When Art Reveals the Artist: A View of David Ebershoff

by Marie Hefley

David Ebershoff

David Ebershoff, best known as the author of The Danish Girl and The 19th Wife, visited Asheville recently as the 2018 Goodman Endowed Visiting Writer at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. Gracious and approachable, with a quick wit and ready laugh, he shared with students and members of the community his experiences in the literary and publishing worlds.

A native of Pasadena, California, he studied English literature and Asian history at Brown University, and minored in creative writing. All three of these areas of interest played a role in Ebershoff’s development as a writer and as an editor at Random House in New York City. Perhaps more important, literature and writing formed him both personally and professionally, allowing him to find himself.

“I came out fairly young,” he said. “I knew I was gay, but there was nothing to tell me what my life would become. This was the AIDS era, so the only vision of myself was that my life would be filled with shame and illness. That was a hard place to be, so I had to figure out who I wanted to be. I took refuge in the library, reading stories about queer people by queer writers, to know about the world bigger than my own. I found myself in those books. I found my future, my vision.”

Like many successful writers, Ebershoff started out by writing stories while in his teens. He was drawn to authors he looked up to “in terms of craft, their moral vision of the world, whom they wrote about…writers who had an emotional connection to my way of experiencing the world…writers who sang to me.” In trying to figure out how these authors such as Joan Didion, Eudora Welty, and Joyce Carol Oates worked their magic, he read many of their works. “When I found a writer I loved, I would memorize her work to see how things fit."

Ebershoff admits that, despite his analyses of his favorite authors' works, he "didn't know much about how to start a story, or momentum, pacing." He had only "a sense of language, images, and characters that spoke to me." He read and wrote and absorbed all he could from his professors and "students with passions similar to mine." He found "the word nerds, the people that writing really meant something to." Still, his self-doubt about his work persisted. "I couldn't even conceive of a path, road, bridge to connect who I was to a writer and an artist who created for a living."

So, after college, “I lost myself," Ebershoff said. "I needed a job. I had spent my junior year in Japan, and I could speak Japanese decently. That got me a job writing marketing materials in Japanese for computer companies. It was the worst time in my life but also the best because I realized I didn’t fit in. I wasn’t good at it, I was disconnected, I didn’t share the same passions with my colleagues.”

Knowing he was in the wrong place, Ebershoff struggled to find his right place. “I was very low on self-confidence at that time. I applied for a summer internship with Random House, not expecting to get it, but I did get it. I knew I had found my place. I was in an office tower in Manhattan full of books and with people who loved books!”

While best known to the general public as an author, in the publishing world Ebershoff ranked among the elite who spot, buy, edit, and sell major prize-winning books. He was the first editor to bring out two Pulitzer Prize winners in the same year: in 2013 The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson won for Fiction, and Embers of War by Fredrik Logevall won for History. Ebershoff completed the trifecta in 2015, editing the Pulitzer Prize winner in Biography, The Pope and Mussolini by David I. Kertzer. During his editing career, his authors won or were nominated for almost every major literary award.

While at Random House, Ebershoff worked with luminaries such as Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Billy Collins. He also worked with authors whose names became known after their collaborations with him. One story he shares is about Imbolo Mbue, an immigrant from Cameroon. “I knew her book, Behold the Dreamers, was a wonderful novel that spoke to a number of issues that our country is facing, and the characters are really vibrant, and I knew I hadn’t read this story before. I knew it was a wonderful book by its fresh voice.” That fresh voice was an Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 choice in 2017, no small boost for an author. An article in Business Week stated that “no one comes close to Oprah's clout: Publishers estimate that her power to sell a book is anywhere from 20 to 100 times that of any other media personality.”

What is the magic of being an excellent editor? “Editors are no different than readers,” Ebershoff says. “We want to be drawn in and instantly know we’re in competent hands.” Beyond that, however, it’s essential for the editor “to be somebody who can understand the writer’s vision and not layer over another vision. [Our job is] to help the writer achieve his or her vision.”

The editor also has an off-the-page function: he is and must be the writer’s champion, an aspect of the job that Ebershoff loved. “I would say to the world, ‘You have to pay attention to this book.’ I went to the Editor in Chief, the sales department, media, and booksellers to say, literally, ‘I just read an amazing book, and there are probably a countless number of millions of books in this world, and I’m asking you to read this book over every other book that exists on this planet, NOW.’ You have to be able to convince somebody to do that.”

Lastly, Ebershoff says the editor’s role is to “be there with the writer on the path the writer has already set out. Be a sounding board, the first reader, the last reader, buy lunch, dinner, and drinks, take phone calls—whatever the writer needs.” This role requires more than a mastery of craft; the editor needs the sensitivity and intuition to understand how the writer wants to work, and to provide support and assistance in a way that best suits the writer’s personality and needs.

He illustrates this point with a story about editing a novel Norman Mailer was writing about Hitler, spanning his teen years to early adulthood. “Most writers need to hear the praise first. They want to know what’s achieved before hearing what needs to be fixed. I went to Provincetown and was sitting at Mailer’s dining room table, working side-by-side with him. I said, ‘Norman, let’s talk about this character.’ Mailer said, ‘I don’t want the praise. Let’s just get down to work.’ Every project is different.”

In finding a manuscript that he wanted to edit and sell, Ebershoff looked for authors whose books filled that empty space on a shelf in a bookstore—the story not yet told. “I wanted to read a book that a writer was obsessed to tell me. I wanted to know what the writer couldn’t shake for four, five, eight years. What was his or her life? Over time, I formed an editorial philosophy of the ‘UNs’: unlikely, unprecedented, underrepresented, underdog, unloved. I liked the less obvious winners, the stories at the margins. Those stories meant something to me.” And these stories sometimes come from a new author.

Ebershoff was that new author when he published The Danish Girl, a fictionalized account of the story of Lili Elbe, one of the first people to have gender reassignment surgery. It was Ebershoff’s first novel, written while he was “quite junior” at Random House. “I was a marketing guy,” he says, “not an editor then. By the time The Danish Girl came out, I was moving into editorial, but most of my editing career was after The Danish Girl.”

Ebershoff first heard of Lili, formerly known as Einar Wegener, a painter and art teacher in Copenhagen, when a friend sent him a book about gender and literature in which Lili was referenced. “She was described as ‘the first person to have'—and this was the language in that book from the 90's—‘to have had a ‘sex change,’ or what we now call gender reassignment or gender confirmation surgery, that she had been married, and both she and her wife were artists. I wondered why I had never heard of her, why she didn’t have a place in history.”

He went to the New York Public Library to do research on Lili. "All I found was a news story that was reported sensationally, without empathy. I thought Lili would make a really good story, or book. I was in my mid-20s and always wanted to write. I thought about writing a novel and thought this would be a great, great book.”

At this point, Ebershoff was very self-conscious about his writing and had “no faith in my ability to tell a story or write well, or even write good sentences. One side of my brain said this would make a really good book, the other said, ‘You can’t write that.’”

He continues, “Your mind will tell you a thousands reasons not to do something. I was cisgender, I wasn’t from Denmark, had never been to Denmark, I wasn’t married, I wasn’t an artist, etc. Still, I kept thinking about her. What kind of person could be so brave with no role models, with everyone against her? How did it affect her relationship and marriage? What kind of love was it?”

A vision finally moved Ebershoff to take the chance. “The vision was so clear, as if it had really happened. The vision was that I woke up on a Sunday morning, picked up the New York Times at the door, and saw an envisioned New York Times review of a book about Lili Elbe. I read the review. As I experienced this vision, I felt an emotion that was very strong and very clear, and it was my future regret that I hadn’t even tried to write the book. If her life had meant or shown anything, it was about going out in to the world and doing something the world and your mind tell you you can’t do. So I decided to pursue the story.”

Doing so while holding a demanding full-time job was a challenge. Ebershoff knew he had to go to Denmark to do research because “that’s where the story really began for me and where Lili and her wife, Gerda Gottlieb, had started their careers as artists.” He told his boss he was taking a vacation in Denmark. “I told him I was looking for a friend.”

Ebershoff started his quest at the Royal Academy of Art in Copenhagen, the place where, in the 1920s, Lili and Gerda had begun their art careers, met, fell in love, and started their journey together. "I wanted to walk where they did, see the light in the studios, see their artwork," he says. "I first saw images that lit my mind and told me how to tell the story.” He also saw copies of the approximately twenty-five paintings Gerda did of Lili.

One painting, Queen of Hearts, was iconic to Ebershoff. It showed a woman from a woman’s point of view. “It was Lili as she wanted to be seen, and Gerda showed Lili as Lili wanted the world to see her.” It reflected two artists whose relationship was in transition, working out their changes on the canvas. “I saw the story in two terms—that of Lili as a transgender pioneer and their relationship as a remarkable love story.”

With Gerda’s love and support, Lili found herself in art, which allowed her to present her authentic self, not the self the world thought she should be. She stopped painting, regarding Einar, not herself, as the artist, and Einar, as she thought of it, was no more. Instead, she became the subject for Gerda, who created about thirty paintings of Lili. “Probably because she had no role models, no language to describe what her life was becoming, drawing a stark line between past and present was her way to handle it.”

Ebershoff points out that Lili had “a somewhat simplistic understanding of what it means to be a woman based on gendered stereotypes. She wanted to be very feminine, almost girlish, and longed to be a housewife.” Although she no longer considered herself an artist, Ebershoff disagrees. “I believe she was a great artist. Her greatest creation was herself. Artists see what doesn’t yet exist, a future not yet experienced. She was a great artist because she made herself real to the world and to herself.”

This trip to Copenhagen reinforced Ebershoff’s resolve to tell Lili’s story to the world. “I wanted to write the energy, the excitement of the unknown that they felt. I wrote for six or seven months but decided I needed to know more about where the story would go, where it landed. I went to Dresden, a city Lili came to love, and where she first encountered a doctor who understood and believed her without being critical, or skeptical, or doubtful. He said, ‘I can help you.’ That’s where Lili began.”

The Dresden of Lili’s time was gone, destroyed by firebombing in WWII and, since it was in East Germany, Ebershoff says, “It was rebuilt in a Stalinist, Soviet style. The city Lili had known and loved was gone. The place where she had her surgery was gone, along with many of her medical records.”

To understand how the city had affected her and what her life was like there, Ebershoff’s challenge was to somehow visualize Lili’s Dresden. Since Lili had taken the last name Elbe from the Elbe River in Dresden, Ebershoff started by sitting at the riverbank, trying to conjure up the prewar city.

His next stop was the cemetery where Lili was buried. “It was the only place I could go to find her. [I saw] a photo from the 1930s of her grave, showing a black granite headstone. Now it was gone, probably destroyed in the war. Her grave was just a patch of lawn, so although she was still there, in a way she was lost. She had no presence. That was another reason I felt I wanted to write her story. I wanted somehow to bring her back, represent the emotions of her life, to somehow render the emotions that created that kind of art on the page.”

Without telling anyone what he was doing, Ebershoff sought out an agent. The book clicked with one agent, who said, “I believe in the story so much I’ll send it to editors until there aren’t any more. I thought, ‘Poor woman!’”

The agent chose well. With the publication of The Danish Girl, Ebershoff garnered critical success and recognition, including its being named by the New York Times as “one of the twenty-five books that have shaped LGBTQ literature over the past twenty years.”

Ebershoff doesn’t feel an obligation to be the spokesman for the LGBTQ community, although some of his characters fit that designation. “I tend to think about writing in very concrete terms: who is the character, what does he want, where is the character, what are her circumstances, what language will help to tell the story, who will tell it? Out of that will come stories that may or may not resonate with different groups of people. I can’t think of it in terms of trying to write a character to represent a community because that character would be an empty symbol—not a full, fleshy, messy human being. Characters have to be specific to themselves and not be any kind of symbol.”

Ebershoff relates “one of the more remarkable things that happened.” A Hollywood producer, Gail Mutrux, known for her work on the films Rain Man, Donnie Brasco, and Nurse Betty, had optioned The Danish Girl, at publication in 2000, for a full-length movie. Ebershoff’s agent warned him of the three possible outcomes: “The most likely is the movie will never be made; second, which is highly unlikely, is that the movie will be made and you won’t like it; and the third, which never happens, is that the movie will be made and you feel somehow it represents your work.” Yet Ebershoff felt that Mutrux shared his vision for Lili and her story, so he trusted her.

For fifteen years, Mutrux shopped the story all over Hollywood, where it was called “box office poison.” She persisted, and eventually produced a film that won awards from the Academy of the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the Oscars), the Screen Actor’s Guild and over twenty other critics’ awards, and received multiple nominations from BAFTA and the Golden Globes, as well as numerous nominations from a long list of guilds and associations.

When the movie was being made, Ebershoff tells of being with the cast and crew on the movie set at the Royal Academy of Art in Copenhagen, the place where both Lili’s story and the movie of Lili’s story began. As he once again walked through the same rooms Lili and Gerda had, he wandered into the prop room. “It was full of all these paintings I had seen images of before. And they all had Eddie’s (Eddie Redmayne, the actor who portrayed Lili) face in them! I actually have one of them from the set.”

Ebershoff says that the third of his agent’s alternatives came true. “When I first saw the movie in Venice at the premiere, I was so overwhelmed. There was so much to look at. It's a very layered film. Just to look at it as a rendition of my book, which was a rendition of Lili's story, I could focus only on these two characters, and these two performances. You can't separate them. They're on this journey together. How these two actors portrayed these two characters and how they wove together their portrayals, to me, were mesmerizing, and very authentic to the work. I was very moved by that. The film is so beautiful, like a painting, which is appropriate to the story. I've been to many screenings and seen how it affects many people.”

An anecdote reveals the effect of the film on moviegoers. Prior to the premiere of the movie at the 2015 Venice Film Festival, Ebershoff had gone back to Dresden. “I wanted to remember why all this was happening and what it all meant. I wanted to remember what Lili meant to people.” He went again to Lili’s grave. “This trip, the grass was greener and I could see exactly where the grave was. I later looked at the picture I took on my phone and saw something I hadn't seen while taking the picture—sunbeams. I never used the word ‘sunbeam.’ I'm not a sunbeam person. But there they were—sunbeams!”

In Venice, at dinner after the premiere with “all the stars and other powerful people—people who can get stuff done,” Ebershoff said, “Hey guys. I was just at Lili’s grave and took this picture.” Seeing that the grave didn’t have a headstone, they and Universal Studios had Lili’s original headstone replicated.

In 2016, Ebershoff went back to Dresden for a ceremony to unveil the headstone. About four hundred people, many members of the LGBTQ community in Germany and Denmark, attended. The cemetery had created a plaque and presented it to a local transrights activist, naming that person the caretaker of the grave. “It was incredibly moving that this story had come all that way,” Ebershoff says. “People told me that what Lili had done had inspired so many in different ways. The idea of telling the world this is who you are is still radical and still moves a lot of people. The questions she faced (Who am I? Who do I want to be? Who do I want others to see?) still rang in other people’s hearts.”

A lesson Ebershoff learned as an editor and which he applied to the experience of seeing his work transformed for the screen is this: “With great artists, you have to give them their space. You can’t put restrictions on the most talented people, or you won’t draw great artists that way. You have to allow them to figure out their own interpretation.” He trusted Mutrux to assemble a highly skilled team to bring their mutual vision to life.

Ebershoff has spent a lot of time analyzing what makes writing good and how to achieve that goal in his own work. He also acknowledges that a writer has to find a process that allows him to create his best work. About his writing process, he says, “When I’m working on that big, messy thing called the first draft, that shapeless, nasty beast, I do a word count. I need a concrete goal for the first part of the process. I set a goal of a few thousand words per day just to keep pushing forward and get something on the page. I have to write through the mess to understand the story and find the shape. At other points where I’m doing rewriting and much more intricate work, the word count goal doesn’t make sense.” He adds that writing for a set amount of time doesn’t work for him, because “I can fudge time.”

Feedback is critical to his process. While in college, while studying for his MBA at the University of Chicago, and when he moved to New York City, he participated in workshops. “I found them valuable but terrifying!” he says. “I teach workshops now and wonder how students put up with it — they’re so brave. Although, I did it.”

He muses about the intangible benefits of workshops. “It’s valuable to get feedback, to have a deadline, to know your readers are waiting for you. It’s also important to remember you’re training your ear on how to listen to and evaluate feedback. You’ll put your work into the world and get a range of feedback, so as writers, we have to know whom to listen to and whom to politely say ‘thank you’ and then move on. You’re not dismissing them, but you know some readers are better for you.”

The second benefit is that workshops are an opportunity to build a network of readers who provide meaningful feedback for your work and who can be a continuing resource for you. “When you leave a workshop experience, leave with a group of readers. You’ll need them and they’ll need you. Make a pact to continue reading each other’s work.”

As an adjunct professor in the writing program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, he takes a two-pronged approach. In his literature seminars, he explains, "The class reads a set of books as writers: how does the writer do what he or she is doing, how is it narrated, why did the writer choose this character to narrate? We consider basic questions to help them think about how stories are told and put together, and the choices writers make. It’s a craft way of thinking.”

Ebershoff also teaches workshops, which he approaches as an editor. “My job as a teacher is to understand that writer, who they are, who they want to be. I read their work and see how it all fits together and then perhaps guide the writer. If I have a strong sense of you and your writing isn’t expressing who you want to be, why isn’t it? I always focus on that.”

He closely reads the students’ manuscripts. “I pay attention to beginnings: first sentence, first paragraph, first page, and the title, because editors and agents don’t know anything about you and this is the introduction. It doesn’t mean they won’t continue reading, but if you believe the story kicks in on page 30, why are you waiting until page 30? If you have a great line on page 5, why isn’t it on page 1? I ask these kinds of questions.”

Ebershoff offers two takeaways to emerging writers: read and write a lot, and find a good story and tell it well. “You may find the story inside yourself, or in the outside world, or a combination of both. But you have to tell it well. It’s a lot easier to tell a really good story well than to tell a not-so-great story well. A good story will serve you really well, and will carry you very, very far. It will also tell you how to tell it.”

Of course, he knows the process doesn’t always go smoothly. Emerging writers sometimes get stuck, he says, for this reason: "They lost sight of the story. If they’re poets, they may have lost their theme or imagery.” He admits that, for him, it’s hard to get past writer’s block, and he tries to think of why he’s stuck. He sees two primary causes: a craft issue or a lack of belief in the story he’s telling. “The story may not be fresh or strong enough, or it’s too far from me. The voice may be off. Often it’s something about my approach, so rethinking it can help me open something up. By setting very concrete goals, I can get by. I just write, with the phone off.” He mentions an app called “freedom,” which blocks access to a phone or internet connection for a set amount of time on your computer, iPhone, or iPad; he uses the app to help him blank out outside distractions and focus on his work.

Each project also presents its unique challenges. His second novel, The 19th Wife, “a big history of the Brigham Young story plus a murder mystery,” has twelve narrators. Ebershoff says he had to develop a means by which he could present each character’s point of view clearly and without confusion. He decided to write a table of contents first and use it a guide “so each character could narrate certain portions of the story. In moving from one voice to another, I took time off in between. I also read in between to cleanse my palate.”

He cites the example of his wanting to create Brigham Young's fictional prison diary to tell part of his story. To do this, Ebershoff says, “I read Young’s speeches, his writings, and his letters. I steeped myself in his voice so I could write his diary." He gave the voices space so they could distinctively emerge.

His advice to emerging writers is multidimensional. “First, remind yourself what you care about, what’s important to you. When you step away from the structure of college life, you’ll see a world that is more practical about making a living. Voices will tell you can’t make a living [by writing], so you can lose sight of your creative path. Find where you belong, where you can connect with people you share fundamental passions with.”

For poets, he advises “reading a lot, especially poets who matter to you. It could be the classics or contemporary poets. Read them and understand them. It can be helpful to memorize, read aloud, and just write. Read where poems are published. Today is great—they can turn up anywhere. See where poems that matter to you are appearing the world, and it may be in an unlikely place.”

For the writing itself, he counsels finding the right structure for what you want to say. “Ask yourself if the story is big enough to sustain a long version. If not, use a shorter structure. Find a novel that rocks your world and ask yourself what about the novel did that for you? What resonated with you? What can you learn from it that can help you boil things down to their essence yet carry meaning?”

Finally, Ebershoff encourages emerging writers to "write—a lot." In that way, a writer can, like Lili, find his or her authentic self through the art. "Many of our self-doubts and insecurities and anxieties are really about identity. If you know yourself, you'll conquer them and be that much closer to being free." He reminds writers to think about Lili: "Almost a hundred years ago, a Danish woman, although she insisted on calling herself a girl, propped her leg on a chair. That painting shows us her best self, what it means to say to the world, 'This is me.'"

David Ebershoff is the author of four books, including The Danish Girl and the #1 bestseller The 19th Wife. His books have been translated into more than twenty-five languages, to critical acclaim, and twice Out Magazine has named him to its annual Out 100 list of influential LGBT people. David was formerly Vice President and executive editor at Random House, where he edited more than twenty New York Times bestsellers, three Pulitzer Prize winners, a winner of the National Book Award, and an Oprah Book Club selection. He teaches in the graduate writing program at Columbia University. Originally from Pasadena, California, he now lives in New York City.

Marie Hefley, a long-time member of the Great Smokies Writing Program and Managing Editor of this publication, is a graduate of the Master of Liberal Arts and Sciences program at UNC Asheville. She has been published in The Forest Companion and Smoky Mountain Living. She invites you to read her interviews with Wiley Cash(Issue 9), Megan Shepherd (Issue 12), Denise Kiernan (Issue 13), and Robert Beatty (Issue 14) as well as several other authors, found in the Great Smokies Review Archives.