Deborah Eisenberg has been writing short stories and publishing collections of them for decades, but before last week she’d never read in Seattle. “I don’t do book tours because frankly no one wants me to,” she said told the crowd at Elliott Bay Book Company, a bigger audience than most writers get. Eisenberg’s talent is not in dispute. Reviewing her latest, Twilight of the Superheroes, for the New York Times last year, Ben Marcus called Eisenberg “one of the most important fiction writers now at work.” We had this conversation next to a bright window in a sixth-floor hotel room. She wore black boots, a black sweater-shawl thing, and a black watch.
You’ve never been to Seattle before.
I have never been to Seattle before.
What do you have against us?
[Laughs] Airfare. I really go where I’m put. It’s so gorgeous, I just can’t wait to get back. I’m just miserable that I have to leave early in the morning. I’ve been to Portland, and I guess I was picturing something a little more like Portland, which I adore. But I wasn’t picturing anything so metropolitan.
I discovered you in an anthology of fiction from The New Yorker. But you’re not published in The New Yorker anymore.
No. Uh, I…
What the hell is wrong with them?
[Laughs] That’s what I want to know. See if you can get it out of them. I wasn’t published there. They wouldn’t accept anything of mine. And then an editor named Gwyneth Cravens came. She responded to what I do, and she published everything I gave her, including all the things that had been rejected. Then she left, and nobody else there ever liked anything of mine again. So, that’s my history with The New Yorker. But I think what I’m writing these days is a little complex, actually, for magazines.
What do you mean?
Well, it demands complete concentration—at least what I’m doing now. I think it’s more complex than what I used to do. But even what I used to do demanded total concentration, but the magazine doesn’t seem particularly to be going in that direction. I don’t keep up with anything.
What’s the difference between what you’re writing now and what you were writing in the ’80s?
It’s just a different kind of thing. I was just thinking today that getting older is really interesting. I encourage you to do it.
Is that a euphemism? “Interesting”?
Uh, no. It’s interesting. It’s fascinating. It’s really fascinating. And, you know, it’s quite scary. I was sort of thinking that one’s feeling of distinctness in the world sort of slightly gets blurred. One’s consciousness tends to grow outward, I feel. You leave yourself behind a little bit in certain ways. There’s a kind of dissolution of the very strict notion of oneself. At least I find that.
I bet that’s even more acute for a fiction writer, since it’s your job to imagine other perspectives. I’m guessing the older you get, the more people you meet, the more you realize you don’t know what you’re talking about.
Yes. I would say that’s very accurate. You really don’t know what you’re talking about. And also, the more you learn about the world, the more your own concerns can seem almost arbitrary. But, you know, beneath this sort of warm and even ardent exterior beats a heart of pure Bakelite, I can tell you—
Bakelite. You know that kind of plastic that was so fashionable in the thirties? Jewelry was made out of it. And radios used to be. But I’m not really, you know, nobody would say, “Oh, she’s a very caring person,” to use the—
No one would say that about you?
No one who knew me. [Laughs] But on the other hand I think that there’s a kind of general and ongoing empathy that is really at the foundation of fiction writing. That’s what it is, a sort of examination of experience.
Why write fiction? Why not write very creative nonfiction? Why not write memoir-ish stuff that explodes the idea of what nonfiction is?
I’m really interested in fiction. That seems to be what I aspire to. Why? I don’t know. I really can’t give you causes, but maybe I could churn up a few reasons as we’re sitting here. One is that I think it’s sort of infinitely flexible. You know, I’m an aesthete, the fact is. I like making something that’s art. I do it with this incredibly, actually inflexible medium, you know—language. But, really I suppose you could say that I aspire to expressing sorts of feelings, of mental states or experiences that are just on the border of the expressible. Making something that is actually quite beautiful in a way—I mean, I’m not sure that anything I make is perceived as beautiful—but that’s my deep drive, to make something that’s quite beautiful. And also to make something that’s extremely accurate to these very, very subtle states of mind. And I think that fiction has a capacity for truthfulness that, really, no other prose form has.
One through-line in this collection is a very distinct death anxiety.
[Laughs] Hmm. Funny you should mention that. I’ve always thought a lot about death. I probably think about it less now than I used to. But I’ve always, always thought about it—really, since childhood. And I’m sure you’re right that it really was sort of saturated with it.
I think about it all the time, too. And I always think, “I’m 26, it’s strange to think about it so much.”
It gets a little less intense. Or it has for me. Because obviously one of the tasks of life is to figure out how to enjoy it, and as the time gets shorter the task becomes more urgent.
One strange thing about a collection of short stories is, on the one hand in order to do this work you have to really be able to imagine what it’s like to be somebody else. On the other hand, a short story collection almost gives the impression that the extent to which the author is interested in these characters is limited.
It isn’t, to… But that’s interesting. My goodness. That is a fascinating paradox. Let’s put that here. [Gestures to the side] I’m also just thinking about your last observation about the death anxiety in the book, and I would say that not only have I thought about death my entire life, but also, of course, [the book] is about the death of an empire. If there is, to me, a common thread, the stories are all written with a sort of tincture of that feeling. You know, under a cloud, and that’s been very much on my mind.
The book begins with someone anticipating Y2K as the end of the world. And everybody waits for apocalypse and it doesn’t come. It’s a very nice way to begin a story that’s about the suddenness of this other thing, 9/11, which no one was expecting. It’s very nicely done.
Good, good. I was pleased with it. A lot of people hate that story, but I think it’s good. [Laughs] But that thing about… [Gestures to the side] Yes, it’s true that—I’m not sure I’m going to be able to articulate this because it’s something that’s on the periphery of my mind a lot. And I was thinking about it earlier today. It’s almost as if I don’t like using characters to do what I want to do with them. You know, obviously I’m interested in personalities; I like exploring them. But it’s almost as if I want to do something that it is the apotheosis of the characters or something. I really can’t express this at all. There’s a kind of very literal-minded fiction that, if it’s good, it can be fabulous to read novels. Wonderful, marvelous, totally engaging, and so on. But it can also be a bit heavy and a bit thin sometimes, if it’s not Anna Karenina or something.
What do you mean heavy and thin sometimes?
I mean that it’s superficial and weighed down by inessentials. His name was blah-blah, he was wearing a blah-blah, they fed the dog blah-blah, you know. [Snores]
That doesn’t sound engaging to me. That doesn’t sound like what you’re talking about.
Well, you can turn those pages. But, yes, I’ve given you a poor example, only through lack of skill. [Laughs]
I’m interested in what you’re stabbing at.
I wish I could express this better. Something that is very satisfying on a sort of superficial level, very propulsive. Well, all right, this is contentious, but to me Trollope—
I’m not familiar with his work, but I’ve heard of him.
A Victorian novelist. A favorite of many people. I just don’t find it really that fascinating. We’ll skip Trollope because I don’t even know how to talk about this thing that I mean. I’m going to be thinking about this for the next year. I’ll get back to you.
A more concrete and probably more usual question—or way of phrasing the question about the extent to which you care about the characters versus how you sort of just decide that you are done after about thirty pages with them—is: Why haven’t you written a novel?
I have absolutely no interest in it. If I happen to write a novel that’ll be fine with me; I won’t just burn it. It’s not on principle; it’s just that my tendencies are always to compress. Cut, cut, cut; compress, compress, compress. It’s almost kind of finicky. If something can be said in a short space, I like to do it. I don’t like to take up extra room. I’m not expansive in that way. In fact, there’s not much breathing space in most of the stories. It certainly doesn’t have the sort of ambling pace of a novel in any way. I like that. It suits me, or at least it has up through what I’ve written. Also, as I say, I am very interested in these kind of evanescent, subtle mental experiences. And I think stories are very much more—to make a sort of ridiculous generalization—they’re more amenable to that. It’s like using a set of tiny precision tools.
And also more amenable than, like, movies, which are all surfaces?
Yeah. I mean of course movies can be madly subtle. Although, it’s been many years since anybody’s made a subtle movie, except for David Lynch.
He’s sort of the inverse. He goes so far the other direction, you don’t know what you’re dealing with.
You really don’t. I just saw Inland Empire, which I adored. But, obviously, it bears many seeings. I’ve only seen it once.
Back to the death-anxiety thing, I was just thinking that writing a book is a way of continuing to live when you’re not alive anymore.
Yes, I think that’s true. There’s a bit of a paradox, for me, about that seriousness about time because I’m a wildly inefficient writer. Wildly inefficient.
How inefficient are you?
I use up lots and lots and lots of paper to get to, you know, a paragraph. And lots and lots and lots of time to get to anything that’s worth reading, in my view. I think it would be much more efficient to start out with an idea and flesh out the idea. Then you’d have something there. But I can’t work that way.
I sometimes think about writers who are alive who are not going to be alive forever. I walk around (this is how weird I am) thinking, “Thank god Joan Didion is still alive.”
Yeah—no! You know, many of the people who made the world that I came into—the artistic world, the cultural world—have died. It is just so grief-striking to me. My sweetie and I used to say, “Well, why don’t we cry because Beethoven died?” [Laughs] It’s sort of a funny thought. But there’s a very good reason why you would cry if Joan Didion died and not because Beethoven did because she’s made your world. And when those people disappear, you’re in a strange land.
There’s an article in Seattle Weekly that is—actually, it’s right here. You want to see it?
Do I want to see it…?
It’s not negative. And there’s a picture of you. But what struck me about it is, the writer pretty clearly didn’t even read your book. She read the first story.
Oh, that happens.
It’s infuriating. It’s horrible… [She reads it and puts it down] That is also something that has come as a shock to me with age, how half-assed people are sometimes. Because I always sort of assumed that people knew better than I did, and worked harder or knew more, and were more serious in every way. But it turns out that lots of people really aren’t serious at all.
Something I appreciate about your writing is that it’s free of clichés.
I work very hard on that. Not for purposes of ornament, but for purposes of accuracy. To me that’s what writing, particularly maybe fiction-writing, is about, is a kind of accurate observation. In a way, we’re still talking about what we started talking about. The mandate, as I see it in a way, is to really see, to penetrate the cliché. And your mind is capable of constructing layer after layer of clichés because it is so difficult to accurately observe anything at all. So, that’s the purpose, and that’s the fun, too.
We’re so steeped in clichés; it’s how we’re trained to think.
It is. It is. And that is one thing that I think is probably different from many, many prior generations—most prior generations, maybe other cultures. I mean, obviously there has to be a consensus view of reality or you wouldn’t be able to have any kind of conversation with anyone at all. But on the other hand we are actually living in a culture of brainwashing, that’s about brainwashing. I feel that we’re actively taught not to experience reality. And so, that’s one reason I think fiction is important, it’s because it’s an encounter with reality.
Are you talking about politics? Are you talking about popular entertainment?
Everything! It’s seamless. It’s seamless! I mean, popular entertainment is a big—you know television is an advertising machine. It’s about advertising. It’s about selling things. And our government is about protecting corporate interests. It’s not really a polity any longer; it’s a big corporate front in a way, you could say. And I feel that we’re sort of an army of stooges who are trained to go out and buy things and not understand the consequences of any of our actions, which all have an economic component.
Why do books struggle so much against the array of other things that people can spend money on? Are books generally just not good enough?
No, I think they just take a little more energy. It’s not as easy to read, physically or intellectually, as it is to surf the web or sit in front of a screen. And it’s not that easy to listen to music, either—I mean serious music. There’s probably less of that, proportionally, that’s being made these days.
I don’t have a television because if I had one I would never do anything else.
That’s funny. My boyfriend’s the same way. Believe me, I won’t have turned on the television here by the time I’ve left. I never turn it on. We don’t have one. I never turn one on. But I got very hung up on computer solitaire. I had to take it off my machine. I had to take it off my machine.
You had to take it off your machine. It was probably built into your machine.
I had to get somebody to come over and expunge it.
Because you just couldn’t stop playing it?
I couldn’t stop playing it. No, it was a real, full-blown addiction.
Were you good?
I have no way knowing. [Laughs] But that wasn’t the point. It was sort of hypnotic. And I’m sure that it had a chemical effect. And I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that television does, on many people—that it gives them something, some tranquilizing chemical.
Do you teach writing?
I do. I teach at the University of Virginia. Mostly MFA students.
Virginia is for lovers, they say.
That’s what they say. That’s what they say.
What have you learned from teaching?
I learn, really, that I’m not a very good teacher. [Laughs] I don’t know that I actually learn that much, to tell you the truth. I find it very, very anxiety-inducing.
Actually, I teach two different classes. I teach a workshop, and I think I acquit myself of that task reasonably well. But you’re working very intimately with people, and you really don’t want to do something wrong. The damage you could do—it certainly is possible. So, that’s a matter for some anxiety. And then I teach a literature class. I’ve never studied English, never took English classes.
Yeah, really. And I really don’t know how you’re supposed to do it. And I think the students are often so puzzled by what I’m doing!
They probably think you’re a genius.
Uh, I’m not …
Maybe a mad genius.
A mad genius. That would be nice.
How did you learn to write? Watching television?
[Laughs] Watching television. Playing solitaire.