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An Interview with Deborah Eisenberg

“I WAS AND I REMAIN INTERESTED IN THE MENTAL GYMNASTICS ENTAILED IN THINKING OF ONESELF AS A DECENT PERSON WHEN ONE IS DEEPLY, DEEPLY EMBROILED IN EVERY CELL OF ONE’S BODY IN AN EXPLOITATIVE AND CRUEL SYSTEM.”

When looking for life:
Act like a scout
Dig through old trunks and attics
Discard terrible stuff
Accept that it takes a very long time to find something that is alive

by Zach Davidson
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Deborah Eisenberg

“I WAS AND I REMAIN INTERESTED IN THE MENTAL GYMNASTICS ENTAILED IN THINKING OF ONESELF AS A DECENT PERSON WHEN ONE IS DEEPLY, DEEPLY EMBROILED IN EVERY CELL OF ONE’S BODY IN AN EXPLOITATIVE AND CRUEL SYSTEM.”

When looking for life:
Act like a scout
Dig through old trunks and attics
Discard terrible stuff
Accept that it takes a very long time to find something that is alive

by Zach Davidson
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Deborah Eisenberg

Zach Davidson
88 Snaps

Deborah Eisenberg and I sit at a glass table in her apartment in Chelsea, in New York City. The ceilings are high, the windows are open, the hardwood floor gleams. As Eisenberg speaks, I observe her hands, which resemble and at times function as punctuation marks—her palms curl like commas under the chin. The manual gestures clarify her responses; the words are separated with fingers, pauses.

The focus of our conversation is the publication of Eisenberg’s fifth collection of short stories, Your Duck Is My Duck (2018). Eisenberg is recognized as a preeminent practitioner of the short story, and is the recipient of numerous honors, including the 2019 Hadada Award for lifetime achievement from The Paris Review. She crafts characters who may qualify as defective goods, their shortcomings gauged internally or externally, or both. In the titular story of Your Duck Is My Duck, the narrator sends her ex-boyfriend an accusatory email while under the influence of sleeping medication. He replies by owning up to his being. “I’m not someone who falls short of me—I’m me. I’m not a magic number, I’m just some biped.” How to navigate the world in the face of our own defectiveness is one of the recurring pulls of Eisenberg’s fiction.

Throughout our interview, the landline phone rings and rings and rings and rings and—at one point she excuses herself from the table to determine why her answering machine is failing and to find out why her very good friend refuses to stop calling. 

I press pause on the recorder and I think it will save. It does not. I am immediately aware that I have botched the recording, and I report my negligence to Eisenberg. 

Her friend is fine. The answering machine is full. She offers to make us a pot of tea—which of two loose-leaf green teas would I prefer? One is floral and the other you’d want to have “with a bowl of popcorn,” Eisenberg says. 

Eisenberg pours the floral tea into porcelain cups, set next to a book of old comic strips: Pogo, by Walt Kelly. “Tape malfunctions are surprisingly—shockingly—common,” Eisenberg says. “Really—relatively—it’s no big deal. We’ll start over.” 

—Zach Davidson

 

I. “GETTING CLOSER TO WHAT IS ESSENTIALLY INEXPRESSIBLE.”

DEBORAH EISENBERG: [Looking at Pogo] That’s the alligator that I so love. Albert the alligator. I think he’s running for office.

THE BELIEVER: If only.

DE: I know. I know it. And this is the eponymous Pogo, who is a possum. 

BLVR: The Pogo comic strip is set in the Okefenokee Swamp, in the southeastern United States?

DE: Yes. I can’t remember much about comic-strip life in the Okefenokee, but it was quite, for a while, political. A certain amount of it was written during the McCarthy period. There was some sort of evil animal that comes to the swamp, to this community. His name was something like J. Malarkey. And he had a sort of accomplice, Deacon Mushrat, who I now realize could have been Roy Cohn. So political information was coming to me through a comic strip, and of course my parents were glued to a television, watching the Army–McCarthy hearings. But I was, oddly, basically apolitical.

BLVR: How would you describe your political orientation now?

DE: I consider myself to be still in a way apolitical, or pre-political. I have attitudes or responses and basic inclinations, but I often hardly know what Congress is. Earlier we were talking about public housing architecture and prison architecture, and its effect on those who live in it, and its implications for their lives, and the intention—conscious or not—of those sorts of architecture, and the meaning that’s conveyed. That, to me, I comprehend easily. I would say that’s more or less the kind of sphere in which I could be considered political—which is basically a response of outrage and rage. How can people treat other people like that? 

BLVR: How do you feel when your writing is characterized as political?

DE: If it were regarded as only political, then I would not be happy about that. Really, I want to make an experience for a reader that’s exciting, beautiful, unaccustomed—I want it to be a very dimensional experience. Of course, I did write a book [Under the 82nd Airborne] whose stories are mostly set in Central America at a time when those of us from the US were financially, if not ideologically, supporting vicious, right-wing regimes in the region. Those stories do refer to specific events, but the attitude is essentially not What is Paul Manafort doing in Latin America; it is: How is it possible for people to treat other people like this? Or to conceive of other people like this? I was and I remain interested in the mental gymnastics entailed in thinking of oneself as a decent person when one is deeply, deeply embroiled in every cell of one’s body in an exploitative and cruel system.

BLVR: This reminds me of the passage in “Your Duck Is My Duck” when the narrator’s doctor charges her with the task of figuring out why she’s not sleeping.

“What’s to figure out?” I said. “I’m hurtling through time, strapped to an explosive device, my life. Plus, it’s beginning to look like a photo finish—me first, or the world. It’s not so hard to figure out why I’m not sleeping. What I can’t figure out is why everybody else is sleeping.”

“Everybody else is sleeping because everybody else is taking pills,” he said. 

DE: Yes, and I do feel myself to be pretty anaesthetized, even though disaster approaches by leaps and bounds. My moment-to-moment life is changing very little. That’s true of most of the people I know. Oh—something just came and went in my mind. Oh yes! It reminded me of what we were talking about earlier, that the human being experiences time in two different ways—as both linear and simultaneous. I feel that double-temporal experience now encompasses disaster as well. Yes, we’re going from day to day, moment to moment in the way we’re accustomed to, but at the same time we feel catastrophic events gaining on us at a very rapid clip. And we’re remembering catastrophe. So our experience is a kind of double one.

I simply refuse to accept the fact that I have only a two-dimensional surface—a piece of paper—on which to re-create something that is faithful to the workings of the psyche and the mind and experience. I’d love to create an experience of many different types of time, flowing at once, and in different directions, which I think is the experience that we actually have at almost every moment. 

BLVR: At one point in your story “Taj Mahal,” the actor Zoe says to her daughter, Emma: “You don’t know what it’s like, darling, getting old.” Deborah, what is it like getting old?

DE: Obviously, there are certain things about age that one deplores or grieves about. But if you didn’t know what the end of the story inevitably is, it would all be great. [Laughs] One of the great gifts of age is the feeling of a kind of infinite depth of experience that accrues. Most of the experience, of course, is bad. Or a lot of it is. But the feeling of the infinitude of experience is quite thrilling. 

I remember being around twenty, thinking: I’m not really a person; I’m not really a human being. There is something very, very thin about my existence on this earth. That was, of course, I think, the feeling of being young and not having this weight of moment-to-moment experience in your neurons, or wherever it is that experience goes. Age is partly an experience of accretion—as time goes on, one encompasses all the ages one has ever been: how could that not be true? When you’re young, even when you’re a child, there’s a kind of sensory experience of overtones. Your senses seem to grasp experiences that you have not yet had. Very, very mysterious. 

BLVR: In describing her experience of aging, Zoe goes on to say to Emma: 

But the worst thing is that you’re just not exactly part of the world any longer. When you’re young, everyone is holding hands, all your friends, even the people you don’t like, everyone in the world, but at a certain point, when you get older, you float a little off the surface of the earth. Everyone is rising up off the surface of the earth, everyone is farther away from one another—you can’t hold hands any longer, you stretch out your hand, but you can’t reach anyone else’s, and when you look down, you see that what you thought was the world is just a wrapping around the world, a loose, disintegrating wrapper, with a faded picture of the world on it. The world is where young people live.

Do you feel similarly?

DE: Yes, it’s really true that I sort of have the sensation that I’ve floated a little off the planet and am looking at other people making the world, making the world as it is. There comes a point in one’s life when you’re thinking, What are people listening to? What are people talking about? When you’re in your teens, your early twenties, you don’t think about the culture as a thing that’s being made, because you’re remaking an inherited thing with other people your age. I certainly don’t want to be living in a calcified production, and I don’t feel that I am. My milieu and environment seem very alive to me, but rather disconnected from the culture that is being made by young people all around me. 

BLVR: A valuable reader of your work is the actor and writer Wallace Shawn—your partner.

DE: Yes, Wally is a phenomenally talented reader and editor. As well as writer. But I don’t show him anything until I think I have finished it, although there have been a few cases when I have just been absolutely stuck and I don’t know what to do. He’s really a good reader. If something seems weak to him or floppy or incoherent, he’s right on it. 

BLVR: What defines a good reader for you?

DE: Somebody who’s paying close attention, who’s sensitive to one’s intentions and aspirations, who wants the best for the piece. It’s that What do you mean, what do you mean, what do you mean? that you apply to yourself unconsciously all the time, narrowing it down. Making it more and more and more specific. Getting closer to what is essentially inexpressible. 

BLVR: I’m reminded of that Philip Guston quote I shared with you—scraping away the excess, the insensate.

DE: Yes. Not this. Not this. Not this. Not this. Naturally, one hopes to do something that nobody else has ever thought of—or could have conceived of prior to reading that piece of paper. And that’s what I hope for when I’m reading something too—that it’s something I could never have thought of or imagined myself. Yet I can comprehend it. I’m excited by it.

 

II. “THE UPSIDE OF BEING NEUROTIC”

Five days after our interview, I call Eisenberg from an empty classroom at my place of work. Outside the window, across the street, a mannequin hangs by its throat over the ledge of a brick building. The sight recalls the protagonist’s visions in “The Third Tower,” a dystopian narrative in Your Duck Is My Duck: “Two civil guards stumbling through trees, they trip on twisted roots, they carry a heavy pole, one of the guards at each end, a man hangs from it, roped to it by bleeding wrists and ankles…”

BLVR: I was listening to our recording from Friday—the one that survived—and in the background I could hear sirens, and I thought of your story “Merge”: “So many sirens! Have there been so many sirens all along?” When I think of Trump’s presidency, I think of this line. With Trump in power, are you hearing new things that inform your writing? Or are you hearing pretty much the same things, but these things just having gotten louder?

DE: Mostly I’m hearing what was there to hear before, has been there all along. Though there is, by now, I feel, a qualitative change in what one hears. I would say that the overt appetite for violence—we’re witnessing violence, we’re committing violence, we’re thinking in violent ways, treating children violently in various ways—it’s so amplified that it’s actually of a different order. 

BLVR: In “Merge,” an epigraph from Noam Chomsky reads in part: “you have an infinite variety of hierarchically structured expressions [and thoughts] available to you.” There is, then, a sense of a letdown—out of the infinite variety of expressions available to us, the one that follows is Trump’s quotation: “I know words. I have the best words.” I feel like this is frequently an effect of your work: the juxtaposition of possibility with reality, of what could have been with what is.

DE: I guess you could say that’s the upside of being neurotic—that one is always alert— [Phone rings] Oh god. That’s my own phone. Nobody has ever called me, Zach, except when we’ve been talking. 

BLVR: [Laughs] The upside of being neurotic?

DE: Yes, I don’t mean that it’s fun or pleasant. One is alert to catastrophic possibilities forming around one—or, on the other hand, to hopes, to things that might be a favorable outcome to a situation. Maybe the reverberations of a particular situation create a kind of overtone. Of course, one can’t think mutually exclusive thoughts consciously, simultaneously—but one can put them down on paper, and that is a nice property of a piece of paper. 

BLVR: In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche writes: “It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a whole book—what everyone else does not say in a book.” On Friday, we talked about this in a temporal sense, how your stories seemingly condense time. In the first line of “Your Duck Is My Duck,” you evoke in one sentence what will be shown over the course of the story: the exploitation of land, the transactional nature of certain kinds of get-togethers, the puppet show:

Way back—oh, not all that long ago, actually, just a couple of years, but back before I’d gotten a glimpse of the gears and levers and pulleys that dredge the future up from the earth’s core to its surface—I was going to a lot of parties.

DE: Yes, it’s a sort of strange haiku of what the story is or is going to be.

BLVR: Yes, exactly—a strange haiku! What we also get in that first sentence is beginning in media res. Your stories have been recognized for being unclogged by any opening exposition. 

DE: [Laughs] I guess so. I have also heard that about myself. But what is a beginning? Where does something begin? After all, one is having to figure out what’s going on all the time. We don’t give ourselves exposition. It’s not something I worked out or thought about. But a lot of exposition just usually seems a little boring to me, and unnecessary. 

BLVR: Would it be fair to say that you, the writer, begin in media res? 

DE: I start, really, from nothing, and have never had an idea in my life—it must be the case that somehow, something is already forming that I don’t know about yet. I’ve wasted a lot of paper in my life. A lot of things have really gone nowhere. And remain inert. What I’m looking for is a kind of life. I’m scouting around for it. I’m digging through old trunks and attics for something that’s alive. So sometimes it takes a very long time to find something that’s alive. It’s not as though I write a first sentence and then, eventually, there’s a story. Sometimes there’s a long period of just terrible stuff that ultimately has to be discarded.

BLVR: Your use of inert brings to mind a passage from “Your Duck Is My Duck.” After the narrator has just deplaned in an unspecified foreign country, she says: “I had her cell number on my phone, I remembered, and scrabbled in my purse for it, but as I pressed and tapped different bits of it and stared at its inert face, I was struck by how complete the difference is between a phone that works and a phone that doesn’t work.” Could the same be said about a short story—how complete the difference is between a story that works and a story that doesn’t work, and how the latter may also be said to suffer from an inert face?

DE: Absolutely. I mean, one does read things that are inert from time to time. I don’t know why such things should ever see the light of day, but they do sometimes.

BLVR: A lot of the time.

DE: [Laughs] Yes, exactly. And I suppose you could say that’s what I’m looking for above anything else: a sign of life. 

BLVR: In “Merge,” a type of origin story concerning the superpowers of language, we get a summary of the fictional linguist Friedlander’s theory: “In his opinion, language developed as a way for us to deceive ourselves into believing that we understand things, so then we can just go ahead and do stuff that’s more ruthless than what any other animal does.” In your opinion, has language, on the whole, been an unfortunate evolution? 

DE: [Laughs] No, I think our species is an unfortunate evolution. I really do. I’m sorry; I’m so fond of our species. I really enjoy being a member of it. But it has really been a catastrophe for the planet, for other species. I don’t exactly concur with my sort of joke linguist. But I do think that for some reason humans have an extremely high opinion of the human mind. We’re not even open to the question of whether the human mind is the most advanced mind that’s been coughed up by evolution. I question that more and more. After all, I can’t navigate my way across the continent or several continents without a map; I, personally, can’t navigate my way down the street with a map. Birds are pitied for their small brains, but maybe we’re measuring brain power incorrectly in some way. 

BLVR: Speaking of brains, on the lost recording, I asked you if you might be one of “those rare individuals subject to pronounced hyper-associative disorders,” as Therese is diagnosed to be in “The Third Tower”—the only story you have written since the election of Trump. Does the capacity to see the world through similes and metaphors come with undesirable side effects? 

DE: [Laughs] I would say absolutely not. I will take everything I can get. If I have any way of understanding anything, I am very pleased. Of course, yes, now that we’re thinking of it, I do think that writers are often considered mentally disordered or strange in that we prioritize things differently from other people. I mean, this is a generalization, of course, but people often are puzzled that we think x is terribly important and yet we don’t pay any attention to y. I think people often think writers—or many writers—are imbeciles of a certain sort, and certainly I was always a very bad student. I read very slowly. I think slowly. I do everything slowly. I’m always confused by many things that other people are able to understand very easily. I simply don’t understand them. I suppose you could say that’s related to an associative propensity that writers tend to have. Perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps it’s just a strange deformation of my own particular brain.

BLVR: What would be an example of a simple task that you find to be confounding?

DE: One example would be, I would say, reading the newspaper, which for many, many years was difficult for me. I’ve sort of learned to do it over the years—largely with the help of my wonderful boyfriend, who, really, was able to point out to me the ways in which I was taking things so literally that I could not understand what was being said, because of maybe imperfect grammar. I wasn’t able to make the jump—and not only because of imperfect grammar, but because of fuzzy implicit logic. I am absolutely baffled by many things that other people very easily understand.

BLVR: When you mentioned the difficulty of reading the paper, I thought you were going to describe being dextrally encumbered by it. 

DE: Well, that’s another problem. I used to be so amazed that people could read the newspaper on the subway. I still find it pretty amazing. I’m very undexterous, almost needless to say. But the folding or unfolding of a newspaper or a map is just really baffling to me.

BLVR: And then you have a story like “Merge,” whose design, whose architecture, is extremely complex.

DE: Oh yes. Certainly the architecture of “Merge” is extremely complex. A friend of mine, who I don’t think particularly liked the story, described it as a mobile, and I think that was incredibly insightful, because it’s composed of parts, from different perspectives, that keep changing one’s reading of the thing. Of course, it’s obviously true that one’s understanding of any written thing changes as you read it. But the relations in “Merge” are quite complicated, I think, and probably require that you revisit what you were thinking of each character as you read along, as if it were made of many moving parts. Come to think of it, I guess it’s surprising that a person who cannot fold a newspaper would take the trouble to make all the parts fit together. I guess it’s a problem of physical space—maybe metaphysical space is more negotiable for me.

 

III. “ALL THE MARBLES”

BLVR: I was thinking of the use of adverbs in your work, and I wanted to discuss a couple of sentences from “Taj Mahal.” 

“Naturally, I wanted to dress appropriately for your mother,” Ed said. 

And, then, on the next page, the third-person narrator says: 

Naturally Zoe was right. 

Over the course of a page, I feel like you’ve modified the modifier.

DE: [Laughs]

BLVR: Naturally has changed. When Ed says it to Emma—his soon-to-be wife—it feels both defensive and imperious. But when the narrator says “naturally,” it’s quick, stark. Emma is on the receiving end of the blow, so to speak, of the impact of her decision to have an affair. The consequence is as her mother, Zoe, forecast it. 

DE: Yes, absolutely. 

BLVR: More generally, I was wondering if we might say that your fiction is adverbial—at least insofar as it qualifies the qualifiers, generating a sense of layered-ness and depth, a sense of perpetual, mutual, boundless influence where the elements are constantly rubbing up against one another. 

DE: That strikes me as something I can only aspire to. I mean, how wonderful if that were the experience of the reader! Going back to an earlier question of yours, it’s possibly a use of a turn of mind that might be considered neurotic. A zillion years ago, when I was in college, I was told there is a syndrome called obsessive-compulsive doubting and ruminating. I don’t know if that’s a real syndrome or if the term was just useful to a grad student for a thesis. I would say that maybe in a way that is a bit of what I’m doing when I write something—of going over and over some central, generating impulse until it reveals itself to me.

BLVR: Your work as an actor—how would you compare acting to giving a reading?

DE: You know, I don’t play any sports. I don’t play music; I’m not an instrumentalist. I’ve never done anything in real time. I’ve always depended on having as much time as I need. And of course, if you’re performing, you don’t have any time—you have to do whatever it is you have to do right then. You don’t have an eraser, and unless you’re performing in a movie, you don’t have a camera for a second take. So it was a kind of physical and mental experience of the sort I’ve never had. I have to say I’m always depressed before I do a reading, and I didn’t feel that way at all performing. It was terrifying, but the feeling of terrible melancholy before I read was absolutely absent. 

BLVR: Why do you think you feel such melancholy before a reading?

DE: You know, I wish I knew. I suppose it’s just being confronted with my own words.

BLVR: As I’m listening to you, I’m thinking that so much of our conversation pertains to time. To having time. To capturing, to recording time.

DE: Yes, I think that’s really true. Every time I turn on my computer, there’s some screen that comes up featuring articles from here or there, and the articles always seem to tell you how to be productive, how to maximize your time. I find that so disturbing, because the presupposition is that it’s desirable for your mind to function in a very narrowly efficient way. I don’t believe that. I think it’s very, very dangerous to education—or to the idea of education—because I think education is inherently inefficient. And to try to squeeze it into an efficient machine is to damage its innermost value.

BLVR: Do you identify any shift in the concerns of your fiction from your first collection to the most recent one?

DE: You know, I don’t really know. My first book [Transactions in a Foreign Currency] was certainly concerned with matters that were more intimate or private. But my next book [Under the 82nd Airborne] was very concerned with public matters—such as the US involvement in Central America. I mean, obviously it’s not a textbook. It’s largely an examination of what it really means to be from a disproportionately powerful country, what that means personally about our intimate and daily experience of life. And subsequently, that concern has showed up in each of my books. So that’s a change, I suppose, but it changed early.

BLVR: So much of the action in your fiction is intimate. It is interior. My understanding of your description of your own, nonfictional parents is that they were, so to speak, not allowed the opportunity to get to know themselves. Your intense depiction of character, and your reader coming away with this deep sense of knowing your characters—is this in any way a response to that inscrutability of your parents? 

DE: I think that’s very plausible. Or maybe I was just born with that kind of temperament—basically the temperament of a gossip, to put it at its very worst. What is this person like? What is that person like?

BLVR: In “Taj Mahal,” Luther says: “It’s absolutely outrageous.… It’s like something Greek—he’s assassinating his dead grandfather! This is how people will remember Anton’s life. This is how people will remember ours.” Do you think we could say that the memoir of Clement Rouse—published after Anton’s death—means that Anton has had a worse life? 

DE: I don’t really know. But it interests me a lot because, of course, the whole subject of biography is fascinating. One wonders about the possibly very complex motivations in the writing of most biographies, and it happens all the time that reputations are destroyed posthumously. And what does that mean about the living? I just don’t know. It’s so interesting. Why do we care about what happens after we die? And, I mean, some people don’t seem to.

BLVR: Do you have any specific wishes for how your work will be perceived in, say, one hundred years? 

DE: Sure, but I never think about that seriously. Because, first of all, I assume it won’t be lasting work. And, second of all, you get back to the same muddle—what difference does it make for me how it’s received in a hundred years? And yet, of course—unless you’re one of Donald Trump’s cabinet—you do care what happens in the world after you die.

BLVR: In “Merge,” you write: 

An irony had begun to bother him, he eventually mused to her. People were drawn to what they thought of as him, but it wasn’t really him, he now understood. What people were drawn to was an aggregation of qualities he’d had little hand in making or choosing, that he himself might not, as he was noticing, have a lot of respect for: his appearance, his reasonably good manners, his passable education, his general range of circumstantial, historical, evolutionary, whatever, ornaments. But he had a persistent sensation—and didn’t she agree?—that there was some rubbery little nub through which those more superficial qualities were routed—his self?

Many of your characters confront the effects of this distinction: what we are and what we appear to be. 

DE: I feel that we’re basically, each of us, a bag of marbles, and that everyone basically pays attention to the bag. But, in fact, what’s really operative is all the marbles. And we don’t even know what most of them are.

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