This 2007 photo shows E.L. Doctorow at the 6th Festival of Literature at Massenzio Basilica in Rome, Italy.

This 2007 photo shows E.L. Doctorow at the 6th Festival of Literature at Massenzio Basilica in Rome, Italy.

Writer E.L. Doctorow died this week at the age of 84. We rebroadcast Diane’s 2009 conversation with the best-selling author on his book, “Homer and Langley,” inspired by the true story of New York City’s most famous pack rats, the Collyer Brothers.

Guests

  • E.L. Doctorow Novelist; his many honors include a National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Humanities Medal.

Remembering E.L. Doctorow

Remembering E.L. Doctorow - The Diane Rehm Show

A look back at the life and legacy of E.L. Doctorow through our interviews with the author.

Video: E.L. Doctorow

E.L. Doctorow sat down for an interview with The New York Times.

Transcript

  • 11:06:53

    MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today. Bestselling American author E.L. Doctorow died this week at the age of 84. He had been a guest on this program several times. In this hour, we bring you a special rebroadcast of one of Diane's interviews with the award-winning writer. Here's here conversation from 2009 with E.L. Doctorow. We hope you enjoy listening.

  • 11:07:18

    MS. DIANE REHMJoyce Carol Oates called E.L. Doctorow, quote, "our great chronicler of American mythology." In his latest novel, Doctorow takes readers on an odyssey through the 20th century. It's titled "Homer And Langley." It's a fictionalized account of the real life Collyer brothers notorious recluses who filled their townhouse with decades of newspapers, found objects and refuse.

  • 11:07:50

    MS. DIANE REHMThe multi-award winning author E.L. Doctorow joins me in the studio. How good to see you again.

  • 11:07:57

    MR. E.L. DOCTOROWIt's good to be here.

  • 11:07:58

    REHMThank you. I understand that the seeds of this book go way back to when you were a teenager.

  • 11:08:09

    DOCTOROWWell, yes. I was a teenager when the big news story broke that these two recluses had been found dead in their townhouse with tons of stuff all around them. One of the brothers, Langley, had been killed with one of his snares involving tons of materials that was supposed to drop on a prowler, instead dropped down on him and killed him. And the other brother, Homer, was totally dependent on Langley for survival, simply starved to death.

  • 11:08:48

    DOCTOROWAnd this was a big story and police couldn't get into the house through the doors and the windows. They had to drill a hole and go down through the roof. So the Collyer brothers became instant folklore and they stood for kind of disorder. In those days, it was regarded as an eccentricity. Now, it's taken a little more seriously. But as a teenager, I was not the only boy whose mother looked into his room and said, my god, it's the Collyer brothers.

  • 11:09:22

    REHMWould you read for us from the first few pages of the book?

  • 11:09:30

    DOCTOROWYes. The brother Homer tells the story and it's in the nature of a memoir as he's looking back through his life. And so he starts, naturally, from the time he was quite young and before either of them became what they would be. "I'm Homer, the blind brother. I didn't lose my sight all at once. It was like the movies, a slow fadeout. When I was told what was happening, I was interested to measure it. I was in my late teens then, keen on everything.

  • 11:10:07

    DOCTOROWWhat I did this particular winter was to stand back from the lake in Central Park where they did all their ice skating and see what I could see and couldn't see as a day by day thing. The houses over at Central Park West went first. They got darker as if dissolving into the dark sky until I couldn't make them out and then the trees began to lose their shape and then finally, this was toward the end of the season, maybe it was late February of that very cold winter, and all I could see were these phantom shapes of the ice skaters floating past me on a field of ice.

  • 11:10:41

    DOCTOROWAnd then, the white ice, that last light went gray and then altogether black and then all my sight was gone, though I could hear clearly the scoot-scut of the blades on the ice, a very satisfying sound, a soft sound full of intention, a deeper tone than you'd expect made by the skate blades, perhaps for having sounded the resonant basso of the water under the ice, scoot-scut, scoot, scut.

  • 11:11:07

    DOCTOROWI would hear someone going someplace fast and then the twirl into that long scratch as the skater spun to a stop and then I laughed, too, for the joy of that ability of the skater to come to a dead stop all at once, going along scoot-scut and then scratch."

  • 11:11:25

    REHME.L. Doctorow reading from his new novel, "Homer And Langley." After Homer's sightlessness begins to descend, he realizes that he becomes more and more dependent on his brother, Langley, for guidance. But their parents were so socially involved, it seemed like such a sad transition for these two young men.

  • 11:12:01

    DOCTOROWYeah. Well, I should say that I've taken many liberties with the story.

  • 11:12:05

    REHMI understand.

  • 11:12:05

    DOCTOROWAnd as I felt about it for many years, there were basically two ways, two realms in which they existed, those brothers. They existed historically in the historic realm and then in the mythic realm and that was what would interest me, that as mythic figures, they demanded interpretation. And so I did that without particular regard for the actual dates and names and places and so on. I even moved their house down from 128th Street and Fifth Avenue, a little lower down so that they -- I had a feeling that Central Park would be involved in this story in some way.

  • 11:12:54

    REHMDid you, as a young teenager, go to see the house?

  • 11:13:00

    DOCTOROWI never did. I didn't see it before the book was finished, but then, I did visit it with some people a few weeks ago. And the actual lot now -- what happened was that the city tore the house down. The brothers had no relatives, no relations, no heirs. Neither of them were married. And the place was such a mess, the city just tore it down, built a little park there called Collyer Brother Park. And what I learned or I remember reading about six, seven years ago in the New York Times, that the people in the neighborhood objected to the park's name.

  • 11:13:43

    DOCTOROWThey objected having it called the Collyer Brothers Park and there they were, still disturbing people 50 years after their death. Well, that's when you know someone has a mythic presence in American life.

  • 11:13:55

    REHMIndeed.

  • 11:13:56

    DOCTOROWBut it's a lovely little park.

  • 11:13:59

    REHMYou know, as I read the book and felt myself surrounded by the growth of piles of newspapers and debris and the rooms in your book as you imagined it closed off one by one with just narrow walkways, for a blind man who eventually begins to lose his hearing as well, I found myself wondering whether you had created a parable for not only our country, but our planet. The acquisition of worthless materials somehow closing in on us.

  • 11:14:56

    DOCTOROWWell, that's a very good reading. I have to admit I had some sense of that as I was going along without allowing it to particularly govern what was happening. When you write -- when I write a book, I never start with any plan or an outline or any -- you put yourself in a position of writing to find out what you're writing and you make discoveries as you go along and the book begins to tell you things and give you gifts.

  • 11:15:25

    DOCTOROWAnd so -- and one line generates another. But somewhere along the line, I realized that the arch of the narrative had to do with entropy, with some sort of losing -- some sort of energy system running down. That was as much as I allowed myself to think. There have been several interpretations already of this book, which encourages me because fiction is, as a major critic once said, fiction is finally imponderable and subject to interpretation.

  • 11:16:05

    DOCTOROWAnd certainly this is a sound reading I think you have, absolutely.

  • 11:16:09

    REHMThank you. As Langley accumulates all these newspapers in the house, he is looking for a way to, shall we say, condense the news of the world into what he hopes will someday be a single piece of paper.

  • 11:16:36

    DOCTOROWOne edition for all time, yes. Homer sort of learns to tolerate his brother and read him in his -- and he's very forbearing. Langley, I propose, is a wounded veteran of World War I who comes -- who has been gassed and has his lungs shredded and emerges from that with his disposition embittered and cynical. And it seems to Homer, I think, or to me, that it's possible Langley is doing this insane thing as a kind of ironic discipline to keep himself busy without really ever thinking that he's going to end up with enough material to create one newspaper like some sort of platonic universal.

  • 11:17:29

    DOCTOROWHis idea is to keep studying the papers to come up with seminal human behavior and therefore writing an edition of paper that would cover all possible events for all possible time. Collyer's one edition only newspaper. And that's his major project and explains the tons of newspapers that begin to accumulate in the home. The fact is the matter in those days, New York City had many different newspapers.

  • 11:18:03

    REHMIndeed. E.L. Doctorow, his new novel is titled "Homer And Langley." Do join us, 800-433-8850.

  • REHMWelcome back. Prize-winning author E.L. Doctorow is here in the studio. I know many of you will want to join the conversation. We'll try to take as many calls as possible. His book, a novel, is titled, "Homer and Langley." It's based, in part, on a real-life situation where, on the front pages of The New York Times, in 1947, the New York police were called into a very, very prominent and posh house in New York, which had begun to emit a terrible odor. And within that house were two dead men, brothers: one blind, almost deaf, the other out of his mind.

  • 11:21:08

    REHMDo join us. 800-433-8850. When Homer began to go blind, Langley began to read to him. What did he read?

  • 11:21:22

    DOCTOROWHe read poetry. He read W. H. Auden. He read Gerard Manley Hopkins. Homer, as he talks about this, doesn't remember the names of the authors. He remembers single lines. He's very proud of the fact that certainly, when he was young and lost his sight, he did not feel disabled because his hearing was so acute. And he compensated quite well, feeling the air filled by objects, learning to live with aggressively inanimate objects, furniture and so on. So it takes him awhile before he begins to even realize that he has a serious disability. I think, really, what kept me going was the idea of the conversation these two brothers had throughout their lives.

  • 11:22:18

    DOCTOROWIt was -- it reminded me of some sort of road novel, actually, even though this -- they're in the house and they don't move very far. But the -- that idea of two people on the road, having adventures, going down the road and meeting other people and so on.

  • 11:22:37

    REHMBut, in fact, people are coming to them.

  • 11:22:39

    DOCTOROWExactly. The road comes through them. Because as reclusive as they are, the world really won't let them alone in this book.

  • 11:22:47

    REHMThere is one young woman who Homer becomes extraordinarily fond of.

  • 11:22:58

    DOCTOROWYes. Homer is pianist. And a piano student, Mary Elizabeth Riordan comes to work with him as a student. And in the early part of the depression, he gets a job playing in -- for silent movies. And she sits next to him and describes the scene so that he could come up with the appropriate music. And he, of course, falls in love with her, realizing that it is totally inappropriate. She's a young girl. And both brothers fall in love with her. And they end up actually sending her away to school as a kind of personal scholarship student. And she later becomes a nun and is executed in a Latin American country.

  • 11:23:56

    REHMSo that is, once again, how we move through history through the eyes of one blind brother and the other.

  • 11:24:08

    DOCTOROWYeah, they -- they're sort of curators of their own life and times. I think...

  • 11:24:17

    REHMThey watch World War II come to an end. They recognize that history is going on around them. And then, on one night, a group comes into the house. That was bizarre.

  • 11:24:42

    DOCTOROWWell, you mean the hippies?

  • 11:24:44

    REHMYeah. The hippies.

  • 11:24:46

    DOCTOROWYeah. Well, what happens is that the two brothers wandered Central Park. They're attracted by -- they're -- they go across the street into the park because there's an anti-war festival in Central Park. And because they are so -- their hair is long and they're badly dressed, they're taken for compatriots by these hippy children, who wander back to the home with them and are dazzled by the extraordinary interiors. And they crash -- that is to say they decide to board there for awhile. And so they do.

  • 11:25:27

    REHMWhat an event to have these hippies come and live with them. And yet the two brothers seem open to that kind of revision of their whole lifestyle.

  • 11:25:45

    DOCTOROWWell, throughout the book, their reclusiveness is a gradual thing. They start out with servants and, one by one, the servants disappear or leave or are forced to leave and...

  • 11:25:59

    REHMTo -- taken to internment camps.

  • 11:26:02

    DOCTOROWYes. And two Japanese servants are taken away in World War II as part of the government's policy to isolate Japanese-Americans. That was a very unfortunate event. And so it -- only gradually did the brothers find themselves alone and their reclusiveness begins to really kick in seriously. And it's almost by accident that they find -- they don't invite the hippies in really. They're just followed in. And they are fascinated by these children. And so they allow them in. And for a while their lives are enlightened and made happy by having this sort of paternal sense of -- for these kids.

  • 11:27:01

    REHM"Happiness" is not a word I would apply...

  • 11:27:09

    DOCTOROWWell, I withdraw "happy."

  • 11:27:11

    REHM...to these two men. I wonder how happy you are, as you write.

  • 11:27:20

    DOCTOROWWell, it's not a matter of happiness. I mean, you are -- on a good day, you're really transported by what you're doing. You have no sense of time passing. You're living in the sentences. And on bad days, you're discovering that the good day previously turned out not to be that good after all, as you read what you've done. And if you can get 500 words that you don't throw out the next day, I suppose that is a degree of happiness. But I wouldn't use that word for the general state of mind that you're in. You're really out of yourself. You're not quite yourself when you're...

  • 11:28:04

    REHMHow long did it take you to write this book?

  • 11:28:08

    DOCTOROWThis took about two and a half years. That's about average for me, two and a half, three years.

  • 11:28:16

    REHMAnd how did you know when you were finished with the book?

  • 11:28:22

    DOCTOROWWell, as you're approaching the end, you realize that there are not that many choices left to you. There's a kind of an evitable down -- it's sort of like skiing downhill, you know? You pick up speed and you see the bottom, where you're going to swirl to a stop.

  • 11:28:43

    REHMDid the book make you sad?

  • 11:28:47

    DOCTOROWWell, what happened at the end was, I had a sense that -- I was coming to it and then I wrote the last paragraph for the book and...

  • 11:28:54

    REHMHmm. Hmm. Hmm.

  • 11:28:57

    DOCTOROW...realized that I couldn't go any further. And I said, "Oh, this is the end. I've reached the end." And I think when you reach the end of any book, you get a little sad. You -- it's been a powerful relationship you've had with these people, these characters and then they're gone and it's all over.

  • 11:29:19

    REHMIn real life, do we know where the Collyer Brothers are buried?

  • 11:29:26

    DOCTOROWYeah. I believe they're buried in Queens, in some cemetery in Queens. I don't know exactly. Queens is a borough in New York.

  • 11:29:34

    REHMAnd when they died, what happened?

  • 11:29:39

    DOCTOROWWell, they -- I don't really know the details. You see them -- probably there was some money enough to get them a decent burial that the city would have administered after inquiring through whatever lawyers had been connected to the brothers, whether there were any heirs. I don't know the legalities that were involved.

  • 11:30:05

    REHMIn the novel, the two brothers have huge fights with the city, with the electric company, with the telephone company. Did that happen?

  • 11:30:18

    DOCTOROWYeah. They did hate the utilities and they were embattled in their last years. And they pulled out the phones from the wall and didn't pay their electric bills. The electricity was turned off. And finally the city turned off their water. So they were sort of camping out in their own house for some time.

  • 11:30:42

    REHMHow did they manage?

  • 11:30:44

    DOCTOROWWell, what I propose is that they got their water from Central Park fountains and from a -- and the city in the old days used to have places to water horses. And they found one of these spigots up the street somewhere and they tapped into that. That's what I -- the point is, a lot of what you invent is you simply understand what the logic of the situation would have required and you find out you're right. And so they did that. And then there were kids throwing stones at the house. And they had become quite notorious before they died.

  • 11:31:30

    REHMThey had closed all the shutters.

  • 11:31:32

    DOCTOROWThey had pulled all the shutters, closed -- locked the door.

  • 11:31:36

    REHMAnd of course Homer didn't need light. But Langley surely did.

  • 11:31:42

    DOCTOROWWell, Langley would go out at night and scavenge. And he became progressively more eccentric. And he was known throughout the neighborhood -- see, people would see him shambling along in the dawn.

  • 11:31:58

    REHMAnd of course, in the novel, early on, Langley leads Homer to a nearby restaurant where they had the same table each night, have a modest meal and walk back home.

  • 11:32:13

    DOCTOROWYeah, that's a little earlier in their lives.

  • 11:32:15

    REHMThat' earlier.

  • 11:32:16

    DOCTOROWMm-hmm.

  • 11:32:17

    REHMAnd then they stopped doing that. Perhaps lack of money?

  • 11:32:23

    DOCTOROWWell, Langley, as I propose in the book, was always worried about money. That's why, in the Depression, he decides to throw tea dances in their house. They -- but, there was money there. And I have -- the brothers have a gentle argument about whether they should pay off the mortgage or not. And Langley says, "If we pay it off, we don't get a tax deduction." And Homer says, "Well, we never pay the premiums anyway." So we -- if we don't...

  • 11:32:56

    REHMWe never pay taxes.

  • 11:32:58

    DOCTOROWHow can we -- how can we, and we don't pay taxes, why is that. Anyway, they do have this discussion. But finally -- and this is factual, as well -- I have Langley walking down the length of Manhattan to Dime Savings Bank, the people who have the mortgage, and paying it off downtown.

  • 11:33:18

    REHME.L. Doctorow. His new book is titled "Homer and Langley." At 27 before the hour, you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And we have many callers waiting. We'll open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First, to Yp0silanti, Mich. Good morning, Tom, you're on the air.

  • 11:33:46

    TOMGood morning, Diane. Thank you. I just wanted to ask a couple quick questions. Mr. Doctorow, if you're at all concerned, as a writer of historical fiction and historical biography in particular, that your readers will, in the days and months and years after reading your work, that they will recall your interpretation as fact? And the second quick question, if you would consider doing a non-fiction biography of one of America's great modern heroes, Diane Rehm.

  • 11:34:13

    REHMOh. Aren't you dear. Thank you.

  • 11:34:18

    DOCTOROWWell, that is nice. But the fact is, you mentioned that I write biographies. I don't. I wrote only fiction. And I think that as long as a book is announced as fiction and it's clearly proposed as fiction, then the reader is -- goes into another mode of response and understands, as you would -- or you would understand a portrait painted by a painter is not the living person who has modeled for the portrait. And so when the writer uses historical characters, it's equivalent to portraiture and represents the views of the...

  • 11:35:01

    REHMHmm.

  • 11:35:01

    DOCTOROW...of the writer.

  • 11:35:02

    REHMThanks for your call, Tom. Let's go now to Henry in Jacksonville, Fla. Hi, there. You're on the air.

  • 11:35:10

    HENRYThank you, Diane. I enjoy your show every day.

  • 11:35:14

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:35:15

    HENRYThank you for brining such wonderful topics to the rest of the world, too.

  • 11:35:18

    REHMWell, it's a great joy for me, I assure you.

  • 11:35:24

    HENRYI'd like to first comment to your guest there that I have just survived a 20-year-long relationship somebody -- a gentleman that I love very deeply -- he passed away last year. But he had a significant hoarding problem. And he and I lived most of the -- most of those 20 years in his house, which was completely -- ceiling to floor and front to back full of useless objects. There were actually no trash in there and there was no rotten food or anything like that. But he was mildly reclusive. And the battle for me was, I had to constantly remember on a minute-by-minute basis that he was very good to me and a very good person and he loved me deeply and I loved him.

  • 11:36:23

    HENRYBut at the same token, I had to find a way to mentally survive, sometimes on a day-to-day basis, with having to deal with living that way.

  • 11:36:35

    REHMHmm. Hmm.

  • 11:36:35

    HENRYAnd not being able to have friends come to the house and having all of -- all of my music and art and everything packed up where I couldn't get to it.

  • 11:36:48

    REHMSure. Henry, I so appreciate your call. I'm sorry for your loss. But at the same time, surely, there is a kind of freedom that comes with that.

  • 11:37:03

    DOCTOROWYeah. The -- when the Collyer Brothers died, they were considered mere eccentrics and oddballs. In fact, since then, psychiatry has investigated this hoarding and regards it now -- I think, it's generally regarded as an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

  • 11:37:26

    REHME.L. Doctorow. The new novel is titled, "Homer and Langley." Short break and when we come back, more of your calls, your email. 800-433-8850.

  • 11:40:02

    REHMAnd welcome back to our conversation with E.L. Doctorow. His new novel is titled, "Homer and Langley," based on a real life experience. He was a teenager when New York police finally broke in on a house from which emanated a terrible, terrible scent and found two adult males dead. Here's a caller in Indianapolis. Good morning, Ellen. You're on the air.

  • 11:40:46

    ELLENGood morning. Mr. Doctorow, I'm always interested in what other authors are reading. In regard to writing, do you think you obtain some insight and influence from what you read? I'm interested in knowing what you like to read.

  • 11:41:02

    DOCTOROWI usually like to read books on science and history and lately, on cognitive science. The work that's going on, having to do with the brain. When I'm writing fiction, I don't read fiction. I read anything but.

  • 11:41:21

    REHMWhy?

  • 11:41:22

    DOCTOROWWell, you don't want to, it's sort of, kind of static, gets into your mind and...

  • 11:41:31

    REHMYou don't want to contaminate your thinking?

  • 11:41:34

    DOCTOROWWell, I wouldn't use the word contaminate. It's just a sense of distraction, really.

  • 11:41:41

    REHMHere's an email from Jane, who says this hording runs in my family. My mother's father was world class with a whole house and garage filled with many things. We actually made some money off this. We took part in a study through Johns Hopkins in which we sent blood samples and answered questions. And yes, we had the gene. One of my sisters is OCD in the opposite way. A fear of contamination. I have a bibliophilic problem, a gentle madness speaks of this.

  • 11:42:30

    DOCTOROWWell, I admit, I tend to collect books and not let them go. It's a source of wonder and irritation to Mrs. Doctorow.

  • 11:42:41

    REHMWho is your first reader, is she not?

  • 11:42:44

    DOCTOROWYeah, she is. And she thought this was kind of an appropriate book for me to write, given my own habits of book collecting.

  • 11:42:56

    REHMSo, your mother was right.

  • 11:42:59

    DOCTOROWWell, there is a nice balance in this household, because my wife's sense of order is almost as obsessively and compulsively active as my sense of disorder.

  • 11:43:16

    REHMIt's good. It's good.

  • 11:43:17

    DOCTOROWAnd so it works out.

  • 11:43:19

    REHMYeah. Here's an email from Sheri in Dover, New Hampshire. She says, I'm a writing teacher at the University of New Hampshire and a Charter High School in Dover. I use E.L. Doctorow's quote, "you can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." As the guiding principle of both my teaching and writing practices. Making discoveries is an essential part of both practices and keeping that beautiful quote in mind helps me on the road.

  • 11:44:02

    DOCTOROWThat's lovely to hear. I'm very happy to hear that. But that's exactly the state of writing a novel. You do only see as far as your headlights reach. But you go through the whole night and get to the end.

  • 11:44:22

    REHMWhen you put those 500 words on a page, if you're fortunate, on that day, do those 500 words stay in your brain overnight? Are you going over them?

  • 11:44:42

    DOCTOROWNo. You know, Ernest Hemmingway was a very great psychologist of the writing mind. And he gave some interviews in his life and one of the things he said was that when you're not writing, don't write. When you're not sitting at your desk and doing your work, don't think about it. He had a lot of good ideas. One was that always stop when you knew what's coming next. So, the following day's work, you had a little launching pad, you see? And I subscribe to those ideas. And try not to think about, sometimes, of course, you wake up in the middle of the night and you keep a pad by the bed.

  • 11:45:32

    REHMAnd you jot.

  • 11:45:34

    DOCTOROWAnd you say something, yeah. And hope it's legible in the morning.

  • 11:45:38

    REHMOne person advised me to stop writing in mid-sentence so that the next day, I'd be able to pick up that thought.

  • 11:45:51

    DOCTOROWYeah, well, that should work. Sure. Absolutely.

  • 11:45:55

    REHMIt did work. It helped me a great deal. Let's go now to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Good morning, Sandy.

  • 11:46:05

    SANDYGood morning. Thank you for having me.

  • 11:46:08

    REHMSurely.

  • 11:46:09

    SANDYMr. Doctorow, I am fortunate enough to have a son who is a freshman at Kenyon College, who is a great lover of reading and writing. And I'd love some advice from you on how to keep him engaged in reading on his own, when I know he is inundated with reading text that is being assigned by his professors right now. I'll take your advice off the air. Thank you.

  • 11:46:41

    REHMThanks for calling.

  • 11:46:42

    DOCTOROWWell, the professors' assigned reading is not onerous. Kenyan is a great liberal arts school and reading text is not considered something apart from regular reading. I mean, it's all integrated. What you get assigned is what you should be reading anyway yourself. And I would suggest that the young man, if he's at Kenyan, he's going to be okay and don't worry about it.

  • 11:47:15

    REHMKenyan's a good place to be. Now to Roberta in West Palm Beach, Florida. Good morning, you're on the air.

  • 11:47:24

    ROBERTAOh, thank you so much. My two favorite people in the world.

  • 11:47:29

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:47:30

    ROBERTAI've read all of Doctorow's books and I've loved every one of them, but "Homer and Langley" was so special in that here were these two strange, strange people that the public and the media made into freaks. And you made them such gentle, kind people. I loved them. I just thought they were so -- I understood them. You gave them such a meaningful background and such a reason for being, especially Langley, who was really the hoarder. But that he did have a goal and that he was kind of a leftist socialist radical.

  • 11:48:17

    ROBERTABut I just thank you for the gentleness, that you're able to integrate all of the history that goes on and yet, at the same time, imbue such thoughtfulness and gentleness. And I thank you for that.

  • 11:48:32

    DOCTOROWWell, thank you. I thought, when I got started on this book, that there was a mystery to these men. And they had created meaning for themselves in that strange life they lived. And I just wanted to break into their minds and figure out what it could have been. And so, the book is an act of breaking and entering, actually. And it turned out that I saw them mythically as these two men who were really intent on creating meaning for themselves that was not available to them in their minds outside.

  • 11:49:16

    REHMYou know, we think of the hording as sort of over and above everything else, but I think Roberta, in bringing up their kindness, I think about their generosity. And they were both generous people, except to the government, except to the utilities.

  • 11:49:43

    DOCTOROWYeah. They do have a certain kind of philosophical stance and probably the idea of hording is only what we all do to excess. Because we are a very materialistic society, aren't we? And we all take our identities, in part, from the things we own. And, but when we see it done to extremes, we get a little nervous, don't we?

  • 11:50:15

    REHMAnd yet, I mean, there are people in our very society who are accumulating to extremes.

  • 11:50:28

    DOCTOROWYeah.

  • 11:50:29

    REHMEven as we speak. Thanks for your call, Roberta. Let's go to Rocky Mountain, North Carolina. Hi, Jack.

  • 11:50:38

    JACKGood morning.

  • 11:50:39

    REHMMorning, sir.

  • 11:50:41

    JACKI was born and raised in Harlem, and I lived a block from the Collyer Brothers. I passed their home every day for three years going to school. And I remember seeing one of the brothers in the doorway in the evening occasionally. And I can remember the sanitation trucks that took the trash away after they died.

  • 11:51:09

    REHMWow.

  • 11:51:10

    DOCTOROWWell, that's quite an experience. They'd need a lot of sanitation trucks to...

  • 11:51:16

    REHMI was about to say, Jack, do you have any recollection about how many sanitation trucks there were?

  • 11:51:26

    JACKI only saw them on my way to school, perhaps, and we're talking about, I was probably between 12 and 13. Maybe 14 at the time. And, but I played right next to their house. I was told that there was a house on either side of the street and they built a tunnel from one house to the other. That's what we were told when we were kids. That's why we never saw them during the day. It was always in the evenings.

  • 11:51:58

    REHMIs that...

  • 11:51:59

    DOCTOROWThere was a lot of folklore, even as they were still alive. They did own another house across the street, but I don't think there was a tunnel.

  • 11:52:07

    REHMA tunnel.

  • 11:52:07

    DOCTOROWNo.

  • 11:52:08

    REHMInteresting. Jack, thank you for calling. And to Elizabeth who's in St. Louis, Missouri. Good morning, you're on the air. Elizabeth.

  • 11:52:23

    ELIZABETHOh, I'm sorry. Thank you for taking my call.

  • 11:52:25

    REHMSure.

  • 11:52:26

    ELIZABETHI appreciate, so much, the insights that were given in the discussion of the writing process. I'm interested in writing and put that off until I'm 80 years old. But I wanted to ask the question, too. If in the process of writing, as you go through it, and as you put this down, and as you complete it, do you also find that in your understanding of the characters that you've written about, that you understand that deepens your own understanding of self?

  • 11:53:03

    DOCTOROWWell, yeah, what happens is actually is that they're all you. You've been throwing your voice. You've been acting. And you remember what great French writer Flaubert said. He wrote Madame Bovary, great novel, and someone said, asked him where he got that character. And he said, Madame Bovery (speaks foreign language). That's me. And that's it exactly.

  • 11:53:34

    REHMAt seven minutes before the hour, you're listening to The Diane Rehm Show. Edgar Doctorow, you have been married to Helen Doctorow for 53 years. That's quite an achievement.

  • 11:53:51

    DOCTOROWYeah. Well, we've talked about that, and neither of us quite understand it. It is true, she's gone on record as saying that not one day has passed in those years that she didn't either want to murder me or divorce me. Mostly murder, she said.

  • 11:54:07

    REHMYou also, I gather, you met her in a graduate school acting program.

  • 11:54:13

    DOCTOROWYeah. We were both at Columbia. They had a lovely theater there at the time, the Branda Matthews Theater. And they had student acting programs and courses.

  • 11:54:24

    REHMWell, was that ever a goal of yours?

  • 11:54:27

    DOCTOROWWell, I was there as a master student studying drama. At the time, I wanted to be a playwright. I wanted to write plays and that MA gave you the opportunity to participate in the actual practical theater work. To be part of the theater for your studies. And that's how I met Ellen. She was acting. She was getting all the major roles. I was only getting walk-ons, actually.

  • 11:54:55

    REHMSo, you were envious of her to begin with?

  • 11:54:57

    DOCTOROWNo, it wasn't envy. It was attraction, really.

  • 11:55:02

    REHMAnd you have three children.

  • 11:55:05

    DOCTOROWYes.

  • 11:55:05

    REHMWhere are they?

  • 11:55:07

    DOCTOROWWell, one lives in Los Angeles and two around New York City.

  • 11:55:11

    REHMAnd what are they doing?

  • 11:55:13

    DOCTOROWWhen the boy, young man, in L.A. is a writer, television writer, writes comedy. And one of my daughters in a folk singer and composer. And the other is a physical trainer. So, they're all gainfully active in one pursuit or another. I want to ask you, finally, what your thinking is about the state of journalism today.

  • 11:55:45

    DOCTOROWWell, it seems to be undergoing an enormous change. I don't claim to be well informed about. I just know what everyone knows, that the papers are in trouble. And there seems to be a new kind of culture rising from the internet and sort of taking over. The question is, will there be institutions, as the newspapers have been, that can support investigative reporting and on the ground hard work that keeps the public informed in ways that it has been. So, that's an issue, I think that's still in question.

  • 11:56:30

    REHMHuge issue. Huge issue. As to where the news is going to come from and how or whether it will truly inform. E.L. Doctorow, his brand new novel is titled, "Homer and Langley." What a pleasure to be with you.

  • 11:56:52

    DOCTOROWMy pleasure. Thank you.

  • 11:56:54

    REHMThank you. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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