Interviews

Deborah Eisenberg, The Art of Fiction No. 218

Interviewed by Catherine Steindler

Over the past three decades, Deborah Eisenberg has produced four short-story collections: Transactions in a Foreign Currency (1986), Under the 82nd Airborne (1992), All Around Atlantis (1997), and Twilight of the Superheroes (2006). She has also written a play, Pastorale (1982), a monograph on the artist Jennifer Bartlett (1994), and criticism, much of it for The New York Review of Books. Her preeminence as a short-story writer has been recognized by countless critics and a host of awards, including a DAAD residency, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature, many O. Henry prizes, the pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, and a MacArthur “genius grant.”

The adult narrator of Eisenberg’s story “All Around Atlantis” recalls, “Yes, I had nightmares—children do. After all, it takes some time to get used to being alive. And how else, except in the clarity of dreams, are you supposed to see the world all around you that’s hidden by the light of day?” Learning how to live is difficult work for Eisenberg’s characters. Her first three collections are largely populated by people whose efforts to piece together what things mean are hobbled; they are youths, travelers, immigrants, and people recovering from trauma—abuse, war, the death of a beloved. In her more recent stories, she also writes about outwardly settled people who, although they may live with spouses and own good china, lead provisional existences laden with perplexity. What mystifies her older characters is not so much how life works but that it is passing.

Our interview took place over three fiercely hot summer days, in the Chelsea apartment that Eisenberg shares with her partner, the writer and actor Wallace Shawn. She works in a small, light-swept garret, flanked by gorgeously planted terraces. On her writing table, next to her laptop, she keeps a little painting of a brick wall to remind her of the air-shaft view from a previous apartment.

Eisenberg speaks slowly, pausing often to find exactly the right words, and makes no effort to conceal her strong emotional responses, whether she is moved to laughter or tears. She is physically slight, but, dressed all in black, perched on a faded divan, and set off by the high, white walls of her living room, she has the arresting elegance of an eighteenth-century silhouette portrait.

—Catherine Steindler

INTERVIEWER

Am I right that your first story was published when you were almost forty?

DEBORAH EISENBERG

That would be about right. A story called “Flotsam” was the first to be published, though it was not the first to be written. The first story I wrote was called “Days,” and I have very little affection for it.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

EISENBERG

I find it ingratiating. That’s something one has to watch with first-person narrative, that special pleading for an “I” who is automatically in the right, or is even automatically lovable—whom the reader can snuggle up with and whose plight the reader can sniffle over. Because snuggling and sniffling can derail a more complex relationship between the reader and the material.

“Days” is also by far the most autobiographical piece of fiction I’ve ever written. I avoid using real people, including myself, in my fiction, but that piece started out as nonfiction—an account of going to the local YMCA and trying to run around the little track there as a way to endure the horrible ordeal of stopping smoking.

I had had no idea how deep the addiction went—it had essentially replaced me. I was a human being who had structured herself around the narcotic and the prop, who had melded with the narcotic and the prop. Once the narcotic and prop were no longer available, the human being simply died. I was left in a kind of mourning. I was grief stricken. I had murdered someone, and it was me. But as it turned out, that was the only way to allow a less restricted human being to take shape and live.

INTERVIEWER

In what way was your smoking self different?

EISENBERG

As a smoker, I was very brittle, very inelastic, rather reckless but not in any way adventurous. I could only sort of topple into one situation or another. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t change, but I was safe—in the sense of being preserved. It was like being embalmed, like being smoked, I suppose.

When I decided to stop smoking, I didn’t realize I would be dissolving the glue that held me together. But by the time you think you need to make a decision, that decision has already been made. The person I was leaving behind to die on the road was already half dead. Still, there wasn’t anybody ready to take the place of that dying person for quite some time.

INTERVIEWER

Did writing start to take the place of that dying person?

EISENBERG

I’m not sure writing started to take that place, but I wouldn’t have been able to write if I’d been smoking. I don’t think of writing as therapeutic, but I don’t know how I could have managed the despair if I hadn’t started to write then.

INTERVIEWER

Of course art-making isn’t therapy, but I often think artists don’t need to be quite so loath to admit some relationship between art-making and therapy.

EISENBERG

Well, I understand that reluctance. If you think you’re going to be late for a movie and you walk briskly to the theater, it might be good for you, but that’s not why you’re walking briskly. Writing does change you, and of course it feels good to do things, so you could say writing is de facto therapeutic. But really, one writes to write.

Of course, there are ancillary advantages to writing fiction. You get to leave your body, for instance, so you can have experiences that a person with your physical characteristics couldn’t actually have.

I find it endlessly interesting, endlessly funny, the fact that we’re rather arbitrarily divided up into these discrete humans and that your physical self, your physical attributes, your moment of history and the place where you were born determine who you are as much as all that indefinable stuff that’s inside of you. It seems so ridiculous. Why can’t I just buckle on my sword and leap on my horse and go charging through the forests?

But the real fun of writing, for me at least, is the experience of making a set of givens yield. There’s an incredibly inflexible set of instruments—our vocabulary, our grammar, the abstract symbols on paper, the limitations of your own powers of expression. You write something down and it’s awkward, trivial, artificial, approximate. But with effort you can get it to become a little flexible, a little transparent. You can get it to open up, and expose something lurking there beyond the clumsy thing you first put down. When you add a comma or add or subtract a word, and the thing reacts and changes, it’s so exciting that you forget how absolutely terrible writing feels a lot of the time.

INTERVIEWER

In “Days,” the narrator, as she withdraws from her addiction, discovers agency and causality. The experience of knowing what she wants and then doing something to make it happen is revelatory for her. It sounds like agency and causality are a part of the pleasure of writing for you.

EISENBERG

Until I stopped smoking, I was committed to inaction. So, yes, the pleasures of making something were new and intense for me when I started writing, and they remain intense.

INTERVIEWER

Many of your female characters are committed to passivity, attached to powerlessness. There’s even the little five-year-old in “Mermaids” who comforts herself by imagining her five-year-old male friend tying her up. What do you make of this phenomenon?

EISENBERG

Are women attached to powerlessness, either in reality or in my stories? I don’t know. But I do know that women haven’t chosen powerlessness for themselves. Powerlessness has been thrust upon them, by other people. In any case, passivity can be very powerful. It’s an efficient way of shifting responsibility—and blame—onto other people. And instead of having to do anything, you get to be angry all the time.

 

INTERVIEWER

What’s the pleasure in being angry? It’s the most miserable state.

EISENBERG

I’m a bit of an expert on anger, having suffered from it all through my youth, when I was both brunt and font. It’s certainly the most miserable state to be in but it’s also tremendously gratifying, really—rage feels justified. And it’s an excellent substitute for action. Why would you want to sacrifice rage to go about the long, difficult, dreary business of making something more tolerable?

INTERVIEWER

Why was inaction so important to you?

EISENBERG

I suppose it was partly personal and partly generational. I came to the sixties early—sometime in the fifties I would say, but you could hear the sixties approaching from afar. And I grew up in a milieu that very much valued accomplishment and credentials. The whole thing made me sick, and I didn’t want any part of it, so I cast those values from me. I was fastidious. I wouldn’t think of accomplishing a thing or having even one credential—a principled stance that happened to be incredibly convenient for someone paralyzed by terror and confusion.

INTERVIEWER

Your parents cared a great deal about accomplishment?

EISENBERG

Yes. I find that painfully touching, really heartbreaking, to think of now, though I rejected it fiercely then. My parents were the children of Jewish immigrants and ambitiously sought to educate themselves well, to lead an assimilated, middle-class life.

Several generations, really, are required to complete an arrival. My grandparents worked so hard to establish a solid footing in this country for themselves and their children, and my parents continued the endeavor. By the time I came around, I didn’t understand the problem at all, although I certainly felt repercussions of the difficulties. My parents were serious people who tried to live correctly, but they were so lacking in self-awareness as to be almost prodigies. I think maybe that’s not so unusual among the first generation to be born here. They work so hard to fulfill their parents’ hopes for them, to merit the sacrifices their parents made for them and the hardships they went through that they’re not allowed to know anything about themselves.

INTERVIEWER

Where did your family come from?

EISENBERG

My mother grew up in Chicago, and my father grew up in a little city called Waukegan, in northern Illinois, that’s famous for being the hometown of Jack Benny.

As far as I know, my mother’s father was from Belarus. My maternal grandmother purported to come from Saint Petersburg. Did she? I have no idea. I was also told that she came from Kronshtadt. Close enough, I suppose.

My father’s parents were probably from shtetels in Poland or Ukraine or Galicia. Of course, the borders were waving around so much back then you could be born in three places at once. The great cities of the Old World, like Saint Petersburg, Kraków, Vienna, Budapest, acquired a certain mythological function for that group of immigrants. The older my paternal grandmother got, my cousin Katherine tells me, the nearer to Vienna the place of her birth became, until she had been born in Vienna.

I remember once, when I was about five, asking my maternal grandfather, What was it like where you came from? And he said, It was cold. That was the end of the conversation. America was the beginning as far as many of those immigrants were concerned. What happened before that stayed in darkness.

There are certainly bits of my personality that I can’t quite account for by my own life history. You know, certain neurotic characteristics, fears. It’s a little like wondering why your hair is curly when no one else in your family has curly hair, and it turns out you were adopted.

Those of us who are the grandchildren of immigrants often have a void in our psyche that reflects a situation of danger or terror that our grandparents endured. The first generation born in the United States often tries to erase or suppress what they know of their parents’ experience in order to provide a level playing field for their children, but in fact experience and fears can be transmitted in various forms across many generations. Many of us grew up knowing nothing, or next to nothing, about the horrors our grandparents lived through, and when we search for the source of certain anxieties, all we can locate is a kind of blank inscrutability.

INTERVIEWER

You write about that blank inscrutability in “All Around Atlantis,” one of a handful of your stories about the Hungarian diaspora. What’s your interest in Hungarians?

EISENBERG

For some reason, I fill that inscrutable blankness my forebears left with Budapest. It’s a repository for many of my fantasies—superb musicians and writers, splendid cafés, voluptuous pastries.

Among Jewish immigrants to America, there was, at a certain period, a hierarchy of nationalities. My forebears, wherever they were from, were at the bottom of that pile, and the Hungarian Jews were at the apex of that pile.

INTERVIEWER

How did your grandparents establish themselves?

EISENBERG

They did what so many others did. Back then, there was so much more economic mobility and less hostility—or less institutionalized hostility— toward immigrants. My father’s father started out as a peddler, and then he had a store that sold all kinds of things. He did very well at it, and he was clever about investments and made a lot of money. He died quite young, just at the onset of the Great Depression, and the money was lost. My mother’s parents always lived humbly, but they managed. That grandfather was an extremely talented tailor.

INTERVIEWER

Was your mother educated?

EISENBERG

She got herself educated. She was at the top of her class at a good high school in Chicago. Her older brother—and this was the cause of lifelong bitterness on her part—was sent to college, but she was a girl, and her parents said, Please, how could we afford this? But she went through the University of Chicago on scholarship and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. She was very proud of that. She was, on the one hand, very adventurous, intellectually, and on the other hand, very fearful—she’d always defer to the academic view, to the view of “the authority.”

INTERVIEWER

What was she was afraid of?

EISENBERG

I have no idea. But I was the pure expression of her fears.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think she would have been afraid of any daughter? Or were there particular things about you that scared her?

EISENBERG

Both. There she was, trying—with not exactly all of her heart but with a large portion of it—to exemplify acceptability to the world she wanted to be a part of, and there I was, conspicuously the incarnation of her secret strangenesses and unacceptabilities.

From the get-go, I was a catastrophe. When I was two, before I could really talk, I was sent to a Viennese psychiatrist. In Chicago, I mean—not in Vienna. But she really was Viennese. At home, I would grab the phone and yell, Ja? just the way Dr. Emmy did.

INTERVIEWER

What did you do to require a psychiatrist?

EISENBERG

I was a juvenile delinquent, I guess. But it was a very lucky thing, actually, because the psychiatrist instructed my parents to send me to a wonderful day school on a little farm. It was run by two lesbian communists, and to this day I just light up with joy when I meet a lesbian communist. The school closed when I was eight, but it gave me a basis, a model of something that still emits faint little beeps of wholesome happiness inside me. It certainly freed me to a great extent from my incredible dependency on my dragon mother.

INTERVIEWER

What was your father like?

EISENBERG

He was a saintly pediatrician, very self-sacrificing, and of course he worked horrifying hours. And my poor mother was dealing with ravaging, chronic back pain. It’s awful to live with that and it’s terrible for the disposition. There was an atmosphere of anguish, despair, and melancholy in the house. It was alleviated a lot when my brother was around—we were all so happy to see him—but he’s older and was away sooner. It’s very hard to shake off that atmosphere sometimes, even now.

I have such a great life. I really do. But I always wonder, if I had to live my first twenty-five years over again, would I do it, even if I knew that I would go on to so wonderful a life?

INTERVIEWER

You were twenty-six when you met Wally?

EISENBERG

That’s right. The Wallace with whom I still live.

INTERVIEWER

Meeting him was a gigantic turning point?

EISENBERG

You know, if you woke me up in the middle of the night and asked me, Can another person make someone happy? I’m sure I would shout, No! What a preposterous idea! But my actual life is evidence to the contrary.

That is, happiness isn’t like a lollipop that somebody can hand you, but reciprocity can create a lot of space—a sort of playground. Among other things, I very much doubt that I would have had the courage to begin writing if it hadn’t been for Wally, who strongly believed that people, including me, should do some work that gives them pleasure, if they have that opportunity.

INTERVIEWER

The impulse to do something as difficult as sit down and write couldn’t possibly come from someone else entirely. What do you think it was, in your thirties, that equipped you to want to labor at making a sentence?

EISENBERG

Maybe every strange, alienated kid is presumed to write, because people had always said to me, Do you write? And up until I was about fifteen, reading was my great pleasure, and I read a lot. When I was fourteen or fifteen, I always carried a talismanic copy of Nightwood or Against Nature with me to ward off evil. I’m no longer sure exactly what those books represented to me, but they were very portable. When I was in high school, all my friends said they were going to be writers. And I thought, How come you get to be a writer, and I don’t? I thought WRITER was written on their foreheads and they saw it when they looked in the mirror, and I sure didn’t see it when I looked in the mirror.

I always thought of writing as holy. I still do. It’s not something to be approached casually.

INTERVIEWER

In the decades when you weren’t writing, what were you doing—besides smoking cigarettes?

EISENBERG

I went to a small college in Vermont called Marlboro. I was a terrible student. Toward the end of my second year, I left. With a guy. And we led a life that could be led in the sixties—going here and there, not getting hysterical about making a living, putting this or that in one’s mouth and seeing what would happen. You know, the life of the mind, sort of.

Eventually he went to Canada to stay out of Vietnam, and I fetched up—and this was a great stroke of luck—at the New School for Social Research. My mother sent me an ad she’d clipped out of a newspaper, and she said, Anybody can get into this school, and I think you better go to it.

My terror of not having a college degree outweighed my terror of finishing college. It was unthinkable not to—one of those prospects, like getting pregnant, that meant you would just slide off the face of the earth. My parents would pay for school, and I didn’t know what else to do. I felt that I’d really come to the end of the line in some way, and frankly, I was quite a wreck.

There was a new program at the New School that offered the second two years of undergraduate study. And they said, Do you want to study the humanities or the social sciences? And I thought, I know what humanities is—it’s reading a book. I know how to read a book, so I’ll do this other thing.

INTERVIEWER

What was your response to political philosophy?

EISENBERG

It was all kinds of social thought—political theory, economics, some psychology, a little philosophy of history, and so on. When I started, I realized that my classmates had read all of Marx, all of Freud, the neo-Marxists. They knew the Frankfurt School theorists, they had a grasp of history. I knew nothing. There was a whole, large vocabulary involved, a conceptual vocabulary that was completely alien to me. I couldn’t comprehend a thing that was said, and my solution to this problem was to stay in bed.

Maybe it was true that anybody could get into that program, but it wasn’t so easy to get out! There were two things that were required in order to pass the first year, and one of them was a paper for a certain class. Everybody else chose their subjects early and had written their papers. I showed up to the second-to-last class, and the professor said, Fortunately, there’s one paper topic left, which nobody else wanted. So it’s yours.

It was on some essays by Theodor Adorno concerning the relationship between sociology and psychology. So I went home with them, and I didn’t know whether the book was right side up or upside down. I read those essays more than a thousand times without understanding a word. Then I read them once more, and I understood everything in the whole world.

We also had to take a comprehensive exam at the end of the first year. You had two weeks to pass it, and you had the year’s syllabus. Everybody else had been in classes all year, but I had these two weeks. I’ve always been a very slow reader, but the urgency was great. That exam was one of the best and most exciting things that had happened to me in my whole life. It gave me a kind of foundation.

INTERVIEWER

Foundation for apprehending the world?

EISENBERG

Yes. It was a great school. Hannah Arendt and Hans Morgenthau and Robert Heilbroner and other remarkable people were attached to the graduate faculty then, and undergrads could go to their lectures. I sometimes went, and it was thrilling just to see people who could use their brains like that.

I’d been more or less in a fog my whole life, and here were people for whom it was all in a day’s work to identify phenomena, scrutinize them, and apply processes of ratiocination. Not that I sat around reading, say, Heidegger from there on out, but when the time came for me to look at the world, I was a little prepared to do it. I also had some idea of what it meant to learn and how you could go about it.

INTERVIEWER

When you finished school and were living in New York, what was the city like?

EISENBERG

It was scrappy. I loved it. But I was very lonely, and I was very confused, and I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. I wasn’t equipped to do much of anything, and I was too fearful to go out and mix it up in the world, too self-conscious. I didn’t think I could do anything. I didn’t think I could get a waitressing job—I might as well have been trying to get hired as the head neurosurgeon at Columbia Presbyterian.

INTERVIEWER

Did you manage to get a waitressing job?

EISENBERG

Eventually. Eventually I did this and that, and at a certain point I got together with Wally.

Our first—I guess you’d call it a date—devolved into a passionate argument about Mao. Wally had studied Far Eastern history and was very skeptical about Mao’s policies. I knew nothing whatsoever about the question, but I was appalled that someone would so confidently dismiss something that might benefit millions of people. It’s funny to think of now, partly because it becomes more and more obvious to me how little people—even people who are supposedly great experts—know about anything. I was completely unaware that we were actually arguing about some abstractions that we were calling “China.”

INTERVIEWER

Presumably, your politics have evolved together throughout the years.

EISENBERG

Inevitably one’s ideas develop and change, but I’ve always been ready to oppose. I would say that I was born with the basic sense of politics I have now. Children are in a very weak position, so the question of justice is very alive for many of them. I’m no more alive to matters of social justice now than I was at the age of eight, but of course I know a lot more facts.

INTERVIEWER

Not all children are so attuned to injustice.

EISENBERG

I was pampered and very privileged, but I always felt out of place, even scorned. I was not a successful child, and I did not have the rewards of fitting in. It’s very difficult to question a system of which you are a beneficiary, but it’s easy to question a system of which you are not a beneficiary. So in a way it was almost as natural for me, growing up inside it, to question the validity of the standard middle-class values and beliefs, of cultural assumptions, as it would have been if I had grown up in East Harlem.

INTERVIEWER

Your travels in Central America in the eighties influenced you and Wally quite a bit, did they not?

EISENBERG

Well, after all, we didn’t find ourselves there by accident—we went there. And we didn’t go for a vacation—we went to see what our country was supporting there. We got ourselves equipped with phone numbers of journalists and human-rights workers and so on. We were very aggressive about meeting people who could show us what was going on and introduce us to people there, and we met many, many people who were chasteningly admirable.

Any English speaker can learn a little Spanish, so it was possible to get a real look at what was being done with one’s tax dollars—that is, to get a look at how one’s tax dollars were being spent to enforce a life of slavery for farmers and to murder people who fought against that. Nothing too unusual, unfortunately, but it’s one thing to be familiar with the paradigm and another to see at close range the effects on individuals.

INTERVIEWER

Had anything in your experience prepared you for that?

EISENBERG

I had had an experience when I was seventeen that prepared me a bit for one aspect of traveling between the United States and Central America. One of the students at my boarding school was a boy named Thorsten Horton, and his father, Myles Horton, ran the wonderful Highlander Folk School, which trained labor organizers and civil-rights activists. Rosa Parks was one of the people who had gone there.

Thorsten said to me, and I can still remember his voice saying it, Hey, Eisenberg, do you want to get away from your mother this summer?

Well, the school had been in Monteagle, Tennessee, but the property and land was confiscated by the state. In any case, there was to be a campsite built for Highlander in the Smokies, and did I want to join in? I was allowed to go—I think because my brother was getting married later that summer and my mother wanted me out of the way.

The group consisted of a few young white people, mostly northerners, and a number of young black people from Birmingham, Alabama, where all hell had broken out and people were being subjected to all kinds of brutality. It was a proudly Klan county and we all ended up briefly in jail.

The cops came and awakened us in the middle of the night. First they joked about killing us, but then they said they wanted to make a legal example of us instead, so they took us into jail. I was charged with something called “assimilated intercourse.” Very arcane. But eventually it was made clear that I was under eighteen and therefore could not be hanged, so the charge was switched to the other white girl, who was over eighteen, and that part of the case fell apart. Our lawyer was local and, needless to say, astoundingly courageous. This was the summer of 1963, the summer before the three boys—Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, the civil-rights activists—were murdered in Mississippi.

But the shock came when I returned home. People would say, What was it like, what happened? And when I answered, they would say, No, that’s not what it was like, that’s not what happened.

So, long before I went to Central America, I was familiar both with the lengths to which people would go in order to evade information and also with the pain of trying to synthesize mutually exclusive realities. The mind simply could not encompass, let alone reconcile, the reality of what we, as a nation, were enacting in Central America and the reality of the heedless, cheerful life that so many people in New York were leading. If one place was reality, the other place could not be reality.

And naturally the most sickening aspect of the disjuncture was the fact that we in the U.S. were benefitting from the violent and wretched world we had fostered in Central America. No degree of outrage would have been sufficient, but in fact there was very little attention directed to the matter at all.

The second time we went to Salvador, we met these absolutely charming young Americans—I think they were Methodists—bringing medicine to areas of violent conflict. They said to us, Why did you come back? You know this situation—you don’t have anything more to learn here. And we said, It’s just easier, it’s more comfortable to be here than to try to live with this in New York or even discuss it at a dinner party there. And they said, That’s why we’re here, too.

INTERVIEWER

In your story “Holy Week,” an American travel writer, in order to deal with the disjunction between his American life and the lives he’s witnessing in Central America, says, Sure the world is unjust, but we’d be ingrates if we didn’t enjoy being on the winning side. His girlfriend doesn’t buy that, so she just throws a little guilt-fueled tantrum. Have you found other ways to respond to the knowledge that your nice life and their poverty-stricken ones are not unconnected?

EISENBERG

The way to respond is to be as much of an activist as you can be, in whatever way you can be.

But that’s not what I’ve chosen to spend most of my time on, and naturally, if I’m going to spend my time writing fiction rather than, say, lying down in the path of a proposed tar-sands pipeline, and if I’m going to use my share, or more than my share, of the world’s resources to lead this pleasant writer’s life, I’m going to want to think there’s some value in it—if not in what I myself write, at least in writing in general.

Perhaps I should be more suspicious of my belief that there is inherent value in literature. It could be pure, self-serving, soft-brained romanticism, the belief that probing the most delicate and subtle areas of the mind by, say, listening to music or reading, will develop what is human in you. There are abundant examples of reactionary, loony, virulently prejudiced artists and art lovers, so one can hardly insist that art is definitively good for the brain. But I believe that a lack of art is really bad for the brain. Art, itself, is inherently subversive. It’s destabilizing. It undermines, rather than reinforces, what you already know and what you already think. It is the opposite of propaganda. It ventures into distant ambiguities, it dismantles the received in your brain and expands and refines what you can experience.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a fair amount of politics in your stories. Do you feel some political purpose when you write?

EISENBERG

You know, we’ve been sitting here, using this word politics—but what do we mean by it? Let’s say we mean social mechanisms, and systems of social mechanisms, that sort out who gets treated how. Well, every writer— everybody—has implicit views of the way people are related to one another through such systems. And those views are inevitably going to be expressed in a piece of fiction.

And if we mean by politics specific events that have occurred in reality, then yes, it’s true that my fiction is set in a real, rather than in an invented, world. I, for example, am one of the many writers who portrayed in fiction some of the consequences of the destruction of the World Trade Center. It was a very defining, very altering event, and a shared experience. It would have been highly artificial, and in fact programmatic, to set a story in the United States—particularly in New York—at that time without at least acknowledging it.

Fiction is an excellent way to explore the relationships between people and their contexts. But any real exploration of those relationships is not going to be at all doctrinaire. It’s not the purpose or practice of fiction writers to polemicize. On the contrary, fiction might be the most unfettered way to go excavating for evidence of real human behavior and feeling. And if you keep your hands off them, your characters are bound to demonstrate the workings of the world in ways that take you by surprise.

So to answer your question, no, using fiction to support a preexisting idea, about politics or about anything else, is not going to produce something that’s valid, and it certainly is not going to produce anything that’s interesting. But it’s inevitable that your work will express your view of life— and that’s desirable.

I used to rant and rail all the time about our national cultural hypocrisy and self-deception—the endless yattering about spreading democracy and our wonderful values and being a model culture, and so on. That just drove me insane. But then as soon as the pictures of torture in Abu Ghraib became public, there was an instantaneous adjustment. There were a couple of weeks of horror, and then we Americans immediately and with great equanimity— even alacrity—exchanged the idea that we were a high-minded and beneficent nation for the idea that we were sadists who tortured people in order to steal their resources.

Well, it turns out I liked it much better the old way, when we were self-deceiving hypocrites. And in retrospect, one can see that although the transition appeared to take only a few weeks, it was being prepared for some years, and by the time it was manifest, we had become very ready to embrace the image of ourselves as ruthless and punitive, as a nation that will assassinate its own citizens, that is willing to kill robotically by drones, that rejects hard-earned instruments of justice, like trials. That is, events that had occurred in the public sphere since 2001 became private events, too, and they were imprinting themselves on our souls in one way or another.

My point is that I wasn’t conscious of what I was seeing at the time, and yet that period of transition is what permeates my last collection, Twilight of the Superheroes. In fact, obviously, it determined the title. I was living with baffling phenomena and writing stories about other people who were, too.

INTERVIEWER

When you sit down to write, you don’t start with a political point or idea. What do you start with?

EISENBERG

I never start with anything.

I once heard Colson Whitehead say that he liked to write fiction because he liked to make things up, and it occurred to me that I hate to make things up. Or maybe I like to make things up, but I hate the feeling that I’m making something up. Until something I’ve written has the status of memory to me, it’s just not in any way finished. It has to feel as though a totality that was hidden from me is being revealed. The whole thing has to all work at once.

INTERVIEWER

So at a certain moment, near the end of the process, you see it all at once?

EISENBERG

At the very end. I never know whether something is going to work until the last word of the last line of the last draft. Well, to be accurate, it’s not the last draft. It’s what I think is the last draft. Generally, after I’ve finished what I think is the last draft, it occurs to me to wonder why I’ve written the thing in the first place, and then I’m able to write what is really the last draft. But just toward the end of what will turn out to be the penultimate draft, there’s a feeling that everything is rushing toward something—turning into an arrow headed at a target.

INTERVIEWER

That must feel fantastic.

EISENBERG

Oh, it does. It takes me a long, long time to write a story. There was a three-year hiatus between my last book and my first subsequent story. I just couldn’t do anything of any interest during all that time. So most of the time, it’s just maddening to sit there. But there are a couple of great weeks toward the end with each story.

INTERVIEWER

So you hate making things up, but you have to start somewhere. How does that usually work for you?

EISENBERG

I hardly know, myself. I can’t explain it, I can’t account for it. I don’t feel that I have what people mean by an imagination, but when you fall asleep, your dream doesn’t start by scratching its head and saying, Oh, no! I can’t think of anything to dream!

INTERVIEWER

Do your stories begin in observation?

EISENBERG

I’m incredibly unobservant. I’m always amazed when people notice things and ask questions. Apparently I do take in a certain amount of information, but I don’t know where it goes. It certainly doesn’t seem to go to my brain.

INTERVIEWER

It only reveals itself to you when you’re tinkering with words?

EISENBERG

Exactly. Although sometimes it reveals itself to me when I open my mouth.

I think it’s essential to manifest yourself outward somehow. One of the crimes of our time is the way we consolidate resources on people who don’t need them rather than educating people—I don’t mean indoctrinating people, but educating people, so they can extrapolate their humanity, because that is the pleasure of being alive.

INTERVIEWER

And yet you resisted that pleasure for many years.

EISENBERG

Even now I have a huge resistance to getting to work, perhaps because my body knows how exhausting and shaming it’s going to be. I don’t want to go through the shame and the exhaustion! I mean this obviously cannot be true for most people who write.

INTERVIEWER

Why not?

EISENBERG

I have friends who are much more fluent, who write much more easily— certainly who write much more copiously. It’s infuriating to be so constricted.

INTERVIEWER

How do you overcome your resistance?

EISENBERG

Either you have to quit for good or you have to tough it out. That’s the choice. You have to be patient.

INTERVIEWER

And eventually your fingers move?

EISENBERG

Yes, it’s like a Ouija board. I write down some little thing, and then eventually something comes out of that, or doesn’t. I’m just trying to get down one accurate sentence and then another accurate sentence. And most of my time is spent rearranging the little counters in the sentence. And then the little counters on the page, and then the little counters in the whole.

But there is nothing in my mind when I’m writing until I’m well along in a piece. Until then I have no ideas, no conscious feeling. I’m a person with virtually no feelings.

INTERVIEWER

What do you mean by that? I’ve seen you laugh and cry and . . . What do you mean by that?

EISENBERG

Oh, that’s some other . . . aspect. Not the aspect of me that writes.

 

INTERVIEWER

So there you are, dragging along your pencil, and . . .

EISENBERG

You write something and there’s no reality to it. You can’t inject it with any kind of reality. You have to be patient and keep going, and then, one day, you can feel something signaling to you from the innermost recesses. Like a little person trapped under the rubble of an earthquake. And very, very, very slowly you find your way toward the little bit of living impulse. Of course, many writers manage to condense the process, but things accrue reality through all the millions of unconscious operations that go into writing.

INTERVIEWER

Once you’ve caught a scent of that little bit of life, what then?

EISENBERG

Then I have a big mess on my hands for quite some time. So I ask, What is this and what is this and what is this? I go about things as a hamster would— That’s good, I want this little piece of straw. That’s bad, get it out of the nest. Somehow I have a feeling, Well, this applies in some way. I may not know how, and I may not know why, but I can tell that here’s something connected to something central.

I’m putting this into words, but I never remember when I’ve finished something how things began to take. But it is a kind of taking, a kind of quickening.

INTERVIEWER

Your stories are so precise, it’s hard for me to imagine you don’t feel some control of the process.

EISENBERG

I have a feeling of strict control over certain elements. I want the ambiguity of reality, but I don’t want any linguistic ambiguity or intellectual ambiguity. To me, an objective is to convey the most ethereal possible experience with the greatest possible clarity. To reach in both directions.

So if something’s unclear in the sentence, I’m going to purify it. And I can tell if something’s irrelevant. The world is mysterious, everything that happens is mysterious, and you can’t begin to approach mystery without absolute crystal clarity. Over the clarity of expression I have control. I make the words as amenable to understanding as I possibly can so that the true mysteries can fill up the pages.

INTERVIEWER

For many of your characters—because they’re children or emerging from trauma—the world is especially mysterious. What is familiar to most of us is new to them. What do characters who are ignorant of convention do for you? Why are you drawn to them?

EISENBERG

I think of fiction as a kind of inquiry into what it is to be a human and what it is to be a human now. And my constant task, in my life as well as my writing, is to try to discard layers of obfuscation. If I start out with a character who is somewhat unencumbered by the received, I can start farther along.

Most of the process of writing for me is discarding things. I think, Just get rid of this, just tear it to the ground and start with something more fundamental, vital, and unformulated. Really try to see what’s in front of you. I spend most of my time trying to tear away banalities.

There are an infinite number of ways to deceive oneself. You tear down one veil, and you think, Ah, the whole world lies right beyond this. But no—there’s just another veil and then another veil after that. It’s boring and stupid and clichéd, and the thing behind it is also boring and stupid and clichéd. So you try to improve on that and . . .

INTERVIEWER

By the tenth generation maybe it’s not so boring and stupid anymore. This process you describe of peeling back the layers of cliché makes me wonder if you regard writing as a spiritual practice in any way.

EISENBERG

I’ve never known what is meant by “spiritual.” That’s a door that seems to be closed to me. When I sit down to work, I’m just trying to get one little thing right. So I suppose in that regard I do consider it a practice. But I don’t have more far-reaching goals in mind at all. Just, let’s get this little thing right.

But I think what you face when you try to strip away the veils is quite frightening. Because you’re disclosing your own impulses, interests, and needs to yourself, and that can be truly sickening. You might find that what passionately interests you is watching a character go to Gristedes and pick up a package of Ring Dings. And you think, I can’t really be interested in that. I can’t really want to use up a piece of paper on that. But you can’t get away from it. The prospect of facing one’s own inanity is terrifying.

INTERVIEWER

Is it the terror of one’s own inanity, or is it the terror of what’s not inane, what is challenging and upsetting?

EISENBERG

Of course one fears that if one turns that tiny key a quarter of a turn in the lock, out will shoot flames and brimstone. But I’m not sure that you can distinguish between your own challenging, upsetting, obliterating demons and your own unchallenging, mundane, obliterating shallowness. When one writes, there’s the double horror of discovering not only what it is that one so fears but also the triviality of that fear.

INTERVIEWER

Has writing gotten any less difficult over time?

EISENBERG

When you start writing, your incredulity at the childish, incompetent, graceless thing that you’ve done is shattering. One of the advantages of having experience as a writer—and there aren’t many, in fact I can’t think of any other—is that you know you can make the horrible thing better, then you can make it better again, then you make it better again. And you may not be able to make it good, but at least it’s not going to be what you’re looking at now.

INTERVIEWER

Are there ways in which writing becomes harder with time?

EISENBERG

Yes. Most ways. But I don’t think it’s actually age related, I think it’s experience related. For one thing, once you’ve accomplished a certain thing, it’s not available to be done again—you’ve dispatched it. You have new aspirations to fill the gap, but they’re bigger aspirations.

INTERVIEWER

Does writing a novel interest you?

EISENBERG

That doesn’t seem particularly congenial to me. Apparently, it’s my aesthetic to want to make things that are oblique, glancing, ephemeral. Of course, there’s a certain—rarely acknowledged but definite—attitude of condescension directed towards short fiction, as if nothing of real importance could be conveyed in less than x number of pages. I’ve certainly been made to feel that stories are a kiddie form, appropriate to women, as if stories were the equivalent of knitting socks for the men, who are out in the mines, actually doing something.

Sometimes I’ve felt that I should write a novel rather than a story because I’m just so exhausted and the fixed costs for a story are exactly the same as for a novel—you have to contrive a whole world each time. So, after all, it would be easier than writing a collection of stories. But that doesn’t seem like a very interesting criterion to me—would it be easier? Even though I complain about the difficulty of writing, I actually don’t want it to be easy. I want it to be something that I can’t do. I want to be able to do something that I am not able to do.

To be serious, though, writing anything presents its own difficulties and of course writing a novel would feel every bit as insurmountable as writing a collection of stories.

But my stories are getting more complicated, or complex. They encompass more than they used to, because my aspirations have grown.

INTERVIEWER

What are your aspirations?

EISENBERG

That’s something I can’t entirely know. But I do know that I want to make a reader feel something that cannot be put into words, even though that feeling comes out of the words.

The stories of Katherine Mansfield were very important to me when I was a child. My parents owned a book of her stories that had big print and beautiful line drawings, and I thought it was a children’s book. The stories were like mist, and I read them over and over. And the magic property of these Katherine Mansfield stories is that when you read them, even as an adult, you think, Now how did the words cause me to have that experience? I’ve just had an uncanny experience of enormous depth, but I can’t see what it has to do with the words.

One of the best things about my adolescence was a movie theater in Chicago called the Clark Theatre. I used to sneak into the city with friends to go there. It showed the great European and Japanese movies, the Italian neorealists and the nouvelle vague and every movie you’d want to see, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I must have seen Breathless fifteen times. Watching those movies I realized you could have simultaneous lines—the score, the visuals, the screenplay. It was counterpoint in a narrative form.

INTERVIEWER

Counterpoint?

EISENBERG

I’m just using polyphony as an analogy here. Let’s say there are two musical lines, a treble and a bass line, that you’re hearing simultaneously. You’re experiencing each one, but you’re also experiencing what’s happening between them. Each line has complete integrity, but the space between them, the harmonic relationship, is just as critical an element, and it’s that tension, the way it all works together—that is what is uncannily exciting. How I would love to be able to do something like that! I would love to make some experience for the reader that entails the words and could not be made with other words, but that is much more, and other, than what the words are. And I would love to make some experience that creates all kinds of reverberations between different elements.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think of the thing that happens to a reader as something you control with the words or as something they bring to the words?

EISENBERG

On one hand, I’d like to control the experience of the reader very tightly. But on the other hand, I want the reader to be making the experience along with me. And I’m sure that’s one reason I have very few readers. A lot of people read to have somebody else tell them exactly what to do with their minds. Not that I don’t enjoy reading in that way myself. Right now, I’m reading Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, which couldn’t be more enthralling, but it’s nothing other than what it is. Reading it, I’m experiencing the great joy of excellent narrative. But as a writer, I don’t have that much interest in narrative. Well, I am interested in narrative, of course, but I like to subordinate it. Or even to pry it out of the piece of paper so it just leaves its tracks—its shape, its motion. For me, a narrative is an expedient to get to something else.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me more about the reader’s role.

EISENBERG

A piece of fiction is a communication. You’re sending an urgent message in a bottle from your desert island. You hope that somebody’s going to find the bottle and open it and say, S ... O ... X? No. S ... O ...

But the message that is found cannot be exactly the message you’ve sent. Whatever bunch of words the writer transmits requires a person, a consciousness on the other end, to reassemble it. You know how it feels when you read something that opens up a little sealed envelope in your brain. It’s a letter from yourself, but it’s been delivered by somebody else, a writer.

Nothing is more fortifying than learning that you have a real reader, a reader who truly responds both accurately and actively. It gives you courage, and you feel, I can crawl out on the branch a little further. It’s going to hold.