Let the Story Teach you its Form: An Interview with David Ebenbach

–David Ebenbach, interviewd by Margaret Luongo


You have been successfully publishing short stories (three collections) and poems (a collection and a chapbook), not to mention plays, for something like 15 years. What drew you to the novel?

I’d actually been working on novels that whole time—I was just never any good at it. The novels I wrote before Miss Portland were labored and excessively serious about themselves, or blown out of proportion in order to fill up pages, or more focused on their own cleverness than on telling a story. Seven bad novels—seven. Luckily for me, the world recognized that these were not good books, and none of them ever got published.

I think the problem was that I was never actually drawn to the novel, that whole time. It’s more like I was forced to it. There’s this idea out there that writing short stories—which I’d been doing for a long time and enjoying—is just practice for writing a novel, and it’s one of the dumbest and most destructive myths in the whole writing world. First of all, it devalues short stories, and I happen to love short stories, and, second of all, it ties the two forms together in a way that doesn’t even make sense; knowing how to write a good short story tells you so little about how to write a good novel, and vice versa. I mean, there are some skills you need for both—description, dialogue, etc.—but the two things are completely different forms. They’re different shapes. They’re different philosophies—the importance of the moment versus the importance of accumulation across many pages. So it’s like saying that writing a full-length play sets you up to be able to write a DVD instruction manual or incredible haiku.

When I realized all this (after my seventh failed novel), I gave up on that form. I said, I’m a short story guy and a poetry guy and every once in a while a play guy—and that’s it.

Which of course is when Miss Portland snuck up on me. It started out as a short story, and pretty soon I realized it needed more space, so I did what I had to do: I followed the story to its conclusion, the whole time completely committed to making it not a word longer or shorter than it needed to be, whether that meant it would be a short story, a novel, or neither. As it turned out, it was a novel.

I think that’s the way this thing works. You don’t set out to write a short story or a novel—you set out to tell the thing you need to tell, and you let the thing teach you what form it needs to be in. And that gives you a shot at succeeding.

To my mind, you’ve written a perfect novel for this character and for a short story writer: streamlined action, brevity, a single plot line, entirely character-driven action, a realistic perspective shift/epiphany for the character at story’s end, with enough room for the character and the story to develop. Our understanding of Zoe and her experience of life through mental illness expands. Were you conscious of employing short story strategies when writing the novel?

You know, I wasn’t. Like I say, I was just trying to follow the story where it led me, so I was always asking myself what this story needed. What should happen next? What should Zoe do? How long should I spend in this place or that? If Miss Portland had needed enormous complication, I guess I would have tried to write complication.

But I’ll be honest: I was relieved that this story wanted to be told relatively simply—that it didn’t need subplots, say, or huge family histories or tons of world-building. Miss Portland was a much easier novel for me to write, as a longtime short story writer, than one that would have to be told in a million parts or that covered generations or had to use footnotes or something like that. My interest in short stories means that I’m interested in focus, in the moment—and luckily for me Zoe’s story wanted that kind of focus, that kind of investment in the moment. I got to stick close by her and pay attention and go wherever she went.

Any plans for another novel?

I actually just finished a working draft of a new one—I think I sort of have the novel bug now, though we’ll see if that turns out to be a chronic or just an acute condition. This novel, though, is not simple in the ways that Miss Portland is. In fact, it’s in a form that seems to me to be the most absurd and impossible form ever invented: a novel-in-stories. I’ve read novels-in-stories that I’ve liked a lot—Allegra Goodman’s The Family Markowitz is probably my favorite—but it really does seem like a ridiculous idea. (When Allegra Goodman makes something look effortless and easy, you can bet it’s not; that’s one of her gifts.) In a novel-in-stories, each chapter is supposed to function as a stand-alone short story, which means it needs to be self-contained and in some sense satisfying on its own; the reader needs to leave feeling a bit of closure. But each story is also supposed to function as a novel chapter, which means it needs to be incomplete so that it can draw the reader forward.

It’s like trying to write an oxymoron. Whether I’ve succeeded or not with this current manuscript, I guess time will tell.

Favorite novels, novels that you wish you’d written?

The funny thing is that many of my favorite novels are often ones I would never be drawn to write, like William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury or Arundhati Roy’s A God of Small Things, or Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, or Paul Beatty’s White Boy Shuffle or Toni Morrison’s Beloved. These are all really maximalist novels—dense and full of linguistic complication in every sentence. And that’s not my style at all. But they’re magnificent books, and I wish I had written them because they’re magnificent and I’d be really proud of them if I had written them.

But there are also some novels I adore that are closer to what I like to write. Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster (which is maybe actually a novella) is an incredibly focused, close-up look at the ordinary experience of a manager of a Red Lobster opening the restaurant one last time. I would love to write with his generosity. I mentioned Allegra Goodman’s The Family Markowitz above. Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev is another favorite.

It’s funny, though—I find it much easier to name short story collections I adore than to name novels I adore. Like, for example, I really wish I’d written your collection History of Art. I’m not kidding; I’m very envious of that book!

Thank you! Do you have a favorite novel or story that humanely depicts characters with mental illness?

Good question! I do think there’s a lot of bad stuff out there. I won’t name names, but I’m bothered when people treat mental illness as a plot convenience or as something that’s only there to provoke scares or superior-feeling laughter.

But there are good examples of people getting it right. Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar is of course excellent. I believe we can read Toni Morrison’s Beloved partly as a searing portrayal of deep post-traumatic stress disorder and moral injury. Chris Ware’s powerful graphic work is really, it seems to me, all about depression.

As for short stories, I mostly think of writers who operate in a register of depression or anxiety or compulsion without necessarily naming it. Abby Frucht’s early stories are in this category for me, as are Michael Chabon’s stories in his collection A Model World, and as is just about anything Raymond Carver ever wrote. Hemingway’s wonderful “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is more explicit. That one’s probably my very favorite piece of fiction on the subject.

Do you feel your non-writer training and experiences (your Ph.D., for instance) informed this work?

You know, you would think so. My Ph.D. is in Psychology, so that should really be relevant, but it wasn’t in Counseling Psychology—it was in Experimental Social Psychology. Which is a fine field, one that learns about people mainly by getting information from lots of people and then finding out what they’re like on average. And that’s a good and important way to learn about people—I’m not knocking it—but it’s the opposite of the way fiction writers learn about people. Instead of taking lots of individuals and averaging them, fiction looks very closely at one (or a very few) peculiar, non-average characters, bringing out their individuality as much as possible—so much so that readers, who are individuals themselves, can find themselves in the particularity of the character they’re reading about. The reason that I’m a writer and not a psychological researcher is because I seem to learn best close-up, one person at a time—in life and on the page.

I do think teaching—I used to teach Psychology and now I teach Creative Writing—has been helpful to me. To teach well, you have to be alert to how each student is doing, and what each student is experiencing. It’s exhausting. And very rewarding. And it’s also the kind of alertness you need for writing.

At times in Miss Portland it seemed that you easily could have slipped into satire (or mockery) when writing about the mindfulness industry—via Gordy, especially. Did you make a conscious decision to avoid going there? You showed remarkable good taste and restraint. You also resist giving definitive views on at least two characters. I think you’ve really left it up to the reader how to judge Gordy and what to make of Janine as well. You insist on their complexity. Again, was that a conscious decision?

I’m not a big fan of mockery. I mean, I like humor, but I like the kind of humor that shows the ways that we’re all experiencing the same absurdities and that we’re often vulnerable in similar ways. Whereas mockery is basically a statement that the writer is wise and the target is a fool. Which, yuck.

The other thing about mockery is that it implies that people are easily defined; you can pick on one foible or fault and point at that and say, That’s what this person (or character) is about. It’s a simplification. And, for me, good writing complicates things instead of simplifying them, which means it’s truer to life than mockery.

It was especially important to keep the world and its inhabitants complicated in this book. At the center of this book is a woman with bipolar disorder, a woman who’s spent her life looking for the magic answer to her problems. She gets completely excited about an idea—This is it!—and then it falls out of favor and she’s on to the next. Based on what I’ve seen among people close to me, this can be part of the illness, this desire to simplify the world into the answer vs. everything else. In the book, at various times Zoe wants mindfulness to be the answer, or Gordy, or Janine, or a number of other things. But what I discovered in writing this book is that she needed the same thing we all do: to learn to live, day by day, with the complexity.

Suggestions/helpful hints for short story writers who would like to write a novel?

Sure: don’t try to write a novel. Don’t try to force whatever storyline you’ve got into a novel-length form. Because maybe it doesn’t want to be a novel. My advice is to wait until you have a story that needs a lot of space to be told, one that is going to find its power by accumulating details and events and complications until, like a wave that’s been building and building, it finally needs to crash on the sand. If your story wants to be told like that, follow it, and you’ll have a novel. If, instead, it wants to look closely at a single moment or slice of life, so closely that the whole universe is revealed in that moment, follow it, and you’ll have a short story.

And one other thing: what I’d like to say is that there’s nothing wrong with being a short story writer your whole life and never writing a novel. It worked for Grace Paley and Raymond Carver, after all. But it’s true that there’s a lot of pressure out there, and readers do seem to be way more interested in novels than short stories. It’s a damn shame, but it does mean you’ll reach more people with novels. So there’s that.

Still you can’t force it, though. The best you can do is stay alert for material that might need novel-length space. If you find some, follow it. But if you don’t find any, it’s much better to write excellent short stories than to write bad, forced novels.


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Margaret Luongo

About Margaret Luongo

Margaret Luongo's stories have appeared in Tin House, The Cincinnati Review, FENCE, Granta.com, The Pushcart Prize anthology and other publications. Her story collections--If the Heart is Lean and History of Art--were published by LSU Press. She teaches creative writing and contemporary fiction at Miami University in Ohio.