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Non-fiction, photos led E.L. Doctorow to write his novel about the civil war

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The march of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman through Georgia and the Carolinas forms the backbone of E.L. Doctorow's new novel, "The March," but the book is more about war generally than the Civil War in particular.

Doctorow's well-drawn characters on the march are black and white, poor and upper-class, and the common experience of the march changes them in different ways. "March" was a National Book Award finalist and, for Doctorow, another critical and commerical success - like his novels "Billy Bathgate" and "Ragtime."

Doctorow was in Chicago recently and talked about the making of the novel:

Question: How did you come to write about the Civil War in the South when your earlier work has been so 20th-century New York City? How did you come to this novel?

Answer: About 20 years ago I picked up a book by a professor of history, Joseph Glatthaar, called "The March to the Sea and Beyond." It is a topical history of the march, the way it was organized, the order of the march, a lot of documentary letters the troops had written.

At the time it occurred to me that I could write a novel on that - but I didn't do anything about it for many years. We all carry ideas in our heads, and most of them should never come out. But occasionally one reasserts itself, and I found myself, with no particular objective in mind, reading Sherman's memoirs. Then I found myself looking at pictures of photographs, and I saw one photograph of destruction in Columbia, S.C., after the fire. Then I saw a picture of Sherman and his staff, his generals, posing sitting in front of a tent.

So about 21/2 or 3 years ago I started to write the book. It suddenly became the only book I could write. That is the way it always happens in work. Some mysterious force gives you the illusion that you're incapable of writing anything but this particular book. And that's what happened.

Usually my books begin from a mental image that I don't understand; your provocative phrases, your pictures, or even some music. It gets me going, and I write to find out what I'm writing. It is true that all these people came to me, including Sherman, and I wrote it with their names and their ages and their status.

And the only thing that alarmed me is that I was writing it in the third person. And then, as I've said before, I realized with great joy one day that I was writing a 19th-century Russian novel. There are no Russians in it, but in terms of the territory covered and the characters, it was kind of this expansive idea of what a novel should be. So that, as I said, gave me a real sense of joy. I was so happy that day ... those days when you are working, you may end the day feeling like you put in some good work, but you never really feel joyful. But that was a good day.

Q: Early 20th-century New York novels, one must think Doctorow.

A: Absolutely from the very beginning, I must have discovered that a period of time is as much an organizing principle for a novel as a place. And if you follow that idea, then I would claim that I landed on a particular place, because that was where the American story was at its most intense. At the turn of the 20th century, everything is going on, as I can see, in and around New York and the '30s as well -with the gangster culture although I guess I could have done Chicago.

Q: What about Sherman's march appealed to you?

A: This was a profound exception to the way the war had unfolded. And that interested me, because it wasn't just 60,000 troops marching through these three states and taking what they needed. It was that the people who had been dispossessed were freed. The freed slaves knew that they couldn't stay behind. They realized that there would be worse trouble by staying.

That there would be a lot of punishments. Then, the white people, the people who had been sympathizers, they couldn't stay. So gradually, it was not just an army moving across the three states, it was a lot of citizens who had been uprooted. And that is what I learned as I wrote the book. Writing teaches you things that you didn't know before.


(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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