Deborah Eisenberg

Deborah Eisenberg is the author of four collections of stories, Transactions in a Foreign Currency, Under the 82nd Airborne, All Around Atlantis, and Twilight of the Superheroes, brought together in 2010 in The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Her short stories have also appeared in the New Yorker, the Yale Review, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and Tin House, among other publications.

She is the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Rea Award, a Lannan Foundation Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She received a BA from the New School College and has taught at the University of Virginia since 1994. She currently also teaches writing at Columbia University.

Writing of Eisenberg in the New York Times Book Review, Ben Marcus notes that, “there aren’t many contemporary novels as shudderingly intimate and mordantly funny as Eisenberg’s best stories.” Indeed, her stories are like individually wrapped chocolates full of hidden surprises that you can’t stop squirreling away into your pocket, and then your mouth, from the silver dish at an elderly relative’s house, feeling as you do that you alone have discovered and understood the enigmatic characters fumbling—strangely, elegantly, articulately— on the page.

Eisenberg speaks with disarming bemusement and has the thrilling ability to make you feel like she is about to really level with you.

You had an unusual path to becoming a writer because you didn’t begin writing seriously until a little bit later, when you were thirty. Why did you begin writing when you did?

You’ve done some homework.

A little bit.

But yes, when you say I first started writing seriously…I hadn’t started before at all.

Well, did you have any writerly inclinations before, had you even thought about it?

No. I mean, my big experiences when I was a child were reading experiences. I loved reading. I thought writing was magic, and I thought writers were magical beings anointed by God— I still think so. Although I don’t know how I snuck in there, then. It never occurred to me that I could write, so I never did it. I thought either you were born a writer or you weren’t.

When I was in high school, all my friends said that they were going to be writers.

Really?

Yeah, and I thought, “Hey, how come you get to be a writer?”

But you never felt that you could say that?

No, it never occurred to me. It never occurred to me.

What ideas did you have about writers?

That they could write, that they were people who could write!

And why was this so distanced from who you were?

Well, it still is in a way. It does seem like a miracle to me if somebody can really, really write. And I’m still flabbergasted by the professionalization of writing and the prevalence of MFA programs. It’s just astonishing to me. Because it does seem uncanny to me, that it can be done. I never thought of it as an ordinary activity and I still don’t think of it as an ordinary activity.

Certainly, then, not as a career or a profession.

No, never, never.

When your friends said they wanted to be writers, what did you want to be instead? What did you think you could do?

I didn’t think I could do anything and my big ambition was to do nothing. But, of course, the matter of supporting myself did intrude.

So, what happened after high school?

I went to college. I was a very poor student and it was the 60‘s so I did my obligatory dropping out and then I dropped back in. I had not a clue what to do with myself.

My upbringing was notable for it’s lack of interestingness. You know, it was in the middle of the country, in the middle of the century. My parents were first generation immigrants, so there was a big emphasis on education, and Jewish, so a big emphasis on credentials, on education, on accomplishment, and I wanted no part of any of it. It just made me sick and I didn’t want any part of it. There was nothing that I felt that I could do, and there was nothing that I wanted to do.

Put it all together and it spells waitress. [Laughs.] Which is not so bad, actually.

No, and many writers do that, as it turns out.

It’s very compatible with writing. Much more so than teaching, for example.

You’re not exercising the same muscles you’d use for writing.

That’s right! It’s not competitive thought, competitive energy. When I’m teaching, I can’t possibly do any writing because I’m thinking about my students’ work the way I would think about my own. Whereas if you’re waiting on tables, you’re not thinking about bringing a hamburger in the way that you think about…you know.

Were you waitressing while you were a student?

Not so much. You know, you didn’t need so much money back then. Everything was so cheap, and you could live in New York on virtually nothing— live badly, but there was a veneer of money so thick that you could walk on it. You knew somebody could buy you dinner— I mean nobody bought me dinner!— but there were parties, and you could go freeload.

Well, that still happens.

Good! I’m glad to hear that!

But there’s none of that affordable rent situation anymore.

Not at all.

So, when you finished college at the New School, did you stay in New York?

I batted back and forth between New York and Vermont for a while.

What brought you to Vermont?

Well, I had gone to high school there, after I got kicked out of a superb public school in the Midwest…

Why? What did you do?

Improper dancing at the junior prom.

Really?! And they kicked you out?

Yes. I believe I was either kicked out, or next to kicked out. I mean I was persona non grata, I was unwelcome.

Was your dancing that inappropriate?

I can’t dance, so maybe that was the problem.

That’s hilarious. But, anyway, you had a connection to Vermont and you were shuttling between Vermont and New York. Were you waitressing in both places?

What was I doing in Vermont? I did this and that. Waitressing, I worked in a shop or two. You know, mostly I was sort of a lay-about.

Were you a lay-about alone or did you have a partner in crime?

Oh, just bunches of friends and we all kind of lived in houses together. It was the days when everybody just sort of lived in a heap. In New York, I waitressed. And I did that for years.

Did you have any other jobs besides waitressing?

For a while, I had some secretarial jobs. But I was very, very bad at it. Extremely bad at it.

Why?

Well, I’m very obsessive, as you may not have noticed. Very compulsive and you know, you’re seeing the slob side of me, but it goes hand in hand— the O.C.D. side and the slob side. So I couldn’t do anything right. I could not do anything right.

Do you have any stories from that?

Yeah, well I do, actually. One of my jobs was at the New York Review. And I was Bob Silvers’s worst secretary ever.

He admits this, or you just think so?

I would say that it was indisputable, scientifically provable. Really, the fact that I then, later, decades later, [makes a “woooo" sound] the calendar’s pages flipping by, many decades later, I got to write for the Review, in a way, that’s the most gratifying experience of my whole life. But I really was Bob Silvers’s worst secretary.

I don’t know why I was hired, it was some kind of nepotism. I knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody. That’s how everything works. I was completely unqualified for the job, and I was also too old for the job. I was 26. Somebody said to me, “But that’s a job for a 23-year old.” Now there’s no difference at all to me between 23 and 26, but at the time there was a huge difference. All the secretaries were younger, smarter and more together. Now I think he has four assistants, at the time he had two. They were all super together and really good at it and I was a catastrophe.

The first day he sat me down and he said, “Deborah, take a letter,” and I said, “Sure, I’ll take a letter.” So, I took out my steno pad and I had a pencil and— of course, these are the days you don’t know anything about, when you had to take a paper and pencil to transcribe what someone was saying. He is absolutely brilliant and unbelievably articulate and he was writing to Isaiah Berlin or someone, and he was pacing in his sort of elegant, handsome way, cigarette ash falling off his little German cigarette and sort of declaiming this letter. Meanwhile, I was grabbing the pencil with both hands— I could have been using a stone tablet and an axe. Anyhow, a half hour later, he stopped and said, “Thank you Deborah, now read it back please.” So I looked at it, and there was not one comprehensible phrase. I looked at it and said, “That’s the hard part, Bob.” And he said, “That’s the hard part, Bob. [Deadpan voice.] That’s the hard part, Bob.” [Laughs.]

It must have been incredibly gratifying to be writing for him later on.

It was unbelievable. I couldn’t believe it when he asked. When he asked me to write about something, really decades had gone by, and I had had almost no contact with him since. And it was not a chummy relationship when I was working there, I can tell you. I really almost fell over. I saw that there was the familiar envelope, with the bulky thing in it and I thought, can it be? Can it be? What can it be? Is it possible that Bob is sending me a book? And I thought, whatever it is, I’m not going to do it. I opened the envelope and it was the one thing I couldn’t resist doing – it was Peter Nadas’s A Book of Memories. Impossible book. I’m sorry, it wasn’t A Book of Memories, it was a book of his essays and early fiction, but it meant I could write about A Book of Memories. I obviously did write about the book I was sent, but I did write about A Book of Memories as well.

When you were younger, you thought of writers as magical beings. So, when you were working as an assistant at the New York Review of Books, in this literary environment, was it like entering into the magical zone?

No, I had absolutely zero interest in that, or thought of it. It was before I was writing by some years. I mean the writers seemed like gods to me.

They still do?

Absolutely. Sometimes sort of shambling weirdo gods…

Where were you living during this time in New York? What was life like?

I lived in crummy apartments.

Whereabouts?

I started in Cobble Hill, which was before Brooklyn was Brooklyn.

Yeah it wasn’t really “Cobble Hill.”

It was definitely not. Then I lived in the West Village, which also was just…I lived in a really crummy basement apartment.

What was life like? I mean mostly, looking back on it, I’d say I was depressed and had been depressed for like 15 or 20 years but I didn’t quite figure that out. And I kind of drifted around. You know, it was the 60‘s which was a great time to be young. But I mainly just sort of stayed in my apartment.

Who were you spending time with?

That is really a good question…[Pause.] Other slackers, basically.

Were they artistic types? Writers?

Vaguely. They certainly weren’t business people or doctors. You know, they were vaguely marginal and low functioning. Then I fell in love when I was 26, and so then I was living with the phenomenal person who I still live with.

That’s wonderful. So 26, that was the year. You described your parents as being from this striving middle class background. What did you think about your life decisions at this point?

Oh, they had a very low opinion of me.

Were they worried?

Well, when I say “they” I mean “she.” My father was a kind of mild-mannered pediatrician whose main attribute in regard to me was a kind of melancholy reservation. My mother was furious with me all of the time. Always angry. I mean she was a complete dragon, she was terrifying. I had as little contact with them as I could, but it was real, real disappointment. I was like a catastrophe, just a catastrophe. So, there just wasn’t a lot of contact.

How did you reach the point where you first picked up a pen to write? We’re at 26, we’re getting towards that age when you began writing.

Well, the man I live with is a writer, a phenomenal writer, and he said, “Well, what do you want to do with your life?” and I said, “Nothing.” And he said, “Well, nobody does nothing, you can’t do nothing.” And I said, “Well I’m going to approximate it to the extent that I can.” And he said, “You’re not going to be happy doing that.” And I said, “Watch this!”

But you weren’t happy.

I was not happy, not at all. Although I didn’t really quite know it.

He is asthmatic. There was a lot of information coming out about passive smoking and I was smoking three packs of unfiltered cigarettes day…

Oh my God.

I was more addicted than anybody I’ve ever met to any substance. Before this guy and I got together— let’s call him Wally— somebody tried to strangle me in my hallway. The way I conquered my fear and trained myself to go outside was to run out of cigarettes. So I had to go out in the middle of the night.

That’s so terrifying! Was there a vagrant person in your hallway?

Yeah, he was just some nut. It was very confusing. I guess he was kind of a mad strangler, the idea seemed to be coming to him as he went along. He didn’t seem to…[Pause.]

He didn’t seem to want to go through with it?

I don’t know, he sort of grabbed on to me and kind of dragged me down the hallway. Out of sheer terror, I grabbed on to him and then things got very confused, somehow, and he broke off, and of course I was yelling and screaming, and it wasn’t late at night. I guess he just got scared.

But anyhow, I was a heavy, heavy smoker and I couldn’t get through without a cigarette. I was just turning 30 and all this information about passive smoking was coming out. I thought, here’s this great guy I live with, I’ve never met another really fabulous guy, do I really want to kill him?

[Laughs.]

So I decided, I’m just going to quit smoking. And I did. It was a feat, and it was awful, it was horrible.

How can you do that if you’re used to three packs a day?

It was just awful, I can’t even tell you. I completely fell apart. I was just completely out of control all the time, I couldn’t do anything.

I never would have dreamed of trying to write, because I knew I wasn’t going to be good at it, and it was just too mortifying.

For yourself, or for someone to see it?

Oh, for myself.

For you to put something down that would be…

Yeah, and I had not really understood that everybody learns to write, nobody is born to write. I think everybody who writes learns how to do it. You can’t learn to be a great writer, but you can’t write without learning how to do it. But I thought either you could do it or you couldn’t do it and I knew I couldn’t do it. And it was true. I couldn’t write because I had never done it.

Anyhow, at a certain point in all this chaos of me being in total pieces, Wally sort of said, “Well, you don’t have anything to lose at this point, so here’s a notebook, here’s a pen…”

Since that was his reaction, he must have had an inkling, or you must of thought that you wanted to write and he must have known it. You must have exuded It somehow, that desire.

Well, I mean, I was a reader. A serious reader. I would read things and say, “How the fuck did he do that?” You know? That’s just amazing. And other people have always sort of said, “You’re a writer, right?” And I would say, “No, I’m not.”

Well, I’m trying to make these sentences, I couldn’t make these sentences, I couldn’t do anything. Well, fortunately I was living with a writer so he told me, “You’re not supposed to be able to. Everybody writes like a five-legged pig at first. Nobody could write a sentence at first. You wanna write a good sentence? You’re going to have to put in a lot of work.”

The one thing I could do was I had a friend who would haul me to the neighborhood Y, you know, once every few weeks when I could manage to get out of bed, and I would sort of run around a little track. I thought I was keeping a diary of going to the Y. I would become frustrated by this very easily. I would burn what I had written, tear it up. I would cry and scream because it was so terrible. But then, after many months of it, I decided I would show it to Wally. I thought I was writing a factual piece about the Y, and he read it and he said, “Well, you know, this is not a factual piece, this is fiction, so turn it into fiction.” [Pause.]

Many, many more months passed with me trying to turn this into a piece of fiction, having a very, very hard time. I gave it to him to read again and he said, “Well, you’ve turned it into fiction but it’s lost its life, so do it again.”

You’re lucky you had a coach at home.

Oh yeah, he’s like the world’s best writing teacher. But I thought I was going to kill him, of course.

[Laughter.]

Of course.

Anyhow I wrote it again over many months and he said, “Great, you’ve done it, you’ve written a story.” Of course it’s very autobiographical and it’s in my first book. It’s a lousy story and I’m sorry that I published it, though it is the only story of mine that a lot of people like.

Really? You don’t like it?

Yeah, I think it’s really crap. I have sort of a family feeling for it, but I don’t think it’s any good.

But it got you some attention. How? First you showed it at home, then who did you show it to?

Then I showed it to the friend of mine who’s in it. It’s the only story I ever wrote that has any autobiographical component and my friend Kathy was the friend who took me to the Y, so I put my friend Kathy in the story, taking me to the Y. And the story is kind of amusing, though the reality was not in any way amusing. But, anyhow, my friend Kathy is an actress and a director and she said, “You know, I’ve been invited to direct a reading, something at the Public Theater, and I want to direct your story.”

And that’s not a small gig. I mean, going from writing and tearing your hair in your basement apartment to having a reading of the story you thought you couldn’t write at the Public, it’s a pretty big Whoosh!

Yeah. I thought, “Listen I really don’t want to do that, it really belongs on the page, I really don’t think it should be out loud.” She said, “Well, what kind of a friend are you?” So I said, “Oh, alright, but I’m leaving town.”

So you weren’t even there for it?

I wasn’t. Anyhow, so that was that, and I didn’t think about it, and about six months later Joe Papp called me up. And he said, “Kathleen did your story and I just came across it again in the drawer and I’d like you to write a play.” I said, “Joe, I can’t write a play.” And he said, “Well, I’d like you to write a play.” And I said, “Joe, I can’t write a play!” He said, “Well, I’ll give you a signing, a commission.” I said, “Money! That changes the picture!”

I said, “Listen, I’ve got this really good waitressing gig, they don’t fire me, no matter what I do, and I’m a really lousy waitress so I cannot give this job up.” So we worked out this scheme where I dropped by a few nights a week and he sort of put me on salary. He said, “Okay, you’ve got five months, and show me the play as you progress along.” And I said, “Oh, sure, Joe.” But I would never show anybody anything while working on it, and I didn’t show it to him and he kept calling and saying, “Well, how’s it going?” I kind of said, “Oh, fine.” Actually, I was lying on the floor drinking grappa. I was just panicked.

Not writing it?

No, I had no idea how to do it. I’m a very, very slow writer, but I wrote that very quickly, in like the last two months or so, and I was very pleased with it. I showed it to Wally, the most important person in my life, and he said, “I don’t get it, what is this?” And for some reason I was very confident about it.

Uncharacteristically, it seems.

I don’t know why, I was just certain it was good. I brought it to Joe and I said, “Here.” He read it. He called me. He said, “I hate this play.”

Oh no!

I said, “Okay.” It just didn’t bother me. He was very angry about it because he had paid me all this money. And also he liked being a person who did nice things for people. So it really made him angry to be saying something bad to me.

But you continued to feel like it had some value?

Yeah!

Well, the way you’ve been talking about your path up to now it seems very “I can’t do anything, I can’t do anything” and all of a sudden it’s this, “I have this thing, and I don’t care that my most trusted critics are not into it.”

I didn’t care at all. I was working at a bar at the time. Naturally I was a good decade older than anybody else who was working there, and I thought that they were the perfect cast.

That they would have been perfect in your play?

Yeah, perfect. So we invited them over and they did a reading of the play.

Where?

At our apartment. And Wally said, “I get it, I get it.”

It had to be read.

It had to be read.

And what about Joe Papp, did he ever see it?

No. He said, “I don’t care, I don’t care if it’s the biggest hit that ever happens, I’ll never like it.” So I didn’t care. But Kathy knew I was doing this of course because I told her. So she said, “Let me see it.” So I showed it to Kathy, she really liked it. And she showed it around. Nobody was interested in doing it.

I didn’t care, I had no particular interest in it being done, but there were two consequences. One was that I sort of had tasted the fun of writing twice. If Joe had not commissioned the play, I would not be writing now. But after you’ve had that taste, you just can’t give up, so I started then really to write. The other consequence was that that play sort of floated around. I wasn’t aware of its floating around, but it was floating around and somebody called me and said, “I really want to do this.” So then it was the first new play that was done at a theater called the Second Stage. They did a great production, and it was just wonderful!

What’s interesting is how you went from this place of, “I can’t do it,” to writing and having the first things you write be both satisfying to you and to be put in the public forum, and to be recognized in that way, that’s sort of…

It’s all uncanny, I mean it’s a story about incredible luck. Here’s the sort of final leg of that: I was working in this bar and there was a table of people that would come in frequently and one of them was this very nosy woman from the neighborhood. She kept saying, “Who are you, what are you?” And I kept saying, “I’m your waitress and I’m bringing you a hamburger.” And she kept saying, “No, you’re a writer I can tell!” And I kept saying, “I’m not a writer, I’m a waitress!” This went on and on, and during this time my play was produced and in the play, my writing was compared to hers. She was Laurie Colwin. So she came in waving the New York Times with this review. She said, “See, I told you, I told you, what are you working on now?”

If you’re in an MFA program people know you are writing, so you can’t really get the protection of lying, but I suggest lying to anybody who isn’t. Just don’t tell people, protect yourself.

People start prying and asking and making it uncomfortable.

It’s hard, you know? People know you’re writing, they say, what are you writing? She was sort of saying, “What are you writing?” She said, “I want to see something of yours.” And I knew she was working at a homeless shelter in a neighborhood so I said, “If you let me come with you to the shelter, I’ll show you a story I just finished.” So, we made the trade. A few days later, somebody called me up and she said, “Oh I’m a friend of Laurie Colwin and my name is so and so and Laurie showed me your story and I really liked it.” “Oh that’s very nice, thank you.” “Well, maybe you’ll come have lunch with me?” I thought, “I’m not doing anything for lunch.” And she said, “Okay, what day is good for you?” We made plans and I said, “Where do I come?” And she said, “Well, to Knopf!”

It was Alice Quinn who was at Knopf. She said, “Well, I’d really like to publish a book of yours.” So I said, “I haven’t written a book. And she said, “Well, do you want a contract?” And I said “No.” But when I had written a certain number of stories, I went back to her.

That’s amazing.

It’s amazing, I know.

So did you create a discipline for yourself at that point?

I was able to carve out a certain amount of time and space, more than I’m able to now. And…I think it’s a very good time for writers before they’re published because then people don’t put them in slots, there’s not a lot of pressure, you have a kind of freedom. I would say to people, don’t rush to publish.

That’s great. Several people have told me that. Then you’re not beholden to anybody either, or to a style that you supposedly have.

Absolutely. The longer you can retard it, the better off you are. There may be people for whom that is not true, but it’s certainly true for me, and I think it’s true for a lot of people.

So then you wrote enough for it to be a collection, then you brought it to Alice, and then?

And then it was a collection.

What did you parents think at this point?

Of course I lied to them as long as I could.

You didn’t want to tell them that you were a writer.

I definitely did not want to but at a certain point I had to.

But what was the resistance? Because, in a way, wouldn’t they have liked that?

Oh yes, oh definitely, they would have liked that but the pressure would have been unbearable. There came a point when I had to send my first story, the one that was done at the Public, to my parents. My parents were living in New Mexico then, and they were living not far from Henry Roth. So anyhow, I sent this thing to my mother, didn’t hear anything, just as well. And eventually, she called up and she said, “Well, Henry Roth didn’t think your story was very good.”

[GASP.]

So then, I had to send her my second one and my mother’s response was, “Well, it isn’t as good as your first one.” So.

Damn hard to please.

But I’ll tell you a story, if you want to know a story about prestige, publishing, all that. I used to keep this story a secret because I was so embarrassed about it, but now I think young writers deserve to know stories like this.

I’d be honored to hear it.

I grew up in an area where every girl looked like Tuesday Weld. I mean everybody was just a very blonde, beautiful, leggy girl. Then there was me. And it was like, “Uh oh, what are we going to do about this?” My father had three sisters and they all had three big gigantic noses, like me. Two of them had nose jobs in their sixties.

So anyhow, my first book was published. There was a photo of me in the Times review of the book, a very good review. Right around this time, my cousin, the daughter of one of my father’s three sisters, was getting married. And her mother calls her up and says, “Kathy, I saw Debbie’s picture in the Times, and saw that she has a nose job.” My cousin said, “She does not have a nose job.” And my aunt said, “Well, it’s obvious, we’ve all talked about it, we see she has a nose job, she looks so much better, you know really this was a good move.” Kathy said, “She does not have a nose job.” So then, there’s the wedding, the sisters come to the wedding, I’m at the wedding. Afterwards they all say to Kathy, “We told you, she got a nose job.”

Prestige, a good review, equals smaller nose. Better nose.

That’s how they see it now because of the new way they see you.

That was the most incredible status index that I have ever, ever experienced. “Oh you look so much better.”

Tough crowd.

Yeah, they are a tough crowd. But everyone is a tough crowd, you know? And I think that’s one reason why people really do desire publication, desire recognition, because of the absolutely inarguable status shift. I think if you can tough it out, the longer you can tough it out, without that, the better off you are.

And why exactly?

Well, just for that reason that you’re more protected from people’s expectations and demands and characterizations of you.

And I think sometimes young writers have the terrible situation of, you know, an agent or a publisher saying, “This is great, this is great, this is great, we’re going to publish it, it’ll make a zillion dollars you’ll be famous.” They back the book, they advertise the book, it doesn’t do that well and then the poor young writer, rather than getting support for the next book, is done. Absolutely done.

I think it’s just criminal, it really is. Let somebody admire you because they admire you instead of thinking that maybe you’ll make money. I mean fine if that happens after a while, great, but by that time you own your writing.

I’m still so interested in this idea that you had of yourself as this person who couldn’t be a writer, but then you’re being reviewed in the Times, your book is published, you can hold it, it’s a tangible object— what was the feeling of seeing your first book in print?

Ugh, I left the country for three months when the book was coming out. There weren’t cell phones, there weren’t computers and I just went to Italy on my own, Wally stayed at home. I just said, “I can’t handle it, I don’t wanna know about it, I don’t wanna know what happens.” It was terrifying, I was really terrified.

But in the privacy of your own room, when you hold the object…

The object is great, I’m not going to pretend for a SECOND that it doesn’t feel fabulous to have a book in your hand the pages of which you have filled up.

And now your work has been collection in this beautiful anthology.

It is beautiful, isn’t it?

You’re on Olympus, among the untouchable gods of the pen.

I feel old, but not untouchable.

[Laughter.]

There is something to be said when people don’t want to beat you up so much. You know, after a certain age.

How does it all feel, looking back?

It’s surprising. It’s just very, very surprising.

I think I was unbelievably lucky. I mean, the story I told you is uncanny. I don’t know how I could have been so lucky. I just can’t comprehend it. And without that amount of luck, I don’t think I would be writing because I did not have that kind of courage, I did not have that kind of strength. The accident simply propelled me forward. Of course, I work like a dray horse, but that’s a separate issue. You can work like a dray horse and have no luck.

So yeah, I mean, I was just very, very, very lucky.

And now you teach young writers. You’re at the other side of the table, you’re the one saying, “Go back and do it again.” Do you have any advice for young writers?

Yes, I do. One is, that it isn’t supposed to be good at first. You can’t just expect to sit down and write something good. There have always been a few people that can. I certainly can’t and when I started I couldn’t write a decent English sentence. It’s very thorny grammar, it’s difficult, it’s squishy weird grammar, it’s hard to get a handle on. It’s very, very hard to express the simplest idea or thought or activity and I think that often young writers are not prepared for that. On the one hand, they are frustrated too easily because they think, “This is harder than it should be.” No, it isn’t! It’s really, really, really hard. And they think, “Well I’m not suited to it, because its so hard.” I mean, that’s what I always thought. But the fact of its difficulty has nothing to do with whether you’re suitable for it or not. Nothing to do with it.

Then there’s the converse problem of people not being as ruthlessly honest with themselves about what they’ve made as they ought to be. Thinking, “This will do, this is okay.” So on the one hand, you have to have a lot of confidence that you’re going to be able to do it, but you also have to be really scrupulous in your honesty about whether or not you have done it. It’s a double thing. It’s very, very difficult. It’s very demanding.

And you have to have the perseverance and the hard-work ethic to go back and say, I have to do it again.

Yeah. I think a lot of young writers are very frightened by revision. I happen to like it, because I’m embarrassed about the first draft, my early drafts. After a certain point, you do develop a certain confidence that you may not be able to make it good, but you may be able to make it a little better each time, and that’s precious gold too, to know that that’s going to happen. You know that little by little by little by little you can make it something that you yourself can bear to look at. But that’s a learned thing.

Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander

Photo by Diana Michener

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