May 8, 2012

An evening with E.L. Doctorow

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Written by: admin

Photo by Francesca Magnani


s the author hobbled on stage with his cane, he called out to the audience, “How many hip replacements are here tonight?” to which audience members, primarily made up of older Queens residents, responded with robust laughter.

They could relate.

Even more so, it is this ability to relate to his audience with every book he writes that has paved the way for 81-year-old Edgar Lawrence Doctorow’s illustrious career.

English professor Joe Cuomo, director of the Queens College Evening Reading Series, touched upon this as he introduced Doctorow at the series’ final installment of the semester at LeFrak Hall on April 24.

“One of the things that make Ed so remarkable is that he reinvents himself from book to book,” Cuomo said.

Doctorow’s new collection of short stories, “All the Time in the World,” also reflects this ability to change. The collection touches on a range of topics: from a man’s alienation to his suburban life in the present, to a mother-son pair of murderers in Illinois in the early 20th century. Doctorow read aloud from “The Writer in the Family,” one of the short stories from his new collection.

By way of introduction to the story, Doctorow explained the title. To him, “The Writer in the Family” is representative of the way a father introduces a child who “makes the mistake of saying he would like to be a writer” to distant relatives on holidays. The father makes this introduction “with some mixture of pride and derision” and the child “can’t figure out the proportion” of the two, the author said.

The specificity of his explanation easily led to moderator Leonard Lopate’s opening question.

“So, were you the writer in the family?” Lopate asked with a smile.

Doctorow responded by revealing that while he was the writer in his family, it was his older brother who was the original one. His brother took writing courses at City College and inspired him to see writing as a serious pursuit and possible career.

In many ways, the short story was autobiographical, based around, “a kid being asked to write a letter in his dead father’s voice.”

“I was asked to do that and I said no. Thirty years later, I realized that there’s no story if you say no,” Doctorow explained.

Doctorow is known for taking autobiographical and historical inspiration and changing critical details. His most recent book, “Homer and Langley,” serves as the ideal example. When asked about it, he responded that he treats their story like a myth.

Doctorow’s accomplishments have turned him into a bit of a myth himself. He has published 11 novels, three collections of short fiction, three volumes of essays and various other literary works. He has also received many honors, including the National Humanities Medal at the White House in 1998.

To find out more about opportunities to hear famous authors speak at Queens College, visit the Evening Readings website at

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