Where brevity meets profundity

From waitress to doyenne of the American short story. Christie Hickman meets Deborah Eisenberg

In another life, Deborah Eisenberg could have been a model. Dressed in three shades of black, she's tall and elegant, with high- rise cheekbones and huge eyes. But this isn't the catwalk, it's a discreet hotel behind Sloane Square, and Eisenberg is one of America's most acclaimed writers. She's in London en route to New York from Naples to celebrate the publication of her third collection of stories, All Around Atlantis.

Since her first book, Transactions in a Foreign Currency, appeared in 1986, followed by Under the 82nd Airborne (1992), 52-year-old Eisenberg has been the darling of discerning critics on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as of a growing band of readers who enjoy an emotional pummelling at the expense of happy endings. "All of my stories are about discomfort,' she explains, "and the characters tend to be poorly placed in the universe.'

It's true that there is nothing remotely comfortable about her work. Her haunting, elliptical tales inhabit that emotional wasteland where nobody behaves well, and all the best lines are those left unspoken. Tossed into an arbitrary world, her damaged characters survive as best they can. The seven narratives in All Around Atlantis introduce us to an ageing piano prodigy and his run-in with a jaded journalist, two lonely children used as dupes by, a philandering husband on a trip to New York, and in "Rosie Gets a Soul", a recovering junkie who becomes infatuated with her rich employer. Eisenberg employs an entire gallery of bug-eyed optimists trying to make sense of their lives - like Rosie's dull office colleagues, whose "cheerfulness lay like boulders over geysers of misery."

Eisenberg's stories have become darker and more complex over the years. "It's true that I've expanded in layers," she says, "but that's part of the pleasure of writing for me."

It's a pleasure shared by her fans, and her English publisher at Granta Books, Frances Coady. "You do have the sense when you've finished reading one of her stories that you've read about 17 novels. There's such a tremendous richness to them. The way she makes the stories operate on so many levels with their ambivalences and ambiguities, just gives me goose bumps."

Eisenberg would be the first to point out that her stories are disorienting, but revels in the fact that they're "demanding ... and that readers have to leave their short story preconceptions at the door."

Disorientation looms large in Eisenberg's work, which is hardly surprising for a woman who grew up in a middle-class Chicago suburb, was thrown out of high school for "improper dancing at the Junior Prom", turned her back on family life, and moved to New York in 1966 to study anthropology. Following graduation, she set about wasting a BA, a razor-sharp mind and a slumbering talent on years of secretarial work and waitressing, failing in her one great ambition, which was to avoid employment completely.

By the time she was 30, she was "desperate with misery", but "stopped smoking and began to write"; it was while she was working at a neighbourhood bar and grill that her writing began to attract attention - first from Broadway impresario, Joe Papp, who commissioned her first play, Pastorate, and later by the writer Laurie Colwin, who refused to believe that Eisenberg was a mere waitress. Colwin read one of her stories around the same time that the New Yorker was taking an interest, and passed it an to an editor at Knopf, who was so impressed she called the following day.

Although her reputation here is growing, in America she regularly wins prizes and fellowships, collects reviews to die for and teaches a semester in creative writing at the University of Virginia. She puts her low profile here down to our reputation for not being great short-story readers, but Frances Coady - who admits to being "obsessed" with them - says that the resistance lies with publishers, who think short stories don't make any money.

Probably closer to the truth is the fact that Eisenberg's writing forces her readers to take a disturbingly close look at themselves.

"I'm constantly trying to strip away layers of perceived thought or cliche. Of course I want to have a deliciously seductive story on the surface which will keep people engaged and amused, but primarily, I'm interested in other things. It's the texture of any given moment that fascinates me, what is really going on between people or in somebody's mind."

For a former student of anthropology, surely this scalpel approach to everyday life comes naturally? "It's true that fiction and anthropology are closely allied, she agrees. "How else can you you find out about human behaviour at close quarters? Fiction is a report from the interior."

In view of her composure now, it's virtually impossible to imagine that when Joe Papp gave her five months to produce her first play, she spent the first two in paroxysms of panic, lying on the floor drinking grappa. When she delivered on time (it takes her at least a year to write a story) Papp said he hated it, but Eisenberg so believed in her play that she fought its patch and won. The play was produced at New York's Second Stage in 1982, and opened to excellent reviews. These days she inhabits a mellower, caffeine-free zone.

For the last 25 years, she has shared a Manhattan apartment with the actor and playwright, Wallace Shawn, whom she met at a party through mutual friends, and whom she says is still the most interesting man she's ever met. Their work commitments necessitate spending chunks of time apart, but there is no doubt that it's a love match.

They have an affection for England, and friends here include the playwrights David Hare and Caryl Churchill, Stephen Frears, the Pinters and Max Stafford- Clark. They got to know Hare over 20 years ago, through a fortuitous meeting with the doyenne of literary agents - the late Margaret (Peggy) Ramsay.

"John Lahr introduced us to Peggy. We were only in London for a few days, and it had been a big deal for us to make the trip over, because we were totally broke. Wal was a struggling avant-garde playwright with basically no following in the States, and I guess I was a waitress, or maybe I was still a secretary...

"John said, you've got to meet Peggy Ramsay, and we said, we can't, we're flying home tomorrow. And John said, fine, on the way to the airport, you go meet Peggy. So we did, and we were totally bowled over.

"She gave Wally's work to Joint Stock (then one of Britain's most exciting theatre companies with writers like David Hare and Caryl Churchill already on board) and suddenly Wal had this completely new life as a playwright, because they loved his work." One of the more outrageous early Shawn productions was a little piece at the ICA called, A Thought in Three Parts, which required so much sex and nudity ("We almost ended up in the slammer with that one") that it caused a debate in the House of Lords. Now there are plans to stage his 1996 piece, The Designated Mourner (which premiered at the Cottesloe, directed by David Hare) in New York.

"It's so wild," Eisenberg said. "Talk about nepotism. I do wonder if it is not a delusional episode on my part because I'm not an actor, and the precedent for this part is the great Miranda Richardson, who played it here."

But why not? Eisenberg's life so far - though she's apt to dismiss it in a few sentences - has been almost as multi-layered as one of her stories. "For someone whose goal in life was to stay unemployed, I can't imagine what I thought was going to happen. I was so terrified of everything, I just thought I'd curl up in the gutter and die, and by a complete mistake, my life turned out to be absolutely wonderful."

`All Around Atlantis' by Deborah Eisenberg, is published by Granta, pounds 8.99

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence