Content starts here

E.L. Doctorow: He Turned History Into Fiction

E.L. Doctorow in January 2014

E.L. Doctorow took the art of historical novels a step beyond by reimagining historical figures as fictional characters. In his most famous work, the 1975 best-seller Ragtime, Doctorow, who passed away on July 21 in New York at age 84, set a cast that includes Harry Houdini, Sigmund Freud, Henry Ford and Booker T. Washington interact in scenes that never happened and yet reveal so much about the characters.

Famous People We’ve Lost in 2015 »

Here are some nuggets about Doctorow.

  •  E.L. stands for Edgar Lawrence, and, much to Doctorow's dismay, Edgar came from Edgar Allan Poe. “Do you and Dad know you named me after a drug-addicted, alcoholic delusional paranoid with strong necrophiliac tendencies?” he once asked his mother.
  • For a high school assignment, he wrote an artfully detailed character sketch of a Carnegie Hall doorman named Karl that his teacher wanted to publish in the school paper until Doctorow reluctantly confessed that Karl didn’t actually exist.
  • While trying to start a career as a novelist, he worked as a reservations clerk at La Guardia Airport.
  • Writing was so difficult for him that he once got writer’s block while trying to scribble a school absence note for his daughter, he recalled in a Paris Review interview: “There was a pile of crumpled pages on the floor.”
  • Asked at an appearance at the National Archives how he reacted to editors revising his work, he replied, “Oh, I don’t let them.”
  • His approach to tinkering with history? “People know that novelists are liars. And that’s why we can be trusted to tell the truth,” he told Time.

Get discounts on prescriptions, eye care and more — AARP Member Advantages »

Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Also of Interest

See the  AARP home page for deals, savings tips, trivia and more.  

Search AARP Blogs