Deborah Eisenberg’s Collected Stories, published in 2011, won the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Yale Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and Tin House, among other publications. She has received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature, and a MacArthur Fellowship. In the summer of 2013 she performed in the Public Theater’s revival of Wallace Shawn’s acclaimed play, The Designated Mourner. She lives in New York City.
Interviewer: Many of your stories deal with the way history gets passed down to us. Your characters—often the children and grandchildren of immigrants to the U.S.—frequently seem to be affected by historical trauma and memories that they haven’t experienced firsthand. Can you talk about what draws you to these secondhand memories and experiences?
Deborah Eisenberg: Yes. I’m so fascinated by that. I don’t know how to verbalize it at all, certainly not better than you just did. But there’s this feeling that there’s something that is antecedent to your experience. Something recognizable, but you don’t know where it comes from. Of course, that is a very common immigrant experience, because the generation that came to the U.S.—or came to whatever the safe place was—is determined to forget the past that they’ve came from and determined not to pass on the dangers, the terrors, the anguish, to the children. But of course, it does get passed on in one form or another. So that feeling of being surrounded by something, being entrenched in something you can’t quite identify, that feels yours and yet somehow alien, I think is a very common experience. And probably it’s common also to people who know a lot more about their family’s past than people like ourselves, because as you were suggesting, it’s just human. We can’t know where we came from. And yet it’s the material of our lives.
I wonder if in some ways that inability to know exactly where we come from is what makes writing fiction an appealing way to address those sorts of issues? Do you find there’s some fictionalization involved just in terms of thinking about the experiences from our family’s past that are shut off to us?
That’s very interesting. I’ve never thought about it that way. Sometimes I’ve found myself exploring my particular past a bit, although I never write autobiographically. But fiction is horizontal as well as vertical, I think. After all, the experience of being in one body that has the experiences that are peculiar to that body—being born somewhere, being a certain age, having a certain appearance—your mind doesn’t have the same confines. And that’s of course part of the fun of fiction—letting your mind be other people.
So in some ways you reach back to what you don’t know about yourself through accessing these other minds, other narratives.
Yes, because of course they’re also what you don’t know about yourself. Am I really, in my very being, am I a 67-year-old woman whose hair reacts to humidity the way it does? Is that really all? Or am I not also a three-year-old boy?
Returning to this notion of antecedent experiences and their influence on the children of immigrants, have you seen evidence of this influence in your own life or in the lives of your family members?
Well, my grandfather, all my grandparents, were immigrants. They came over to the U.S. very, very poor. And I don’t really know that much about any of them. But my maternal grandfather was kind of like many very poor Russian Jews. Actually, he was from Belorussia, I believe. He was a tailor. I heard recently that he came over when he was 13, I’m pretty sure about that, and I don’t think he could read or write. He was totally self-taught after he came here. Anyway, when he got here there were work gangs who would wait at the side of the road. And so he was standing with a group of people and somebody came by and said, “Who here can sew?” And he said, “I can.” Evidently he couldn’t at the time. It was just that pure drive to live.
At any rate, he became an exceptionally talented tailor. My mother recalls that the whole family went to a movie starring Vilma Bánky. And when they came home, my grandfather made for her the costume that Vilma Bánky was wearing. So in other words, he could visualize something and make a pattern for it. Which is something that requires an understanding of volume and how to translate a two-dimensional image into something volumetric or shaped. I cannot—I have no skill for that at all. I could barely do a jigsaw puzzle, which is two dimensional. But my brother is a molecular biologist whose specialty is protein folding. And he can sort of figure out the shape of these interlocking molecular structures. Now where does that come from? Obviously that’s the same abilities that my grandfather had. And my brother has the great good fortune to have been educated. We have the great good fortune for my brother to have been educated because he’s actually contributing to important scientific knowledge.
It’s interesting that you point to the disparities in the privilege you and your brother had, as compared to your grandfather. Your stories often investigate privilege—who has it, who doesn’t. And they manage to conduct this investigation without coming across as polemical or attacking characters potentially ignorant to their privileged place. What draws you to that investigation, and how do you confront issues of class division and privilege without resorting to polemics?
Well, I suppose, let me just start out somewhere that may or may not be related. I’m thinking this morning that our species, as we’re working away at annihilating the planet, we’re suddenly beginning to notice our place in the planet, in a way. Sort of questioning the idea of human exceptionalism—let’s call it human exceptionalism. I think I just coined a ridiculous phrase, but I suppose really it’s a nineteenth-century idea that humans are the apex of creation. But it’s an idea that’s hung on for really a long time. As things become increasingly globalized, it’s sort of obvious that there are global beneficiaries. Everybody is in a certain position in the world. You’re either fortune or unfortunate, relatively, and if you’re fortunate, you’re taking a larger share of the resources that we’ve figured out how to make available. It obviously is very, very difficult to question a system of which you are a beneficiary. It’s really easy to question a system of which you’re not a beneficiary. But it’s clear that we all have to start sort of scrutinizing our place in the world vis-à-vis other humans, growing things, living things, even geological phenomenon. Still, it’s completely irrelevant to denounce people who happen to be fortunate. It’s totally irrelevant. And it’s not very interesting. The question is what is it, what are these relationships that we have to each other? Condemning or polemicizing actually stops the process of thought, any process of thought. And it doesn’t really mean very much.
Or do much?
Or do much. It doesn’t do much except sort of give you a better opinion of yourself. It’s a form of self-aggrandizement. As well as being embarrassing to do, it’s just sort of ridiculous.
The relationships between the privileged and the less fortunate is also a concern of The Designated Mourner, the Wallace Shawn play in which you just performed. I was wondering if you could talk about your experience in that play. What kind of mental shift takes place from writing to getting on stage and performing?
They’re totally different. Completely unrelated. And performing was absolutely consuming. Really, it’s been a long time since I’ve been alone with a piece of paper, and I need huge amounts of time to write. Huge. When I’m teaching, I don’t think about it. And I don’t attempt anything. And certainly, before I did perform at all, I thought oh wonderful, in the evening you perform and then you’ve got the day to things. No. You can’t do anything. You cannot do anything. And I’ve still got stacks of unpaid bills next to me. But I loved performing in that play because I take the play very, very seriously. So it was more as though every night I was participating in a sort of service. A real funeral service for literature and people with courage. I think a lot of people who read or see the play don’t quite understand the relationship of literature and art to social justice. And in the play they’re absolutely allied. So every night I really did feel that I was participating in a funeral service for the death of courage and the death of speaking out, as well as the death of being able to encounter artistically intense refined great beauty. And I think a lot of people who saw the play were quite confused and came out with the feeling that yes, those terrible snobs, they should be killed by poor people. Well, you know, it’s completely scrambling the play, no poor person kills anybody, the poor people are killed and so are the intellectuals. And that is of course always the way it works in reality. When there’s an authoritarian or totalitarian regime, the first people to go are the intellectuals and the artists.
Does the danger of totalitarianism or authoritarianism ever figure into some of your formal choices as an actual author, especially thinking about a narrator’s perspective? Some authors such as W.G. Sebald—writing mostly from the perspective of a first-person narrator—have implied that an omniscient narrator in stories can itself be totalitarian and monolithic, and therefore suggestive of those sorts of regimes. You shift between different points of view in your own work. Your first collection was entirely first person. But in some stories, like the title story in your collection Twilight of the Superheroes, the reader shifts between several points of view. How do you navigate that issue of perspective?
I just do it by feel. I just mess around until I get something that seems right. As soon as I’ve written something, it’s a foreign object to me. I think with the title story in Twilight of the Superheroes I must have just thought oh, I can’t do this all from one point of view, it’s just not possible. Fiction is a vision of the world. I feel that the purpose has to be very strong in order for the thing to be interesting. It’s usually unconscious. But how do you get that vision onto a piece of paper? I’ll do anything.