“Aeronautical engineer”


E. L. Doctorow

From The Days of Yore:

Cautious at first, Doctorow opens up with a warm and steady chuckle, seeming to surprise himself by his own candor.

Did you have a sense when you were very young that a writer was something one could be – and did you want to be that?

Yes, I believe so. I was an avid reader. I read indiscriminately. I’d go to the public library and bring home an armload of books and go through them in a few days and then go back for more. I didn’t care what the books were, I read everything— comic books, detective stories, Victor Hugo, Mark Twain, I made no distinctions. I remember finding a book called The Idiot by someone named Dostoyevsky. I think the title suggested to me that whoever the idiot was, it would turn out that he wasn’t.

How old were you then?

I was probably about eight or nine. And I took that one home and read it, though it was a struggle with all those long Russian names and their diminutives. I remember reading a young adult version of Don Quixote. Oh, and I was crazy about Jack London. London was very important to me because it was while reading The Call of the Wild and White Fang and some of his short stories that I began to ask the other question – not what’s going to happen next, but how is this done? And I think if you’re going to be a writer, that question will pop up pretty early.

And so, when I was about nine, I decided I was a writer, though I felt no particular need to write anything by way of verification. [Laughs.]

You had defined it. And that was enough.

I was loyal to the idea, and everyone in my family knew it. Yet there were moments of defection. One day I told my brother Donald that I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. Donald was very smart. He said, “You just like the sound of those words.” And it was true. I loved to say “aeronautical engineer.”

Well, it does sound pretty great.

So, the answer is yes, I did fix on writing. It turned out that I had been named after Edgar Allan Poe. That was my father’s idea because he loved Poe’s work. When we name our children there’s often some sort of unconscious wish involved, isn’t there? A prayer to the gods – send this child this way. Perhaps my father was wishing for me what he hadn’t been able to arrange for himself. He was very well read, philosophically inclined, but struggling to support his family during the Great Depression took everything he had.

It was only years later, long after my father’s death, that I asked my mother, who was then about ninety, how it happened, given all the great 19th century writers, that they had chosen to name me after Poe. I said to her, “Did you and Dad realize you named me after an alcoholic, drug-addicted, delusional paranoid with strong necrophiliac tendencies?” She said, “Edgar, that’s not funny.”

At any rate, when I was in middle school, or what we called junior high school, I started to write stories imitative of Poe, of course – stories that took place in dungeons and crypts and haunted houses. “The cell was dark and dank,” that was a typical opening line.

“Interview with E.L. Doctorow”, Days of Yore