One of the things I appreciate most about living near a small, excellent liberal arts college is that it brings amazing people with amazing talents into my community, even if for just a short while. Sometimes I only get to encounter them for a single lecture, presentation or performance, but other times I'm fortunate to make deeper connections that continue on.
I'm glad that when author David Ebenbach was teaching at Earlham College a few years ago, there were opportunities to become friends with him and his family, and to start to get a sense of his love of (and gift for) the craft of writing. David now teaches at Georgetown University and he has published a number of books including Into the Wilderness, a collection of short fiction, and The Artists Torah, a guide to the creative process. David's written many different stories, poems and essays that appear in print and online.
As someone who enjoys good writing, aspires to do more writing myself, and who follows some of the "behind the scenes" in the world of authors and publishing, I was excited for the opportunity to interview David. We got to talk about his experiences as a writer, his take on modern publishing, and his own creative process:
Chris Hardie: You've published four books now, your stories and poems are appearing in various magazines and online publications, and you've won some awards. Has this recognition of your writing to date changed the way you approach writing now? Does it encourage you, distract you, release you, or constrain you in any particular ways?
David Ebenbach: You know, I have a very complicated relationship to that part of the writing life. On the one hand, publication and recognition both matter. I do want my work to find people and for it to do something in the world. Besides, these accomplishments have helped me to get my teaching position, which helps feed my family and so on, and they've brought some other rewards as well. On the other hand, it can get obsessive, worrying about whether something will get published or not---and then worrying about whether a published thing will get read by a bunch of people or not. That can become a big distraction, can get in the way of writing itself.
In an ideal world, then, my goal is always to set aside the publishing world while I'm actually writing, and just write whatever feels urgent to write. That said, I do want to be aware of the reader, anyway, in one sense, while I'm writing. John Gardner said it best in his book The Art of Fiction: "To write with taste, in the highest sense, is to write with the assumption that one out of a hundred people who read one’s work may be dying, or have loved someone dying; to write so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs; to write, as Shakespeare wrote, so that people understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not directly encouraged to live on."
CH: In my cynicism I sometimes decide that as a culture we're consistently choosing the fire-hose of short and flashy bits of information (tweets, viral videos, listicles, etc.) over the experience of longer reads, reading that requires us to settle in and really engage an author's work for more than a few seconds. And yet, as you've noted, there are hundreds of thousands of new titles being published every year, so *somebody* thinks there's a market for those works. As you teach your students about different forms of writing and explore your own leanings there, how do you sort all of that out?
DE: This is a tough one, too. Without a doubt it's a busy media environment out there, and any story or poem or book, in its efforts to grab the attention of a reader, has to compete with TV and Netflix and streaming music and tweets and emails and IMs and Buzzfeed and plenty more. I think some writers try to compete by amping things up on the page---using louder narrative voices, more surprising and shocking language and storylines, etc.---and that's one way to do it.
But I think we also have to have a little faith. We have to believe that extended engagement with written stuff (if the written stuff is good) offers unique pleasures, and that some people will always return to those pleasures. As you point out, lots of books do get published each year---and lots of books get sold to readers, too. Writing is in no way a dead art form. And it's worth saying that nostalgia can be misleading. Maybe we wish a larger number of people today would read books---but the number is certainly a lot higher than it was in the good old days of the 19th century, say. Even the percentage of people reading now is higher than it was back then. So I try not to despair.
CH: What tools, technology and environments do you find most helpful or harmful in bringing out your best work? Do you tinker with these "variables" often or just find something that works and stick with it?
DE: I think flexibility is the key to being the kind of writer who doesn't just want to write but who actually does write, consistently. If you like working on a computer and your computer breaks, you have to be able to do it longhand instead; if you do your best writing in a big home office but you move to a small apartment, you might have to get used to writing in the living room or in coffee shops or on the subway. You have to be able to write at night, in the morning, at noon, with and without interruptions, with music, in silence, in a box, with a fox, and so on. Anywhere and everywhere.
Having said all that, I like my laptop best, and I do best when I have a good long stretch of unbroken time in an un-busy space (like my office) to really get momentum going.
CH: In Into the Wilderness, so many of your stories touch on themes of birth-giving and parenting, and all of the fear, connection, intensity and newness that go along with those experiences. What influenced or inspired you to take those on in your writing?
DE: The simple answer is that I became a parent, and that it was by far the biggest life-change I'd ever experienced, apart from being born myself. As a result, for a while pretty much all my writing oriented myself toward that change. My writing has diversified again since then; parenthood is still a huge experience, but it's so integrated into my life by now---my son is eight years old---that my focus has re-broadened somewhat. But it was very powerful for me to explore parenthood that way, on the page, while I was living it so intensely---and to explore it, as a short story collection allows you to do, from so many different perspectives.
CH: I know you've been following the evolving relationship between authors, publishers and distributors/retailers, especially as social media, ebooks and Amazon.com have continued to disrupt traditional models of book publishing and marketing (for better or worse). What's your ideal way of getting your work out into the hands of readers, and how does that match up with what is actually happening now?
DE: Right---this is the question of our time. And there may be reasons to prefer one medium over another---I hear about studies showing that people retain stories and books better when they read them on paper than when they hear them in an audiobook or read them on a tablet or Kindle, so that's an argument for the old-fashioned hard-copy book, and of course I myself have all kinds of primal fondness for paper and covers and everything---but the truth is that I just want the words to get to people. That's all. I just want the words to get there, however that happens.
Overall I think it's good that there are so many ways for the words to travel, especially because different people have different preferences for how they read. And God bless 'em for reading at all.
CH: You've talked about wrestling with "enjoying the party you're at" while also working hard to find open doors that will lead you to the next stages of your writing and publishing career. You also seem to have taken your experiences grappling with that dynamic and successfully used them as material and inspiration for your writing and teaching *about* writing. What's it been like to explore the "behind the scenes" of a writer's life in that way?
DE: As I say, the publishing end of things can be a real distraction, partly because it requires so much strategy, and partly because it can consume a writer emotionally. Envy is part of this life, and disappointment, and a frenetic kind of striving. There are a lot of destructive feelings that surround the career of writing. By this point in my life I've recognized that they're not going to go away, those feelings---so instead I try to work with them. As you mentioned, I do put that stuff into my writing; I want all my writing to be informed by strong emotion, and these emotions are not weak, so they're great fodder for characters who experience envy and ambitions of their own. I also try to get past all the hand-wringing by lifting others up instead of worrying endlessly about my own career; I deeply enjoy working with my students, and I also have a lot of friends who are themselves great writers, whose work I try to support and trumpet when I can.
CH: What kinds of projects are you working on now?
DE: I'm putting together a second poetry manuscript---my first full-length poetry book is due out in 2015---and am revising a draft of a novel. I'm not sure I know what I'm doing as far as the novel's concerned, but I like hanging around with the main character, and that's good enough for now.
David's books can be found at local booksellers and various online vendors; links to Amazon.com pages are below to give you a starting point, and I hope you'll pick up / download some copies soon!