Column: My complicated grief for a literary giant

I am thoroughly, incontrovertibly convinced I have the best job at The Chautauquan Daily.

This is my second summer at the Daily as the literary arts reporter, and I’m finding that, like most things at Chautauqua, it just gets better with age.

A big part of my weekly routine consists of interviewing authors. As someone who wants to teach literature, this is a fascinating experience. My job is easy — writers essentially speak in eloquent, thought-provoking quotes. I just write all the boring stuff around them.

But the most fascinating part of interviewing authors is the realization that, underneath all of that talent, they’re regular people, too. When I talked to Chang-rae Lee last summer, he inquired where he should eat when he came to Chautauqua and asked his children to be a little quieter when he was on the phone with me. When I spoke with Emily St. John Mandel this week, we talked about why “Mad Men” should be considered art and why King Lear is our favorite Shakespearean play. These are real people, and they’re surprisingly humble and keen to talk about their work. They also get hungry, have noisy children, watch great TV and love Shakespeare.

Before I interviewed E.L. Doctorow last summer, I was pretty nervous. The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle book list is always packed to the gills with towering talent and literary bigwigs. But out of last year’s list, E.L. Doctorow — to me, at least — seemed to tower a little higher.

We spoke on the phone for about seven minutes. Most of my interviews with authors tend to be between 15 and 20 minutes. And most authors usually don’t ask if we’re “done yet” three times during the process.

E.L. Doctorow did.

The first time he asked, I was mildly horrified. There’s no worse feeling than someone essentially signaling that they’re tired of talking to you — especially when it’s your job to talk to them.

The second time he asked, I started to get pissed off. This was a grown man — nearly four times my age — who was acting like a child and not answering my questions. We’d only been talking for a few minutes, but E.L. Doctorow was over it. And at that point, so was I.

I was also embarrassed. I had him on speakerphone so I could record the audio in order to have accurate quotes for my story. The consequence of this was that everyone in the newsroom could hear me getting taken to task by an American literary legend.

I had one more question, one that I asked every author last year: If you were stranded on a desert island, what book would you bring? I was determined to get an answer out of him.

He gave me an answer, and asked that dreaded question for the third and final time.

“I wouldn’t be on a desert island,” he said. “Are we through now?”

We were through. My recording of our interview ends with me saying, “Oh, shit,” to myself.

When I found out Doctorow died, I wasn’t sure how to feel. He was kind of mean to me.

But thinking about it further, putting it into perspective, I’ve realized something. Just like all the other authors I’ve talked to, E.L. Doctorow was a human being, one who might’ve been having a rough day when I talked to him. He died due to complications with lung cancer, something I had no inkling of when I talked to him, and something that retroactively colors our conversation.

You never really know what other people are going through.

I took up a nominal amount of his time: seven minutes out of some 44 million — a speck, really. But even if he didn’t particularly enjoy it, our brief interaction taught me something: Even the most talented people can have their bad days. And that’s OK.

He may be gone, but like all great authors, his works will live on.

And, hey, not many people can say that they’ve had the author of Ragtime get kind of cranky and irritated with them. That’s an experience I’ll remember — and perhaps even cherish — for a lifetime.

But now I’m saddled with an eternal, existential mystery: What book would he bring to a desert island?