Writing a Short Story: A Talk with Deborah Eisenberg

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Picador

When I begin to read a short story, it is usually with certain reluctance. It can be exhausting to insert myself into the lives and emotions of characters who, given the prevailing tone of contemporary short fiction, will likely leave me feeling a bit gloomy about Modern Existence. 

I almost never feel this way about Deborah Eisenberg's work. Although the scenarios can appear mundane--a teenager with a crush, a suburban dinner party, a move to the big city--these stories don't merely echo our modern milieus. They are sarcastic, self-aware, and often wickedly funny. Her characters aren't particularly nice, or accomplished, or smart, but they are breathtakingly real, down to their exquisite inability to express themselves. "How hard it was to figure out how to say anything to anyone," one woman laments in Eisenberg's debut collection, Transactions in a Foreign Currency.

"Unlike the book-every-other-year writers whose minds we seem to know in each elaborate fold and crease, and to whom we can almost feel we have a subscription, there are those like Deborah Eisenberg ... who publish only rarely and whose books we wait for," Mona Simpson wrote, reviewing Twilight of the Superheroes in the June 2006 Atlantic. Altogether, Eisenberg is the author of four collections of stories--Transactions (1986); Under the 82nd Airborne (1992); All Around Atlantis (1997); and Twilight of the Superheroes (2006)--all of which have recently been gathered into a single, hefty, volume out this spring from Picador, The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Eisenberg's stories is the ease with which she captures the fearful excitement of being human, and our reluctance to acknowledge how little our circumstances have to do with our own decisions. In the title story of Twilight of the Superheroes, a narrator says of 9/11, "One kept waiting for that shattering day to unhappen, so that the real--the intended--future, the one that had been implied by the past, could unfold. Hour after hour, month after month, waiting for that day not to have happened. But it had happened. And now it was always going to have to have happened."

All of this isn't to imply that Eisenberg's stories are fatalistic or cruel. Rather, she has the enviable ability to underscore the apprehensions, as well as the triumphs, of what Michiko Kakutani has called the "fresh, mixed-up, happy-sad texture of real life." To commemorate the release of her new collection (reviewed in the May Atlantic), we spoke with the author about her first editor, the illusion of control, and the particular difficulty of writing about women.


Are you doing a book tour?

No. I'm grateful for that!

The reason I ask is I remember reading a review of your second collection, Under the 82nd Airborne, on The Millions, and the writer spoke about how he first really felt a response to your stories after he heard you read one of them aloud.

That's very interesting and very encouraging, because I often feel that the stories are so hard to take in by ear that it's better for somebody to just sit with them on the page. But that makes me feel better about reading.

I had a college professor who used to read George Saunders stories out loud in this very funny, deadpan way, and I can't read them anymore without hearing them in his voice. I think it's interesting, especially with stories that have more dialogue, how a voice can add or change the reader's experience.

It's much easier to read the stories that have a lot of dialogue; of course, they flow much more easily into speech.

People often talk about how precise your language is, I feel that your characters' thoughts are often inarticulate, and poorly expressed or guarded, even when their intent is perfectly plain to the reader. The fact that you can express how much people struggle to express themselves is very--I don't know if comforting is the right word?

That's so nice. As you can see, I'm struggling to express myself right now. But it is a struggle, and often people don't know. They're aware of having something to express, but they're really not aware of exactly what it is. Meanwhile, their mouths are open, they're trying to get certain things to be understood, and they're trying to hide other things, hide them both from their interlocutor, and from themselves. And so it all creates a kind of thrilling dynamic. What people say is never inert.

Do you write every day?

No. I'm happiest when I do. But it's actually a rare occurrence when I'm able to.

Do you have a routine when you're in the midst of a piece?

There are several stages. When I'm at some early stage of the process, it's kind of torment. I find I often just fall into a stone-like sleep, right in the middle of the day, just sort of clonk. I can't work for extended periods when I'm beginning something. But if I'm at the end of something, I can work on for hours and hours and hours.

And how do you know when you're finished?

It's a terrifying moment when the last draft comes towards completion. Is this going to work or is it going to fall apart? And really, there is a moment where it just snaps shut. Although this is usually a two-phase situation. I think: "There, I'm done. I've got it. It's over, it's finished." But usually, when I'm absolutely finished, and then I read it over, I think, "Well, why did I write that?" And then I write it again.

I'd read some of your work before this volume came out, and I was the fact checker on the review that we're running. So I spent a lot of time with it and read the stories straight through again--

Oh my goodness!

--and doing that, just looking at it in a chronological sense, it's hard not to notice the shifts in your style and your themes. For example, the stories that appeared in the collection Transaction in a Foreign Currency are written entirely in the first person, and the rest aren't, and as they go on, the political awareness of the characters starts to creep up gently around the edges. Are any of these deliberate? Or are they really just a reflection of what your interests or your preoccupations were at the time?

Oh, entirely the latter. I've never really thought of writing books. I've never thought about stories as a part of a collection. So I'm not thinking about overarching themes and concerns, I'm just addressing the matter at hand. In fact, with the first collection, Transactions, I'd written just a few stories and it was amazing to me that I'd written any stories. But they were in the first person. I think I'd written four at this point. And I gave them to my friend Ruth Jhabvala, who was probably the only fiction writer I knew fairly well at that time. I was very uneasy about writing these stories in the first person. But it just came the most easily.

Were you uneasy because you felt that people would look for you in your characters, especially because the narrators are all women?

I'm not sure I was even thinking of people reading them. I was thinking, Well this is cheating, because it's easy. I mean, it wasn't easy to write the stories, but that was the easiest way for me to write them. And I gave them to her, and she said, "Oh, you could write a sort of fake autobiography." And I did something that now seems a sign of mental illness or extreme stupidity, which was to interpret what she said as meaning, you can feel comfortable about continuing to write in the first person. I took it as license to do exactly that.

Now, when you look over the scope of these four collections, what, if anything, is striking to you about how your writing has changed or grown? What do you notice?

I haven't looked at them in that way, and I haven't really noticed anything. I know there's this sort of simplicity of tone in the first collection, which is something that I like. But the complexities proliferate. In the final collection, I tried quite consciously to incorporate a sort of purity of tone in several instances.

Can you describe a little further what you mean by purity of tone?

As in, say, a chamber, as opposed to an orchestral piece of music. That you hear the line of each instrument with clarity.

I think that's an appropriate analogy. One thing that I notice, looking back over the collections, is that the strength and the assertiveness of the characters seem to shift. In the first collections the women are so fragile, particularly in their connections to the men in their lives. Even in a story like "Days," in which the woman doesn't seem to have many close friends or a relationship, the men on the track who make comments about her running can really just crumple her.

Yes, it's an interesting observation. I certainly got a lot of complaints about that collection in that regard--that the women were, in the view of many readers, passive, and that was not ideal for a woman. And of course I wasn't portraying ideal women, I was just trying to portray in each case what it was like to like to be that particular young woman. I do think it's hard to be a young woman.

Well, I'm 26, for example, and I read those and found them reassuring in a lot of ways.

I'm very moved to hear that.

Our literary editor, Ben Schwarz, has talked how interested he is in New York as a subject of your work, and the way your characters are also informed by their physical place. You've lived in New York for a number of years now, right?

Yes. That's a very interesting way to characterize it, and I think it's quite accurate. I actually came to New York because it was very tolerant. You know, it seems preposterous, ludicrous thing to say in an interview, but I came for the anonymity particularly.

And you were attending The New School?

Yes. Their undergraduate program.

Is that where you first started writing?

No, I didn't start writing until I was 30.

And how did that come about?

The very short answer would be that I stopped smoking.

Oh, so writing was like your running.

Right. And that story, the one called "Days," that was my first story, and it's my only autobiographical story, and it's also the way I started writing.

I'm very curious to know what kind of reactions or feedback you received to your work when you first started putting it out there. Was anyone particularly helpful or particularly terrible to you?

Well my first editor at The New Yorker was fabulous. Her name is Gwyneth Cravens. It wasn't that she did heavy editing in any way, but it was incredible. First of all because she actually liked my work, and she had a feeling for what it was. But also because I could get her to argue with me about a comma for 45 minutes!

It must have been nice to have someone care so much about your commas.

It was thrilling! It was great.

Are you still teaching at the University of Virginia? What are your classes like?

Well I enjoy my students. But believe me, I wouldn't teach on a volunteer basis. It takes a lot of time and attention, the same kind of attention one puts into one's own work.

I understand. I used to be an 11th grade English teacher.

I imagine it's more time consuming to be an 11th grade teacher. I don't know anybody who teaches high school or grammar school. Hat's off.

Well, thank you. I don't do it anymore, clearly. Are your classes workshops?

I teach both a workshop and a kind of eccentric reading class.

When you're giving feedback to your students is there a particular kind of approach that you take?

It's very ad hoc, and I'm very detail-oriented. Nobody ever saw anything of mine that wasn't finished, whereas I'm usually seeing unfinished work, so I usually give much more extensive feedback than any I ever got.

You've been writing reviews for a while. You reviewed Alice Munro for us, in 2006, and a number of pieces for the New York Review of Books. I'm curious what the process of reviewing another writer's work is like for you.

I adore Alice Munro so I knew it wouldn't be too big a problem for me to look at a new book of hers. I'm not interested in writing a negative review unless it's about something that I've found so reprehensible in some way that it must be shouted from the rooftops. Basically I would have no interest in writing about something that I didn't just adore. In my view, the function of a reviewer or a critic is to reflect what the thing is, to describe what the thing is.

Are you working on any new projects that you're particularly excited about?

I never know what I'm working on.

Wait and see.

You bet.

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Rachael Brown is a writer and analyst for Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit organization working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. A former Atlantic editor, she has written for The Guardian and Smithsonian.com, among other outlets. She is also a former public high school teacher.

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