"A different narrator."
"Yes, yes. A different narrator with a different brain."
"Your characters each seem to have been etched with a tiny pen. They're so precise. The settings, as well, are precise. The reader doesn't get lost, doesn't find herself asking, 'Am I in the living room in Vermont or New York?' Settings of stories are so important."
"They are very important to me."
"I like the complexity of your settings. You create many corners and nooks from which the reader can watch the action. Have you been in the places about which you write?"
"I make up some, but for most, I have been there. I think the settings are usually right out of the real world, nothing else. Real places might be where I start with a lot of things. Just the look of a place. One of the things that I loved about reading when I was young was the feeling of being transported to a place."
"If you were teaching, how would you explain to your Virginia students why a short story isn't a novel, how the two are different?"
"It's of course impossible to articulate, or at least it is for me, because I really don't have any conceptions about what a story is. But it is a very fine tool as opposed to a novel, I think. A story you can and are almost obliged to layer up. So that it's like tall food. I think of a story as a heaped-up novel in a way, or like a very, very deep tiny pool with different layers of this and that, and this and that."
"Or a flaky pastry."
"Yes, like a Napoleon."
"With all those flaky layers."
"Yes, so that each moment is informed by the information that you would receive laterally in a novel. There can be a kind of harmonic that you can get sometimes."
"It's like a poem in that way, a little engine of tightly constructed words."
We talked about our fondness for editing and cutting our work. I asked, "What do you cut first?"
"I don't have a system. I look for anything that isn't necessary because sometimes, if you take something that doesn't need to be said, you can get a lot of reverberation and actually it can show you what you're doing."
"What did you read when you were little that you loved?"
"I had some interesting reading experiences when I was little, or fairly little. I read a lot of Pogo; that was one of the things I taught myself to read on. And you know, Lord knows how children understand anything. So they might as well read difficult things as easy things. It doesn't bother children not to understand things because they don't understand things. I think that if you sequester supposedly difficult books from children, or sequester children from supposedly difficult books, they get very tense about reading in a way that they don't if they just read indiscriminately.
"I love going to Shakespeare in the Park because there are so many children there, and they all get the jokes. I'm frequently far behind. They understand it just as well as adults do somehow.
"I was just telling my class about this, because I had them read a couple of Katherine Mansfield stories. They are the two Mansfield stories that I read over and over and over when I was little because I lived in this very boring suburb, so I loved to read. And there was this book on my parents' shelf. It was an old Knopf edition, I think 1932, and the print was real large and there were these very deco line drawings, and so as far as I knew, this collection of Mansfield stories was a children's book. So I read "Daughters of the Late Colonel" and "Prelude" over and over and over. I had no idea what they were, but I was fascinated by them. That was a big chunk of my reading experiences when I was little."
I said how much I admired the story in this new collection, "Some Other, Better Otto." I added, about the story that it "kept reminding you that you were not the center of the universe."
Ms. Eisenberg agreed. "Yes, good, that's so much what I wanted from it. It's very gratifying to me that you say that because one of my friends complained that it was just about somebody being a horrible person who was completely disagreeable and why would anybody want to read that?"
"I felt that William and Otto, the principal characters, were people who were trying so terribly hard to be better. I found that you quickly put me in their shoes and made me want to be a better person. The story, in its own way, teaches civility."
"Yes, it does. Absolutely."
"The story works in the same way as theater can -- it allows you to imagine that there is indeed someone else other than your own greedy pig self alive in the world."
"Exactly. You've put the argument for fiction extremely well. I think there are a lot of moral arguments for fiction but they're all related to that. Fiction is one the most effective ways to explore areas of mind that are extremely subtle and the areas of human experience that can't be gotten to any other way. So I do think it's kind of a disaster that our culture so undervalues literature."
"And then," I sighed, "if you look at what's on the best seller lists. Much of the 'literature' there is cliché-ridden trash."
Ms. Eisenberg said, "Real fiction is contravalent to cliché. Cliché simply allows you to go to sleep."
"Yes, and since at this particular moment we have such a catastrophe with the acceptance of 'status quo,' anything that militates against that is useful as well as fascinating."
"I believe," I said, "that we are in the midst of a catastrophe of language. I believe we have begun, easily, to believe lies, and to snooze comfortably beneath cliché."