Doctorow on religion, Holocaust, ‘writer's mind’

READING/Writers House Fellow reads from his latest masterpiece.

“We’re a family of writers and readers,” said Al Filreis, director of the Kelly Writers House, as he welcomed an eager crowd on March 21 to a reading by celebrated novelist E. L. Doctorow.

Bringing renowned writers to such a small space, said Filreis, conveys a sense of intimacy and community. That much was evident from the crowd, packed shoulder to shoulder in two rooms to hear one of this year’s Writers House Fellows read an excerpt from his most recent piece of fiction, “City of God” (Penguin, 2001).

“If you think something is funny, don’t be afraid to laugh,” said Doctorow in a gentle voice before the reading.

Doctorow, the second of three Writers House fellows for the year, is considered by many to be one of the country’s finest writers, with such celebrated novels to his name as “The Book of Daniel”—a fictional account of the Rosenberg case and the fate of their surviving son—and the epic “Ragtime,” which was named one of the best English-language novels of the 20th century by the Modern Library. His books have also been translated into Broadway musicals (“Ragtime”) and films (“Billy Bathgate”).

His latest, “City of God,” tells of a cross that goes missing from a Lower East Side Episcopalian church and ends up on the roof of a synagogue. As Doctorow explained, “City of God” is about the life of a writer’s mind, accounts of Holocaust ghettos and the marriage between a widowed rabbi and a priest who has shed his faith.

For about 35 minutes, Doctorow read from “City of God” to a rapt audience who laughed at the funniest passages and urged him to continue when he paused. “If there’s anything I can’t bear it’s going to a reading where the guy goes on for too long,” he said with a smile. Doctorow’s work has clearly influenced the writers and readers in the Fellows program, who read “City of God” in the Writers House Fellows workshop. Caroline Rothstein C’06, who introduced the writer, said Doctorow "shows his readers how to be generously, candidly human." After reading "City of God," she added, she had an epiphany about her own path in life. “I think I want to write about people,” she said. “I think I want to write like Doctorow.”

To watch a video of Doctorow’s reading, go to www.writing.upenn.edu /~whfellow/doctorow.html.

Originally published on March 31, 2005