R agtime is a sprawling work that began with … your own old house in New Rochelle?
My previous book, The Book of Daniel, had been published the year before, and I had been emotionally depleted by it. So I sat around for a year. And I was staring at the wall, and had arranged my desk so that the only way out was through the sentences. I began to write about the wall, and I realized that this house was the first house on the hill built at that time. And then I imagined what things looked like from the bottom of the hill. From one image to another, I was off the wall and in a book.
And then you did some research?
When you’re working well, you don’t do research. Whatever you need comes to you. Walking around town was very much a part of it. I wrote a scene where Tateh and the little girl take trolleys up through Westchester, but I didn’t know if it was possible to take streetcars all the way up to Massachusetts. I was walking through the Public Library in midtown and banged my knee on a book and looked down, and I picked it up. It was a corporate history of trolley-car companies. This is the way the book was assembled.
You grew up in New York in the thirties, so there must be memories of long-gone places in there, too.
I know that I set off for college in Ohio from the old Penn Station, which is why I was able to describe it. And when I was a college student, a friend of mine was graduating and he sold me his Model T Ford. Even then [in the fifties], it was an antique. Fifteen dollars, and he totally overcharged me.
You’ve spoken a lot about nineteenth-century inspirations. What about your contemporaries?
I can’t think of any. There are two books that impressed me when I was very young. One was The Adventures of Augie March—the idea of having something so generous, and so adventurous and improvisatory. The other was the U.S.A. trilogy, by John Dos Passos. It’s interesting that of those thirties writers, he was the most self-effacing, and he had the most ambitious project of all, more ambitious than anything Hemingway or Faulkner did. I think I picked that up from him.
Right down to the modesty? You weren’t exactly shouting from the rooftops like Mailer.
Mailer made a terrible mistake. He often stood between his readers and his work. That kind of assiduous pursuit of celebrity, that’s not me.
You were praised and criticized for using historical figures—Ford, Morgan, Houdini—in fiction, as if it were a brand-new thing.
I did have a feeling then that the culture of factuality was so dominating that storytelling had lost all its authority. I thought, If they want fact, I’ll give them facts that will leave their heads spinning.
It’s hard to think there was a time when this kind of thing was controversial.
I heard secondhand that the editor of The New Yorker, William Shawn, was very critical of the book, that someone prepared a major review and he said no. I had transgressed in making up words and thoughts that people had never said. Now it happens almost every day. I think that opened the gates.
What else did the book do?
Well, after the book was published, I got a letter from the then-director of the Morgan Library, and he said he wanted to thank me, because as a result of my book [in which a black militant threatens to blow up the building], they were able to persuade the trustees to spring for the money to install a state-of-the-art security system.