I'm so excited to host Jill Eisenstadt, the author of the novels FROM ROCKAWAY (Knopf, 1987/Vintage Contemporaries, 1988, Back Bay Books, 2017), KISS OUT (Knopf, 1991) and SWELL, (Little, Brown & Co). Her essays, articles and short fiction have appeared in such publications as The New York Times, New York Magazine, Mademoiselle, Seventeen, Vogue, Elle, Bomb, and more.
Swell, her newest novel, is set against the shoreline of Rockaway Beach, Queens, and it takes on a darkly comic look at family, a haunted house, secrets and of course, surprises. It's a wonderful novel, and thank you again, Jill, for being here!
I so remember From Rockaway, your first novel. I so loved that book. Do you feel like a different writer now? And if so, how so?
Naturally life experience has deepened and broadened my understanding but my sensibility and connection to writing remains the same. It took quite a bit of work on Swell for me to realize that the former firefighter from whose perspective I’d been writing was actually Tim from From Rockaway, only older. Time had changed the character too but it was still his voice and point of view.
What was the “why now, why this book” moment for Swell? I always want to know, too, if the finished novel was anything like the initial idea?
I had no “why now, why this book” moment. For years I’d resisted writing fiction about Rockaway or even the outer boroughs again. But I remained obsessed with the place and kept notes. Something cracked when I was asked to contribute a Rockaway story to the anthology Queens Noir (Akasic Books). I immediately knew what I’d write and was so engaged in doing so that I absolutely had to continue. The finished novel resembles the general initial idea but a great many specifics changed along the way.
I loved the haunted house. Ever been in one?
It’s thrilling to read about haunted houses [see Shirley Jackson] and I want to believe they exist but for me, it’s difficult.
Swell aims to point to the ways people and places continue to haunt us long after they’re gone. Even our own younger selves seem to hover around us like ghosts. A swell is a system of ocean waves that aren’t created by local winds but in some former, stormy place, in the past. This is why you can go to the beach on a beautiful, still sunny day and find big, rough water.
What kind of writer are you? Do you write things out on sheets of paper, use Scrivenor, fly by the seat of your pen?
I’m an everything writer --- blank books, computer, scraps of paper, the Notes function on my Iphone — whatever is handy.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
History. Time capsules. Back when From Rockaway was still in galleys (1986 or 7), I added it to a time capsule that was being a buried in Rockaway. Recently, I noticed that there is no marker at the spot and began a small investigation. A newspaper account at the time named the library as the capsule’s custodian. But nobody in the Queens library system seems to know anything about it or care. It got me thinking about local history, about centuries of buried stories and about the idea that a book itself is a form of time capsule.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Would you like to have a drink sometime?