Not Being Afraid to Make Things: an Interview with Jill and Debra Eisenstadt
Photograph of Rockaway Beach by Michael Redpath
Jill and Debra Eisenstadt are many things: sisters, New Yorkers, artists, collaborators, and Bennington alumnae. Jill attended Bennington in the mid 80’s, sharing the writing scene with what would come to be known as the “Literary Brat Pack”— including Bret Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt, and Jonathan Lethem. (Jill and Jonathan Lethem reunited over Google chat for an earlier Literary Bennington post that you can find here.
Debra followed suit, attending Bennington from ’87 to ‘91, studying theater and sharing the campus with actor Peter Dinklage and actor/screenwriter Justin Theroux.
At the age of 22, Jill submitted her first novel, From Rockaway, as her MFA thesis at Columbia University. The book, which features a familiar-sounding “Dress to Get Laid” party at “Camden College,” was published in 1987 by Knopf, a mere two years after Jill graduated from Bennington.
Debra got off to a similarly precocious start, beginning her film career as an actress in the major motion picture version of Oleanna, opposite William H. Macy, only three years after her own graduation from Bennington.
Since then, both alums have continued working in the creative realm, separately and together. Jill published a second novel, Kiss Out, in 1991, and has written pieces for The New York Times, Vogue, Elle, The Boston Review, and New York Magazine, among many others. Together, Jill and Debra collaborated on the screenplays for the independent film The Limbo Room (2006).
Debra has co-written and directed the feature film Before the Sun Explodes, about a comedian who is kicked out by his wife only to be lured into a sticky situation with a woman and her stalker. The film premiered at SXSW last spring to great acclaim and it was screened at a packed Kinoteka theater during Bennington’s alumni weekend in October.
Jill’s long-awaited third novel, Swell, revisits some of the same characters from her first novel and it will be published by Little, Brown in the summer of 2017. The author also came to campus for the 2016 alumni weekend, sitting on a panel with new Bennington literature faculty member Brando Skyhorse about the ins and outs of the publishing industry.
I sat down with Jill on campus and emailed with Debra to ask them about Bennington then and now and working in the creative realm, both together and separately.
Literary Bennington: Is there one word you would use to describe Bennington in the ‘80s (Jill) and ‘90s (Debra) ?
Jill Eisenstadt: Synergistic.
Debra Eisenstadt: “Complicated” was the first word that came to mind…. So I guess I’ll go with that. Although I was only at Bennington for the very beginning of the 90’s. My last year there was my best. So maybe the best 90’s word for me would be “focused.” I was very focused on what I wanted to do at that time.
LB: Does campus feel different to either of you now? Jill, you said you haven’t been back on campus for 20 or more years, what strikes you as different or similar?
JE: I haven’t had a chance to walk around campus too much yet, so I know there are a lot of new buildings and such, and a gym--nobody used to ever work out. The fact that there was a soccer game was definitely different, because we didn’t do any type of physical activity. Which sucks, you know? Why didn’t I ski? We took a hike this morning and I thought, why didn’t I ever go on a walk anywhere? When I moved to North Bennington I started walking--this is junior and senior year. And that turned out to be the highlight of my day, walking back and forth.
Another huge difference I just know about is, and your parents probably know this too, is that the drinking age for us was 18. So there was a cafe on campus. That’s huge; we drank on campus every night--legally. And because of that, we hung out with our teachers a lot too. While that was, at times, inappropriate, it also allowed for a student-mentor relationship that I imagine is more difficult now. I was asking before whether teachers still live in the apartments, because when I lived in Swan, Arturo Vivante, a literature teacher lived there, and he invited us over all the time. We would hang out with him and other faculty members and talk about books. It made me feel really grown up.
DE: I was invited back to campus a couple of times to teach acting/writing workshops when Gladden Schrock was still teaching theater at Bennington. That was awhile ago though. So Alumni weekend was the first time I’d been back in many years. I thought the school looked better than ever. I love the addition of Kinoteka of course – as well as the new café – I didn’t really get to see much more of the new additions- but VAPA and the Barn were just how I remember.
LB: What were your Plans in when you started at Bennington?
JE: I always liked to write but I back then I was big into music too. When I got here I discovered that although I was a really good flute player in my little neighborhood in Queens, it wasn’t going to cut it. There were people at Bennington who’d been practicing 20 hours a day for their whole lives! So turned my focus to music composition. At the Tuesday music workshops, the teachers (all professionals) would play any stupid thing you wrote. It was incredible. So I ended up writing a lot of music and even getting paid to notate for my main teacher, the composer Lou Calabro, because he liked my music handwriting. (Now there’s a job that’s obsolete!) Even though I didn’t wind up having a career in music, studying it so intensely was hugely helpful to my writing.
DE: I knew I wanted to do theater and fine art. What changed was I was never sure which discipline would become my priority—and although I really did both throughout my time there, theater (acting, writing, directing) ended up overpowering the art.
LB: Jill, what was it like having a novel published at 22?
JE: It was fun, really fun. And, a little bit scary. If you look back, we got a lot of attention, but the bulk of it was negative. That was weird for me just starting out. There was some truly mean stuff — the Village Voice had my head in a baby carriage with the caption “Jill spits up.”.Somewhere else, I think Vanity Fair, had a caricature of my face with the words “Eisenstadt's prose snakes through the gutter, strictly urine.” At the same time it was great to be making money and meeting lots of people alongside friends that were having a similar experience.
LB: Did you do a lot of readings?
JE: Surprisingly not. I did get invited to a lot of literary events. In the ‘80s, publishers threw lavish book parties (for others writers) which I’d get to attend. And several women’s magazines dolled me up for profiles. I remember overhearing a stylist complaining “her hair’s too big for her body.” as if she’d forgotten I wasn’t a model.
LB: Was a lot of From Rockaway based on non-fiction, real to your life?
JE: A lot of the rituals there were; some of them I saw, some of them I heard about. The characters are blend of people I knew. Unfortunately or fortunately all those nicknames are real and I wish I’d picked different ones because those people aren’t the real people…
The re-issued cover of From Rockaway. Image courtesy of Jill Eisenstadt.
LB: What’s your book about that’s coming out in June?
JE: Swell is about a family that flees Tribeca after 9/11 and moves to Rockaway thinking they’re going to be safer. They are, of course, not at all safe. Also, a few characters from From Rockaway appear in Swell, 15 years later. Little Brown is also re-issuing From Rockaway in paperback ahead of Swell.
LB: Debra, what was it like jumping right into acting after graduating, and how did that turn into writing and directing?
DE: After college I interned at an Off Broadway theater and began auditioning through Backstage; going to open calls and actually getting work Off Broadway from those open calls. I landed my first professional job through an open call in the newspaper—and from there it became my career; working in theater, film and TV… I was pretty young though and I really had no knowledge of the what the “business” of acting was… That is really something that should be taught to all acting students, everywhere. I was very lucky to be able to work as an actor and figure out early on that this wasn’t at all what I wanted to do for the rest of my life—I had other interests that overpowered my desire to act. Writing was something I always did and directing was really what I wanted to be doing. So while I was acting, I took some film classes and directed some short films and that eventually lead me back to school full time. I got my Masters degree in Film and Media Studies which is when I decided to abandon acting altogether and pursue filmmaking, which combined all of my interests, made me truly happy and really changed my life for the better.
LB: What was it like screening Before the Sun Explodes at SXSW? Do you hope to continue making independent films? Are there any themes in particular you hope to address in the future?
DE: Screening Before The Sun Explodes at SXSW and all the festivals and screenings we had was fantastic. I am working on some other projects now that I hope will get made. With independent film I feel like I’m starting over every time. I have to remind myself that I know how to do this…. Because, it does feel like the first time with each project; they’re all very different.
LB: What was it like working together writing screenplays?
JE: We wrote a bunch of scripts together, most of which are still in drawers but… you never know. This started after I’d written my third book and it had not found a publisher. I’d just had a baby. I was in kind of a dark place, writing wise. Debra would come over--she lived in New York then--and one day we just started writing a play. It was like a giant weight was lifted off of me. I thought it was a really good play too; I still do. We just never got it off the ground. Anyway, that started us writing. Finally, we realized we had to be practical and write something simple enough to make it ourselves. This wound up being our film, The Limbo Room.
Debra had quit acting to become a director by that time. She’d had a lot of experience understudying on Broadway and she’d decided to make a documentary about understudies. At the Tennessee Williams play where she was filming, something unusual happened. The lead actress began accusing the lead actor of sexual harassment on stage, during a rape scene. So naturally, Debra was kicked out of the theatre. They didn’t want any of that on tape. And it became the subject of our film. Of course we fictionalized and expanded the story. But the questions were the same: Who should you believe? Was the actress really being sexually harassed in front of an audience every night? Or was she crazy? A primadonna? Etc. And we did all this through the point of view of the understudies. Debra cast and directed the film (which stars Melissa Leo and includes two Bennington alums — Jonathan Sherman and Peter Dinklage). She edited the whole thing on her computer. This is directly what Bennington teaches, I think. To make things. Not to be afraid to just make things.
DE: It’s great working with my sister. It’s always very cathartic and interesting writing with her. We are very connected. There’s really nothing bad for me about collaborating with other people- except when the people or person you are collaborating with is really difficult or stubborn. It can be a challenge when you’re trying to communicate something to someone you’re working with and they misunderstand what you’re trying to get across or accomplish… when they are close minded and unwilling to try something new and/or are closed off to new ideas- perhaps scared or mistrusting…. That makes collaborating impossible. Filmmaking is all about collaboration so you have to be really careful who you choose to work with. This is all related to acting by the way—good acting is collaborating- listening- reacting- being spontaneous, thoughtful and risky—acting is a great basis for anything you want to do in life I think.
LB: Were there any problems you ran into working as women in your industries?
JE: Just what you’d imagine. They always take the men writers more seriously.
DE: YES… The discrimination is real, at least in my experience. It’s very frustrating—but I just work through it and do what I can to move forward—however slowly.
LB: Do either of you go back to visit Rockaway?
JE: I live in Brooklyn, so yeah.
DE: Yes. I love Rockaway and go back whenever I can. I still have friends and family that live there.
By Samantha Krause '17