Actor and playwright Eisenberg makes his fiction debut with the collection Bream Gives Me Hiccups and Other Stories.
Some of these pieces are written in an extended joke format (e.g., “A Post-Gender Normative Man Tries to Pick Up a Woman at a Bar”). Did you start writing jokes before you wrote stories?
Yes, in fact I recently went back to my parents’ house in New Jersey and discovered a drawer full of old jokes that I had written when I was a young teenager. Scrawled on Post-its and napkins, they were almost exclusively about sex, a subject about which I had yet to learn anything. My jokes had more in common with borscht belt humor (i.e., the plight of the oppressed, overworked husband; the domineering wife) than with anything I was personally experiencing.
I read that you briefly swore off fiction, after a short story course in college. What changed?
In college, I took some short fiction courses, and I really struggled to find my style. I imagine this is probably a universal experience for anyone who writes anything. And I began to find my footing with plays and personal essays. When I write a play, I write dialogue from the perspective of several characters, and first-person stories are, in a more internal way, extended versions of that. Once I discovered the possibility of writing from the perspective of an individual (and my ability to do it), I was able to cultivate a real voice, I hope.
Your title story is about a neurotic nine-year-old who writes restaurant reviews. What draws you to write about anxiety, and anxious people?
The drama that exists inside a conflicted person is more interesting to me than the drama that exists between an uncomplicated person and their difficult circumstances. The boy is in relatively comfortable conditions, but is experiencing inner turmoil because he is hyperaware of the hypocrisies of the adult world. His mind is endlessly interesting to me precisely because it is not fully formed—he is still able to see the world in a fresh way.
There’s both humor and drama in the book—do you set out to write one or the other, or do you feel comfortable blending them?
I suspect that I see less of a distinction between comedy and drama than is typical. I imagine that this is because I grew up in a culture that historically muddies this distinction. In my family, it is appropriate to make a joke at a funeral if, in some higher way, the joke takes into account the gravity of the situation. I only feel pressure to write something original.
There are a lot of cultural references in your stories. How do you keep things on your radar?
I live in a bit of a cultural bubble. I stopped watching television and movies several years ago because I became self-conscious after I began acting—I just became sensitive to the artifice of it all. So my references are limited to the things I became interested in—e.g., the Bosnian War, NBA basketball, geography. There are no references to anything of actual American cultural significance because I am probably unaware of them.