I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“That to me is what writing is—to try and strip away the layers.”
In John Updike’s words, “Deborah Eisenberg writes out of a whirlwind; she has found words for sensations and emotions I have never seen described before.” Most of her stories have appeared in the New Yorker. This interview took place in her Chelsea apartment, which is lined with floor-to-ceiling books down both sides of an expansive hallway leading into a serene, spare living room filled with soft white light and little else.
Craig Lucas Did you come to New York to be an actress or anything?
Deborah Eisenberg In no way.
CL What did you come to New York to do and when did you come and from where? All I know about you is that you were born in Winnetka.
DE Yes. And strictly between you and me, neither Winnetka nor I could wait to get me out of there. And I came to New York, I suppose, to not do anything and to not be any place else. I came to be in a big city where I would just be able to live completely anonymously. I was really in a terrible state at the time. I had kind of hitchhiked out of a small college I was going to.
CL What college?
DE Marlboro. A tiny, tiny school in Vermont. And so I spent a year living kind of crazily. With a man. Mostly in Charlestown, long before that section of Boston became gentrified. We were sort of a conspicuous and wild-eyed, ratty haired couple (laughter) among the rather sober, or not sober, Irish who lived there. And then, you know, it seemed that my life was just kind of coming to a close. But I was only 20 years old or something. And I had gotten very sick. And my mother was quite fed up with me at the time and she said, “Well, you know, I understand there’s this school that anybody can get into. And I think you better get into it.”
CL Thanks, Mom.
DE Well, I was, let’s say, an erratic student. And what was called in those years a “behavior problem.” It was by no means clear that any school would take me. So here was this place … it was in New York and evidently they would take anyone. The catch was that they wouldn’t let anyone out necessarily.
It was the New School College. And I’ll tell you, it was spectacular. It was absolutely amazing. The first year I was living in Brooklyn and I spent most of my time just walking back and forth across the Brooklyn Bridge, I didn’t know what classes I was supposed to be taking. I didn’t know what was going on. But eventually I began to read books on the syllabus and go to some of the lectures that were available. You could go to the lectures given by the graduate faculty. And, you know, there were these unbelievable people on the graduate faculty at the time: Hannah Arendt was there. Stanley Diamond was there. Robert Heilbroner was there. All kinds of fantastic people. And if you went to the college you could just waltz into these lectures and sit down. And that was the first time I had really been exposed to minds like that. Of course, I didn’t understand what anybody was talking about for a very long time, but the quality of thought was immediately apparent, and it was electrifying.
CL Had you always been a reader?
DE I had been a reader of fiction and … It’s hard for me to read. It’s always been hard for me to read and it was impossible for me to read non-fiction at the time. But there were two programs available at the school: the humanities and the social sciences. I didn’t know what either of them was, but I assumed that the humanities meant reading literature. And I thought, “I know how to read a book.” Because I always had read literature. And I often felt that actually it was me that this or that book was being written for. I felt the book was being conveyed into my mind through this ridiculous process, you know, that somehow reputation and fame had preserved it just like Saran Wrap until it got to me.
CL (laughter) That’s extraordinary.
DE And that I was the person that it was intended for, often. And that it would just unfold in its original freshness in my mind. And so I thought, “Well, why should I go to college to read a book? I’ll just sign up for this other thing. The social sciences.” I had no idea what they were or what that meant. So, in fact, I stupidly did something that I couldn’t have done better intelligently. Because I was then exposed to this entire universe of thought and writing that I never would have encountered otherwise. I swear to this day I wouldn’t have. I always sort of jokingly called myself the mental educably-handicapped but, it really was true. Years would go by when every night, you know, I would say to Wallace [playwright and actor Wallace Shawn], “Wallace, what was D-Day? Wallace, who was on what side in World War I? Wallace, what was the Treaty of Versailles?” And he thought I was kidding. You know, he thought it was kind of coyness on my part. And finally one day about two years ago, he showed me a picture of Yalta. And there was Churchill, and there was Roosevelt, and there was Stalin. And he said, “Who are these people?” And I didn’t have a clue.
CL I had an idea that you were an autodidact, because your language is so extravagantly precise and daring, and I see, as a reader, that kind of use of language in Nabokov and other writers who found their way either to English or found their way to writing without universities. As a result, they’re not encumbered with how you do or don’t tell a story. You’re an extremely learned—and at the same time unconventional—writer.
DE Well, I think, I mean, that’s great, of course. In any case, it’s true that I have absolutely no idea how a story is supposed to be told. That’s something I have to find out each time. But, as I say, I did read literature as I was growing up. And I also studied Latin and Greek in school.
CL You did?
DE Yeah, because I was afraid of studying anything else. I had some idea that you had to already know a thing in order to learn it, and I also had a terror of learning things that were wrong. Even though, obviously, anything you learn, I guess, is some sort of approximation or simplification. Or lie. So dead languages seemed … reliable. But of course, no one speaks them, so I’ve forgotten everything I knew, and I don’t know any living language, either. Though I made a tremendous stab at learning—well, not a tremendous stab, a little lazy effort at learning (laughter)—some Spanish before Wall and I went to Central America.
CL Where did you go in Central America?
DE Well, we actually made two trips. The first time we went to Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. The second time we went to Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.
CL Why did you go twice?
DE Well, because it’s always quite different, for some reason to read the word “war,” and to see a bomb fall on the guy standing next to you. And then, also, when you read a newspaper, for example, you tend to accept, in a very generalized and hazy way, a whole set of assumptions about whatever the thing is. But when you see it, then you automatically think in a concrete and lucid way, Now, what, exactly, is this about? Well, it was simply beyond belief. So then we got back and people would say, “Oh, what was it like? What was going on?” And we would tell them. And they would say, “No, that’s not what it’s like. That was not what is going on.” And by now, I’ve talked to a lot of people this has happened to. Who go back, over and over, to Central America because they feel so crazy when they’re here and everyone’s telling them what they saw isn’t what they saw.
CL Clearly we’ve taken Vietnam and moved it to our back door and nobody wants to know.
DE But that’s exactly the case. And it made me … Vietnam, of course, came up in a lot of these conversations. Because people would say, “Oh, but I feel betrayed by Ho Chi Minh.” That sort of thing, you know. And people who had been against the Vietnam war at the time are now saying, in this conservative mood of our whole country, “Well, maybe the war itself was unpleasant but after all, look what has happened to those poor people since.” Now my reaction was kind of the contrary. My stance at the time of the war was a very naive one. Which was that there was no argument, there was no information that could convince me that there was sufficient reason for the most powerful country in the world to be bombing a lot of farmers and their rice paddies. Well, I have since come to know much more about that war, and now I really know a fair amount about the history of US involvement in Central America. And I find that I’m strengthened in my original, very naive position about Vietnam. Although I’ve taken it much, much further. Because I’d thought over these intervening years, and even at the time, “Well, of course, there are two groups of people. There are the people who are doing fairly well and then there are the poor people who have been pushed beyond endurance who are Communists.” But now I think that it was probably really something much more like the situation in Central America where actually there are not two groups of people. Or rather, there are, but one of them is extremely small. There is a large peasant population that’s been divested of their land increasingly—in effect, enslaved. And then there is the very tiny group of very wealthy landowners and in the case of El Salvador, Honduras, and previously Guatemala, a military that’s become rich on US assistance.
CL With whom we have clearly sided.
DE I think we’re still giving Salvador—a country of about six million people—something like two million dollars a day in military aid. But who is El Salvador at war with? In other words, for years, you and I have been spending almost two million dollars a day to kill the poor of El Salvador. Now how much did Bush pledge to Poland? (laughter)
CL What’s all the more remarkable to me, Debbie, is that you’re able to put the neo-conservative argument into a story without farcing it up or putting it in quotes or italics. That leaves us with the responsibility as readers to deduce the content of the story and the context. I think that’s very hard to do. It makes for a very harsh story.
DE The fact is, you know, if you lampoon the arguments, then you’re completely pretending that they’re powerless—
DE —and actually, I may think that they’re wrong, and they may be wrong. But a farce! After all, if they’re such a farce, then why is most of the world run according to them? And I have to admit that I myself am quite happy, moment to moment, with the way the world runs. I’m a perfectly happy citizen of the US. I’m very pleased with our domestic institutions for the most part, our legal system, our constitution, and I’m very pleased to have all this stuff I have. I’m simply a born parasite! I mean, I love it. I love having the freedom. I love having the stuff. I’m not going to just say, “Here, take it. You take it.” Because there is only so much stuff. And we’re definitely benefiting from the agony of the rest of the world. We just don’t like to know about it. I’m very interested in this psychological phenomenon of repressing information that is completely available to us. Information that’s right in front of our eyes, sometimes, that we’ve repressed in order to lead the lives that we lead and to think of ourselves as the pleasant, decent human beings who have barbecues or make our own pasta, depending on where in the country we live. And the repression of this information takes a phenomenal toll on our conscious thoughts. It uses up the most enormous amount of energy. And also, it requires us to think in a very, very convoluted way.
CL In many of your stories, people have been transported to another time zone, they’re jet-lagged, they’re working a night shift, they’ve just arrived in a new city, or they’re on drugs they’ve never been on before. I had an idea from reading your material that you were, as a result, a very grounded person to be able to write those kinds of situations because otherwise they would be too harrowing. Am I off the mark completely?
DE Gosh, Craig, I have simply no idea. (laughter) I have no idea whether I’m more grounded or less grounded than anyone else.
CL Is Pastorale your only play?
CL It was so successful critically and certainly in the theater community and it is such a beautiful play, one wonders why you have ceased writing plays. (laughter)
DE Well, I’ll tell you. One also wonders why it was never really done after. You know, because people did like it. And I think it’s awfully sweet.
CL How did you come to write it?
DE My first story, “Days,” was given a reading at the Public Theater. About six months later, Joe Papp called me up and said, “I’d like you to write a play.” And I said, “Well, I can’t write a play.” And he said, “Well, I’d like you to write a play.” And I said, “Well, I can’t write a play.” And he said, “Well, I’ll give you money.” And I said, “Oh …”
CL In that case …
DE Right. And I said, “But listen, Joe, I have this very good waitressing job and I don’t want to give it up.” But still, life has to move forward and here was this incredible … And I did want the money. So anyhow, we worked out this arrangement; Joe was very kind and flexible about it. And he said, “Well, fine, I’ll pay you for the nights that you miss.” I arranged with the restaurant so that I could cut down to two from four nights a week and Joe sort of made up the salary and that arrangement continued for something like five months. And for the first two months I sat there in complete paralysis. I went to all kinds of extremes. Wall actually left me alone every other week so that I could … Basically, I would take the grappa out of the cupboard at about, you know, ten in the morning when I would wake up and then as night fell there would be a lot less grappa in the bottle. And that just continued for a couple of months and then I sat down and I wrote a play. And it was the easiest thing I’ve ever done in my life. That play wrote itself.
CL All of the stories in your book Transactions in a Foreign Currency are in the first person. Every story you’ve published since has been in the third person. Are you doing that purposely?
DE Yes, I am. Although I didn’t begin to purposely. I’d written four stories in the first person just because that came most easily to me, and I loved doing it. I sort of believe in taking the road of least resistance (laughter) when you’re writing because, you know, writing is magic. It’s just magic and it should be magic. But then I thought, “Well, I’ve got to stop this first person business. Really, you know, I can’t just keep doing this.” I was showing the stories around to friends at that point and do you know the wonderful writer Ruth Jhabvala?
DE Ruth Jhabvala.
CL I never knew how you said that.
DE Well, I showed her the stories and she said, “Oh, you can write a sort of fake autobiography,” and I thought, “Yes!” So I just took it as far as I could take it. Tried to more or less exhaust the possibilities. And it suited the things I was most interested in doing at the time—the kind of crazed, short-focus.
CL Tell me what you mean by short-focus.
DE I don’t even know how to put it but, as though you’re holding something too close to your face so that you can’t really … You see it in an odd way.
CL This is probably part of why your stories are so thrilling, at least to me and obviously to a lot of others. You describe experiences which are held to be ineffable, are often so fleeting that we don’t even have words for them.
DE That to me is what writing is—to try and strip away the layers. This I really owe to Wallace. You know, when I was beginning he would say, just over and over to me, “Well, what is it really like? The thing that you want to describe, what is it really like?”
CL Do you use a word processor?
DE No. I’m too slow for a word processor. It usually takes me a year, more or less, to write a story. I write the first ten zillion drafts long hand and then I type the next three zillion. One of the main reasons I have never wanted a word processor is that I didn’t want to become dependent on a certain kind of technology. Part of the thrill of writing is that all you need is a stone tablet and a … what do you call that thing? An axe. (laughter) But in fact I love my typewriter so much that I might as well have made myself utterly dependent on a processor. Oh, I love my typewriter. I have nothing but praise for my typewriter.
CL I’d like to talk for a second about endings. I’m always surprised by your endings. Jill’s sudden announcement at the end of “The Robbery” is the revelation of what, in fact, has been taking place all along.
CL The subtext. What actors call the subtext. That’s hard to do. Your year spent on each tale, working it through, is clearly the correct process.
DE Well, it seems inevitable for me. I just can’t do it faster. And I’ll tell you, Craig, every time I get to the end, there is a period of almost intolerable panic for me. I mean, the worst to me is starting the story. I’m just starting one now where I have to … If I’m ever going to write another story, then I have to start one. That’s very bad. It’s very, very bad, because I have nothing. Ever. But in certain ways it’s almost worse when I’ve been writing and writing and writing and then it’s clear that the story is close to the end. And I have to then face the prospect that the whole thing has been a sort of empty exercise in which case it has to get thrown out.
CL Have you ever thrown a story out?
DE I threw one out that I worked on for many, many months. Usually, though, they just change so much that they’re unrecognizable. I mean, the characters, the setting, everything changes. “Broken Glass” was the one; that’s the story that in a way I’m proudest of. I really think that I did it properly. And I’ll tell you, there was the longest time when I didn’t know whether it was going to work or not. It’s never the middle that I can’t make work. It’s never the beginning that I can’t make work. It’s always the end. Because what is the end of a story? What does that mean? What is a story? To confect some sort of plot “ending” seems very artificial to me. I’m just not interested. I used to have a friend who was a carpenter and I remember watching him make a bookcase once and there was like, it was like this sort of plank with all these other planks sticking out of it at these crazy angles, you know. And it looked like a porcupine or something and I said, “That’s a bookcase? What are you talking about? That’s not a bookcase.” And he said, “Wait a minute.” And he grabbed this other plank and he sort of smushed everything together and went wham wham wham wham wham, and it was a bookcase. (laughter) I cannot tell until the last minute of the final draft whether the thing is going to work or whether it’s just going to fall apart and it’s nothing.
Craig Lucas is a playwright and screenwriter who lives and works in New York.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee