Winter keeps on keepin’ on around these parts, despite some deceptively sunny skies. But I’m really looking forward to coming out of hibernation in April with a reading and q & a at the University of Toronto with my pal and writing compadre, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer. Please come and see us if you have the time and inclination. We would both be so happy to see you. The reading is on Wednesday April 3, at 6:30 pm. It’s in the Jackman Humanities Building, 170 Saint George Street, in Room 100 (Ground Floor). And admission is free!
Those people who know me know that Deborah Eisenberg is one of my literary idols and an unofficial writerly mentor. I was first introduced to her work when I was studying at Literature and Creative Writing at Concordia University in Montreal in the mid-nineties, and recently enamored of the short story form. I read one of her stories and had a ‘Oh! The beauty! Now I can die. /No point living (writing) any longer.’ moment. She was so good; she made things spark and spiral in my mind. She plumbed the depths and measured the breadth of her characters in amazing and elastic story shapes. How could I write anything that would even come close? I couldn’t. I was paralyzed by awe. But the problem remained; I still wanted to write. So I went back to her stories with a larger measure of humility and what I hoped was a craftsperson’s openness. I wanted to be transported AND to learn.
In 2006, I had the opportunity to e-interview Eisenberg about her most recent collection Twilight of the Superheroes. The interview (along with a review) was posted on the now (sadly, sadly) defunct, Bookninja. Here is an excerpt wherein she explores notions of causality and character. The story she is referencing is the excellent ‘Window’:
It’s true that I’m very interested in how it is that people come to be living their lives the way they are, and in that story pretty explicitly so. It’s partly what we were talking about earlier – that people, in my part of the world, at least, tend to overestimate the degree of control they have over their lives, and their freedom of choice. Though at the same time, people so rarely imagine and initiate alternatives! A paradox. I think often that “choice” is retrospective – that you find yourself doing something and you believe that’s what you’ve chosen to do, that your actions are the result of a decision, or at least that they’re rational in some way. Also, I believe that usually by the time you think “I need to make a decision about this” the decision has already been made. I believe that people can’t really know with any clarity why they’ve made one decision rather than another, because what really goes into a decision isn’t so much a set of factors that one can consciously sort out, but instead is a compound of all kinds of influences that are deeply buried and far flung, both inside and outside of oneself, over which one’s control is necessarily minimal – both because they’re hidden, and because they themselves have histories; I think of actions as a sort of compromise between factors and impulses one doesn’t know much about.
Later, when she came to Toronto for the International Festival of Authors, I had the great pleasure of meeting her in person (Imagine the state of my overwhelm; imagine the thrill!) and she was as gracious and generous as her work suggests.
I will admit, there are times I have to fight the impulse to hoard Eisenberg’s work; she’s that much of a treasure to me. And I’m that much of a pirate. But a couple of days ago, I discovered two (two) new Eisenberg stories available on line through the New York Review of Books. How could I have missed these? (Okay, the first was posted when I was on the brink of baby #2 and about to move house, and the second only a couple of weeks ago, but still.) I read almost all of ‘Cross Off and Move On’ a couple of nights ago on my i-phone, after a late night breastfeeding session — tiny little tile of light and text aglow in the night. Say what you will about these new reading gadgets (and the jury’s still out drinking bad coffee for me on this one) but one of the pleasures of having alternate means of absorbing fiction — along with convenience — has been the knowledge that I will get to experience the stories I love in a number of different ways. These new stories seem different to me — preoccupied by the ways in which our relations, both distant and near, lurk and glisten, loom and shrivel within us. Oh, and I just finished ‘Recalculating’ — wow — it treats time like silly putty, lets it stretch and snap back into itself. These stories are funny and dreamy and so very wise. If you are not familiar with Eisenberg’s work, please go seek it out. You can start with these incredible stories. I loved them, but then, I would, wouldn’t I?
Lately I have been thinking a lot about what fairy stories mean to me and what they might mean to my 3 1/2 year old girl as she grows. I remember when she first learned to use the word ‘once’ and the particular magic of that word (although ‘please’ is also pretty nice as magic words go). And then yesterday she told me this story:
Once upon a time there was a princess who got ate by a shark. And then a good mermaid saved her and the bad mermaid didn’t get burned in the fire. The end.
And then I picked up AS Byatt’s wonderful The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye and read this from ‘The Story of the Eldest Princess’:
‘You are a born storyteller,’ said the old lady. ‘You had the sense to see you were caught in a story, and the sense to see that you could change it to another one. And the special wisdom to recognise that you are under a curse — which is also a blessing — which makes the story more interesting to you than the things that make it up. There are young women who would never have listened to the creatures’ tales about the Woodman, but insisted on finding out for themselves. And maybe they would have been wise and they would have been foolish: that is their story. But you listened to the Cockroach and stepped aside and came here, where we collect stories and spin stories and mend what we can and investigate what we can’t, and live quietly without striving to change the world. We have no story of our own here, we are free, as old women are free, who don’t have to worry about princes or kingdoms, but dance alone and take an interest in the creatures.’
And I thought, I think we’ll be okay. Maybe not happily ever after, but definitely okay. Happy Easter to you and all the creatures!