A Tale of Two Stories: An Interview with David Ebenbach

2017-03-23 01 King JoeThe Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy, David Ebenbach’s third collection of stories, earned the 2016 Juniper Prize for Fiction. His novel Miss Portland nabbed the 2016 Orison Fiction Prize. He’s also the author of two more story collections, two poetry collections, and a non-fiction guide to creativity. Ebenbach lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing and admires the cherry blossoms.

Jen Grow: Congratulations on winning two fiction prizes in 2016—what an accomplishment! The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy and Miss Portland were released nearly back-to-back in Spring/Summer 2017, so I’m wondering when they were written in relation to each other? Which came first?

David Ebenbach: Thank you! It feels really, really nice. And I guess this happy situation comes out of the fact that I like to be working on a lot of things at once. I don’t know why, exactly—maybe it keeps me from getting bored or tired of any one thing, or maybe I write this way because otherwise I’d have to keep an idea on hold if it came to me while I was in the middle of some other project—and I don’t want to keep the idea on hold, or, even worse, risk it slipping away. So I work on everything at once.

But the projects go at different paces. The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy, for example, took years and years to write. It was like a marathon, but like a marathon where sometimes you sprint and sometimes you slow down a lot and sometimes you stop altogether and walk off the course and go run a different race or just find a salted caramel donut to eat, but eventually you finish. The oldest story in that collection goes back to probably 2005! I didn’t start actively working on it as a project, though, until 2009, and then there were fits and starts (a story here, a story there) and I didn’t finalize the final draft—the one that got picked up by U Mass Press—until the summer of 2015.

Along the way I sat down in the summer of 2013 to write a short story about a woman who was moving to Maine for dubious reasons. Like I say, it was supposed to be a short story (“Miss Portland”), but it just kept getting longer until I realized that it needed to be a novel (Miss Portland). That was unexpected. But you have to go where the writing points, so I went. Here’s what I think: if you can get everything you need from looking closely at a moment, or a few moments, your idea wants to be a short story; on the other hand, if the thing you’re interested in won’t make sense without really building to it, without gathering characters and backstory and precipitating events and twists and turns and so on, it should be a novel. So that’s what happened to me. I thought I only needed to look closely at one moment, but it turned out I needed all this other stuff, so I wrote a novel. Miss Portland snuck up on me, but I was happy to be snuck up on, and I had a finished draft of the novel by that same summer of 2015.

JG: I was struck by the emotional honesty and self-awareness that many of your narrators exhibit. “Everyone Around Me,” a story about creative envy, starts with the line, “Basically, I wanted everyone around me to fail.” And later: “I wanted him to fail, but again I wanted to be the one who succeeded at making him feel better about it, at making him feel underappreciated rather than undertalented,” and, “My desire for her to fail approached the level of prayer.” Despite his thoughts, the narrator is not really a bad guy. He’s just willing to admit what I think we’re all guilty of feeling from time to time. Can you talk about the difficulty of professional envy, of how you balance that in your creative life?

DE: The first thing I’ll say is that I like to write about uncomfortable things. I like to write about things that lots of people experience but don’t talk about. It seems to me that people will be alone in their discomfort unless we can bring it out into the open to demonstrate that we all actually feel these things.

Envy, for example. You have to be a pretty enlightened person to not ever get envious. I know I’m not that enlightened. I’m surrounded by writers—social media, conferences, writing groups, friends near and far, not to mention the writers I don’t know but who I read. Surrounded. And on any given day some of them are having a way better day than me—the writing is coming easier, they’re getting some award, they’re put on a list of “Writers You Absolutely Have to Read (and don’t bother reading anyone else).” Every day is like that. So envy is a regular part of my life, and it’s a question of what to do with it.

The approach I take is what I call “envy jujitsu,” by which I mean that I try to channel the energy of envy in another direction. Because there is energy there, but it’s misdirected and unhelpful energy, and it could be better used in a different way. I can’t get rid of the feeling, so I transform it. For example, if a writer-friend has a success, instead of stomping and pouting around my apartment, I like to spread the word, trumpet the news loudly. I make sure everybody knows the good news. (Social media is great for this.) In other words, I take that nasty energy and take a concrete action that transforms the feeling into something happier: participation, pride, affection, excitement. It’s a great antidote!

JG: Throughout your writing, there are gems of insight, tinged with sadness or humor or both. For instance, in your story “Fifty-Fifty” about a character with depression trying to cheer himself up, you write, “Getting competitive about sadness is okay if you keep it to yourself, but when you put it on someone else it’s just being an asshole.” And a character’s observation about moving into a pre-furnished apartment, “…those places just look like failure. Like they’re set up for people who got so many things wrong they need to use someone else’s couch.” How would you describe the relationship between sadness, humor and insight?

DE: For me, those three things—sadness, humor, and insight—are tied tightly together, because they’re all about noticing things. Noticing essential things. The funniest people I know are also the most observant people I know—they spot the discrepancies, the coincidences, the tensions, the possibilities for connections between unexpected things. Nothing gets by a funny person. Sad people, too—I can say this from personal experience—sad people are also great noticers. Often their noticing focuses on flaws and problems and negative signs, but still—sadness is in some sense a kind of grim attention. There’s an awareness of tensions, which of course is necessary for humor, too. Whereas a person who skips through life unruffled and unbothered and uncurious misses almost everything.

Good writers have to have this same attentiveness. It doesn’t have to be grim, obviously, but there has to be the attention. They have to notice everything, and have to pay particular attention to the essentials—have to zoom in on any detail that, all by itself, characterizes a person, that vividly captures the poignancy or excitement of a situation. They have to see the thing that’s truly unsettling or promising or beautiful. That, to me, is vision.

By the way, I once heard this writer Dylan Krider say something really wise about humor. His contention was that humor doesn’t get enough credit and that, far from being some light, trivial thing, humor was incredibly useful because of its ability to intensify surrounding emotions. That’s why there’s often humor in horror movies—if you want something to be scary, it helps to also make it funny. And the same goes for sadness—sad things get sadder when they’re funny, too. So I’m a big fan of humor, and I don’t ever hold back from using it if I think it can help a story.

JG: Many of your characters grapple with spirituality, often times getting lost in the process of trying to find themselves. In your novel Miss Portland, Zoe attempts to overcome her bipolar disorder by focusing on mindfulness; she’s able to help others more than she can help herself. The narrator in the story, “To Be Weightless,” naively follows a questionable guru toward her “Best Self.” Your novel and some of your stories seem to suggest that there is a danger in being too spiritual, that the search for peace and/or emotional balance can be tricky. Can you elaborate on this?

 DE: I think it is tricky. What I worry about—I’ve seen it go wrong in the lives of people I love—are people who are always on quests for Holy Grails. People who believe that there’s some magic answer that’s going to make a difficult life lose all its difficulties. And they leap to embrace one answer, and it doesn’t work, so they forget all about that answer and they leap to embrace another. And it goes on like that. I’ll just quit my job! I’ll join this shady group! I’ll cut myself off from my friends! I’ll just move to another country—and everything will be solved! I wrote my novel Miss Portland because of people in my family who lived that way, questing. Searching for magic answers can be really, really dangerous.

I’m not sure it’s about being too spiritual, though. Magic answers can take lots of forms—a new kind of physical therapy that’s going to make everything okay! A new relationship that will suddenly fix me! A really radical fad diet!

It’s all about your relationship to reality. I think spirituality can be a powerful and wonderful thing, but you do have to also be grounded in the real, in a realistic view of yourself and the world. Instead of, “How can I find the key to everything?” we can ask “Who am I, and how can I live the best possible life, given who I am?” So, as long as you’re grounded, spirituality can be great, and so can relationships and jobs and new experiences. I don’t believe in the Holy Grail, but I do believe in people, and the world, and making your way as well as you can with what you’ve got. And finding beauty and joy and gratitude in that.

JG: You also wrote The Artist’s Torah, a book of weekly meditations on living creatively. So I’m curious about how spirituality informs your own writing process?

DE: To be honest, I have trouble separating writing and spirituality. I mean, sometimes they happen in different locations. Like, I’ll go to synagogue for services, or I’ll sit at my desk to write. But they follow each other around. At synagogue I’ll have an insight that’s of broad or even immediate use in my writing, or at my desk I’ll find myself transported, in contact with some truth that feels significant. Both writing and spirituality help me to understand life and the world better. Both help me express appreciation for what I come to understand—and for the infinity of things that remain, and must remain, mysteries.

JG: A few of your stories brought to mind the Raymond Carver story, “Put Yourself In My Shoes,” which explores the tension, silence, and stilted awkwardness between two couples that are getting to know each other. While stylistically your writing is very different from Carver’s, your stories “Out of Grapes” and “The Four Seasons Club” play with group dynamics and tension in social settings. It’s not an easy thing to do, to balance multiple characters, distinct from each other, while conveying the nuances and subtle shifts in their interactions. What is it about group dynamics that interests you? Do you enjoy juggling multiple characters more so than scenes with just one or two characters?

DE: Well, I’m a very big Raymond Carver fan, so the first thing I’m going to do right now is take a minute to savor the comparison you just made between his work and mine…

…okay. That was nice. What was the question? Oh, right. I’m extremely interested in group dynamics. For me that’s what The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy is all about—people trying to navigate the social world, and groups trying to figure out what to do with the individuals who make up the group. Social dynamics are so complicated, and there are so many ways, big and small, that they can go wrong. Like the narrator of my story “Comedy of Errors” says, “Minefield, minefield, minefield.” But (and this is what really moves me) we step into that minefield again and again, because the things that happen in the social world—friendship, love, adventure, understanding—can be wonderful. If you don’t blow up.

As a writing task, it’s definitely a challenge to write a group scene with a bunch of characters in it. As you said, you need each character to be somewhat individual and vivid and you need the reader to know who’s who and who’s talking and so on, and it’s hard to capture the speed and unpredictability of group interactions. So I don’t write scenes like that unless the story needs them. But this book was all about those tensions and opportunities and absurdities in groups, so I needed them.

JG: How has your work evolved between the writing of Between Camelots and Miss Portland? Obviously, you were in different places in your life—physically and emotionally—when each was written, but what else has changed in your process and perspective?

DE: In some fundamental ways I think the work is the same—it still springs out of my interest in the things we don’t want to talk about, and it still focuses on the tiny moments that change things in a person’s life—but in some very big ways it’s different.

Above all, my work used to be much sadder. Like, all of it was sad. Twelve years later, I’m in a very different place, emotionally (Hooray psychopharmaceutical medication!), and I’m writing about a bigger range of things. Some of my work is still sad—sadness is a part of life—but now I’m interested in other experiences, too. Like I was saying above, I’ve always been attentive, but now I’m paying attention to lots of different things—things that are funny or frightening or hopeful or puzzling or all of these and more. And I have to say that, although I still love Between Camelots (my first book), my writing is better now. It’s richer and it’s more complicated, and it’s a fuller and more truthful picture of the world.

JG: I’m really curious to find out about your writing process. Do you have rituals? Are you a daily writer? Do you outline and plan your pieces out or do you write from a more intuitive place?

DE: I always have rituals, though they change. I used to like to write late at night, when most people were already asleep. Now I get up early three days a week to write when most people are still asleep. (There’s something about feeling like you’re the only person awake, and knowing that nobody’s going to call on you for anything.) Sometimes I listen to music, and sometimes not. I mostly write in my office, but occasionally it’s a coffee shop. Sometimes I put on one of my jerseys—I get myself a personalized sports jersey whenever someone accepts one of my books for publication, from the Philadelphia Eagles for my first book to the Portland Sea Dogs for my most recent—and that’s a good ritual. Having the jersey on reminds me that I’ve done this before, this writing thing; I’ve gotten the work done. That’s reassuring.

The one thing that doesn’t change, though, is my resistance to planning. I mean, when you’re working on a novel you do have to step back every once in a while and make some decisions, of course, but I never start with a plan, and most of my time is spent following the writing wherever it goes. Planning doesn’t make much sense to me. If I’m able to plan, that means I already know where I’m going and what I’m doing, but the pleasure of writing for me is that I don’t know where I’m going or what I’m doing. I write because I don’t understand what I’m writing about, not yet, but the writing’s going to help me understand. I love that experience, and I wouldn’t want to risk killing it with a ham-fisted plan.

JG: I know many writers have other creative outlets that feed their writing in some way. Do you have creative pursuits that compliment your writing, or has your journey always been about writing?

DE: Writing is really the thing for me. I mean, I’ve occasionally done some painting over the years, but mainly it’s been writing. I’m very single-minded.

You know, my MFA program (Vermont College of Fine Arts) used to have these talent shows once a semester, and I always found them mystifying because I had expected that none of us would have any talents aside from writing—wasn’t that why we were there? Because we were sort of misfits everywhere but in writing circles? Because writing was the only thing that ever stuck? But it turned out that my classmates could play guitar and dance and do magic tricks and speak various languages and all kinds of other things. They were multitalented. Not me, though. I wrote and that’s basically all I did. I wrote and wrote and I watched those talent shows, feeling awkward about not having any other talents or not even any other interests, and thinking “Boy—I sure hope this writing thing works out.”

Jen Grow’s debut collection, MY LIFE AS A MERMAID, was winner of the 2012 Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Competition. She was also awarded the 2016 Mary Sawyers Baker Prize for her work. Her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in THE WRITER’S CHRONICLE, OTHER VOICES, THE SUN, THE GSU REVIEW, HUNGER MOUNTAIN, INDIANA REVIEW and many others including the anthology CITY SAGES: BALTIMORE (City Lit Press, 2010). She co-authored the book SEEKING THE SPIRIT (Morehouse Publishing, 2006) with Harry Brunett. She’s received two Individual Artist Awards from the Maryland State Arts Council and her stories have earned nominations for Best New American Voices and a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Baltimore with the artist Lee Stierhoff and their zoo of cats and dogs.

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