Mr. Rabe allowed as how he'd known Ms. Eisenberg and her companion, playwright and actor Wallace Shawn, "fairly well, but I've known her a little better, off and on for many years." Mr. Rabe said he was pleased to hear that I was interested in his book. "It's been hard to get any kind of notice for it -- you know, it's a book of stories and..."
"And who cares?"
"Also," I said, "the stories' subjects are difficult. In the story, 'Holy Men,' where a student visits his Catholic priest/teacher, the student discovers, 'You may think you've left the Catholic church, but you've only gone somewhere else.'"
"I'm afraid that's true."
"Your stories have high moral expectations."
"You do what you do. It's not that I expected them to be bestsellers, but it's been hard to get anybody to pay attention. Several reviewers wrote what I thought was not just favorable, but they really seemed to grasp what I was trying to do."
"I'm amazed at how publishing houses now put books out and don't even buy the smallest advertisement."
"No, they don't do anything. I think that what's happened is that I have a long history in the theater, in the arts, and the publishers felt that would guarantee me some notice in The Times, both in the daily and in the Sunday Book Review . It doesn't seem it's going to, so I thought that once that happened, if I got something good in either or both, then I could pressure the publishers to do something. But it doesn't seem that may happen. Anyway, that was my little dream."
"The stories," I said, "moved me, as did Ms. Eisenberg's, perhaps more deeply than I wished for them to do. So many people who attend MFA classes tend to write stories where two characters, or even one, appear on the page and something small happens. A minute psychological shift occurs from page one to the last page. Then sunshine gilds a green hill. And that's it -- a manufactured epiphany, a lump of cheap grace. In your stories, characters struggle and suffer and rip at their guts to get at the change and/or discovery between or among them. The action rides out not as much from a psychological base as it does from a philosophical or metaphysical center. As in the first story in the collection, 'A Primitive Heart,' the reader encounters human behavior of the kind that happens in houses in, say, Connecticut, rather than on Broadway stages."
"In all the stories I made a personal effort to come to grips with something I know. I've only had a couple published for that very reason, because they're long and difficult in that way. For the most part, even the shorter ones are a bit difficult."
I said that I admired the way in which Mr. Rabe bored deep into other minds and revealed those minds' thoughts on a page. These revelations arrive in the reader's mind as whispered secrets, as fans opening. This way of telling a story is so different from the way in which stories are told on theater boards. "How do you manage such different ways of writing?" I asked.
"I don't know. I think it's partly why I am leaving the theater, or whatever I've done. It's a long story, but I think part of the reason I am less interested in the theater at this point, is that I've wanted to do this kind of thing and can't really.
"I had started some of the stories over the years and other ones too. I started a novel or two and never finished. I finished one but...I just decided that it was time, I'm better focused, and so I've shifted. I was drawn to try to do what you simply can't do in the theater, effectively, or at all.
"I'd written a play, many years ago, and I can't get it done. It's a play, but it's kind of an inner drama of somebody. So, that is something I've wanted to try to do or felt pulled to do whenever I sit down to write."
I read to Mr. Rabe from his story, "Veranda": "You write here, 'I'm trying to grasp her interior, as one would read an animal through its gestures, or the eyes of someone speaking a foreign language. Content is there, but it is blocked by my ignorance. I'm trying hard, though, and then I feel I am about to uncover what I need, or be uncovered myself. I sense an omniscient, looming, unrelenting spotlight rolling over the ocean, moving through the black of the surrounding city. It haunts the creases of the streets and alleys beneath the trees, probing into other bedrooms, corners, hallways, seeking me.'"
Mr. Rabe laughed. "That's good. It's fun to hear. To hear someone read it, isolated like that. I may do another play in my life and I may not. I can keep going. I've always had to make movies to make a living, so that I'll probably have to keep doing them off and on."
"You have to send the kids to school."
"I'm almost done with that, actually. I have one to go for two more years. It's brutal. So much money. I had two of them going for a while to a private school or college, just mind-boggling. We managed, but it was hard. Fortunately I can throw my hat into the ring in Hollywood. It's a waste most of the time; most screenplays don't ever get made, but I do get paid well. I had to do more of them than I wanted, but it's brutal with two of them going like that. The private schools are almost as much as college."
I asked, "If we were sitting around and you were talking with intelligent people, and someone asked you to explain the difference between writing for the theater and writing for the intimate interior of a book, what would you tell them?"