“Doctorow Was Pleased But Not Overwhelmed At The News That He Was An Instant Millionaire”

E.L. Doctorow, who wrote several great novels and one perfect one (Ragtime), sadly just died. Historical fiction can be a really tiresome thing in most hands, especially when the subjects are recent ones, but Doctorow was as good as anyone at the truth-fiction mélange. I’ve never read his early sci-fi book, Big As Life, and would like to.

A brief 1975 People magazine article cataloged that rare moment when literary success dovetailed with the commercial kind, Apparently, Robert Altman was first set to direct the big-screen adaptation of Ragtime, those honors eventually falling to Milos Forman. The opening:

The offers went up like the temperature in steamy Manhattan—$1 million, $1.5 million. And when the final bid of $1.85 million came in, an ambitious 270-page novel called Ragtime had made literary history. It was the highest price ever paid for paperback rights to a book—edging out the Joy of Cooking by $350,000. Nine publishing houses spent more than 12 hours politely jockeying before Bantam Books made the deal.

Ragtime‘s genteel, 44-year-old author E.L. Doctorow did not, of course, attend the vulgar merchandising rites. That’s what agents are for. Doctorow was in fact 45 minutes from Broadway, browsing in a New Rochelle bookstore with his 13-year-old son, Sam, at the historic moment of sale. Finally reached by phone by his hardback publisher at Random House, Doctorow was pleased but not overwhelmed at the news that he was an instant millionaire (he will receive half the $1.8 million plus royalties on the best-selling hard cover). His three previous novels—critical but not financial triumphs—had given him a Garboesque perspective on wealth. “I really feel,” Doctorow says, “that money is like sex—it’s a private matter.”

For Bantam, the transaction will turn financially sour unless it can peddle Ragtime, to be published next summer at over $2 a copy, to 4 or 5 million customers. A big box-office movie usually helps push paperback sales, and film rights for Ragtime have been sold to this year’s top director, Robert (Nashville) Altman. Doctorow has already heard from a fellow alumnus of Kenyon College in Ohio who wants to be one of the leads. “Remember me?” asked Paul Newman. “We went to college together, and I’d love to play in the movie.” “Terrific,” said a flattered Doctorow—who graduated in 1952, three years after the 50-year-old Newman, and never met the actor—”you’d be great for the part of the father.” But, protested Newman, “I want to play the younger brother.”•