I had a wonderful conversation with Emma Copley Eisenberg. She’s the kind of skilled and careful writer who understands that a character not having “the right word for what [he/she] want[s] to say” is a condition of experience as much as it is education or something else. That “something else” might be ambivalence or memory or even a condition of effort. Eisenberg’s structurally deft story, Forty-Four Thousand Pounds, is about a young woman attempting to understand three important relationships, but in so doing she’s also trying to better understand herself, and how a person might deal with growing ambivalence regarding these relationships, among other things, while not giving up hope entirely. Here’s our interview below. And please, do check out her story over at the The Common.
Keith Lesmeister: I’m thinking of all the trucker-like jargon used in this piece, not least the exact amount of weight for the coil in back of the semi, which becomes the title of the story. Tell me about the research – if any – you had to do for this story.
Emma Copley Eisenberg: I did a lot of research for this story, but most of it came in the form of interviewing and reporting. I asked a friend’s father who is a trucker if I could ride around with him for a day. He taught me much of what I didn’t know.
KL: Structurally, the story moves in a bold, non-chronological way. At first, I thought we’d return to the bike riding scene at the end of the piece, but that’s simply not the case. We bounce back and forth in ways surprising – and satisfying – to me as a reader. Could you speak to how the structure of this story evolved throughout the process?
ECE: I was originally inspired by “All the Way in Flagstaff, Arizona” by Richard Bausch. I love the way that story starts in a present moment that is full of misery and loss and boomerangs back and forth from the present to the past to show the reader how and why things turned out so badly. I wanted to riff on that way of thinking about a story, except in this case things haven’t turned out so badly in the present for Kendra, or so we think. In many ways she has moved forward in her life—she has left town, and moved to the big city. Yet she still feels sadness, loss, and ambivalence. I wanted the structure of the story to highlight that ambivalence.
KL: That makes sense, and I think it works quite well, as the bouncing back and forth highlights all the emotions you just mentioned. In addition, objects play a huge role in this story: books, instruments, the semi itself along with the coil, and even the bike, among other things. Could you speak to the importance of objects in your story? How do you determine which objects have more significance than others, or does that importance emerge naturally as the narrative takes shape?
ECE: I’ve always loved the physical world, simply put. Watching people and their clothes on the New York City subway system as a kid is, I believe, what made me want to write. Stuart Dybek writes like this, I think, and Grace Paley too. Sometimes objects teach you what the story is. Ron Carlson taught me that. The minute I had the steel coil, I knew what the story was. The steel coil taught me that the banjo had to be there, and then the banjo the horse, and so forth.
KL: There’s a lot going on this story, but the most significant part – at least in my mind – is this coming-of-age love negotiation between Kendra and Carla (Kendra’s friend/lover), Kendra and her parents, and Kendra and herself. I don’t want to give away the exquisitely rendered conversation toward the end of the story between Kendra and her father, but I have to ask: did his placating to Kendra’s mother surprise you?
ECE: I think Dude is positioned somewhere between Kendra and Kendra’s mother. Kendra is queer, and wants what she wants. Kendra’s mother doesn’t want her to want it. I think families often work this way, where one parent is more in tune with the actual desires of their child than the other. Yet the parents, in some ways, still need to be a team and function as a unit. So in that respect, no, it didn’t surprise me.
KL: One of my favorite scenes is in the honky-tonk. The details, the tension between characters, the insights Kendra has about her family, namely her father and this younger woman – there’s just so much going on. How did you keep this scene so tight? With all the commotion, I could imagine it spiraling into an all-night corn-liquored extravaganza, but you keep the scene under deft writerly control.
ECE: I think that just because there is music and alcohol involved, it doesn’t need to be a scene that gets out of control. That was one thing I learned by observing actual musicians actually, particularly Bluegrass musicians—they have a lot of discipline and take a lot of pride in songs being constructed and played well. I felt that Kendra possesses that discipline, even as Dude doesn’t, totally, so I let the scene follow Kendra’s energy, which is: get in, play, get out.
KL: The story is marked by these poetic, melancholic rhetorical questions which gives a very intimate feel to the story, as if you’re asking the reader to think about these questions alongside the narrator, even if for a brief moment. Some of the rhetorical question are: “What is the word for the feeling when you don’t care where you go as long as it is somewhere that is not home and as long as you are in motion?” Or, “What is the word for when your people give up on fighting for you to stay?” I don’t know how to phrase the question. I guess I’m asking your thoughts on using these rhetorical devices.
ECE: I think this is a story about not knowing, in a lot of ways, or knowing what choice you must make but being deeply ambivalent about that choice. I wanted the style of narration to reflect that mood, one in which there is never quite the right word for what you want to say.
KL: Last few questions………
KL: Do you listen to country music? If so, who?
ECE: I love country music and listen to it a lot. Some favorites are: Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, Townes Van Zandt, and Mary Gauthier. Of course, Bluegrass both is and isn’t “country music” in the way most people understand it. In terms of Bluegrass, I was taught by friends in West Virginia that there are really only a handful of “real” Blugrass bands and they are: Earl and Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, and The Del McCoury Band.
KL: Do you frequent honky-tonk, country bars?
ECE: I’ve only been to one honky-tonk in my life, but I’ve sat around in people’s living rooms while they play Bluegrass many, many times.
KL: Do prefer a waltz or a polka?
ECE: I’m not a big dancer, but I’ll do a waltz if it’s with the right person.
KL: Ham or turkey (for sandwiches)?
ECE: Ham or turkey equally.
KL: Interstates or back roads?
ECE: Definitely back roads.
Emma Copley Eisenberg is a writer of fiction and nonfiction based in West Philadelphia. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Granta, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, The Los Angeles Review of Books, AGNI, Guernica, ZYZZYVA, No Tokens, and other publications. She is the recipient of honors and residencies from Tin House Summer Workshop, the Turkey Land Cove Foundation, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and Lambda Literary. Her first book, The Third Rainbow Girl, is forthcoming from Hachette in 2019.