Living Writers: Deborah Eisenberg

Betsy Bloom

When Deborah Eisenberg stepped up to the podium at last week’s Living Writers lecture, I was immediately struck by two things: her small stature and the striking streaks of white in her otherwise dark gray hair. Dressed in a sleek black suit, the slight Twilight of the Superheroes author stood in great contrast to the colorful assortment of Colgate students and professors who had gathered to hear her speak.

The atmosphere in Persson Auditorium was very differ­ent than last week’s lecture by Colson Whitehead. There was a sense of calm in the room, one that matched Eisenberg’s soft-spoken and reserved de­meanor. When she began to speak, it was in the slow and deliberate tone of someone who chooses her words care­fully (and if Eisenberg’s ex­tensive collection of published works is any indication, she has a great number of words at her disposal to choose from). She decided to forego her bi­ography or personal anecdotes and instead jumped right into a reading of one of her more recent works, “Some Other, Better Otto”.

She began with an apol­ogy, stating, “I am a writer of short stories, but most of them are quite long.” Rather than attempting to read the entire story, she instead fo­cused on several small passag­es interspersed throughout it. According to Eisenberg, the only background the audience required to understand the story was that Otto lived “in a very nice apartment with a very nice roommate, William, and very nice upstairs neighbors, Naomi and Margaret, who are about to adopt a baby.”

As it turned out, “Some Other, Better Otto” was about much more than two nice men and their two nice neighbors. The story (or, I should say, the sections Eisenberg read from the story) ad­dressed, with subtle humor and graceful tact, such issues as the meaning of time, the complications of family and the loneliness of mental illness. Eisenberg skillfully blended the banal and the profound to create characters and situations that skirted the line between the real and the metaphorical. Speaking of metaphors, Eisenberg has truly mastered the art of interesting comparisons. At one point, Otto remarks that fighting with William is like “trying to pick a fight with a dog toy.” At another mo­ment, he muses, “Dinosaurs roaming around, lonely, on the comet-strewn earth … maybe that’s what childhood is like.”

Eisenberg’s mastery of writing comes as no surprise. Her list of honors and awards is longer than most people’s bucket lists: MacAr­thur and Guggenheim fellow, PEN/ Faulkner finalist (for Twilight of the Superheroes), member of the Ameri­can Academy of Arts and Letters, creative writing professor at the University of Virginia – the list goes on. She was an excellent (and high­ly qualified) choice for the Living Writers program.

Contact Betsy Bloom at [email protected]