Jill Eisenstadt and Darcey Steinke on Writing, Motherhood, and Brooklyn
The Author of Swell in Conversation with an Old Friend...
I have known Jill Eisenstadt for nearly 30 years. We met in the early 1990s when we were both young novelists living in a Brooklyn that was not yet a literary mecca. Her first novel From Rockaway, thrilled me with its unique sound-driven style and her uncanny feel for a variety of Brooklyn accents and points of view. That first book, in its feel for community, reminds me of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Her new book Swell, is a sort of soft sequel, that takes up some of the earlier storylines and adds new characters. My favorite, Rose, is an old lady on a mission. Jill is able to do what only great writers can, render an unpleasant character spellbinding on the page. This conversation took place over email this spring, a continuation of the exchanges that we’ve had over the years on all manner of subjects, from critiquing the current National Book Award winners to the best home remedy for our daughters’ sore throats.
Darcy Steinke: How does it feel to have From Rockaway back in print?
Jill Eisenstadt: 1. Surreal. (The fact that it is exactly 30 years since the original publication and that that big round number was serendipitous.) 2. Validating. (That my original editor, Terry Adams, believes in the book enough to have fought to make it happen.) 3. A tiny bit underwhelming, like every dream come true.
DS: I wonder if you could also share with us a little of what that first publication in the 1980s was like for you. Give us some context?
JI: I was 24, fresh out of Columbia grad school. Thanks to Jay McInerney, Bret Ellis and Tama Janowitz, the world of publishing had discovered that young writers had something to say or were at least profitable. I was lumped in with the so-called “Literary Brat Pack” which the media both invented and condemned. At times it was really confusing. For instance, being dolled up by magazine stylists (unlike the “Brat Pack” men) then criticized for not actually looking like a model. What did that have to do with my work? But even then I understood my unbelievable good fortune.
In the 80s (and earlier) a novel could enter the popular culture in a way that I’m not sure can happen anymore.
DS: It did seem like literary culture was a smaller community when we both started to publish in the late 80s. You said recently to me that I was the only friend you ever made at a book party. And you mentioned you thought it might be because there were fewer women writing then. Since you wrote From Rockaway, have your ideas on writing changed? And if so, how do those ideas manifest in Swell?
JI: Were there fewer women writers then or did it just seem so? I think I met you at a party for Kim Wozencraft’s book Rush which would provide evidence for the contrary.
In the many years since I wrote From Rockaway (and Kiss Out and Lucy Person—my third but unpublished novel), my ideas about writing haven’t changed but I have. And the many intense experiences that have altered me can’t help but influence Swell. I now know enough about grief, marriage, daughters, plants, ghosts and real estate to put them in a book.
DS: Can you tell me about some of those experiences: “grief, marriage, daughters, plants, ghosts and real estate.” It’s almost like Love, Death and Taxes. I am very interested in the way From Rockaway is a prequel of sorts to Swell. Can you tell me about how you see them be both conjoined and not?
JI: I’ve seen a lot of Love, Death and Taxes too! And the list could keep going but I tried to focus it on experiences related to Swell. Rockaway, at least my fictional version is a cursed, haunted beautiful place, hence ghosts, hence grief. Look at all the tragedy it’s endured in this mere first quarter of the century, the inordinately large 9/11 death toll, the second deadliest plane crash on US soil… Hurricane Sandy! On a personal level, it’s also included my mom’s death, in a house overlooking garden and ocean, hence real estate, hence plants, hence daughters.
I didn’t initially set out to write a sequel to From Rockaway and in fact I’d written quite a lot before realizing that the voice of my retired firefighter character was in fact, Timmy’s, from the earlier book, only grown up. Once I accepted that notion (which I resisted a long while), all the other characters followed. Goodhearted but deeply flawed Tim seemed incomplete without his nemesis, evil hero Sloane. Tomgirl Peg would have never left Rockaway so I had no choice but deal with her too. Chowderhead’s death was not even a conscious decision. Somehow, I just knew; I just wrote it down. Recently another interviewer suggested that my theme of ghosts was echoed in the very nature of the two books. That is, that From Rockaway was a ghost of Swell and/or that writing Swell was a way of confronting the ghost of my earlier self, the author of From Rockaway. This strikes me as true though it hadn’t occurred to me.
Despite all that, the story in the center of Swell, that of Rose Impoliteri and the Glassman family really has little to do with From Rockaway. The Glassmans are outsiders, searching for safety in an unsafe place which might easily have been any place else.
DS: I love Rose. I love how much agency she has even though she is older. Her realness, her fear and her compassion. I have found, growing older, that I am less interested in what happens to people as what they do with the things that happen to them. As a younger writer I was more interested in the early event, she fell out the window, she had an affair, she stole money, but now I am more interested in how people move out of the bad things that happen to them. Can you tell me about your early concerns around narrative versus now?
JI: That you could love such a broken, paranoid and often cruel character means so much to me, Darcey. I have also become “less interested in what happens to people as what they do with what happens.” I think some of that might be neurological. (Scientists say the young brain can’t yet fully consider consequences.) And the way reading and writing lets us live out a variety of coping strategies vicariously and risk-free. I never really thought about my narrative concerns, at least consciously. One difference I do notice between writing when I was younger and now is that, for better or worse, I had less fear of my ignorance then. For instance, today, I would never dare to create a character who is a nun. What do I, a Jew, know about nuns? But when I was 22, I didn’t think twice.
DS: As a younger writer I was also more fearless, in that I didn’t really understand what I had to fear. I knew less about narrative technique and all the wonderful books that had gone before me, so I just sort of jumped in. Now I feel much more aware of the weight of the marvels that have come before…
I want to talk about language. You have such a unique prose style. Can you track its development for me, particularly now? I know you were involved in the Queens Noir movement, I wonder if that’s not part of the style…
JI: I am not part of any movement nor was I aware that there was one! Swell grew out of a piece I was asked to contribute to the anthology, Queens Noir. At the time, I’d never written a noir story before and I’m still not sure I even achieved that goal. But attempting it helped me in other ways. I think my intense fear of being heavy-handed has, at times, really limited my work. The exercise of trying to write noir allowed me to short circuit some of those censors. Similarly, when my character Sue, a composer, saw the house in operatic terms, I began to think of the whole novel that way too. Thus I was forced (or freed) to tackle bigger emotions: grief, survivor’s guilt, falling in love in (almost) middle age. Mind you, none of this was conscious. It just seems that way to me now.
Music, which I studied a lot when I was young is a huge influence on my prose style as well. That is, to me all words have a pitch that is right or wrong in the sentence and the sentences also need to sound rhythmically correct. I revise them obsessively. To be honest, this is not just a normal due diligence kind of obsession but a sickness that has held me back as well. In my mind, Swell is not just an opera but a lengthy insane prose poem.
DS: I love what you say about how you make the sentences and how its based, at least in part, on your musical training. I remember you once told me you were a composition major in college. I said I wanted to hear your music. You said… oh its not the sort of music anyone listens too. I have always remembered that. I feel the same about the way I form sentences, they must be balanced and rhythmic. I wonder if you could talk about the idea of the ocean, the swell, the rhythm of both the sea and a story?
JI: A swell is an ocean wave that is not affected by local winds. It’s made somewhere else where it was stormy or windy and has traveled, sometimes thousands of miles. This means that water can retain wind energy, that it can move in a different direction to the winds you can see and feel in the present. Isn’t that kind of mind-blowing? It’s so… human.
And I was also thinking about the other meanings of the word, an operatic swell of music. Also, the urge to try and convince ourselves that “everything’s swell” as a way to deal with discomfort.
DS: That is a very novelistic idea, that something that happens in another place or earlier time can have a great effect on the moment.
I was reading in the New York Times book review that in her work, Penelope Lively is obsessed with a sister idea, that one action in a life can define that life. This is an idea I have always fought against, at least in my mind. I guess we are talking about fate in away. There is something very brutal about it, but also dramatic and exciting. As I get older I have gotten more frustrated with some of the endemic forms of story. Maybe this is just stupid on my part. Maybe I am frustrated with things, that all narratives seem to have to be redemptive. I have often wondered if we had some other model then the saint’s story for novels we might be held in a less rigid grid.
JI: I was thinking of storing energy from another time or place more generally. While perhaps a good narrative device, I absolutely reject the notion that one moment or decision seals one’s fate. It lets us off the hook for decent behavior too easily.
DS: Moving on to Brooklyn! I know you live in Park Slope now and you grew up in Rockaway. How do you feel about the way Brooklyn has changed. Twenty-three years ago, when we first met, it was hard to get people to come out if you had a party in Brooklyn. I also remember how excited we got if we got a sort of Manhattan-style restaurant. I love a lot of things about Brooklyn now but I also miss some of the old things. Can you tell me how you feel about how much has changed and what you miss? Also what you think about the Rockaways now (which, yes, is in Queens) and Brooklyn literary life?
JI: Yes, it did feel a bit isolated living in Brooklyn 25 years ago. People made a huge fuss about coming out to visit. I remember I wrote an essay called “How To Get Your Friends to Cross The Bridge” for either Brooklyn Bridge or BKLYN magazine, two quality publications that were just too ahead of the times to survive. Funnily enough, the only thing I really miss about the borough then is fewer people. Now everything is so much more crowded.
Rockaway doesn’t have much of a literary scene. Or if it does I’m not aware of it. There is no bookstore. (Sometimes I fantasize about opening one. Writers opening bookstores is definitely a trend). Of course Brooklyn is crawling with writers which can be a little too humbling. On the other hand, it’s easy to find someone with whom to talk about writing and books. Back in the day, there was only you! We were two sleep-deprived zombie mom’s endlessly pushing our strollers around Cobble Hill talking about Denis Johnson and semicolons and what celebrity was on Sesame Street that morning.
DS: I love this! I have very fond memories of our early Brooklyn mothering days. I remember once at Pete’s Ice Cream on Atlantic we got so caught up in literary talk, that our crawling baby daughters got loose and started to pound on the glass display case that held the cupcakes and the waitress yelled at us! What do you think about motherhood and writing? I think we wanted to edit a book on essays about motherhood and I notice too how every new group of female writers, as they become mothers, writes about it. Most recently Rivka Galchen and Sarah Manguso. The tenor of these writings are always sort of the same, the overwhelmingness of it all, the hardness of it, the boringness but also the joy. Was it hard for you to write and mother?
JI: And when they got a little older we would go to Prospect Park and you would gather the little girls and say, “Okay, here is the mission: We need four twigs, something round, ten blades of grass of different lengths. On the way back you must hop twelve times without dropping anything!” and that would buy as at least ten minutes of uninterrupted talking time!
The book we discussed editing was a collection of fathers’ birth stories because already back then it seemed motherhood had been done to death and also we were both married to writers. Now there are plenty of father books but ours could have been first! Of course, trying to edit a book (let alone writing one) in those years seemed impossibly exhausting. You managed to do both somehow but it was beyond me.
Not that I blame my long pause between books solely on the distractions and exertions of motherhood. There were many, many other factors. But looking back now, I do think parenting calls on (and maybe satisfies) some of the same imaginative focus as a big project like a novel.
DS: I always remember the writer Peter Taylor (fantastic but not so well known now) telling me that he loved raising children in part because of what he learned intellectually about character development. But I think what you are saying about parenting and novel-writing having the same imaginative focus is even deeper. Peter meant that what he learned as a parent he could use as a writer but you are sort of saying that both novel-writing and parenting pull from the same place. There are similarities. You try to form character in story building and child building but there is also always elements outside your control.
JI: Well said, Darcey. And I would add that managing those out-of-control elements is the real test in both parenting and novel-writing. The patience and creativity I needed to dredge up when my kids, say, insisted on sitting on the sidewalk with cups to “play homeless” (I think your daughter might have been in on this) wasn’t all that different than the way I approach my characters when they resist or stray off the path I’ve set for them.
Sue was supposed to become way more religious than the father-in-law who pressured her to convert. Tim was supposed to go back to firefighting. But once these characters got going neither trajectory wound up working.
So, I had to figure it out like moms do every day.
DS: Yes. On some level both mothering and novel-writing is about problem solving and love. You also have to stay with the “story” for a long long time.
You have written two books now with some of the same characters in the same location, Rockway. Now that Swell is out there do you think you’ll want to write a third? I have always felt the people you’re socialized around as an adolescent you never really get over. You will be writing about them, either materially or emotionally, for the rest of your life.
JI: It’s tempting. For decades, I resisted writing more fiction about Rockaway, thinking I should be able to move on. Once I allowed myself to go back, suddenly I was able to make sense of all the various pieces of fiction I’d been stuck on all along. To me Rockaway is so ugly and beautiful and cursed and funny and full of contradictions. It’s like the best fictional character.