MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
On April 9, 1947, a headline in the New York Times read: Body of Collyer is Found Near Where Brother Died. It was a tale that transfixed the city, the reclusive Collyer brothers, and the search for Langley Collyer's body weeks after his paralyzed brother, Homer, had been found dead in their once stately home on Fifth Avenue. The brothers had cut themselves off from the world, secluded themselves in a house piled floor to ceiling with everything imaginable. Decades worth of newspapers, 14 pianos, the chassis of a Model-T Ford. You could read this description the next day in the Times that Langley was inching through a tunnel of junk when he touched off his own booby trap only eight feet from Homer, pinned to the dank, rotting flooring. Langley, when found Tuesday, had stretched his gnarled fingers toward his helpless brother. Langley, the eccentric collector and his blind brother, Homer, are the latest subject for E.L. Doctorow who, in many novels, has transformed real characters of American history into fiction.
In Doctorow's new novel, �Homer and Langley,� he takes us inside that brownstone with Homer as his narrator.
Mr. E.L. DOCTOROW (Author, �Homer & Langley�): The house, by this time of our lives, is a labyrinth of hazardous pathways, full of obstructions and many dead ends. With enough light, someone could make his way through the zigzagging corridors of newspaper bales or find passage by slipping sideways between piles of equipment of one kind or another: the guts of pianos, motors wrapped in their power cords, boxes of tools, paintings, car body parts, tires, stacked chairs, tables on tables, headboards, barrels, collapsed stacks of books, antique lamps, dislodged pieces of our parents furniture, rolled up carpet, piles of clothing, bicycles. But it needed the native gifts of a blind man who sensed where things were by the air they displaced to get from one room to another without killing himself in the process.
BLOCK: E.L. Doctorow remembers being 16 when the Collyer's brothers bodies were discovered.
Mr. DOCTOROW: And it was a big story in the newspapers and everyone was talking about it. They became instant folklore. And then, not long after that when I was a teenager - and this is not my experience alone as a boy - my mother looked in on my room and said, my God, it's the Collyer brothers.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BLOCK: That would be the sign it's time to clean up your room.
Mr. DOCTOROW: They were always on my mind. I mean, there were other people all over the city who been doing that kind of thing and still exist as sort of pack rat-age. But somehow the fact that they had come from a well-to-do family and had more or less opted out was the real mystery of them, I thought.
BLOCK: Yeah. The father was a doctor. They had this mansion, I guess, you could call it, on Fifth Avenue. Both boys had gone to Columbia. So they presumably had everything they could have wanted.
Mr. DOCTOROW: Well, yeah. And then somewhere along the line they opted out. Of course, my Collyer brothers are the mythical Collyer brothers. There are the real Collyer brothers and then there are the mythical presences in our minds. And I never felt it necessary to do any research on this. They required interpretation, not research.
BLOCK: So you didn't go back to read the accounts of what was found, what they collected, just what was found - more than a hundred tons of debris...
Mr. DOCTOROW: I think it was possible to describe what they'd collected without actually looking anything like that. (unintelligible) of course, they collected everything you couldn't miss. Whatever you decide they collected they would have.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BLOCK: It would have been in there.
Mr. DOCTOROW: But to me the key thing was not that they were aggregators, we are all aggregators. Maybe people like that in other countries, but we're certainly the champs when it comes to collecting things and accumulating things. I figured to myself the really interesting thing was why they had closed the door, the shutters and retreated into this house. It was a form of almost emigration. They were leaving the country and going into the country of their home.
So the problem for me, as I became more and more fascinated with the idea of doing a book, was how to break into that house and see what was going on and why. Actually, I couldn't have done this book had I not found the first line for it. First line is: I'm Homer, the blind brother. And once I had that, it was a way of breaking into the story and into his house.
BLOCK: Why was that such a key?
Mr. DOCTOROW: I don't know. But first lines are very crucial usually. The beginnings of books, they give you the voice. They imply the kind of texture the text will have. And in effect - and this is more clearly seen, I think, in short stories than in novels, they are the acorn from which the oak grows. They predict the - you can find the entire book in that first line.
BLOCK: So when you put yourself into Homer's place, the blind brother, who by the end of the novel is also going deaf. I mean, the walls are closing around him in every possible way. How do you make him other than a complete eccentric, someone who engages in behavior along with his brother Langley that is just impossible to fathom?
Mr. DOCTOROW: Homer is a very compassionate, sensitive fellow, as I read him, and with a good sense of humor. And he accepts his brother's eccentricities and even values them. I think the issue for him is to create meaning out of their lives in this peculiar, eccentric decision they've made.
BLOCK: And he has a poignant line, you have a poignant line towards the end of the book, when he is - in writing his story, typing out his story - he says, what could be more terrible than being turned into a mythic joke.
Mr. DOCTOROW: Yeah, I really felt bad when he said that.
BLOCK: Hmm. You felt bad?
Mr. DOCTOROW: Yeah. You know, after you get into the book, you're really living with these people and you're living in the sentences. And their experience kind of becomes yours. It's a peculiar kind of loss of identity that the author has. And when he said that, when Homer said that, I really felt sad.
BLOCK: Did you have to get up and walk around?
Mr. DOCTOROW: No. I didn't feel that sad. I went on to the next line.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BLOCK: You know, I'm trying to imagine the scene that when the Langley brothers died in 1947 and the police were going through the house throwing everything out, trying to find the bodies, there was a gigantic crowd of people who gathered outside, thousands of people came to watch or drive by.
Mr. DOCTOROW: Yeah. They were famous by then, perhaps because they represented in extreme form what everybody was like, in a sense. And I do think of them in my reading as a kind of curators of their life and times, and their house is a kind of a museum of American civilization.
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BLOCK: E.L. Doctorow, it's been a pleasure. Thanks so much.
Mr. DOCTOROW: Well, I've enjoyed it.
BLOCK: E.L. Doctorow's new novel is �Homer & Langley.� You can hear more of our conversation and read an excerpt from the book at the new npr.org.
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BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.