NEW YORK — Before she could finally complete that third novel, Jill Eisenstadt had to break a self-imposed rule: no more books set in her native Queens.
Blame it in part on a Columbia University professor who told the author of From Rockaway and Kiss Out that she was the “voice of the outer boroughs” of Manhattan.
“He meant this in a kind way, but to me it sounded so ugly at the time,” says Eisenstadt, 53, whose novel Swell is her first in 26 years. “I had just published two novels in the outer boroughs — Brooklyn wasn’t even cool yet, let alone Queens. There was no way I was going to become this one-note, provincial author.”
Her new book is not only set in the Rockaway section of Queens, it even features a key “From Rockaway” character who has aged in time from the 1987 novel. Swell combines comedy and tragedy, chaos and a longing for order. It begins in 1993 with a murder — an elderly woman named Rose kills her son — and continues nine years later with Rose returning to the Rockaway house she had since moved from. The new occupants are the Glassmans, a family of four that moved out of Manhattan after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
“Swell” was a homecoming on the page and during the writing process. Once Eisenstadt had given in to another Queens narrative, “it just kind of poured out of me.” So many threads of attempted works came together in “Swell” that she thought of the manuscript as a “collage” in need of the proper framing. Eisenstadt readers might find her book familiar in other ways. People often are gathered and in conversation, the talk itself not a means to action but action itself.
“It’s partly because I really enjoy writing dialogue,” says the author, interviewed in the kitchen of her Brooklyn brownstone, where she lives with husband and fellow author Michael Drinkard. “Overall, I wish I could write novels that are just dialogue. Describing things are work to me. I love describing what people are thinking about, what they are saying. The sound of people talking, the rhythm of people talking, just motivates me somehow.”
Eisenstadt, the daughter of a businessman and an artist/calligrapher, “devoured and somewhat indiscriminately enjoyed” the books she came upon around the house. She read the “scary” science fiction paperbacks favoured by her dad and the more demanding works her mother brought home, whether Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” to the poems of Wallace Stevens.
She remembered writing “tons of terrible poetry” in high school, but she progressed noticeably at Bennington College, where friends included Donna Tartt and Bret Easton Ellis. A story Tartt told one night about a tornado inspired what became the opening line of “Far Rockaway,” a coming-of-age story: “Once, when Timmy was a baby, his ears bled.”
Eisenstadt’s first book was published by Alfred A. Knopf and edited by Terry Adams. Author and editor were reunited for “Swell,” released by Little, Brown and Co., where Adams now works.
“She’s so good at embracing absurdity,” Adams says. “I remember when Pat Strachan (editor of Tom Wolfe and others) told me one time, ‘There’s good writing and there’s good writing that’s funny. And if you can find someone who’s funny and also a good writer, then go for it.’”
Readers of the 1980s and 1990s often saw her name mentioned in news stories and gossip items alongside those of such contemporaries as Ellis, Tartt, Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz. They were called the “Brat Pack,” the supposed literary version of young actors such as Rob Lowe and Ally Sheedy. A Vanity Fair piece from 1986 was titled, “The Young and the Wasted,” and labeled Eisenstadt among those “too numb to feel, too cool to care,” a description that neither Eisenstadt nor her friends thought applied to her or her work.
“The media created it (the ‘Brat Pack’), then the media condemned it,” she says.
Ellis, during a recent telephone interview, said that Eisenstadt had never been comfortable with promoting herself and agreed that the idea of a roving, jaded clique of young writers was a “myth.” He remembered meeting her in writing class at Bennington, and being taken by her “massive mane of bright, fiery red hair” (the fire burns more calmly now) and by a prose style that was fuller and more approachable than the minimalist approach in fashion at the time.
“There was a casual, conversational elegance to her prose,” he said. “She was certainly not a minimalist; she had a much looser vibe.”