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Intersections: E.L. Doctorow on Rhythm and Writing

Cover of <i>Sweet Land Stories</i>, Doctorow's latest work.
Cover of Sweet Land Stories, Doctorow's latest work.

In a way, E.L. Doctorow was destined to become a writer. Born Edgar Laurence Doctorow, he was named after Edgar Allan Poe, the 19th-century American master of the macabre. As a child, Doctorow was a voracious reader who tore his way through Westerns, swashbucklers, Poe and Dostoevsky indiscriminately. At age 9, he decided to follow in his namesake's footsteps.

"I was reading constantly, everything I could get my hands on," Doctorow says. "At that age, something else happens if you're going to be a writer. You're reading for the excitement of it… and then another little line of inquiry comes into your head: 'How is this done?'"

Doctorow found part of the answer in music, which, like books, abounded in his childhood home in the Bronx. His father ran a small music shop; his mother was an excellent pianist. When upset, she would play Chopin's "Revolutionary Etude" -- a "wild piece" whose chords Doctorow always interpreted as a signal to get out of the house.

'At a certain point, the difference between music in music, and music in words became elided in my mind," Doctorow says. "I became attentive to the sound of words and the rhythm of sentences in some way that I'm not even aware of."

That connection between music and words has fueled much of Doctorow's work. He listened to rags while writing his 1975 best-seller Ragtime -- a rich tapestry of history and fiction chronicling the American experience at the turn of the 20th century. These days, he listens to less music than before.

"I seem to appreciate quiet," he says. "When I'm writing, I like to seal everything off and face the wall, not to look outside the window. The only way out is through the sentences."

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Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.