Reality is Not Conventional: An Interview with Deborah Eisenberg
"I Never Both Think and Write—I’m Like the Gerald Ford of Fiction Writers"
Deborah Eisenberg’s stories hold you long afterward. You puzzle over them, not because they’re difficult to understand while you read them, but because they range over—and transform—so much.
Her stories steal into the world here and there, over more time than her readers would wish. As of this week, they have accumulated into five collections: one collection in the ’80s, two in the ’90s, Twilight of the Superheroes in 2006, and now, after 12 long years, Your Duck Is My Duck.
I was fortunate enough to study with Eisenberg at the University of Virginia (where she taught before taking up her present position at Columbia). This past July, I ventured down to New York to sit with Deborah and record this interview over several hours of afternoon, across a great deal of tea.
Drew Johnson: This, from your introduction to Henry Green’s Back, is as good a place as any to start: “Nothing in his [Green’s] novels—including almost any sentence—proceeds as one might expect, and although nothing seems arbitrary the books are surprise after surprise. Green seems to have been free, or to have made himself free, not only from literary conventions but also from convention of thought, such our unexamined assumptions of what a narrative is—what merits attention, how something comes to occur, and the language and constructions in which the elaborate workings of human behavior can be expressed.” So much of that speaks to what is strange in reading your stories.
Deborah Eisenberg: I think that’s going in two directions, both of which are very interesting to me, if I can talk about them at all. I felt an intense excitement about encountering the writing and also, to be quite frank and personal, an intense excitement because I thought, Oh, yes. He is expressing on paper inclinations of mine. And he’s doing it very fully. And demonstrating that, in fact, you can just leap over the border of the putative form—not that I ever think in terms of form at all. But when you sit down to write, as I’m sure you know as well as anybody on the planet, you think, ah, yes, the entire world and all its strange nuances, and subtleties, and inexpressibilities are about to surge through my arm into the pencil I’m holding. And then you look down at what you’ve written and it’s something like, And so he walked to the grocery store . . .
That feeling of the richness of the world and the poverty of your means of expression is one of the inescapable features of writing fiction. One finds that one’s thought is much more conventionalized than one would have guessed. The thrill of finding somebody who had made the boundaries that seem to appear when one is expressing oneself in words—well, who made them flexible and semi-permeable, was something that was just inherently exciting and also to me registered as a sort of kindred sensibility. To give myself a great deal more credit than I deserve. But, you know, I think most writers are not interested in doing that particularly. So yes, of course, my aspiration is always to scrape away everything that is received and just go in as though I’d never thought about anything before.“You think, ah, yes, the entire world and all its strange nuances, and subtleties, and inexpressibilities are about to surge through my arm into the pencil I’m holding.”
DJ: One of the reasons why your stories come to us once in a blue moon? We know this is slow work. We know that we’re only seeing the thousandth draft of the thousandth draft.
DE: I work less in actual drafts: I work in layers rather than real drafts, usually. I write down what I can write down. And the next day I see how absolutely execrable it was and write over that and then continue to the next thing. And that just goes on and on and on. And yes, it is a very, very slow process—most of which is spent discovering what on earth I’m doing and what I’m interested in. Because I don’t start with an idea, and I don’t start with an outline.
DJ: What is the thing that you start with? Is it a place? An image?
DE: Usually—it might be a place, an image, a funny phrase—but I think usually its only a feeling or a sensation and I don’t know how to get to it . . . and that can take quite a lot of wasted paper.
DJ: Your stories run on a completely digressive language of consciousness: the story is someone’s train of thought, but it’s also revising itself on the page. In a story like “Holy Week” you go so far as to include the diarist’s almost musical notations and asides, “(joke)” and so forth.
DE: So there’s me thinking on the one hand, but by the time I’ve finished it’s the character doing the thinking I need the character to do.
It’s interesting to me to think about the way a mind encounters obstacles and the way it travels around obstacles and I suppose you can say that for me fiction is the way I think about things which is not a “trained” way. It’s outside of the confines one might be trained to think about x or y or z.
DJ: You keep saying, perhaps, that the provisional is the core tissue of what winds up on the page. I wonder how you fell in with the short story—a form prone to celebrating its formal or plastic qualities?
DE: I read a lot of them when I was very young. I always loved stories. But I don’t really subscribe to the notion of forms at all: some things are longer, some things are shorter. Every good piece of fiction is different, but it’s more likely to be true that a story will live in the world of sensation, in a sensory world engendered by language. The strange, inarticulable, evanescent sensation. I think shorter fiction is more amenable to that than something that requires a big engine of plot. When it comes down to it, really I’m basically an aesthete and a sensualist, and I’m just trying to create sensations that are possible to create only in that way. If I could write music, I’d write music. If I could play music. If I could paint. But I can’t.
DJ: In your stories, when we do come across something we might think of as a recognizable fictional landmark, it’s a bit of a shock just formally, whatever else is going on. I think of the ending of “Under the 82nd Airborne” which resolves into something like a plot point: she’s about to be raped.
DJ: And the shock is almost larger because we come out of this rich, sensual, musical fog and oh! There’s the plot.
DE: Right. And that’s interesting because, to me, that’s sort of what life feels like. One has no idea what’s going on. I was never able to keep a diary because I never knew how you select something to write down. What was the interesting thing that happened today? But now I realize I just should’ve said, “Had a cup of tea with Drew.” Let all the interesting stuff just be and write down anchors so I could have more or less remembered what I did with my life. Now I have no idea! I might as well not have led my life.
But I think part of what is interesting about interesting fiction is that things don’t happen the way they’re said to happen, and they don’t happen for the reasons they’re said to have happened. I mean that kind of codification is all a posteriori. You can say I’m an angry person because my mother always yelled at me. Well, maybe. But there are an infinite number of things going on. And even if you characterize yourself as an “angry person”—what does that mean? It’s not very interesting and it’s a very reductive reason ascribed to very complex circumstances. Reality itself is not conventional, so let’s try to get down on paper something that has the richness and mystery of reality.“Things don’t happen the way they’re said to happen, and they don’t happen for the reasons they’re said to have happened.”
DJ: Part of the fight then becomes: at the sentence level you’re inarguably a very precise writer but you keep that clarity from spilling over into places it doesn’t belong.
DE: It seems like a paradox, but actually I don’t think it really is a paradox. I don’t think you can describe mystery in anything but the most lucid and precise possible way.
DJ: From your piece on the novelist, Péter Nádas: “Memories, not as static snapshots, but as active conduits move the story forward, the long sinuous sentences delicately approach, probe, recoil, and approach again from new angles . . . ”
DE: Doesn’t it make perfect sense? A lemon would look quite different under a microscope, or through a telescope, or from a great distance, or if you sort of rubbed it on your forehead.
DJ: So to bring this to the political in your writing, with someone like Nádas and Hungary and 1956, he seems to be saying we have to start way back here, in the way Proust doesn’t really fully bring the Dreyfus affair in until we’re very far in. That is, the political is all too simple if you start halfway along, but in your work—in 1980s Central America, for example, we have to start back where it’s confusing, where it isn’t clear. How do you find the mess?
DE: I suppose what is interesting to me is the question: how can it be that we did this horrible thing? Or keep doing these horrible things? In a way, if you ask that, that brings you directly to the mess. What is going on in the mind that enables each of us to deceive ourselves, to be complicit, to be conscripted, to be confused? And I have a very functional laboratory right in my very self. Because if I were less confused, for example, I might be devoting every moment of my life and every cell in my body to try to find the parents of the children who have been taken away from them. Why am I not doing that? We should all be doing that. We should all be doing a lot of stuff . . . in a way. This is very hard to talk about and very hard to understand.
I never think I’m going to write about a particular situation—well, there are two exceptions to this—which would be described as a political situation. Because the last thing I want is to come up with something packaged. I’m always in a state of outrage . . . last night I was looking at some Lu Xun stories because I am hoping to teach stories in which the public or political infuses the private life of the characters. It’s almost impossible in this moment not to be saturated by public events. How do writers deal with that honestly? Without writing something that’s didactic or programmatic in this era when we’re besieged by events and circumstances that tear down the walls of our apartments? We’re living with a lot of other people. How have writers dealt with this interweaving of the most integral private part of life and the mind with these big public events?
DJ: There’s this lovely Louise Bogan stanza, “—O remember / in your narrowing dark hours / That more things move / Than blood in the heart.” How do we not wind up at the vanishing point of inaction?
DE: I never both think and write —I’m like the Gerald Ford of fiction writers. I guess I’m grappling with how the mind—a mind, my mind and the mind of my character—is dealing with an issue, In “Your Duck Is My Duck” for instance with the issue of relative privilege: where are we seeing this from? What are we not seeing? Why are we not seeing?
DJ: In “Your Duck Is My Duck” you have a kind of lab rat situation where you have the puppeteer speaking truth to power . . . and nothing happens. You get so many things in the room together (one of the hardest fictional tasks going) but the answer the story offers is, these people are not listening.
DE: Why should they listen?
DJ: You take us to this terrifying place where the consciousness of the people actually in a position to do things . . . can scarcely be described as consciousness. We’re in a form where the lingua franca is consciousness-in-words, but we’re doing this interview on a day after the President has again re-re-revised another already incoherent statement of lies. How do we write about people who behave not like people, but objects or automatons?
DE: Well, they are people.
I’m not going to talk about myself; I’m going to talk about my marvelous boyfriend: you probably know his play Aunt Dan and Lemon? Which ends with the main character giving this impassioned and very intelligent apologia for the Nazis. This incensed many people, as indeed it was intended to. It was intended to make people say—and think—no, those ideas are abhorrent! The reasoning that brought me here is erroneous! And I really admire it, because it’s easier to make a cardboard character who represents things that one finds loathsome and show why that character is wrong or why that character is bad or why you, the writer and they the audience or the reader is so much better than those horrible people. But if it’s all so easy, why are we living in this world? People actually are people. And people who believe things other than the things I believe have exactly as much DNA as I have. I might not admire the quality of their thought, but things are going through their head from morning to night.
I mean: Dick Cheney is as real as Gandhi was. Let’s try to think about that.
DJ: Aesthetically, that’s kind of an inflammatory statement.
DJ: Which maybe says more about fiction as a practice than it does about the world. And maybe then we can turn to theater: you’ve participated in, directly or indirectly, so much theater. I was struck re-reading “All Around Atlantis” that you could deliver that story as a monologue.
DE: There must be some relationship, but it’s submerged to the extent that I can’t see it all. Except in regard to dialogue. I like writing dialogue, and I guess I write a lot by ear.
I have written a play. I enjoyed doing that. I really did enjoy that once I got over the fear of dying, but that’s just the fear of writing anything.
What’s enjoyable to me that is theatrical to me is dialogue. What is not enjoyable to me, and almost seems impossible, is that with a play you, the writer, are in one, stationary relationship to the characters.
With fiction you can just slither around until you’re in the relationship you want to be in. You can look at them from here. You can look at them from there. With the play, you’re situated: they’re going to be some people in front of the audience doing whatever they do.“I have written a play. I enjoyed doing that. I really did enjoy that once I got over the fear of dying, but that’s just the fear of writing anything.”
DJ: In your “eccentric reading class” (a version of which you still teach), we read Joyce’s “The Dead.” A 50-page story, but I don’t think we got more than five or six pages in . . . and yet it changed my sense of that story forever. To the extent of putting me in the awkward position of believing there is a best short story ever written—and that it is “The Dead.”
DE: You know, I encountered that story rather late. The story from Dubliners I remember reading very early was “The Boarding House” and I just loved it. And the end of that story—I’m getting chills just thinking of it—goes off into the atmosphere. I don’t think I read “The Dead” until much later. All of a sudden I was in the position of having to teach. What do you teach? I don’t know. So I read some stories. One of them was “The Dead” and I thought I could do that I suppose. I still don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing when you teach—I have no idea—but in fact I almost always teach it because it’s so marvelous to just look at in the slow way we looked at. That’s what I really like to do: this line, this line, this line.