Author Q&A with David Ebenbach
- January 3, 2013
Linda Morefield interviews David Ebenbach, author of Into the Wilderness.
Interviewed by Linda Morefield
Into The Wilderness, a terrific collection of 14 stories, explores that ostensibly familiar but ever strange, exciting but terrifying territory of parenthood. Once in this wilderness, nothing is ever again the same. Veteran short story writer David Ebenbach does not have to resort to violence, murder, mayhem, divorce or child abuse to grab your attention. Rather, once read, these quiet and luminous tales linger. With charm, insight, and humor, Ebenbach reveals a deeper meaning to everyday events that by their very ordinariness rush by unnoticed, moments typically experienced without thought or examination. An unwed mother leaves the hospital with her newborn, as bewildered by her circumstances as her parents who accompany her. A divorced father struggles to connect with his children who live in a different city. An unemployed father is able to help his adult son who is despondent about being dumped by his longtime, serious girlfriend. In doing so, he helps himself. A lesbian couple wrestles with how to expose masculinity to their three-year old son. What makes the “best” family for a child?
Q&A with David Ebenbach
I am curious about the order of composition of your 14 stories about single mothers, divorced mothers, fathers, married couples contemplating the “wilderness,” and couples living alternative lifestyles. Many of these stories reflect upon each other. The four stories in your Judith series are of course related, a complex, somewhat confused, totally believable, very likeable woman, Judith, working out what life means now with an unplanned infant, father unknown. Much of her existential angst is focused on finding a name for this stranger, her child. Your story “Naming” is a stark contrast to Judith’s dilemma. Jacob and Naomi struggle about whether they should have a child, worried that “everyone was behaving in demographically-appropriate ways [having children]. Everyone, that is, except Jacob and Naomi, who had fallen off the curve. …” For them, naming a child was “the easiest thing. It was the one parental act they could imagine — negotiable, simple, the kind of thing you could do without really damaging anything.”
Yet in “Naming” the married couple are worried about what would happen, what they would give up if they decided to have a child. Another story, “Near Missing” provides in indirect and yet profound ways one response (out of innumerable possibilities) to this question.
Did the themes and attitudes explored in one story give rise to what you wanted to explore in the next story you wrote? Did you plan to write a block of stories concerned with the passion of parenthood? Or were other stories with different themes composed along with these stories, stories now awaiting a home in a new collection?
I’m also curious about the ordering of the Judith stories in your book. “Judith I: Into the Wilderness” opens with Judith, baby and her parents recently arrived in NYC from Indiana, moving Judith into her new life as a single mom, and their new life with a daughter who has made, to them, such a bewildering choice. “Judith II: Judith in The Path” goes back in time to how Judith arrived at her current circumstances. This is a wonderful story that stands on its own, but becomes so much more meaningful having previously read the results of Judith’s actions. And of course, Judith’s poignant plea “please tell me what to do” echoes and reechoes until Judith solves this problem for herself in “Judith IV: Life Is the Fruit.” Which of these stories was written first? Did you know when you created Judith that she would live over four stories? Did one story grow out of the other? Was this originally planned as a larger work?
First of all, I just want to say that it’s a pleasure to be answering questions that are so clearly rooted in such a thoughtful and close reading of Into the Wilderness. Thank you! I’ll try to provide answers that are worthy of the questions.
I’ll take Judith on first, because this book began with her story. Into the Wilderness was born from a failed novel about Judith. The novel was centered around her bewildering choice: to have a baby as a single mother, not even knowing who the father was or what it would mean to be a mother. I liked the character of Judith a lot, but the novel was kind of a disaster. I had this idea that in order to keep a reader reading for hundreds of pages, I had to make very extreme things happen in the plot. For example, a frazzled and sleep-deprived Judith started leaving her baby alone in the apartment repeatedly, going out for drinks at a nearby bar, staying out for a while each time. Readers reacted to her with understandable horror. It was just too much. So I backed away from the work as a novel, but I couldn’t let go of the character. Luckily, while I had been working on the novel — two years! — I had also been writing short stories, stories that were also centered around parenting. (I was a new parent myself.) Basically I came to the conclusion that I didn’t really know how to write a novel, but that I might know something about short stories. That’s when the idea for Into the Wilderness as a collection of shorter pieces came together. Judith started it, and then other stories started to line up. (I did write stories off the topic of parenting then, too, but just a few of them.)
All of the Judith stories in the collection were lifted from the failed novel, and then heavily revised so that they might be able to stand alone. (The rest of the novel was just left behind. The writer’s life seems to require a willingness to let go.) Their order in the collection is a little different from the order in which the chunks appeared in the original manuscript. In both books I liked the idea of introducing the reader to her situation as a new mother, baby in arms, before going back to explain how the baby came to be; I think there’s some nice tension, being thrust into the situation and only afterward starting to get context. In the novel we get that introduction by seeing Judith in the hospital, and then we go into backstory, and then we take the baby home to Judith’s apartment. In the collection, there’s no hospital scene, so I start with the apartment scene (“Into the Wilderness”) as that intro, and then we get the past (“Judith in the Path”).
The other two Judith stories are also scrambled, in an even more complicated way. I wanted the stories to have the potential to stand alone, like I said, so in both cases I pulled together bits and pieces of related material from across the book. “Judith Gone Wild,” for example, is a much-compressed and boiled down version of her sleep-deprivation experiences, which take place across about 70 pages of the middle of the book but which end up as a 19-page short story in Into the Wilderness. Similarly, the material that’s now in “Life is the Fruit” was originally scattered through the last 200 pages of this 273-page book, but the final draft is a much tighter, more focused 45 pages (which is still pretty long for a short story), with all the melodrama chopped out.
And then there’s the rest of the book. Like I say, while I was wrestling with Judith, I was writing other parenting stories on the side. When I noticed that, and when I came to see that the Judith novel needed to be raided for material for short stories, I started to write more consciously toward the theme of parenthood. I revived (and heavily revised) old stories that seemed relevant and I also wrote new ones. I tried to push myself to not only take on issues and experiences that I’d had but also to stretch myself beyond my experience, to talk about parenting in its many diverse forms, as well as about people who didn’t have babies and either couldn’t decide whether to have them (as in “Naming”) or who couldn’t make it happen (as in “Is Any Thing Too Hard for the Lord?”). That’s one of the things I love about short stories — they allow you to move into so many different lives.
That diversity became one of the principles I considered when organizing the non-Judith stories. After her first story (which opens the collection), I wanted to move to a story about a father, and I wanted to move from first-person to third just so the reader could see that the collection was going to have a range, and that’s how “Jewish Day” came next. Then it was back to a mother, but still in third, and then a mother in first, and so on. I wanted things to change up between stories. I also wanted to bring out some connections, though. In the middle of the book are two stories about parents with older children — “The Escape Artist” and “Hungry to Eat” — and I liked having them near each other because, even though one was a mother and the other was a father, it felt like they had something important in common. I also liked having “Naming” near a Judith section where she was thinking a lot about possible names for her new daughter. And so on — when I arranged the stories, spreading them out on the floor and physically moving them around, I tried to keep a balance between changing things up between stories, on the one hand, and bringing out connections between them, on the other.
Names and naming are so important. Can you comment on your choice of names for your characters? So many of the names are Old Testament. And Judaism feels like a deep-wellspring for your work. Could you comment on your religion as a foundation for your writing.
I mostly decide about names in an intuitive way — as I’m working on a character, names bounce around in my head until one feels right. And I do think that Judaism is the reason that a lot of the names come out of the Hebrew Bible. Often I don’t really feel like trumpeting the character’s Jewishness from the rooftops, but the default setting for me is for my characters to be Jewish (because I am), and using those old Biblical names brings that out a little. For example, in “Person of Interest,” I think of the characters as Jewish, which adds some significance to their encounter with an Arab neighbor, and although there aren’t many signs of their Jewishness, the names Ben and Tamar do signal it for me. I don’t really mind if readers don’t notice that, though; if religion or culture are crucial to a story, I make sure to mark it more explicitly, as in a story like “Jewish Day” or, in a very different way, “Is Any Thing Too Hard for the Lord?” Of course, it isn’t always about religion so much as culture — culturally shared rituals and life-stage events, issues of identity, social affiliations, and so on. Most of my characters operate in something of a Jewish world, simply because I do. In many cases the stories aren’t about Jewishness, but they still often inhabit that world.
One other thing on names: sometimes they have to get changed when the stories are brought together in a collection, because sometimes you find that completely different characters in different stories share the same name, and there’s the possibility of reader confusion. So there were some name changes for that reason — but I guess I got used to them, because I can’t remember anymore which names got changed that way.
Although Chekhov is the one of the original masters of the short story, his name does not usually leap into my mind when reading short fiction. But when reading your stories, that’s who I thought of: the clarity, the nonjudgmental presentation of characters in everyday life, the telling details, the opening up of deep meaning in everyday actions and events. Who are your role models? Who are the authors you admire, and why?
First of all, you are now one of my favorite people. Thank you for drawing any kind of connection between me and Chekhov, who I do love. And I love him for just the reasons you list: his interest in the ordinary, his reverence for our actual lived experience, his honesty. If I’m doing those things in my work, I’m very glad, because those are my goals. I love a whole range of authors, including folks who write stuff that’s entirely different from my stuff, like the grandiosity of Salman Rushdie and the lushness of Toni Morrison and William Faulkner. But my writing inspiration tends to come most from quieter writers, writers who are deeply moved by everyday human experience and talk about it directly, with a focus on the minute. Raymond Carver’s work has meant an awful lot to me. Abby Frucht and Peter Cameron were early influences. I also admire Eudora Welty enormously, and Hemingway — not just his big adventure stories but also the ones where people are just sitting around talking. I just love anybody who can bring out the importance of the lives people actually live, day in, day out.
I understand that you have been writing a nonfiction guide to creativity, The Artist’s Torah What a fascinating title. Please tell us about this project. What was its origin? How are you approaching the topic? Will you be including discussions of craft issues or is this a philosophical exploration?
Speaking of Jewish … Yes, The Artist’s Torah is also just out in print, and it’s a guide to the creative process as seen through a Jewish spiritual lens. For me, the act of writing has something of the sacred in it — a lot of the sacred in it, actually — and over the years I’ve written some articles about that. Because I’m Jewish, those musings have had a decidedly Jewish angle — my first piece was about the lessons an artist could learn from the themes of the Passover holiday, for example. After a while, I’d written enough on the subject that I wanted to take it on as a bigger project. The Torah (the text consisting of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) was my way in.
The Torah is the central religious text for Jews, and we’re told that, in theory, you can learn everything about life from those pages. Well, that sounded like a challenge to me; as a person who lives the life of a writer, I began to wonder whether I could draw some wisdom from our ancient, foundational texts about the artist’s process and experience. In the end, those texts turned out to be incredibly rich, and the book touches on lots of things. There is some philosophical exploration, but the main purpose of the book is practicality: I wanted to raise issues about how creativity works (and doesn’t work) and help artists to do the things we do. Certainly writing The Artist’s Torah helped me to get clearer about those things in my own life.
Are you currently working on another short story collection? Do you ever think about writing a novel? Do you think of novelists and short story writers as having different goals and sensibilities?
I am working on a third collection of short stories right now, and I hope to have a manuscript finished by the summer. This one’s going to be called Missionaries, I think, and it’s going to be full of narrators who engage with the reader, narrators who explain or defend themselves or try to chat the reader up in one way or another. It’s been really interesting, writing stories that are bound together not by subject matter but by the way they take on the reader. I’m enjoying it.
As for novels, well, I don’t know. The Judith novel is, unfortunately, not my only failed attempt. I’m a believer in persisting even when things are difficult, so you’d think that I’d be gearing up for another try at long-form fiction, but I’m not. I’m not because I think you’re right about goals. I wrote a piece for Glimmer Train Stories this fall about the difference, as I see it, between a person writing a short story and a person writing a novel (even if that’s the same person, just at different times). I think the novelist believes — has to believe — that in order to fully appreciate an important moment (i.e., the climax of the book), a reader has to experience a lot of things first, has to come to understand the characters and the backstory and everything that led up to that big moment. The short story writer, on the other hand, probably has to believe that, if you understand any one thing (e.g., a single interaction, a single striking image, a gesture, an action), you’ll understand everything else — everything that led up to it and everything that will follow.
Those philosophies don’t contradict one another, and they’re probably both true, in their own converse ways, but it’s clear to me that I’m much more in tune with the latter than the former. I react in big ways to small things, and I think that little moments reveal just about everything about people and their situations. That’s why I’m sticking to short stories — for now, anyway.
I know you are a published poet. Are you continuing to write poetry as you explore prose creation?
Yes, I move between the different kinds of writing frequently. When I get an impulse to write, it usually demands a certain form, and I listen to that demand. In some cases, the thing I want to write requires more of an emphasis on storyline and character development, and that piece is likely to become a story; in other cases it needs me to emphasize language and imagery more, and that takes me in the direction of a poem. And then of course there are the times when I want to talk about writing itself — how it works and what it means — and that’s when I write nonfiction. That’s my writing about writing. I’m just glad to have all these forms available to me. It means I don’t ever have to turn an idea away just because it needs to be handled in some form I don’t use. I use them all, if I can (except maybe the novel), and so I don’t turn anything good away.
A lot of my poetry seems to be concerned with place — about different places and questions about what “home” means. I have a chapbook called Autogeography coming out in January, and that’s what many of the poems in the chapbook are about: understanding myself through understanding my connection to places I’ve been and lived and left. That connection tends to be very strong for me, and it comes out in the poetry.
It is always so exciting to discover a new writer, or to be reminded of interesting books heard about but not yet read. So I always like to ask, who are you reading now? What books are in the to-be-read pile on your nightstand?
For the last few months I’ve been doing way too little reading for pleasure. I’ve been a judge for two book-manuscript contests this fall, and that means reading a lot of unpublished manuscripts in the hopes of finding a really good one. As it happens, a lot of them have been pretty good, but there hasn’t been much time for straight-up pleasure reading. That said, I did recently read a really spectacular book of short stories by Kathy Flann called Smoky Ordinary, and got to read a draft manuscript of an exciting new collection of stories by my friend Margaret Luongo, the author If the Heart Is Lean, which is of one of the better published story collections I’ve read in a long time. Then there was the great collection Now Playing by Shellie Zacharia and the absolutely mind-blowing memoir Cardboard Gods by Josh Wilker. Still, these days it’s mostly contest manuscripts for me, and my nightstand of unread books — which is actually an entire small bookshelf — is sagging under the weight of more than 85 books and literary magazines waiting for my attention.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions. I very much look forward to reading your next book.