Writer David Ebenbach’s latest collection of stories, Into the Wilderness, addresses the theme of parenting from the eyes of fathers and mothers
David Ebenbach is the author of two collections of stories, Between Camelots, and the just released Into The Wilderness, and a craft guide called The Artist’s Torah. In the following Q&A he talks about balancing writing and family, the birth of the book, craft, religion, and turning a novel into a short story. As a Philadelphia native—and a vegetarian—he prefers the beloved Philadelphia pretzel. Check out the review for more context.
GMP: How do you maintain the balance between work, writing, and family?
DE: I don’t know whether my life is busier than the average, but it’s definitely busy. I have a family—a wife and a six-year-old son—and I want to be there for them. I also teach full-time at Georgetown, which means that I’m usually surrounded by stacks of student writing. And then there’s my own writing, which is centrally important to me, and with that you also have the various business details that go with publication and getting my work out into the world in general. I also like to get some sleep on a daily basis if at all possible, and eat, and exercise. A life like this really demonstrates the finitude of time; time spent doing one thing necessarily means time not spent doing something else. So, balance is tough, particularly in the short-term. On any given day, I’m probably dropping the ball on a couple of different crucially important things. It’s a scary thought. Where I hope I get it right is in the medium-term, so that within a week or two I’m getting to everything, in total. I look for openings. I plan my lessons and grade, for example, when my son’s at school; when he’s at a playdate I write. When my teaching work gets light, I can relax into spending time with family. When I can manage to sleep less, I write. When my wife’s sleeping in, I can spend one-on-one time with my son; when he’s gone to bed I can have time with my wife. If I look at my life in terms of weeks instead of days, those openings do happen, and I try to grab them and get to everything.
GMP: Give us an idea of the gestation then birth of the book.
DE: This book, Into the Wilderness, came out of the ashes of a novel that didn’t work. When my son was a newborn, I started writing a novel about a character named Judith, a new mother who was struggling to adjust. But in order to make it a novel, I decided I had to have all kinds of dramatic things happen to her, and it ended up being a really overwrought and crazy and ultimately unpublishable book. That was a sad realization. But as I sat there contemplating the failure of that novel, a novel that took me two years to write, I also realized that I had spent those two years simultaneously writing a number of short stories on the side, all of them also about parenthood. I started writing more. And then I realized that the Judith novel contained several pieces that could, with a little work, stand alone as stories—a series of stories about Judith. In fact, those became the backbone of Into the Wilderness. So, in the end, the novel didn’t totally fail—it just turned into something else. And instead of being the story of one parent’s experience, it became the stories of many parents’ experiences. I love the breadth that a short story collection allows.
GMP: You’re able to switch gender and narrative point of view naturally. How do you hear, or know, or get, the authenticity that comes through in each of these pieces?
DE: You know, I didn’t really realize just how many women were in the book until reviewers started pointing it out. As you suggest, I wasn’t exactly trying to write out of my gender; it wasn’t conscious. As stories developed, some of them—a lot of them, it turns out—demanded a female main character for one reason or another. I think it often happened because motherhood is a bigger deal in our culture than fatherhood, more symbolically powerful, and if you’re going to talk about parenthood, you’ve got to look at mothers. So female characters just showed up in the stories, looking for work. I didn’t turn them away, just like I didn’t turn any fathers away. I got to know them the way I get to know all of my characters, whether they’re like me or not: by writing about them. As I write about them, scene after scene, little subconscious choices start to add up, and I end up with a voice that gets stronger and stronger, a personality that becomes increasingly coherent. If I pay attention to those things, I can then start to go back (and forward), making conscious choices that reinforce the consistency of the character I’m discovering. It’s all about the kind of empathy that comes from close, devoted attention.
GMP: “‘What God is to the world, parents are to their children.’” I’m just putting that out there.
DE: It’s a lot of pressure, isn’t it? I loved the idea of having the character Judith get pestered by a well-meaning cousin who keeps leaving her unhelpful and even stressful quotes on her voicemail. I mean, there’s some truth in this quote: for a time, anyway, children regard their parents with a pretty vast kind of awe, and also see them as mysterious creatures whose sole original function was to create—specifically, to create those children. But it’s a lot of pressure, parents as God. Just the kind of thing Judith doesn’t need to hear—Judith and the rest of us parents, actually. Better we should be humans.
GMP: Judaism is prevalent in the collection but never dominant in the stories, even with Judith and the naming ceremony. It’s always there, but it’s never trying to do anything more than inform the characters. What role does it have in your life and writing?
DE: Funny you should ask; I wrote an article about this recently for the Jewish Book Council and the conclusion I came to is that my stories are influenced by the fact that I’m Jewish (how could they not be?), but that doesn’t mean that they’re only and always about Judaism. That’s how my life works, after all; I don’t Jewishly get up in the Jewish morning and do Jewish exercise and then get Jewishly dressed and later on take a super-Jewish walk to work. I just get up and exercise and get dressed and walk to work, like everybody else, all the while also being a Jewish person. So my characters tend to be Jewish, by default, because I am, and that means their experience and attitudes have probably been molded by that, but they also do lots of things that everybody else does.
GMP: “We’re here to teach our children how to hold onto their souls, how to be true to themselves,” Judith finally announces. Why is this important? How is it manifest in your life?
DE: The ending of that story was actually the end of the original novel, and I kept it because I believed in it. I think the problem Judith was having—and she’s not the only parent to ever have experienced this—was partly about being unable to separate herself from her child. Everything the child did was seen through a self-involved lens, a lens that was about Judith’s struggles, Judith’s understandings, Judith’s growth, Judith’s needs, what was required of Judith. And I think that makes sense; we all see things from our own point of view, tend to look at the people in our lives and see their stories through the ways that those stories involve us. And indeed they do. But I think we can move from struggle toward awe, in parenthood, when we realize just how much it isn’t about us. I mean, the kid needs us for shelter, love, support, food, and so on, and we’re very involved if we’re decent parents, but the child is also this independent entity, separate from us, with his or her own point of view, one that will hopefully persist well after we’ve gone. That’s the soul that Judith recognizes in her child, and she wants to protect it. It’s like that for me, too; whenever I’m aware of my own son’s individuality, when I become aware that he’s living his own life as his own person, I fall right into awe. It’s one of the most beautiful things about parenthood, I think.