Interview with Jill Eisenstadt, author of Swell and Newtown Literary free writing class instructor
For the second year in a row, Newtown Literary Alliance is working with Queens Library and City Council Members Daniel Dromm and Elizabeth Crowley to bring free writing classes to Queens. Our first class on Saturday, November 4 at 2:30 p.m. at the Jackson Heights branch of Queens Library and will be taught by Jill Eisenstadt, author of From Rockaway, Kiss Out, and Swell.
Tim: Tell us how you came to be a writer and publish your first book, From Rockaway.
Jill: I grew up loving reading and writing (and music). In college, at Bennington, I thought I would like to be a playwright (and composer). The first thing I tried to get off the ground (with fellow students as actors, directors, etc.) was a play set in Rockaway centered around the “Death Keg,” a ritual in which lifeguards have a kind of wake after one of them loses a swimmer. This was the first germ of what would later become From Rockaway. On opening night (of two performances), my lead actor showed up totally drunk! It was a disaster. But because of that experience, I began focusing on prose fiction where I could have complete control over the product. I sometimes wonder what would have happened had the show been a success . . .
I was also extremely fortunate to be friends with Bret Easton Ellis who gave a draft of my Rockaway stories to writer/teacher, Joe McGinniss. Joe had the idea to turn the stories into a novel and ultimately sent the book to his agent.
T: Your latest book, Swell, takes place mostly over the course of one weekend in 2002 and focuses on the Glassmans who recently moved to Rockaway, the previous occupant of the house they’ve moved into, and their neighbors. Among their neighbors are the main characters from your 1987 debut, From Rockaway. From a craft perspective, what was it like to return to a set of characters 30 years later? What work did you have to do in order to develop these characters (Tim et al.) from From Rockaway to Swell?
J: I was working on Swell for quite a while before I realized (or admitted to myself) that the voice of the retired firefighter living next door to the Glassmans was actually that of Timmy from From Rockaway, only older. Timmy was the first of my characters to feel truly alive to me, so I’m not surprised he would creep back into my writing once I returned to Rockaway. Of course, after that, I had to account for all the other people who had been in his world and—lo and behold—it was no work at all! I immediately knew where all of them would be fifteen years later. Everything clicked into place.
T: One of the remarkable parts of Swell is how effectively you balance scenes filled with characters. Almost every scene is bursting with characters having multiple conversations at once, and the narrator bounces around the physical space of the scene, as well as back and forth in time. This approach requires so much trust in the reader—something I still struggle with as a writer. How do you approach scenes like these, so packed with action, dialogue, and characters?
J: My ideal would be to be able to write like Virginia Woolf and dip in and out of each character’s consciousness within the same scene, but early drafts in which I tried this were too confusing for my early readers. So I revised to make each section stick to one person’s point of view exclusively. Though Swell is written in the 3rd person, it is not omniscient. Any physical space or sensation that is described by the narration is something the chosen character observes or feels. Other voices intrude but only through dialogue, which by the way, is my favorite thing to write.
T: The class you are teaching in Jackson Heights is centered on conflict. Swell is layered with a variety of conflicts. With one exception, the conflicts most relevant to the plot are smaller conflicts, while bigger conflicts—the political and social conflicts associated with the immediately post-9/11 New York City where the book takes place—hover in the background. Give us a little preview of your class; how should writers approach conflict in their writing?
J: Conflict informs every aspect of a piece of fiction. It gives a story shape. It helps you decide which details are relevant and which aren’t. It creates and reveals character. It determines genre. It moves the story forward. In my class, I hope to show—through published examples and writing exercises—how starting a piece of writing by brainstorming a conflict can save one a lot of time and angst.