An Exclusive Authorlink Interview With David Ebershoff
Author of The Rose City
By Doris Booth
One in a series of special Authorlink interviews with today's well-known authors. Watch for new interviews every month!
David Ebershoff candidly talks to aspiring Authorlink writers about his career as a popular author.
David Ebershoff is author of The Rose City, a collection of seven short stories about men and boys forging their way in a chaotic world (Viking; Weidenfeld & Nicholson in the UK, May 2001). David also is publishing director for The Modern Library , an imprint of Random House.
"Over the years I took a few writing classes and the novelists who taught me . . . always stoked the flame in my writer's furnace."
AUTHORLINK: When did you begin your writing career, and what prompted you to do so? Is there a special story behind your decision to become an author?
EBERSHOFF: I've been writing fiction since I was fifteen, telling myself stories, scribbling in notebooks, filling up floppy disks on my computer. For many years I only wrote short stories but a few years back I wrote my first novel, THE DANISH GIRL. But I've always loved to read and write short stories and THE ROSE CITY is my first collection, written and rewritten, over the past few years.
AUTHORLINK: Who was the greatest influence on your decision to write, and in what ways did they encourage you?
EBERSHOFF: No one really. My parents really didn't encourage me to be a writer. How could they? It's not a safe bet for your child. But it's what I've always wanted to be. There are dozens of writers I admire through their books and I suppose reading those authors influenced me to become a writer — not because of who they are but because of what they wrote. Over the years I took a few writing classes and the novelists who taught me — John Hawkes, Edward Hoagland, Meredith Steinbach, Joe Ashby Porter — always stoked the flame in my writer's furnace.
AUTHORLINK: How did you find your first agent? How did you find the agent who sold your work to Viking?
EBERSHOFF: Very important. My agent, Elaine Koster, had a long and distinguished career in publishing before becoming an agent. For many years she was the publisher and editor-in-chief of Dutton. Because of this I trust her editorial and publishing instincts. She knows how to shape a manuscript and she knows how to promote a book. She's an invaluable part of my career.
"I love nonfiction as much as fiction."
AUTHORLINK: Who are your favorite authors? What you like about them?
EBERSHOFF: So many, so many, and always changing, and I love nonfiction as much as fiction. Of contemporary fiction writers some of my favorites are:
Joyce Carol Oates: because of her fierce passion, her tireless imagination, her willingness to take risks with her career. She writes what interests her, and she constantly experiments with form and style. I think she is much more avant-garde than people realize and the whole business about her productivity is just chatter. She's too great a writer not to read and admire.
A.S. Byatt: because of her rigorous intellect and her wide wide reading that informs and sparkles her fiction. She is one of the most learned novelists writing today but nonetheless her stories and novels remain full of passion and daring and, quite often, entertainment. She's a marvel.
Alice Munro: because she puts the history and back-story of a novel into a short story and she commands the craft of short fiction like no one else. She too knows how to entertain while practicing the highest form of literary art.
Cormac McCarthy: because of his fearless vision, his difficult but beautiful prose, his connection to some of the great writers of American literature.
Melville, London, Faulkner. BLOOD MERIDIAN is a masterpiece and I cannot read it without thinking of MOBY-DICK and THE SEA-WOLF.
Allan Gurganus: because of his grand humor, his generosity of heart, his ability to write over-the-top and yet never spin out of control. He's a great storyteller and OLDEST LIVING CONFEDERATE WIDOW TELLS ALL is one of my favorite novels of the past twenty years.
"Read, read, read. Read both the classics and what's being published today. It's still the best advice for a writer."
AUTHORLINK: Do you have any advice or insights for newcomers trying to break into publishing?
EBERSHOFF: Read, read, read. Read both the classics and what's being published today. It's still the best advice for a writer. Know where your work fits into the scheme of American writing. I know that sounds grand, but editors are, needless to say, very well-read people. They've read the classics and they've read what's been published during the last generation, at least, and they will read your book with that background.
My other advice is for you to take your writing seriously. Editors want to work with writers who are serious and professional about their careers.
"Editors and publishers want, more than anything, to publish good books. They want to find a new great writer. But it isn't easy."
AUTHORLINK: Do you perceive New York publishing to be a closed society or an open one?
EBERSHOFF: When I was growing up in suburban California I used to think New York publishing must be one of the most elitist societies in America, conducted in tweed at private clubs. But that's an oversimplification. New York is the greatest meritocracy in the country: nothing thrives here like talent. Editors and publishers want, more than anything, to publish good books. They want to find a new great writer. But it isn't easy. We can be provincial, no doubt. We can be snobbish, no doubt. But nothing heats up an editor's heart more than the thought of finding a writer who'll smash onto the scene with a novel that breaks all the rules. Look at writers like Zadie Smith and Dave Eggers. Everything can change with one great book.
"Tell a great story in a way only you can."
AUTHORLINK: What are publishers looking for today?
EBERSHOFF: Good stories told by convincing, commanding voices. If you perceive a trend in publishing, ignore it. Books that follow trends, although they might get published, rarely work and it's not a way to break into the business. First there was BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY and then there were all the rest. First there were memoirs like THE LIARS' CLUB and then there were many more, each published and received with less and less enthusiasm. Tell a great story in a way only you can.
They [writers] are rejected for many reasons, I am sure, but one of them might be that the story isn't compelling enough. With a few exceptions, plot drives fiction. Your plot has to be interesting. This goes back to reading.
AUTHORLINK: Why do you think so many writers get rejected, and so few become published? What elements of good writing would you guess are missing from an aspiring writer's work?
EBERSHOFF: In my opinion there are many fine writers who get rejected over and over, people who know how to construct solid, often beautiful sentences. They are rejected for many reasons, I am sure, but one of them might be that the story isn't compelling enough. With a few exceptions, plot drives fiction. Your plot has to be interesting. This goes back to reading. Those writers who have read widely — and not just fiction but also history and biography and science — often know how to either invent or unearth fascinating stories. If you don't have a good idea for a novel but you want to write one: go to the library, sit down at the microfiche machine, read seven consecutive issues of your town's local newspaper from 1918, and I guarantee you'll find a story that is both gripping and unknown.
AUTHORLINK: How did you learn your craft? Through reading? Conferences? A university? Mentoring? A combination of these, or other means?
EBERSHOFF: All of the above: reading, some classes as an undergraduate, attending readings and lectures, trying over and over and over, writing hundreds, probably thousands, of pages that eventually I threw out.
AUTHORLINK: If you could choose any career in the world today, knowing what you know now, what would it be?
EBERSHOFF: I still have fantasies of being a professional tennis player. Unfortunately my skills do not match the height of my dreams. But I can sit on the couch and watch a match with the best of them.
AUTHORLINK: What's the funniest thing that ever happened to you on the way to getting published?
EBERSHOFF: Getting rejected by every MFA program I applied to, including twice by a few of the most famous ones.
This is one in a series of special Authorlink interviews with today's well-known authors. Watch for new interviews every month!