Plimpton interviews Doctorow
What comes first? Is it a character? You say a premise. What does that mean? Is it a theme?
Well, it can be anything. It can be a voice, an image; it can be a deep moment of personal desperation. For instance, with Ragtime I was so desperate to write something, I was facing the wall of my study in my house in New Rochelle and so I started to write about the wall. That’s the kind of day we sometimes have, as writers. Then I wrote about the house that was attached to the wall. It was built in 1906, you see, so I thought about the era and what Broadview Avenue looked like then: trolley cars ran along the avenue down at the bottom of the hill; people wore white clothes in the summer to stay cool. Teddy Roosevelt was President. One thing led to another and that’s the way that book began: through desperation to those few images. With Loon Lake, in contrast, it was just a very strong sense of place, a heightened emotion when I found myself in the Adirondacks after many, many years of being away . . . and all this came to a point when I saw a sign, a road sign: Loon Lake. So it can be anything.
Do you have any idea how a project is going to end?
Not at that point, no. It’s not a terribly rational way to work. It’s hard to explain. I have found one explanation that seems to satisfy people. I tell them it’s like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
(Paris Review Doctorow interviewed by George Plimpton E. L. Doctorow, “The Art of Fiction No. 94” ISSUE 101, WINTER 1986)