An Interview with Nora Eisenberg

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One of the finalists for ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year Awards in the General Fiction category is, Just the Way You Want Me, a novel by Nora Eisenberg, published by Leapfrog Press. Just the Way You Want Me is Eisenberg’s second book, and is about how one family was changed forever by the rights abuses of the McCarthy era during the Cold War. Eisenberg’s first book, The War at Home (Leapfrog, 2002), was a memoir/novel with an equally politicized setting. ForeWord This Week spoke to Eisenberg from her country house in New York.

FTW: Most ‘message’ novels, or even novels with a political element, often fall flat. How do you make yours so engaging?

Nora Eisenberg: It is a real challenge to blend some sort of political element with a human story. I think the trick is to really edit yourself very carefully so that you’re not preaching and no rhetoric takes over the characters. Trusting the characters and really following the people that you’ve created to the moment of exposition is what I try to do.

FTW: How were the experiences of writing each book different?

Eisenberg: The first book was very much driven by personal experience, although there were significant changes from my own childhood. I was clearly writing from something that I knew close-up. It was something that beckoned to me imaginatively. That book almost wrote itself. The second book was driven not by personal experience but by the characters. The second book was based not really on my family at all but was built around an experience I’d observed with something in the peace movement. A member of that family was thought to be an FBI agent. It turned out not to be true, but their life was destroyed. They were earnest activists who found themselves and the meaning of their life working for peace and they were ostracized by the people who mattered most to them. If found myself wondering, What would that be like? So I crafted this situation and these characters and let it go back further to sort of the beginning of the madness of J. Edgar Hoover.

FTW: So how much research did you have to do for Just the Way You Want Me?

Eisenberg: You know, I did a lot of research. I knew the kinds of people in this book in many ways in my bones because I did grow up surrounded by progressive people, but I didn’t really know the specifics. I knew too much when I was writing, and so I had to just do it with such a light touch.

FTW: Your characters’ inner lives seem almost always tied to their place in the family. Can you comment?

Eisenberg: Well the families in my books are very powerful. I think most people experience their families as very powerful. These families are more so in several ways. They have both that very powerful ethos that becomes something that the children have to live with, live along side of, live against. When you’re part of a family like that, you’re constantly sorting out what you believe. In this case, it was a certain type of politics. You start to wonder, Where are you in relation to the things they believe? There is also a certain fierceness in the families that I write about. That comes not so much from beliefs, as from the damage that’s been done to them. The mothers in particular in both novels are tremendously wounded by circumstances. The children therefore have to figure out their lives in relation to those types of wounds.

FTW: You stayed with Leapfrog Press for your second book. Your experience with them must have been a good one.

Eisenberg: They are the best. They’re both writers and they are very respectful of what a writer is trying to do. They’re very imaginative editors and writerly editors. When they make a suggestion, it’s not as a critic but as a practitioner. Technically they’re terrific, but also they publish heartfelt stories. I think that’s true of everything that they publish. It’s all with heart. There’s a lot of technically good work out there, but I think the thing that distinguishes them is that they bring out this feeling of the heart.

FTW: What are you working on now?

Eisenberg: A new novel that’s about a family just after the Gulf war, just after Desert Storm. The legacy of war in that family and the repercussions of the gulf experience in the hearts and minds and bodies of that family.

FTW: Being an author that embraces the political nature of our country and our history, I’m sure you have some feelings about the Patriot Act. Can you comment?

Eisenberg: I suppose I do have feelings about it. The distortion of the truth and the manipulation of fear in citizens its caused can be turned around. There are a lot of people who want to do that, and we’re getting into a climate where people are not afraid to say that the Patriot Act is prohibitive and anti-American. Saying so makes them patriotic and not anti-American, this act was passed in a month, there was no committee work. No one had time to read it. It was just that they were so terrified of looking soft on terrorism. I think there’s a lot of fresh thinking. The library association has just been fabulous. Which has been gratifying to me personally, because right after nine eleven was a tough time to put out a book like mine. It had a very pronounced political bent, and they reviewed it well, they were divine, they got it, they embraced it.

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Just the Way You Want Me or The War at Home

$14.95 Paperback Original
ISBN: 0-9679520-8-5
216 Pages / 6 x 9 
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