David Ebershoff, 49, was working as an editor with Random House in New York when he wrote his debut novel The Danish Girl (2000). Inspired by the life of Lili Elbe, one of the first people to have a gender reassignment surgery, the novel went on to be adapted into an Oscars-nominated film by the same name in 2015, apart from bagging several other literary awards.
Considered among the most influential gay people who are out, Ebershoff is also a strong voice on LGBTQI issues. At Tata Literature Live! festival in Mumbai last month, the author spoke about his early influences, how editing shaped his writing and why he eventually gave it up. Excerpts from an interview:
You’ve spent a large part of your life in New York. Yet, your writing rarely explores the bustle of a megapolis.
True, but I was born and raised in California, which is more relaxed and a lot about being outdoors. So, I write as a Californian. I sort of know I am a New Yorker now but I still feel I am not quite from there, and I am fine about that.
But so many years in this city does in a way seep into the DNA and the writing. New York has given me an even greater openness to stories and perspectives. I read many kinds of books as an editor…some writers I may never have encountered even as an avid reader. The language and my breadth of experience grew as a result. This showed up in The Danish Girl. I was reading a book someone sent me, and deep inside the book about gender theory and literature, was a very short reference to Lili Elbe. It said she was among the first transpeople to have a gender affirmation surgery and I thought, ‘Wait a minute. I haven’t heard her name ever even though she transitioned in 1920s-’30s. It’s very difficult now to transition and that was almost a century ago.’ That’s how I found her. So, I believe I need to keep reading, and read everything.
People from the queer community in India often talk about having grown up lonely, with little or no references around them or in books. How was it for you?
I most definitely found myself in books. Growing up as a gay kid in the 1980s in suburban southern California, I didn’t know any out gay people. It wasn’t conservative but it wasn’t New York either. I discovered myself in my teens and didn’t know whether, if at all, I would meet anyone like me. I felt alone, and all I found in the media were negative stories or stories of gay men dying of AIDS. The summer when I was 15, I went to the library and read everything about gay or queer stories, and writers who were queer. I read Tennessee Williams, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, among others. I read a book a day. And that lay the foundation of my life and career. By the end of that summer, I started to see a version of myself in future, and it’s a path I followed.
It’s often said that gay people have to come out twice — first to themselves and then to the world. Was writing on queer lives a third frontier for you?
I definitely grew up with the first two. But writing was not the same kind of battle…it was more an extension of understanding of the self, once the internal conflict was already resolved. But it leads me to be very interested in characters with an internal conflict. So, my protagonists have an internal conflict that also reflects in an external conflict. Since I have gone through the process, I am drawn to such stories. But I guess everyone, queer or not, has their own internal conflict. When I was starting out, I thought queer stories would only interest queer people. Even when I was working on The Danish Girl, I was shy about my writing; I wasn’t sure if the story would mean anything to anyone. But I am glad I said to myself, ‘Well, I am interested in it. So, don’t worry about anything and write the book.’ I literally wrote that book for myself. It will sound false now but when I wrote the book, I honestly didn’t think it would be published. That gave me a kind of freedom to write a book I would have liked to read. I say this to my students too, ‘If it’s important to you, it will be important to someone else, too.’ And that was reaffirmed recently when I wrote a piece for The New York Times, about a group of queer ballet dancers. They are mostly men and their queer identity is crucial to who they are on stage. The piece received a massive response. I am still amazed these dancers resonate with so many people around the world.
Your writing is almost journalistic. Even The 19th Wife (2008) is inspired by the life of Ann Eliza Young, who fought against polygamy in the 19th century.
I do love to go out and find those stories. But when I write, I really just think of the details — the scenes and characters. Which will often say something larger. The politics of it all is at the back of their head but in the act of writing, I am not setting out to say something larger because then I will fail. I won’t persuade you by say something you already know. It’s most satisfying to discover something while writing as opposed to knowing what I am going to say.
How has your career as an editor aided your writing?
It liberated me in a way because I read so many different kinds of writing. Also, I would sometimes see great writers in early drafts and see a great writer needing revision. So, that was another lesson: What we see as a book is often the final draft. Sometimes we read a true master and get intimidated, and lose sight of the work that goes into making that. I definitely do a lot of revision, and I respect my editors and their suggestions. But to be a writer and an editor at the same time can get tricky and that is why I stopped editing.
Editors, mostly, are anonymous beings. Did the decision to be one stem from your sexuality? And how did you make the transition and adjust to the attention that comes with being a writer?
I suppose that is where I learnt to hide. As a young gay person, I felt that need. It was a way of surviving, and that made me comfortable being behind the scenes. But when I truly believe in a story, I am mostly comfortable representing it. Stories of real importance — like that of Lili Elbe or the male ballet dancers — then take precedence and I am excited to share those.