E.L. Doctorow on "Homer & Langley"

The famed author talks about bringing to life the infamous Collyer brothers in his new novel.

CBS News

Author E. L. Doctorow is one of the literary stars of the new season. Not surprising, considering he had a lot of material for his latest novel - a LOT of material. Rita Braver examines the fine print:

The peaceful park in Harlem belies its sensational past. Once upon a time, the Collyer Brothers' house stood here.

A pair of upper crust recluses, they made headlines in the 1940s, when reporters discovered how they hoarded tons of treasure and trash. There's no photo of Homer, who was blind, and just a few shots of Langley, who felt hounded by everyone.

"And he gets more and more defensive," said novelist E.L. Doctorow, "and decides to use this material that's been collected over the decades to create traps and snares to destroy anyone who dares to trespass."

Then in 1947 neighbors complained of a terrible odor, and police broke in. They found that Homer had died of starvation in the midst of 19 tons of roach and rat-infested clutter.

But Langley was missing! It took weeks to figure out that he actually died first, killed by one of his own booby traps.

The story became a sensation.

"The idea of people with that kind of heritage opting out and turning reclusive and isolating themselves and collecting everything they could get their hands on seemed in general a sort of Satanic mockery of what we all stand for," Doctorow said.

E.L. Doctorow, now one of the nation's most acclaimed novelists, with a string of awards and bestsellers to his name, grew up on tales of the horrors behind the Collyer Brothers' doors.

"I was one of those teenagers, one of millions whose mothers looked in his room and said, 'The Collyer Brothers!'" he laughed. "But later, as time went on, I began to think there's more to them than that."

He was intrigued both by their behavior, and the public's response to them

A crowd watches the old, debris-cluttered Collyer mansion in New York's Harlem, March 24, 1947, as police entered building to search for Langley Collyer who was declared missing.
AP/Harry Harris

He describes the huge crowd that gathered when the brothers were found dead and the cops were pulling out tons of stuff. "What was the crowd doing? They were celebrating a fall. They were fascinated by the sheer excess of what they'd seen," Doctorow said.

He calls his new novel "Homer and Langley."

"At a certain point, this idea for a book based on the Collyers rose in my mind. And I wrote a line, "I'm Homer, the blind brother.' And there was the book right there."

But make no mistake: It's a work of fiction based only loosely on the real brothers.

"You're no doubt going to get letters from people saying, 'Wait a minute, you gave Homer some of Langley's characteristics and vice versa.' what are you going to say to those people?" Braver asked.

"I'm probably going to ignore them!" Doctorow laughed. "In fiction, you know, there are no borders. You can go anywhere. You can write as a reporter. You can do confession. You can sound like an anthropologist, a philosopher, a theologian, a pornographer. You can be anything and do anything."

What Doctorow wanted to do was write . . . and no wonder. He was named after Edgar Allen Poe!

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow grew up in the Bronx.

"Why did you use E.L. rather than your first name?" Braver asked. <

"I think that's because as a young man, I admired writers like D.H. Lawrence, W.H. Auden, W. Shakespeare!

"And I did make the mistake of telling everyone I was going to be a writer. And of course, I didn't feel it necessary to write anything for several years."

By 1960 Doctorow did write his first novel, "Welcome to Hard Times," a gritty frontier tale. He started it while he was working as a movie script-reader.

"I was reading all these terrible westerns, they made me ill," he said. "And I decided to write - that I could lie about the West better than these people."

The book did well, but he didn't quit his day job.

"I got married very early, and in no time at all, we had three children," he said. "And it seemed to me I had an obligation to support them."

Today, E.L. Doctorow (now 78) and Helen, his wife of 53 years, divide their time between Manhattan and Sag Harbor, Long Island.

She described how they met in a graduate school acting class: "And then, at one time he leaned against the proscenium arch and lit a cigarette, and I thought, 'That does it: I love this guy.' (laughter) So I knew from the first minute I saw him.

"That's pretty good," Braver said. "Did he know that he was the one?"

"No, it took some effort on my part, which I was willing to put in," Helen said.

She is always the first to read his work. Braver asked if ever says "Uh oh, honey, you better try this again"?

"It's never necessary," Helen said. "It really isn't."

Doctorow's vivid writing has often been adapted to the movies. His 1969 novel "The Book of Daniel" was loosely based on real characters - convicted spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Critics raved. [It was later filmed as "Daniel" (1983), starring Timothy Hutton, Mandy Patinkin and Lindsay Crouse.]

"Do you read reviews today?" Braver asked. "Do you care what reviewers say?"

"Well, I read them selectively," he admitted. "I look for certain key words like 'masterpiece,' 'genius,' 'brilliant' and so on!"

Those very words were used to describe "Ragtime."

Doctorow's 1975 novel is about race, class and the changing country at the turn of the 20th century. It is now considered a classic, and was turned into a film nominated for 8 Academy Awards.

"Ragtime" also became a Tony Award-winning musical, now headed back to Broadway.

Doctorow's latest book is already a bestseller. Despite his years of success, he still finds writing difficult.

"I try to write 500 words if I can. That's an enormous achievement usually."

But he says when it's going well, the book sort of writes itself. He sat at the desk where "Homer & Langley" was composed.

"You could sort of hear it in your head as you were writing it?" Braver asked.

"Yeah, you hear their voice. You're ventriloquizing .... you are them."

"When future generations tell the story of E.L. Doctorow, what do you want people to say?" she asked.

"I'll be satisfied enough if I'm still being read," he replied. "Isn't that the idea? To write something that will last?"

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