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

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