Skip to main navigation Skip to content


Feeling like an outsider for much of her life has been a driving force in much of Deborah Eisenberg’s work.

Featured Artists

Deborah Eisenberg
Deborah Eisenberg

Deborah Eisenberg is an award-winning fiction writer, known for her distinctive short stories exploring themes of trauma, powerlessness, and the struggles of contemporary existence.

Born in 1945 and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, she attended Marlboro College in Vermont but left during her sophomore year. She moved to New York City in the late 1960s, where she completed her bachelor’s degree at The New School and worked as an editorial assistant at The New York Review of Books. She published her first short story, “Flotsam,” in her late 30s. It appeared in her first collection of stories, Transactions in a Foreign Currency (1986). Her fifth collection, Your Duck Is My Duck, was published in 2018. Her play, Pastorale, premiered in New York City in 1982, and she wrote the original screenplay for Steven Soderbergh’s film Let Them All Talk (2020).

Among her many accolades, Eisenberg has won a Whiting Award for fiction, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” and the 2011 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for her collected stories.

She is a professor of writing at Columbia University.


When she turned 30, Deborah Eisenberg moved in with the love of her life and quit cigarettes. An epic rage followed her withdrawal. She spent her days alternating between physical exercise and near complete paralysis.

(Excerpt from Deborah Eisenberg’s “Days”)

I had never known what I was like until I stopped smoking, by which time there was hell to pay for it. When the hay is cleared over the charred landscape, the person I’d always assumed to be behind the smoke was revealed to be a tinny weights-and-balances apparatus, rapidly disassembling on contact with oxygen.

She didn’t know much, but she knew she was falling in love. And because the object of her affection could not tolerate secondhand cigarette smoke, she decided to quit her three-pack-a-day habit, cold turkey.

Eisenberg: I really loved it. I loved every cigarette and I loved everything about smoking. But I’d started to live with the wonderful man I continue to live with. And he was asthmatic. I thought—wonderful person, cigarettes. My sense of self was absolutely constructed by nicotine. I mean, to be able to sort of emit a smoke screen between you and the world. I mean, it’s, it’s a costume, it’s a full costume and there really wasn’t anything aside from the costume. I was really hollowed out by that time, and I didn’t feel that I could do anything. I mean, I didn’t think I was able to do anything.

50 years on, she’s kept the love of her life and only some of the rage. Now her anger fuels a keen social conscience. Turns out that while Eisenberg thought she was doing nothing, she was observing everything. In five short story collections and one play spanning 32 years, she has examined multi-generational immigrants, young transplants to New York, people adversely affected by US Foreign Policy, the blissful ignorance of entitled Americans, and the wisdom of age. Eisenberg takes her time, famously writing one short story per year, but she has steadily built an impressive output. She’s won a MacArthur Genius Grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 2007 was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Eisenberg’s grandparents immigrated from Eastern Europe. As first-generation Americans, her parents valued success, and her mother, always anxious and in chronic back pain, led Deborah to cultivate her own fears.

Eisenberg: I was temperamental. I think I was considered sort of somebody who couldn’t manage very well on her own. Something was considered lacking in me.

Looking back, Eisenberg believes she was the embodiment of her mother’s fears. Her lack of ambition or any aspirations worried her parents.

Eisenberg: They had worked very hard to be middle-class, assimilated, unexceptionable. They were also very decent people, I have to say, with a lot of integrity. But there was a lot of pressure to be credentialed and so on. And you know, I was always a weirdo. I mean, I didn’t want to be unusual. I suffered for it, but, but in other words, there’s a kind of special status given to the pariah. And I had that, I feel.

At Marlboro college in Vermont, she met a guy, dropped out after two years and traveled the country with him until he took off. But at the suggestion of her mother, she moved to New York to study social sciences at The New School.

(Excerpt from Deborah Eisenberg’s “Rosie Gets a Soul”)

There must have been something in her mind which made it possible for her to leave: she must have thought that while she (as it had suddenly come to appear) was taking time out, the shuttle kept on moving back and forth; she must have thought that she could weave herself back into the web whenever she was ready; she must have thought it would be obvious what she was supposed to do next; she must have thought she’d just find herself doing whatever it was people did. Who knows what she was thinking? Whatever it was, she was wrong.

At 26, she met her wonderful man, the actor, playwright, and essayist Wallace Shawn. They spent their first date arguing passionately about Chairman Mao. Wallace Shawn was the son of New Yorker editor William Shawn, and had been educated at the finest schools: Dalton, Putney, Harvard, and Oxford.

Eisenberg: He was extremely aware of his privilege. I mean, he was, I would say over-aware of his privilege. And I think that he still, he still attributes to his privilege virtues that were absolutely his own and cultivated by him. He has a sunshine around him and he also has a dark night around him. I would say he is very, very courageous, morally and intellectually. I had not much been taken seriously and I didn’t take myself seriously. I said, you know, I’m not a serious person at all. And he said, no, you, you are a serious person. But there aren’t that many people you can really talk to. And you realize that more and more as you get into your late teens and early twenties. And this was somebody I could talk to more than I’d ever been able to talk to anybody else. And that was amazing. I mean, we were just able to talk into our complete selves.

But in the 1970s, as Deborah Eisenberg continued to suffer through nicotine withdrawal, Wallace Shawn suggested she might try writing her feelings, a journal of sorts.

Eisenberg: I mean this wonderful man I was living with said, well, you’re not going to lose anything now, you don’t have a thing to lose, you might as well. And it wasn’t that I’d ever said, oh, I want to write, or I, I wish I could write, or, but I guess it was so obvious to anybody who knew me well that it would be a reasonable thing for me to think of trying to do.

And with Shawn’s encouragement, Eisenberg finally began taking herself seriously, approaching the page, even when it required her to tolerate lingering insecurity.

Eisenberg: It is extremely awkward to just write a simple, clear sentence. With the exception of very few people, you really have to struggle to do it. It’s definitely glacial because I don’t start with ideas. I’ve never had an idea in my life. So I find the whole thing as I’m working. But even though that’s a glacial process, it’s abominable, what I end up with. So I do write sequentially and it does get, it does layer up and get better. And I go back as I go forward and go back as I go forward. But I go through, also, many drafts. And I think that that’s inherent to the process to, even if I only write a paragraph or less in a day, I sort of think, oh, another job well done. How wonderful.

Three years and many drafts later, “Days” became her first short story, and her most autobiographical—a slightly fictionalized first-person account of her battle with nicotine. Eisenberg’s stories, including “Days”, were first commercially published in the mid-eighties. Her earliest collection in 1986’s Transactions in a Foreign Currency reveals a certain Manhattan life: those arriving, striving, apartment sharing, attending parties, hoping. The seeds of the title piece of her second collection, 1992’s Under the 82nd Airborne were prompted when she and Shawn visited Central America in the 1980s and witnessed the impact of US foreign policy under the Reagan administration, in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

(Excerpt from Deborah Eisenberg’s “Under the 82nd Airborne”)

“Excuse me,” Mr. Best said. “One slight correction.” He twinkled charmingly at Caitlin. “Honduras is a neutral country—the Contras are not here.”
“No the point,” Boyce said loudly to Caitlin, “the point is that Honduras is a highly sensitive strategic area. Of course we have financial interests in the region—we’ve never attempted to deny that—but the point is that, strategically speaking, Honduras is money in the bank.”

Deborah Eisenberg thinks a lot about what it means to be an American and the responsibility its citizens bear for their country’s actions around the world. Coming from immigrant stock, she sees America’s promise of the pursuit of happiness as double-edged, and in most cases, fantastical, unobtainable.

Eisenberg: The implicit assumption is probably that most people don’t have the circumstance to pursue happiness. And that that would be the premise of this new country. And of course, Americans are marked or cursed, you might say, by this burden of feeling that happiness is owed to them. And that might be at the expense of all other people. That certainly does, certainly is how that idea is enacted globally.

The six stories in 2018’s Your Duck Is My Duck are less political and more about uneasy relationships, generational differences, aging, and who will bear the brunt of climate change.

(Excerpt from Deborah Eisenberg’s “Your Duck Is My Duck”)

There was always the feeling that one would get around to being young again. And that when one was young again, life would resume the course from which it had so shockingly deviated.

Now Deborah Eisenberg is still looking forward, still hand-in-glove with her wonderful man, Wallace Shawn, her partner of 50 years.

Eisenberg: There were some very hard times, we spent time apart. Yeah, I mean the first quarter of the century was kind of rocky, but I mean, it’s just so great. I can’t tell you, it’s, I highly recommend being with somebody that you love for a long time, because it just keeps getting more interesting. It doesn’t, people think, oh, well it must get boring. It does not get boring.

It’s unlikely Deborah Eisenberg has said all she’s going to say. She will no doubt continue thinking deeply about the generations proceeding and following her own, and having so far witnessed, survived, and documented an ongoing period of unprecedented change and upheaval in the world, she’s unlikely to become stuck for fresh ponderings anytime soon.