"When we began writing, publishing was a cottage industry," says Doctorow, 70. "Now, the big conglomerates have taken over." "In our days," adds the 73-year-old Matthiessen with a grin, "people who were crazy about books smoked pipes, drank too much, had a good time and talked about books all the time. Publishers would publish poetry because they believed in it. Now it is so much about making money." The American publishing industry is centred around the bottomline and it's not bibliophiles but the money-men who are in charge of books. "The book market is degraded," Doctorow says. "It's not a healthy situation."
In India to visit Ranthambhor on a nature expedition, Doctorow and Matthiessen are old friends who live and work in New York and share a love of the subtleties of the natural world and their healing effect on the fractured modern individual. They are authors of several books and novels each. Doctorow's most recent is City of God. Matthiessen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse has had to fight the longest libel suit in history. The FBI and the Governor of Dakota sued him for $49 million, although the case is now over.
"I hope you're not from television?" Doctorow asks suspiciously at the first request for an interview. He's a Woody Allen character: tall, bearded and slightly stooped, alarmed by the prospect of television—someone who looks as if he's most at peace in a quiet book-lined study with autumn leaves blowing outside his windows. Under the gravitas of his spectacles, a great big bellow of laughter looks as if it's about to burst to the surface. Doctorow's books— Billy Bathgate and The Book of Daniel, among them—have been described as spiritual, grand, sombre and hilarious explorations of the real and the imagined. In City of God, Doctorow writes about "our wrecked romance with God" and "the great expansive flowering" of the Big Bang, "a silent flash into being in a second or two of the entire outrushing universe".
Ragtime, he believes, continues to be a pertinent book today, because the crisis of racial hatred is deeper than ever before in the US. In Ragtime, Colehouse Walker—the book's now famous, endearing Black hero, a ragtime musician from Harlem—becomes a violent terrorist because of his frustrated search for justice. "There is still a wall that Black people are confronted with today," Doctorow says, "and I was showing how one man's response to terrible pressure leads him to violence." Ragtime was also regarded as unconventional because historical characters like Henry Ford and Sigmund Freud drifted in and out of the narrative and interacted freely with the characters. "Fiction's always invaded history," Doctorow believes. "Napoleon was a character in War and Peace. So was Cardinal Richelieu in The Three Musketeers."
Matthiessen is tall, rugged and tanned, as befits an author who has written over 16 non-fiction books on lost jungle rivers in South America, Himalayan blue sheep, migration patterns of Eskimo curlews and the feeding habits of great white sharks.
He's a Zen Buddhist teacher, and has been an activist for the environment and rights of Native Americans for the last 40 years. He says he's most horrified at how America is leading the way in creating a "rapacious new global economy which is destroying the rights of the poor and ravaging the environment". In 1973, in the midst of personal grief for his dead wife, he set off on what became a voyage of faith, to find the snow leopard of Dolpo, "sacred elusive cat of the high mountain cathedrals". He didn't find the leopard, but discovered other truths. "I was very disappointed. But then it was perhaps my biggest teaching. Maybe I'd been too greedy, too eager to see it.... Perhaps there are certain things in the world it is best not to see."
And what about that trendy new group of writers, the Indo-Anglians? A few months ago, when asked to judge the best American short-stories for a volume, Doctorow says he found that the stories he had liked most were by Indians, Japanese, Caribbeans, Hawaiians, Koreans and Bosnians. "I didn't know where the authors of the stories were from because the names had been blacked out, but it turned out that most of the stories I liked were from these countries. There is an infusion of new voices which is very helpful for the cause of literature," Doctorow says. He adds a rider, though. "Indian writers are making their mark all over the world, but too much praise is bad for a writer."
Ask Matthiessen what he feels about the huge monetary advances handed out to writers by publishing houses and he tells you, "For every author who gets a large advance, there are going to be at least 10 other talented young authors who won't get a break because the publishers have spent so much money on one. And it's not even as if the publishers get their money back. Most of them even lose money." "Everything's bad for an author," Doctorow chuckles. "Too much money, too little money, too much publicity, too little publicity..."
Matthiessen says he's friends with Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy and admires Vikram Seth and also has many friends among the conservation and wildlife protection community here. Matthiessen, who's been here four times, believes that the refugees on the streets are possibly a result of the economic policies of the government, particularly from projects like the Narmada dam. "At this time in India's economic development, it's particularly important for governments to look after the poor."
They've spent two weeks in India, stunned at how nature has become a realm apart from human beings. "Nature was a realm we used to be a part of," Doctorow says. "Now we are no longer a part of it. We have to go somewhere to look at it." Yet, India's been an experience Doctorow wouldn't like to pontificate about based on just a couple of weeks. "All I want to say is I'll be back." Matthiessen says writers and activists have to speak out against the decay of the environment and state-sponsored social engineering. "America preaches to everybody else, yet my own country's treatment of Blacks and American Indians has been disgraceful. I love my country but I think we've demeaned ourselves."
They both grew up surrounded and enraptured by books. Much good writing, Matthiessen believes, comes from a personal relationship with a physical place and its history."You write better if you're personally involved and if you have fun doing it." Doctorow's Russian Jewish emigré family was poor but great readers and musicians—his mother was a pianist.He began to dream about writing books at the age of nine. "I guess nowadays mine would be called an 'enriched childhood', but in our days, it was just life," Doctorow laughs.