Death Keg: An Early 80s Flashback with Jill Eisenstadt and Jonathan Lethem
The original poster for Jill Eisenstadt’s play Monody (1983)
Before Jill Eisenstadt was the acclaimed author of the novels From Rockaway and Kiss Out, she was a sophomore playwright at Bennington studying music and literature who cast a nervy freshman named Jonathan Lethem in her play Monody. Lethem, of course, has gone on to become a MacArthur Genius Award-winning novelist and cultural critic (Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude, Dissident Gardens) and Roy Edward Disney Professor of Creative Writing at Pomona College. To our amazement, Eisenstadt unearthed an original poster from the 1983 production of Monody and snapped a picture to share with Literary Bennington.
We caught up with Lethem and Eisenstadt over Google Chat and went along for the ride while they revisited the literary life on campus in the 80s, their favorite faculty members, and the time Lethem shaved his head only to wind up in a Bret Easton Ellis novel. One big discovery: Eisenstadt just completed her first novel since 1991 and it will be published by Little, Brown in 2017.
We have edited Eisenstadt and Lethem’s rapid-fire responses for order and clarity in a few places.
Literary Bennington: My first question is about Monody, the play you two worked on together. So Jill, do you remember what year you were when you wrote the play?
Jill Eisenstadt: I think it was my sophomore year. Jonathan thought the title was Death Keg. Which would have been a much better (and less pretentious) title.
Jonathan Lethem: I think that’s right. It was the end of my freshman year, which is to say, practically the end of my thwarted Bennington career … I was so sure of that title!
JE: Did that play make you want to leave? I remember the other main actor (who will remain nameless) showed up completely drunk to the only performance. Is that your memory?
JL: Yes, of course–the drunk lead actor was also my best friend and roommate! I remember quite a testy after party.
JE: I was kind of heartbroken to be honest.
JL: I played a double role–a guy who wanders onto Rockaway Beach and gets bullied by one of the main characters, and then his older brother, I think, who comes back to try to take revenge. As the kid brother I get shoved, and as the older brother I got to shove back.
JE: Also no one knew the dancers were supposed to be hood ornaments.
JL: I remember the audition very well, because I tried hard to get one of the bigger roles – you and Jennifer Brown [the director] had already basically cast it, and you told me as much. I performed with a weird accent, just to make it less likely.
JE: I don’t remember that. But I might never have written From Rockaway if the play was a success. Novelists have so much more control over the outcome than playwrights.
JL: I think the aforementioned drunk lead actor also got a black eye from the large German boyfriend of the lead actress, yes?
JE: Oh yeah!! He was visiting. The Boyfriend.
JL: Maybe TMI?
JE: I should have given you a bigger part.
JL: Nah, I wasn’t a promising actor… I just remember how excited I was that the material of your writing gave evidence of real roots back in New York. I was starved for that.
JE: Did you take writing at Bennington?
JL: I barely took any writing classes. I hung out mostly with art students for some reason. I skulked around the edges of the workshops, but the only one I took was Stephen Sandy’s poetry workshop. I was mainly thought of as an art student – a disguise I’d devised myself, so it isn’t anyone else’s fault. But I was working on a novel by the middle of my freshman year…
JE: Not Gun, With Occasional Music?
JL: No, unfortunately I was working on the book *before* my first novel, one destined to end up in a drawer. It was called Apes In The Plan—a lyric taken from a Devo song. You’ll remember that Rich Kronfeld and I identified dangerously much with Devo at that point.
JE: I totally associate you with Devo. But also with your film series. How did you get that going? That was better than any class. The Seventh Seal, Pink Flamingos, Repulsion! Blew my mind.
JL: You were one of the only people I confided in about my writing, actually. You may remember that the summer after Monody, you and I both lived in North Bennington, at Welling Town House – during the Summer Writing Seminars. I was in Madi Horstman’s room, downstairs, working on my novel, while you were upstairs working on what became From Rockaway, I assume.
Jill Eisenstadt’s debut novel From Rockaway (1987)
JL: Running that film society was my greatest accomplishment at Bennington, and I gave it most of the energy and attention I should have been giving my studies. Those screenings were my whole life. And when me and (drunk actor) weren’t getting along in Canfield 6, I’d sleep in the projection booth at Tishman.
JE: Your film society was totally worthwhile. I wasn’t exaggerating when I say it completely opened my brain up—and a lot of other people’s too, I’m sure. Do you teach any film at Pomona?
JL: I’m still that guy… I write liner notes for Criterion Collection DVDs when I should be writing short stories… I’ve included a few films in some courses here (including The Searchers) but at some point I’d like to teach a straight-up film class.
JE: You should! Another memory is when you shaved your head.
JL: Yes. Madi and I. That same summer of Welling Town House. Bret Ellis put a bald couple in the backdrop of one of his college scenes…
JE: I think you also turned me on to Captain Beefheart.
JL: Wow, I really don’t change much. I was listening to Captain Beefheart just the other day. But some of this should be credited to Madi, I think. Her record collection was amazing. Wire, Magazine, Renaldo and the Loaf…
JE: Yes. The first day of college, I met her and her shoeboxes full of WFMU tapes. Have you ever written screenplays?
JL: My brushes with screenwriting have been very half-assed. I’ve never written one that I really put myself into. I got involved in trying to adapt Fortress of Solitude once, but it was a messy 3-way collaboration. I have no idea if the results were any good. Otherwise, I’ve just tinkered at other people’s things. I did a script polish on a pretty bad but entertaining Sci-Fi movie that I’m not allowed to name.
LB: That leads me to another question I had for you both: who were your faculty influences?
JE: I was a music/lit major. Originally, I wanted to write plays and the music for them but there was no class. I convinced Arturo Vivante to teach playwriting. Later, I took classes with Nick Delbanco. I didn’t get into Joe McGinniss’s writing workshop at first. I took his lit class though. Bret is the one who gave my stories to Joe.
JL: Arturo Vivante was such lovely old soul, or at least that was my impression. I did hand him one of my stories once, and he gave me an informal reading in his office hours. Now that I teach I know what that’s worth!
JE: For me it was all those people I mentioned above. I think it was a different time when, for better or worse, students and teachers were close in ways less possible now. Bret and I spent a lot of time in the Swan apartment where Arturo Vivante lived, drinking and talking about books. Later, Joe would invite us over and his wife would cook for us.
JL: Did you play an instrument?
JE: I played the flute but as soon as I got to Bennington, I realized I wasn’t as good as I’d thought and focused mainly on music composition. Lou Calabro was also a huge teacher for me. Of all these teachers, only Nick is still alive. Sad.
JL: My connections with faculty tended to be a bit conflicted and furtive, because I was such an anti-authoritarian mess – I always found a way to shoot any chance of a healthy mentorship in the foot. But Guy Goodwin on the art faculty was very important to me, and Stephen Sandy for sure – he’s still living in North Bennington, I think. I also got a lot from a couple of visiting literature faculty: Maura Spiegel, and a woman named Vicki, I think – I’ve forgotten her last name!
Oddly, for me, I’ve had chances to connect with people who were Bennington faculty while I was there, but only much later – I developed a lovely friendship with Pat Adams when we were both on the board of Yaddo. Jamaica Kincaid, who completely intimidated me at Bennington, became a friend very recently, here in Claremont. And I had a really terrific encounter with Nick in Michigan a couple of years ago, when I was a visiting writer there.
JE: That’s interesting. Maura was my advisor. I loved her. She kept (rightly) telling me to take more Lit classes, but I just wanted to make things. I took a year of sculpture and a year of painting (also with Guy, he was fantastic) even though I had no talent. But I love that Bennington let me.
JL: Oh, but I’m forgetting the fantastic bon vivant acting teacher, Leroy Logan! He was my advisor, and that’s whose apartment I was hanging out in sometimes – with Rich Kronfeld and some of the acting crowd (which is probably why I wanted to be get on stage myself).
Jonathan Lethem’s best-selling novel The Fortress of Solitude (2003)
JE: Why did you leave Bennington?
JL: I was, as I said, hellbent on being a Jack Kerouac-style runaway from east-coast cultural hierarchies… I thought that a “real” writer just went off into a garret and produced masterpieces with no feedback. Idiot that I was.
JE: It worked, didn’t it?
JL: Well, I guess. After a while. Of course I ended up having to informally reproduce most of the kinds of support and encouragement that I’d forsaken by leaving school!
JE: Then again, Bennington was full of people who thought like that. Some of the workshops there were brutal.
JL: At that point it seemed almost explicitly to be college-for-people-who-didn’t-think-they-needed-college. I went it one better.
JE: When I went to Columbia [for my MFA] it was a breeze in comparison
JL: I think I sensed that my ego might not survive the workshops at that point. I was a weird mixture of overconfident and furtive.
LB: So in terms of you arriving at Bennington and coming from NYC, was there any culture shock? Anything you were not prepared for having come from New York?
JE: I cried after many classes.
JL: I’d been a public school kid. You almost couldn’t count how many ways Bennington messed with me – I was totally unprepared. For the lavishness of the place, the sense of entitlement in many of the students, but also their sheer talent – I can admit now what I couldn’t then, that it was a slap in the face not to automatically be the “smart kid” who his teachers adored. My leaving contained a strong element of ‘you can’t fire me, I quit.’
JE: For me, it was culture shock in the best way. I too attended crappy public schools but I had the opposite reaction, I guess. In Rockaway, no one was watching Roman Polanski movies, no one was outwardly gay or dressing different than anyone else. In my high school, there were race riots and metal detectors. Bennington seemed like paradise.
Of course I may be romanticizing a bit in hindsight. I did have to get over not being the smartest, the best flutist etc. Which is why I cried.
JL: The difference might partly have been my parents and their 'starving bohemian’ pretensions – I felt above and below the Bennington atmosphere simultaneously. A lot of reverse-snobbery in me!
JE: Whereas my parents were pretty conventional. My dad is the one who recommended Bennington to me. He went to UVM and used to go down to Bennington to pick up girls.
Not sure what to make of that recommendation. Still I’m grateful.
JL: My father was terrified I’d picked an expensive school. Going there might even have been a bit of a revenge gesture, on my part.
JE: I am keeping a file of references to Bennington girls in literature. Salinger, Bellow, Roth, etc. An essay might be brewing.
JL: What’s odd is how grateful I’ve ended up, too – even in turning away from the place, it left such a huge imprint on me – now seems like an authentic “alma mater,” and a real piece of destiny in my life. Who would I have been if I hadn’t gone-and-left?
JE: And who would I have been had I never gone?
JL: Once you begin looking for the Bennington Girl she’s everywhere!
JE: She wore pants before the rest of the female population. Though that hasn’t been mentioned in literature that I’ve seen.
LB: My last few questions are about the books of yours we’re reading in class: From Rockaway and The Fortress of Solitude.
JL: Fire away.
LB: In From Rockaway, there is a theme of “displaced longing.” Was this influenced by Bennington, Rockaway, or a combination?
JE: Hmmm. I just see it as part of the human condition. I’m sure Jonathan misses Brooklyn when he’s in California and California when he’s in Brooklyn.
JL: Yes, I do, exactly! I sometimes feel that young people should be warned about how they’ll split themselves by leaving home. I miss Vermont, too, and how could I have reckoned on that?
JE: Me too. But you have to leave. In order to grow.
LB: Was there any direct inspiration behind the characters in The Fortress of Solitude? Did you relate to any one character, or were they more fictitious than autobiographical?
JL: There’s no avoiding this question with Fortress, but the answer is endlessly weird and complex – not because I’m deflecting, but because it really is so refracted – the two lead boys, Dylan and Mingus, are both constellations of several real people – and parts of me are in both of them (but are also distributed in other characters, like Arthur, and the fathers).
Basically, nearly any time a boy I grew up with in Brooklyn tells me he sees himself in the book, he’s completely right and completely wrong! My brother is also a huge factor… he’s lurking in both boys as well.
JE: Can I just add that I deeply related to that book. You nailed the details of growing up in 1970’s NYC so well that at moments, I feel almost physically sick with fear again. Of course I was in Queens, but it doesn’t matter.
JL: We’re part of a tribe.
JE: I’m sure you get that a lot. Will you title my new book?
JL: Sure, happy to. Your new novel is called …
JE: Golden Venture.
JL: DEATH KEG.
JE: Alas, no death keg in this one. There is a character from From Rockaway in it, though, fifteen years later. Then again, I could still call it Death Keg. There’s a bunch of death in it.