Everyone has his own way of getting into publishing. For novelist E.L. Doctorow, who played a prominent role in the book business for a decade during the 1960s, his entry came by way of script reading for Hollywood.

As he recalled it in a recent interview to talk about his new novel, The March, he was plowing through six or seven books a week as a reader for Columbia Pictures when his then boss Albert Johnston (later to become head of PW's Forecasts) asked him to go over to New American Library to check on a novel they didn't want to let out of the house. While Doctorow was there, NAL cofounder Victor Weybright asked him what he thought of it, and Doctorow told him. "I'd forgotten all about it, but a few weeks later Weybright called and offered me a job."

Since he had gotten pretty sick of trying to sift the wheat from the chaff for the movies (his debut novel, Welcome to Hard Times, was written as a satire on all the hapless would-be Westerns he had to read), Doctorow snapped up the chance and joined the house as an associate editor in 1959. At first he was just writing flap and promo copy, but was soon promoted to senior editor and began to acquire and edit his own books. NAL was then one of the more adventurous paperback houses around, and in any case, "the mass market was much more interesting then—we were doing not only Mickey Spillane and Ayn Rand, but series on history and Shakespeare and science. I ran the science line for a while, I guess because I'd gone to the Bronx High School of Science."

Being a senior editor at that time "was an exciting job, and I felt really good about it. We certainly lived up to our motto of 'Good Reading for the Masses' and were doing a lot of first-rate stuff, like Faulkner and Dr. Zhivago and Ralph Ellison." Among the established authors Doctorow saw through the paperback process was Ian Fleming, with some of his early Bond novels. "I got to know him, and liked him—rather better than I did the books," he says, grinning. Doctorow also had a chance to sign up new novelists. "It was great to find a first novel and go out with 100,000 copies." As for the editorial process, "our meetings were pretty freewheeling. Sure, we had to come up with P&Ls, but we relished the chance to do good books and maintain a balance between, say, Carter Brown and Darkness at Noon."

After five years at NAL, Doctorow was lured away to become editor-in-chief at Dial Press, "a feisty little house that was right on the front lines" in a time of great cultural ferment. Headed by the enterprising Richard Baron, it boasted Norman Mailer and James Baldwin among its authors. Among those Doctorow brought aboard were William Kennedy, with his first novels, folk singer Joan Baez, and Ernest K. Gaines. There were also dizzy occasions like the publication of a first book by Abbie Hoffman (who went on to do Steal This Book). "A real '60s scam artist," Doctorow recalls fondly. And Dial was also the publisher of Report from Iron Mountain,a book that continues to stir argument and controversy to this day. Iron Mountainwasoriginally conceived as a satirical novel, and the Dial folks worked with then Monocleeditor Victor Navasky and his team to turn it into an apparent nonfiction exposé of how an alleged government report advising of the economic impossibility of peace during the Cold War had been suppressed. (The details are all there in Navasky's recent memoir, A Matter of Opinion.)

Doctorow also likes to think he was in early on the iconic power of comic books, with a lavish production called The Great Comic Book Heroes, with an introduction by Jules Feiffer. And as the Vietnam war wore on, publishers like Dial became part of the protest movement. "I can't ever remember being told that we couldn't do anything," Doctorow recalls. One of the few constraints was that when Dell became a large investor in Dial, "we sometimes had to explain to Helen Meyer [who headed Dell] why we wanted to buy something." On one occasion, over a three-book contract for new work by James Jones, Doctorow actually found himself bidding against Meyer and Dell—and had to pull back.

In the end, when he began to write The Book of Daniel, around the same time he'd been named Dial's publisher, Doctorow found that "I couldn't write and still handle a 60-hour-a-week executive position," and accepted an offer to be writer in residence at USC Irvine. Before he went, he consulted the I Ching, which told him he would cross a "great water." His wife, Helen, said that must mean the Mississippi, and off they went to California. The rest is history, aided by former NAL colleague Jim Silberman, who'd moved to Random House and published Danieland Doctorow's later huge hit, Ragtime, there; Doctorow has happily been a Random author ever since, edited now by Kate Medina after many years with Jason Epstein.

What about today's publishing picture, compared to his own time in the trenches? It's complicated, says Doctorow, by two major factors that were of little significance then: the growth of a huge alternative press movement and the proliferation of university creative writing programs. "The university has become a major patron of literary practice, which means a lot of young writers get first novels published because their books are all ready to go; but if it doesn't do well, critically and commercially, it's become a lot harder to get a second novel published." He adds: "A lot of what's published now I have no interest in—trendy stuff, exploitations of the moment. The culture has degenerated badly, and it's disappointing to see the dumbing down we're used to in TV and the movies creeping into publishing." Still, he adds, with a glint of cheer, "I feel there's something irrepressible about the book business."

His new novel, The March, set further back in history than any of his previous efforts, started gestating in his mind many years ago. Although it tells, in excruciatingly intense detail, of General Sherman's destructive march through Georgia and South Carolina, Doctorow doesn't really think of it as a Civil War book. "I had this vision of 120,000 feet devastating the land like a de-civilizing machine. The book developed its own life and turned into a study of how everything was turned upside down, so that the only security people could find was by attaching themselves to the Union army—as thousands of slaves and uprooted Southerners did—rather than staying at home on the land. That army, and its countless hangers-on, became a kind of world unto itself, fighting the swamps and the bad weather."

Why revisit this terrible time now? "It seemed an appropriate time," says Doctorow, "perhaps as a reflection of our own anxiety, our sense of how easily our security can be lost." Usually he uses one narrative voice, but The March is told from many points of view. "I think of it as my Russian novel—there's a 19th-centuryfeel to the writing. It's also a kind of road novel, perhaps the ultimate road novel."

The book offers portraits of a pair of characters with names familiar from other Doctorow books, thus providing a kind of continuity within his oeuvre.Coalhouse Walker is a sturdily reliable freed slave (and the father of a Ragtimeprincipal with the same name), and Dr. Sartorius, who plays a sinister role in The Waterworks,here appears as a taciturn military surgeon disaffected with the medical science of the time who attends Lincoln after his shooting.

The March is in fact a temporal study: "I think I discovered in Ragtimethat a period can be as much a framework for a book as a place; think of this as a temporal equivalent of Yoknapatawpha County, focused on one event that went on for several months and created a kind of floating world." And since Sherman is famous above all for the burning of Atlanta, and his later ravages have been much less covered, another happy analogy occurred to the novelist: "In historical terms, you could think of it as a sequel to Gone with the Wind."