E.L." Doctorow seems like the quiet, brooding type, blame it on his parents for naming him after Edgar Allen Poe.

"My father loved Poe's work," the critically acclaimed author told about 160 devotees Friday at the Clearwater Main Library.

"He loved a lot of bad writers. Poe is our greatest bad writer, so I took some consolation from that. … But I always had a problem with that name."

He once asked his mother, "Do you realize you and dad named me after a drug-addicted, alcoholic, delusional, paranoid (his voice rises in trepidation) with strong necrophiliac tendencies?' "

She didn't find it funny, he said, but the fans roared.

Doctorow, 77, is whiskery, bespectacled, with a few strands of hair criss-crossing his shiny head. With a navy sports coat and olive-green slacks, he radiates old-school formality.

His voice is deep, soothing, mellow. As he reads The Writer in the Family, from his 1984 book Lives of the Poets, it is as though he is reading a bedtime story.

Doctorow's novels include Ragtime, Loon Lake, World's Fair, Billy Bathgate, The Book of Daniel and The March.

He has amassed many awards over four decades, including the National Book Award, two National Book Critics Circle awards and the PEN/Faulkner Award.

He was at the library as part of a collaboration with the University of South Florida.

After Doctorow's reading, a question-and-answer session with the audience followed. Here are the highlights:

You were engaged in some acting at Kenyon College, as was Paul Newman. Did you know him?

Paul Newman was a senior when I was a freshman at Kenyon College. He was a great comic actor at Kenyon, and after he left, I began to get some decent parts.

He was quite the rogue at school. He always had an entrepreneurial gift. He had a little laundry business where he would pick up students' laundry. He was competing with the campus laundry, but when he began offering free beer, his laundry business boomed.

How did your journey as a writer begin? Were you the writer in the family?

I decided I was a writer at age 9, and for many years after that I didn't feel it necessary to write anything. I just loved to read.

Fortunately, this was before television was in every household. We had no money, but we had a lot of books and a lot of music. My mother was a pianist; my brother had a sweet little band. My father had a music shop.

Why do you sometimes revisit characters in new books you write?

You do things to keep yourself amused.

Is Billy Bathgate autobiographical in your mind sir?

You're asking me if I was connected to a famous gangster?

When I was growing up in the Bronx, there were enough tough kids on my way to the public library to make my life tenuous, which perhaps gave me the idea many years later of writing that.

What happens during the editing process before the final print?

I used to be an editor myself. I worked as a senior editor at the New American Library, a mass-market paperback publisher. Then I became editor-in-chief at a small house called the Dial Press. I learned how to deal with books — to break them down, rearrange them, take things out that didn't belong there — and that work taught me to be just as objective with my own work.

Usually, when I hand the book in, (he smiles) it doesn't need editing.

Writer reflects on his craft— and his name 11/14/08 [Last modified: Friday, November 21, 2008 8:24pm]
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