The Salon Interview: Fernanda Eberstadt

An interview with novelist Fernanda Eberstadt, author of When the Sons of Heaven Meet the Daughters of the Earth, Isaac and his Devils, and "Low Tide."

Topics: Fiction, Author Interviews, Books,

fernanda Eberstadt, the 36-year-old novelist and essayist, has lived a life of stark oppositions. The daughter of New York high society parents who threw “parties which went down in New York social history,” she herself was very introverted as a child, a precocious 11-year-old who took a sabbatical from grade school to write a novel about the Bolshevik Revolution. By the time she was 16, she was exploring the downtown scene, working at Andy Warhol’s Factory and spending school nights dancing with the glitterati at Studio 54. At 18, she left New York for London, where she became one of the first women accepted to Oxford’s Magdalen College. It was there that she first learned “how to work and make friends who read, thought and argued hard.”

In her third and most recent novel, “When the Sons of Heaven Meet the Daughters of the Earth,” Eberstadt recreates a milieu she knew intimately, the New York art scene of the late ’80s, tackling the same oppositions she witnessed growing up — art vs. commerce, men vs. women, faith vs. religion. Yet, she manages to address such weighty issues with a very light touch. “Sons” reintroduces Isaac Hooker, a character from her second novel, “Isaac and his Devils,” a brilliant but struggling artist from backwoods New Hampshire. Isaac — a character loosely based on Jean Michel Basquiat — is taken in by Dolly Gebler, a wealthy heiress and patron of the arts.

During a recent reading tour, Eberstadt spoke with Salon in San Francisco about political art, false religion and what becomes of artistic vision when the artist gets into bed — both figuratively and literally — with his benefactor.

Dolly Gebler, Isaac’s benefactor, gets a certain thrill from the fact that she is investing in something inherently subversive. Do you think art should be subversive?

I think it’s one of the good things it can be. It’s sort of funny, my books are not subversive, my books are more like escapism. But that’s another thing I like in art, too, is being able to jump into this pool of another world.

But I do like offensive and abrasive work. I’m not so much that kind of character, but Isaac is. I wanted Isaac as a really angry, outraged, protesting character who’s grown up rough — poor and suffering enough to be permanently furious at the class system, rich people, materialism, television, pop culture, all of it. Someone who’s living in protest, despite himself.

It’s clear when reading “Sons” that you sympathize with Isaac more than any of the other characters.

Yeah, I’m definitely on the Isaac side of wanting art that is very handmade, or represents some kind of struggle on the artist’s part — a reaching toward something, not something perfect, industrial, or factory-made. I like art with a little bit of morality, and a little bit of preaching, too. I love political art. I like political movies. I like sometimes annoyingly preachy and dogmatic literature and painting, because I want to know the artist’s point of view. I like the conviction, that sense of purpose. And I like art that exercises the brain — art as a workout, art as struggle.

For instance, I like John Berger as a novelist. I’m not such a big fan of Marxism, but I’d rather have Marxist art than the vapid, bland, purely pleasant stuff. Partly it’s a reaction that nowadays America seems so no-belief, so bland, so … nothing. Nobody’s interested in politics or ideas, just feel-good stuff.

You’ve written about Isaac before, in “Low Tide,” but in that book you kept him in his element — in poor, backwoods New Hampshire. Was it easier to write him into an environment that you presumably know much more about?

Yes. It was hard to work into the other world, the “poor” world. It took a long time to make it convincing. When first I wrote it, it felt very external — it was way too far outside. And over the years I wormed my way into the heart of it.

But “Sons” wasn’t always set in the art world. It was originally supposed to be at a magazine. And I found that too incestuous, you know — a writer writing about writers. Art was more of a challenge, because I had to make Isaac a convincing artist, not just a novelist waving brushes instead of a word-processor.

In recent years, the ’70s have captured, or rather held hostage, the popular imagination, and movies like “Basquiat” and “I Shot Andy Warhol” have attempted to portray a certain New York art scene that you were once part of. You worked at Warhol’s Factory when you were only 16 — what do you make of the various portrayals?

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I saw “Basquiat,” and I thought it was good, although it was pretty self-justifying of Julian Schnabel. He definitely comes off as the wholesome, happy family man/survivor.

When I worked at the Factory, I didn’t think (Basquiat’s) art was all that great. What I’ve found interesting is since then, seeing how seminal a figure — a God — he is to young artists. And I guess I do see why he’s great. I think he understands Americanness and this weird country better than anyone else in history, practically. He captured something so precious and so true about our cult of celebrity, our morbidness, about different kinds of American craziness — he was inside it and outside it at the same time. He was kind of a pop-culture junkie himself, who also had this ironic sensibility, this mixture of innocence and naiveté. I really do think he was brilliant.

It’s interesting that, in the novel, Dolly worships the artists, but when she hears about a young artist who would like to meet Jesus Christ more than any other person, she’s embarrassed for him.

Dolly’s a real skeptic, she’s a real modern woman, thinking that she’s the art worshipper. And yes, she thinks religion is just plain tacky. She can’t believe Isaac can be so corny as to read the Bible and believe in that stuff. She worships modernism.

And art …

Yeah, but it’s a false religion. It can’t stand the weight of the worship. I think at a certain point in the last century, art kind of won the war — it displaced religion. But that really screws artists up, they can’t carry that much import. The only religion’s gotta be religion. Nothing else does the trick.

But so many people today tend to associate religion with fundamentalism or fanaticism. Take for example the way people responded to the Heaven’s Gate suicide …

I’m pretty intrigued by it, you know. Except for the stupid science, it seems like a nice, traditional, otherworldly, anti-worldly, celibate religion. They did fine, they weren’t nuts. I think the UFO stuff is pretty dumb, but they were onto something pretty traditional.

I’m also intrigued by the celibacy, just because it’s so unlike most other cults. The one thing that worries me is they’re not bad writers. They’ve got some OK prose in there, unlike most cults. That guy Applewhite, he doesn’t sound like a dictatorial Koresh type. And he could write a sentence, all right.

You know, what they keep on saying is what we were saying about Isaac — they were just people who couldn’t get along in this world. They didn’t like it — they wanted out. Those guys were all happy to go. It’s not tragic.

It’s like when Isaac says about his friend and nemesis, Casey, “If the world is constructed in a way that someone like him can be happy in it, then it’s impossible for me to be happy in it.” That’s such a devastating idea — where did it come from?

I’ve had the experience where the most brilliant people I know can’t get a word published, which makes me feel guilty. It predisposes me to think there must be something wrong with the world if these geniuses can’t get into print because their work’s too hard, too long, too unpalatable. It makes me think I must either be second-rate or selling out.

So a lot of the issues you raise in the book — particularly issues dealing with art vs. commerce — are things you yourself have confronted?

I guess I’m confronting them all over again now that the book has been published. I did voice some of my own feelings when Isaac gets discovered and gets a show and everything, and he says that “art’s wells have to remain covered.” I definitely feel that. There’s a funny contradiction that writers are people who can only exist by being alone and digging deep, deep, deep into their own heads, and it’s always very startling to have that turned around and be trotted out in public. But, like Isaac, I want to make a go of it, too. I want people to read my book, so I’ll do what it takes.

But it’s very, very hard to keep in balance, because what’s going to get you famous — you know, what makes a sensation, what gets attention, what grabs headlines — is so short-lived. It’s something so transient, so superficial. And getting better at your art means plugging away in a boring, sort of obscure way. And also I think it’s very, very dangerous to think about and try to please your audience. I can’t think that I’m writing for anybody, I mean, not even for another human being. I have to forget about that part.

But you grew up in an environment that was, if not directly in the public eye, always aware of it.

Actually, in my family, especially my mother’s side, there’s a very big reclusive streak — and a big rebellious streak. My mother (Isabel Eberstadt), who was my big formative influence, is quite antisocial, and she’s quite subversive herself. I notice it more now that I have a daughter myself. (My mother) hated my teachers at school. She hated school, she hated authority. She very sneakily taught us to have no respect whatsoever. Didn’t matter at all what anybody else thought — the broad idea being that you didn’t need outside approval. As a consequence, I need her approval much too much.

She wrote two books herself, 25 years apart. Are you afraid of taking that long to write another book?

I was completely terrified of it. I was very, very conscious of it, especially when I wrote my first book. I wrote it in six weeks because I was so scared of that happening. I was very conscious of the dangers of drying up. I don’t know when you decide you’re safe, or if you ever can (knocks on the wood table).

I think my mother wanted to write something, stopped because she got stuck, and sidetracked. I think she had too exciting a life, and that made it difficult. But I’m less scared of getting blocked than I am of not writing good books, of not writing books as good as I want to, you know — really lasting books, which is what I’m after.

Do you think you’ve accomplished that with this book?

No, not yet. But maybe next time.

You write with a sort of bitter humor about the difference between women and men, and the failings of each. Do you find them to be as incompatible as your characters seem to?

There’s a certain pessimism in the book about male-female relations that isn’t mine, it’s the characters’. It’s a generational difference — people our age are still a lot more unisex than their parents are. To people my parents’ age, that boys and girls want to do anything but go to bed together at any possible occasion, every moment of the day, is inconceivable.

I consciously made Alfred (Dolly’s philandering husband) kind of humorously — I don’t know if misogynistic is the right word — but he comes off a lot harder about how impossible women are, how hard it is for men and women to get along together, than anyone else does in the book.

So do you find men and women to be much more alike than you portray them as being in the book?

It’s sort of strange. I think I always thought men and women were the same, and there wasn’t any difference. And as I go on, I think there’s more and more of a difference — especially after you have a kid, it all sort of blows your mind. Any idea of equality and sameness goes out the window. A mother’s not a father, and a father’s not a mother, and you might not know the difference, but the kid sure does — even by the time it comes out of the womb. That was a big setback.

When you say setback — you mean it’s a disappointment?

It’s a shock. A total shock. Horrifying, really. Really strange.
I wanted my girl to have all the advantages, all the power, all the freedom of a boy. She’s only 2 years old, but she not only insists on wearing pink, she’ll only eat pink. All she wants is to feed her dolls bottles, to nurse them, rock them to sleep, coo and cuddle them.

And that actually makes me feel I’ve done right, that she’s comfortable being female, she’s proud of being female — female is what she is. I’m glad — though I myself like people with a little bit of crossover in them.

Cynthia Joyce is a writer living in New Orleans.

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