Deborah Eisenberg, Writer and MacArthur Winner

A recipient of a 2009 MacArthur genius grant, Deborah Eisenberg has been publishing spare and elegant short fiction to national acclaim since the 1980s, winning the Rea Award for the Short Story in 2000, a Guggenheim fellowship and three O. Henry Awards.

Eisenberg’s fiction is meticulously worded, with narrations that steer readers into the intricacies of human interactions and reveal the potency of silences. Her characters are both confused and perceptive, oftentimes self-consciously limited in their understanding of the happenings around them.

Her most recent story collection, “Twilight of the Superheroes,” centers on a group of friends in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It is the latest of several politically attuned projects, including stories about civic upheaval in Central America.

Eisenberg, who has taught at the University of Virginia since 1994, recently spoke with Art Beat about the writing process, the empathy of children and the politicization of American society.

Your stories are often kind of murky, both in terms of the story line and in terms of the ethical or political tensions that you describe. How do you begin to structure or write your stories?

It’s kind of hard to say, because it’s not exactly a process that I arrived at in any conscious way. It takes me a very, very long time to write a story, to write a piece of fiction, whatever you call the fiction that I write. I just go about it blindly, feeling my way towards what it has to be. Things undergo many, many, many revisions. So, I don’t make a conscious decision that, ‘This is the effect that I want.’ I slowly, slowly, slowly go about making something the way that it insists on being made.

Do you think that’s a distinctly different process than writing a novel? Do you think that’s one of the reasons that you’ve never written a novel?

Deborah Eisenberg; photo courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.I don’t think that it would probably be different in my case, I think it’s probably just the way I write, although I think that what we’re both implying, you in your question and me in my response, is that I don’t start with an outline of events. Because I don’t really consider events in themselves to reveal anything, they very rarely do, and I’m not interested in just ‘this happened, that happened, then the next thing happened.’ And I suppose most novels, to generalize, depend on a very propulsive plotline. Obviously that’s not always true. But I would say the reason that I’ve never written a novel is because I’ve never written a novel.

A lot of times you include children, or younger people, in your stories who have a clarity of perspective that is surprising to come across in literary fiction. Could you discuss that a little?

I include children because sometimes they need to be in the story, they need to be in the piece. It’s always nice to have minds that are unclouded by cliche. I suppose I’m always looking for a sort of acuity of perception either in my characters or about my characters. And there’s a sort of loneliness, maybe, that children sometimes possess, that provides a very useful way to look at things.

I think what is striking to me about the child characters you’ve created is that they bear so many resemblances to the adult characters that you create, that you acknowledge that they have an understanding of moral terrain.

Oh, I definitely believe that. I think that children are acutely sensitive to injustice because they live in a world that is absolutely filled with injustice. They have very, very little power and they are extremely aware of power relations. So children are experts at manipulation and others are experts at discerning and weighing all manner of injustices and are extremely empathetic. It may be that there’s a kind of empathy that broadens or deepens in adulthood, but heaven knows children experience enormous compassion, I mean many children do, and I think that they are extremely aware of moral issues.

Many of your stories center around meals or cleaning or people congregating in rooms, and I imagine that is related to the philosophy you’ve discussed already, that events don’t necessarily reveal very much about people. You showcase these banal, quotidian activities. How do you go about, in revision, structuring a scene, or the inclusion of these sorts of details? How do you envision what your characters are doing?

Well, again, it’s not really a conscious process. Often, I’ll have a scene of people having a conversation in a room. Then it turns out it’s either the wrong people or the wrong room, and I just have to keep going about it until I find the right people and the right room. It’s true that I’m oftentimes dealing with a crowd, and that’s extremely inconvenient for a writer, but there’s nothing I can do about that.

What would make the right room the right room?

It’s hard to discuss, because it’s always sort of an exploration, and I usually don’t even know for a very long time, what it is that I’m exploring. So there’s a tremendous amount of exorcising that I do, carving away. These are very, very long stories that I write, but you could also call them extremely condensed novels. I feel like I start with a tremendous amount of material and just keep boiling it down. But yes, I want to get as close as possible to the inexpressible, and yet still communicate.

That’s interesting what you said about your stories being extremely condensed novels, because at certain points, sections within a short story serve as their own short, short story, with a really tight vignette or circular structure where the end reflects its beginning. How do these pieces of the story end up fitting together? How do you shape those components?

Deborah Eisenberg's 'Twilight of the Superheroes'I don’t think and write. Or, to put this another way, I take an enormously long time to write something. And then after about a billion drafts I usually think, ‘Okay, I’m done, this is it. There’s nothing extra in it, there’s nothing I can do, there’s nothing I can do to improve it. It may not be good, but it is exactly the thing that it wants to be.’ And I reach that point and then I read it for the zillionth time —I mean, so much writing is reading what you’ve written over and over — so I read it again and I think, ‘Well that’s odd, why did I write this? What was I interested in?’ So then the focus comes and I write what actually is the final draft. But I realize that that doesn’t speak to these internal scenes. I’ve never given them a thought until this second, I never thought about the work that way at all until this second. I suppose they are analogous to little chapters.

Some of your recent work has been more overtly political in nature, or overtly connected to contemporary issues — to 9/11 and to political situations in Central America. What is the way that you approach researching the world around? Do you follow politics closely? Do you follow the news closely? Or are you wary of researching fiction that way?

In certain ways I am not at all what people mean by political, but I have different biases of temperament. And like it or not, we live in a world that has been very much imposed upon by events, global events or local events. And like it or not, we are residents and citizens of a country that has disproportionate power in the world. As you and I are merrily talking on the phone, heaven knows how many people are being killed all over the world with our money. And it’s just not possible to be unaware of that all the time.

I came into my adulthood during the Vietnam War. So it’s sort of a shadow over one’s mind all the time. I’m saying in a way, I suppose, that as hard as one might try to be a completely private person, it’s out of the question at this moment, for those of us who live in the U.S., both in reality and in our consciousness. So no, I don’t go about actually researching unless I absolutely need to for specifics in the story, but I did spend a certain amount of time in Central America during the wars of the ’80s, and everything I think that appears in those particular stories was all around me, completely accessible to me, not hidden or esoteric. And the title story of the recent collection that you refer to, ‘Twilight of the Superheroes,’ began with an attempt simply to truthfully register responses as they occurred, not retroactively.

Do you think that artists deal with these issues inevitably as our society moves into a particularly politicized period or — and these things aren’t mutually exclusive, I know — do you think that artists have any kind of responsibility to chronicle them and discuss them?

I say, and this is something that if you catch me in a half hour I’d say something completely different, but as you’re asking me right this minute, I say that I think that the responsibility that artists have, if we can speak of such a thing, is to be truthful. And that might mean just about anything. A politicized world is sort of devouring us, but in a way I think that artists must be very, very free in their minds, and if what absorbs their attention is their toenails, that’s what they should expend their efforts on contemplating. But the world filters into the mind — you can’t do anything about it.