Writer in the Family

April 11, 2011

E.L. Doctorow reads from his new book, cracks literary jokes in Jewish Literature Live course.

By Menachem Wecker

“I feel as if I have hit the trifecta of introductions,” said Faye Moskowitz, M.A. ’79, professor of English.

“Some time ago, I introduced Grace Paley at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and several years later I introduced Philip Roth at Lisner Auditorium right here on this campus,” said Ms. Moskowitz, “and tonight I have the extraordinary privilege of presenting to you an author who has been one of my heroes since I first read The Book of Daniel.”

More than 200 people turned up for the April 7 event, in which renowned author E.L. Doctorow read from his newest book All the Time in the World and spoke about his artistic process in an event that was part of Ms. Moskowitz’s course Jewish Literature Live. Students in the course had read Mr. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel.

GW President Steven Knapp welcomed the audience, including trustee David Bruce Smith, B.A. ’79, who funds Ms. Moskowitz’s course, and said he knows of no better example of a course that connects students and authors than Jewish Literature Live.

Ms. Moskowitz admitted she is pretty star struck herself by the caliber of the speakers who participate in the course.

“Do you wonder that I’m giddy?” Ms. Moskowitz said. “I was one of those Bobby soxers who swooned when Frank Sinatra appeared at the Michigan Theater in Detroit, and this feels like Sinatra all over.”

“Like the biblical Daniel, he interprets our dreams and explicates our nightmares,” Ms. Moskowitz said of Mr. Doctorow, “may he have all the time in the world.”

“I’ve never been compared to Frank Sinatra,” Mr. Doctorow admitted when he assumed the podium.

Mr. Doctorow began by offering sympathy to young writers in the audience who made the mistake of telling their parents they wanted to be writers, or wrote exceptional book reports, only to be introduced by parents to relatives, with a “mixture of derision and pride,” as “the writer in the family.”

The selection Mr. Doctorow read came from the short story A Writer in the Family, in which a teenager is asked by his aunt to write fake letters from his dead father to his grandmother so she can enjoy her final days thinking her son is still alive and well in Arizona.

Both Mr. Doctorow’s talk and the selection he read from his book were sobering but frequently punctuated by humor.

“People carry many ideas around in their heads,” he told one audience member, “and most of them should stay there actually.”

He told another, “Public figures usually make fiction of themselves long before writers get to them.”

His take on being an author? “It’s not an entirely rational way to live, you understand?”

Another audience member asked him how real his stories are. “Does it sound true?” he demanded. “Then it is true.”

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