Feb. 11, 2011

Creating Billy Bathgate

“He was born in that first sentence, in the rhythm of it, in the syntax. You could even hear his breath just by reading that sentence out loud to yourself.”

— E. L. Doctorow on the creation of Billy Bathgate, a character who arose not from Doctorow’s research or his own childhood memories — not, that is, from a concept — but organically in the moment of writing, from words on the page. In another interview Doctorow has said of the 131-word sentence that opens the novel,

“I found Billy in the syntax of that sentence. What you see, if you care to look, is all there in the breathing. It was the only thing I was sure of when I began — that the story came from that first sentence. It carried his rhapsodic intelligence and was capable of sustaining his keenness and emotional response and fear. His voice sustains or finds its form in a long roving sentence. It’s part and parcel of Billy. In all my books I’ve stumbled upon a voice in which to tell the story. It’s not my voice — it’s the character’s.”

The lesson (if there is one): Don’t wait too long to start writing. Don’t waste time perfecting your ideas. Trust that inchoate notions will coalesce into concrete things as you write them into existence. (Of course, an alternative lesson you could draw from all this is “Be E. L. Doctorow.” Now there’s a demoralizing a thought.)