The Danish Girl author David Ebershoff on discovering queer literature, finding his voice, and a lifetime of reading

In David Ebershoff's books — of which there are four so far: the novels The Danish Girl, Pasadena and The 19th Wife, and a short story collection, The Rose City — history and unusual protagonists come together in compelling ways.

David Ebershoff. Photo by Peter Ross

David Ebershoff. Photo by Peter Ross

The Danish Girl, which tells the story of Lili Elbe, among the first people in the world to undergo gender reassignment surgery, was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander.

It was Ebershoff's first published novel, in 2000.

However, Ebershoff has been part of the literary world for much longer; starting as a summer intern at Random House in 1995, he rose to become vice president and executive editor. He was also made publishing director for The Modern Library in 1998, a role he fulfilled for seven years.

Ebershoff has edited more than 20 New York Times bestsellers and three Pulitzer Prize winners, worked with Norman Mailer and David Mitchell, among others. He also teaches the graduate writing programme at Columbia University. His life, as Ebershoff says on his website, has been "pretty much all about stories and words".

At the Tata Literature Live! Mumbai Litfest recently, Firstpost interviewed Ebershoff about his career in books. Edited excerpts follow:

You were an avid reader, and you began writing short stories at the age of 15. Do you remember the first moment when you felt the power of the printed word?

When I was 15 I spent the summer in the library reading my way through classic queer texts. James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, The Color Purple by Alice Walker. I read and read and read. I didn't understand it at the time, but I was looking for a version of myself. This was in the '80s and at that time there was little in the media that represented gay people as we really are. I couldn't find myself in TV or even in the newspaper, so I found myself in books.

What did being able to write mean to you in your teens and early adulthood? Was it a way to articulate your own experiences, and navigating questions of sexuality and identity?

It was a way to understand my own experiences and my way of looking at the world. When I was younger I wrote to resolve an inner conflict, between what I thought and felt and what the world thought and felt about me.

Because you’ve dealt professionally with the written word for so many decades now — and in varied capacities, as an editor, as a writer, as a teacher, and as someone who reads a lot — do you view or respond to language in a different way than say someone who only does one (or maybe two) of those things?

I don't think so. I think of myself first as a reader, just like anyone else. I love stories, I love characters, I love interesting language and fresh voices. I love themes that illuminate my heart and the world around me. When I was an editor at Random House I tried to always think about the reader, what he or she or they are looking for in a book. I never tried to over-intellectualise the job. I tried to always read like I used to read when I was younger and when I was first falling in love with books.

The Danish Girl

The Danish Girl

You transitioned into the world of publishing with a summer internship at Random House… what to you was the headiest part of working in the books business?

My favourite part, aside from working with so many interesting people, was discovering the new. Reading a new voice for the first time and helping that writer enter the world.

What it was like working with Norman Mailer? Did he have rules or processes he diligently followed or was superstitious about?

Norman worked very hard. He got up every day and wrote for hours and made no fuss about the process or obstacles. He just did the work until it was right. He also liked to be edited. I would go see him at his apartment in Brooklyn Heights or his house in Provincetown and I would tell him what I thought about his manuscripts and he welcomed it all. He didn't like to be coddled or praised, at least in this context. He liked to hear what I had to say.

Do you, as a writer, have rules or processes you diligently follow or are superstitious about?

I write in the mornings. By the afternoon my mind gets a little busy and pulled in different directions. And the other thing that is important is that I care passionately about my material and characters.

What is it like when you discover a new writer or a new voice, and you know — instinctively — that he/she is a real find?

For me, it's always been something I'm very certain of. This happened when I first read Open City by Teju Cole. I knew at once Teju was an original mind and I wanted to work with him. The same is true when I read Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. I knew this story about Cameroonian immigrants in the United States had never been told before and I wanted to be a part of that.

You’ve edited the works of so many Pulitzer winners… when you approach a manuscript as an editor, are you also consciously or otherwise, viewing it as a writer?

No, I always approach a manuscript as a reader. That's all I can do. Of course, because I'm a writer, I'm learning things from most manuscripts, but I always look at the job of editing as telling the writer what a reader might think.

19W-Paperback-Cover-min

The 19th Wife

From The Danish Girl to The 19th Wife, do you find that how you write has changed in any major way? Is there greater confidence and are there fewer blocks, and does finding the story you want to tell become easier?

No, it never becomes easier. Each book is its own challenge. I suppose The 19th Wife is a more ambitious book. I wanted to tell a number of stories in that novel. I was trying to pin down something major in American history, as well as tell a gripping tale.

How closely were you involved with the big screen adaptation of The Danish Girl, and was that an interesting process for you — seeing how your prose was fashioned into a script?

The producer, Gail Mutrux, worked for 15 years to get the film made. She kept me updated on the major developments and I read the screenplay early and we talked about casting and directors. But it was her movie, and then Tom Hooper's movie, which is how it should be. I trusted these filmmakers to make the best movie they could. I wanted to give them their space to create something beautiful.

Do you feel writers have new challenges to meet in this era that those from previous generations did not? How can they rise to these challenges?

I see it as more opportunity. Today, a fresh voice can find an audience very quickly through social media. A writer can be anywhere in the world and start posting and if it's original and interesting... an audience will come. This, of course, isn't the same as writing a book, but it allows a writer to start building a relationship with readers without having to wait for a publishing contract.

And what are the burdens/challenges for publishers going ahead? Must publishing houses think of their roles in new ways, and how do you think they might do that?

There is so much out there, so many demands on a reader's time and money, publishers are finding it more challenging to break out new books and new writers. Readers are looking at their phones more, obviously, and that's time they might have in the past been looking at a book.

Is there a lesson you always pass on to your students in your writing programme? Or is there something you’ve learnt from nurturing and mentoring so many writers over the years?

I have two pieces of advice for writers: 1) Read a lot, and write a lot. 2) Find a good story and tell it well.


Updated Date: Nov 26, 2018 10:07 AM

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