January 2006

John Detrixhe


An Interview with David Ebenbach

David Ebenbach's wife, Rachel, was giving him a thumbs up. Or maybe she was telling him to speak louder -- I couldn't tell. But it didn't matter. Ebenbach's voice was soft but it carried, and his delivery was telling of his teaching background.

Ebenbach was reading at Chicago's Book Cellar from his collection of short stories, Between Camelots, for which he won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize in 2005. Stewart O'Nan, winner or the Drue Heinz Prize in 1993 and a judge in of the 2005 competition, said of Between Camelots, "These stories of searching young Americans are intimate and sharply detailed, sometimes hopeful, often sad, with just a taste of the strange. Between Camelots is about the scars of first losses, and the need to carry on."

Between Camelots is what has gotten Ebenbach the most acclaim so far, but there have been other projects. There was the Philadelphia Poetry Provider, a one-person effort to spread poetry in Philadelphia. And there was also a project in which Ebenbach sent a work of fiction or poetry each month to President Bush. These endeavors, when viewed together with the tone and subject matter of his fiction, comprise a rendering of an author who seems hopeful and grounded, a shrewd observer who isn't necessarily content to observe.

After his reading, Ebenbach discussed with me a bit about his life and his work, and how those things, maybe at times, aren't all that different from one another.

I understand from the reading tonight that Between Camelots was written over an eleven year period?

Something like that.

It made me wonder how you go about selecting stories for a collection. They are so diverse, and yet there's a theme or a thread that runs through them. Did you look to balance the collection?

The thing that was weird about it was the sort of lack of premeditation about it. The stories were kind of magnetized to one another. And I wasn't sure why they belonged together. It was just this feeling of, boy, that story gets along with that story. And this other one kind of clangs when I put it next to it. It was this very inarticulate process.

And yet, when I look back at it, I'm amazed by how much it does seem to be a selection of my stuff that's really searching the same caves. Going after the same questions over and over again in these many ways.

I wouldn't call your short stories in Between Camelots minimal in any sense, but there is an efficiency about them. And I spoke to your friend, Josh Wilker, about your novel, and he said that it is more maximalist?

Absolutely. I'm kind of like an accordion--I get big and I get small. And the stories, and some of the work that I've done on some novels that I'm still tinkering with, are the small thing. You know, they're looking at the close-up. What happens in a day, in a minute, to one person. When it's not a car chase and it's not an explosion, but just a person living life.

And then after that I seem to feel the need to go really big. To talk about a family over two generations. This book I'm working on now is about America. And it's really loud. The characters speak with a lot of slang, and there's a lot of word play. I was sort of taking inspiration from Salman Rushdie, who writes incredibly loud books.

Josh mentioned Faulkner and Rushdie as two of your influences.

Right. And they sort of represent the extremes for me. Faulkner goes incredibly close up, and Rushdie zooms out, and takes it all in. The boldness of both things really fascinates me--they are both bold moves, getting that close and getting that big.

Sometimes I talk to writers who have written short stories and they've written novels -- and I thought about this particularly when I read your story Orange, which is very short -- and they talk about the feeling of ease and freedom of being able to expand and release when writing a novel. Is that the case for you?

I actually think novels are easier than short stories, because there is that sort of forgiveness of the long period of time that you're working on it. You sort of know that you're going to screw up, and you're going to have another half a year to fix that one screw up.   

And also the reader is sort of forgiving of a novel. You know, in Moby Dick, you're going to get a million pages on harpoons, and the reader says, "Okay, I can learn about harpoons for a little while." But it in a short story, the reader doesn't have that patience. And you do feel like, also, that since it's born out of a more discrete impulse, that you want to get it done in a quicker period of time. Or, I do. So that you don't have the half year to correct the screw up.

And the reader doesn't have the half year to get into all your little pockets. They want the story to open, and close.

I understand in college you were interested in magical realism, and the short stories that I read from Between Camelots were realist fiction. What moved you to write in that form for those stories?

I think it actually maps on, nearly perfectly, to the same big-small accordioning I do. The big books tend to have magical realism in them. The big work. You're getting so big that the natural laws don't always apply--you're willing to bust those.

Whereas, when I go so small, you're painting a miniature, and you have to be exactly faithful or it doesn't work.

Some of your characters deal with social anxiety, and I related to those anxieties. I thought it was interesting in observing you before the reading tonight that you don't seem to have any of those issues, yet you relate it so well in your stories.

Well, I wish I could say that it didn't apply to me, but it applies to me in spades. I find that when I'm in certain roles--teaching, or giving a reading, or when I'm among friends--you know, it's all really easy. But the story Rebbetzin, for example, which is sort of a peak of social anxiety, I wrote that story because I needed to get out how I've so often felt. And it's not even really an exaggeration of how I've felt in awkward social situations. It's really how I've felt exactly.

And in a way, being able to slip into those roles means that you don't get to express that other stuff all that often. The stories have put me in a place where I can say, you know what? It scares the crap out of me when I'm around people. And I become paralyzed and so on.

I'm really grateful to the stories for allowing that to happen. Because otherwise there's this part of me that's never out there.

Well, I certainly relate to that. Now, it is also my understanding that you've offered critique services.  Would you say that at this point in your writing career that you rely more on yourself to critique your own work? Or do you still look to close friends, or your wife, or perhaps other people?   

I think these days I'm relying a little too much on my own thoughts about my work. I think just the process of writing over a period of some years can lend a little bit of arrogance to your process. You say, well, this is what I want it to do and I'm going to do that. I think sometimes I have to forcibly correct that. To get it out to a good friend--like Josh, or my wife. One thing that's good about that is that my wife is not a writer, and so she responds in a different way from writers. 

Anybody who I think shares my goals, they don't want to turn it into their own work, but they want it to succeed on its own terms--those are people that I consider really valuable. But I do find I have to force myself to ask them sometimes.

Part of that, of course, is it's much more pleasant to think that I got it completely right the first time. You know, if I don't ask anyone else, then that's still possible.

You did a project where, and maybe you're still involved in it, you were sending written work to President Bush every month. Are you still doing that?

I stopped when he was elected the second time. I was filled with this overwhelming rage and disappointment. And I wrote this one poem that was about the mentality of the abused person who returns to the abuser. I thought we were doing that as a country, coming back for more abuse. I just realized at that point that, as cute as it was to be sending poems and stories to the President, it wasn't doing anything. And maybe I could find some more productive avenue.

Also, you're writing to a person who just is never going to read anything that you write. And that's hard on a writer. You know, you write in a vacuum enough without making President Bush the primary recipient of your work.

Maybe if you wrote something for the National Rifle Association.

 Yeah, then I might get a response.

And I understand you had a project called the Philadelphia Poetry Provider.

You've really done your research. [Laughs.]

Well, I have Google at work.  

Yeah, that was a really fun project. It was born out of this love of poetry--I write some poetry, but I've never been trained, so I spent one semester just reading poetry and writing it. And I remember a point when I looked around in a coffee shop, and everybody around me, I thought--and who knows--but I thought, I bet a lot of these people around me hate poetry. But I bet they haven't read it recently, so they don't really know if they hate it or not.

 And so I got this idea that I would put poems where people would just find them. I would slip them into free newspapers, or on car windshields, or leave them on the subway, slip them into people's door slots. The idea was that if you were to encounter poetry, just in the middle of your day, without the threat of an English teacher behind it, then you might enjoy it.

So it was people that I really admired that I was putting out there, and then I started putting some of my own stuff out, just because I thought, why not. The Philadelphia Poetry Provider was me. But I also didn't want anyone to steal my stuff, and not all of it was published, so I indicated that I had won the Philadelphia Poetry Provider Poet of the Year contest, because I thought no one would take it if it was award winning.

That's what led to the article happening, is that a journalist found it in a book in Borders and called me and said, "I want to hear about this prize." And that was kind of embarrassing, because there was no prize. But she seemed into it anyway.

On a quite different track, Judaism seems to penetrate some of your stories, and I was wondering if you'd be willing to comment on that, on how Judaism plays a role in your writing.

Judaism is a really powerful lens for me. It's a great religion for writers because there's so much metaphor and symbolism and so much emphasis on the word--not in an attempt to convert anybody.

I feel like there are lots of objects that are symbolic, there are lots of great stories, and most of the heros are extremely flawed. They have really big problems and do things that you should not do. Yet they are heroic figures. It forces you to think about people as layered and complicated--and similar to you. You know, there isn't a hero that you can't relate to.

So yes, I'm deeply involved in my Judaism. And the writing is about the Judaism to some extent, the Judaism is about the writing to some extent, and they kind of go back and forth.

In the piece about the Philadelphia Poetry provider, your wife was quoted as saying, "I really think writing is a spiritual practice for him." Would you say that is so for you in terms of journaling, or the writing itself, or the editing? What is it about writing that is spiritual for you?

Well, I think it's the whole life that surrounds writing that becomes a spiritual practice. I think that the point of writing is to notice that the world is valuable. That's what I do, and if I'm writing a lot, I'm especially likely to notice that the world is valuable. I'm especially likely to notice that a person that I see in the corner is upset, or hopeful, or confused, and that that matters. You know, even if it's temporary, even it's just a moment.

And so writing puts me in that state of realizing that everything is precious and fleeting. I think my most intense experiences at feeling like the universe has meaning have come from that, have come from writing.