Eye and Guy
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Summer 2004

From the Editor
Thom Didato

E.L. Doctorow
Jonathan Ames

"Like Love"
fiction by
Karen Shepard

"Jnun in the Age of Metal"
fiction by
Susan Daitch

"Valet Parking"
fiction by
Geoffrey Becker

"Fox Hunting"
fiction by
Frances Sherwood

"White Hole"
poetry by
Mark Cunningham

"frequently asked questions"
"oh juliet"
poetry by
Daphne Gottlieb

"North of Big Sur"
"Cypress Tree"
"Island or House"
poetry by
Michelle Valladares

"The Poet"
poetry by
Katey Nicosia

"Skater Cats"
"The Blue Boa"
"The Muse"
paintings by
Jeremiah Stansbury

"Studio Sink"
"Johnson Laundromat"
paintings by
Catharine Balco



E.L. Doctorow is the author of a number of works, including, most recently, the story collection Sweet Land Stories

Doctorow, Barely Veiled Anti-American Screed
© Random House

and the novels
City of God,

Doctorow, City
© Penguin

Billy Bathgate,

Doctorow, Billy
© Plume

and The Waterworks.

Doctorow, Water
© Plume

His other novels include World's Fair, American Anthem, Loon Lake, Ragtime, The Book of Daniel, and Welcome to Hard Times.

He has been awarded the National Book Award, two National Book Critics Circle Awards, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Edith Wharton Citation for Fiction, the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the presidentially conferred National Humanities Medal. Doctorow lives and works in New York.

E.L. Doctorow

The five narratives in E.L. Doctorow's new collection, Sweet Land Stories, are anything but sweet. A single mother murders a series of suitors, with her son as accomplice. Bad romantic choices condemn a talented young woman to a rootless life, and separate her from her child. A "crazy, lovesick girl" steals an infant from a maternity ward, then tries to persuade her bewildered boyfriend to accept the baby as their own. A mechanic-turned-religious leader abandons his followers (though not the donations they've made to his church). An aging FBI agent is repeatedly frustrated in his efforts to figure out who left the corpse of a child in the White House Rose Garden.

Yet as things go from bad to worse, Doctorow's protagonists remain steadfast in the belief that life will get better, and that they, by persevering, transforming themselves, or moving to a new place, will manage someday, somehow, to find their "sweet land." While none of them quite pull this off, their tenacious hopefulness makes these stories—each of which has stretches that are relentlessly downbeat in feel—far more complex and interesting than they might otherwise be. And it makes this collection a fascinating rumination on Americans' enduring faith in individuals' ability to create happy, fulfilling lives for themselves, no matter what the odds.

Recently, had the chance to "talk" via email with Doctorow about Sweet Land Stories, his approach to his craft, and the broader significance of his work.

*               *

In Sweet Land Stories, you move away from the familiar urban backdrops of your previous works to explore life in other parts of the United States. How are the characters in these stories shaped by the places they live?

The people in these stories are not are not shaped to a place in the way, for example the people in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio are defined by where they live. Most of the characters in Sweet Land Stories are looking for their place. They end up where they haven't been before. The five stories touch down from Washington D.C. to Alaska. That's why I named the book as I did.

A key theme in Sweet Land Stories is the persistent American belief in the ability of ordinary people to reinvent themselves (often corresponding with a move to a different place). Do you consider this belief to be chimerical, as suggested by your portrayals of such characters as Earle's mother in "A House on the Plains," Jolene in "Jolene: A Life," and Karen in "Baby Wilson"?

The pop psych word reinvent doesn't cover what is going on in these pieces. Mama and Earle, in "A House on the Plains," are righteous murderers looking to score. No thought of changing their ways. In "Jolene: A Life" it is the disasters Jolene lives through that leave her a changed woman. And so on.

You once said, "[My] books always come out of a very private mental excitement." Does this hold true for your short stories as well?

Yes, everything begins from an aroused mental state. It can come from a dream, an image in the mind, a fragment of conversation, a photograph, anything. And I write to understand why whatever it is excites me. Occasionally a novel is the result, occasionally a story, the difference being only that with a story the evocative excitement is more quickly understood and resolved.

For more than four decades, you have produced critically acclaimed books, stories, and essays at a remarkable pace. Have you followed the same writing routine over the course of your career, or have your writing habits changed over time? Have you ever experienced writer's block, and if so, how have you overcome it?

When I have had writer's block it is because I have been writing the wrong thing. When you're writing what is yours to write there is no block.

The stories in Sweet Land describe a world in which people's lives are routinely destroyed by cruel twists of fate, the evil machinations of others, or the inscrutable actions of unfeeling institutions. What makes life in your Sweet Land so bleak? Do you intend the stories, taken together, to be a comment on the human condition in general, or on American life in particular?

Watch out for phrases like "cruel twists of fate," "evil machinations," and "the human condition." They cannot be part of a serious literary discussion. And they lead you to false assumptions. Because when a novel of mine takes place in the past it is necessarily about the present. And I don't intend my stories to comment on anything. The comment you find in these stories is your comment. So is the bleakness yours. I think the emotional tone of the book is more complex than that. "Baby Wilson," for instance, is funny, at least as I read it.


“The Magnolia Under Glass”
Kenny Nowell
Issue 13 - Spring 2004

"Our Father Who Walks on Water Comes Home With Two Buckets of Fish"
Peter Markus
Issue 2 -
Winter/Spring 2001

Photo © Pablo Campos

T. Coraghessan Boyle
Issue 12 -
Fall/Winter 2003