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David Ebershoff: LibraryThing Author Interview

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David Ebershoff is the author of three novels, The 19th Wife, Pasadena, and The Danish Girl, and a short-story collection, The Rose City. He is an editor-in-large at Random House and teaches in the graduate writing program at Columbia University.

Describe your library.

Above my desk at home is a high column of shelves filled with dozens and dozens of books I used while writing my most recent novel, The 19th Wife. I call it my polygamy collection. It includes a rare copy of Ann Eliza Young's second memoir, My Life in Mormon Bondage; a Pioneer hymn book the size of a playing card; a volume of Brigham Young's letters to his sons; and a cookbook of recipes prepared in 19th-century Salt Lake City (how else would I have known about a dessert called Bishop's Squares?). On the shelves I have propped many postcards from my research trips: the upstairs drawing room of Brigham's Beehive House, with its golden settees and chairs; the famous reclining stone lion above the front door of the Lion House, where many of Brigham's wives raised their children; a snowy view of the Wasatch range; and a drawing by Gloria Vanderbilt of Joyce Carol Oates, who wrote me an encouraging note while I was struggling with the novel. I haven't looked at any of the books in more than a year, when I finished the final edits on The 19th Wife. I live in New York City. In our house, the bookshelves are like an exclusive club: no room for a new member until an old one moves away (or dies). It's time for me pack up these books and store them in a crate in the basement. I've begun a new novel and I need the space for the new books and materials I'm gathering (yes, I need that Wimbledon ID card and that oral history of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait). But I haven't been able to put the polygamy collection away. I spent more than four years researching and writing The 19th Wife. It was a challenging, productive period of my life, one in which I felt especially free because I had decided I would write the book slowly. Oddly, I felt little pressure while working on this particular novel, in part, I'm sure, because of the comfort the books offered while looking down from the shelves above me.

The 19th Wife is the story of Brigham Young's 19th wife, Ann Eliza Young—how did you get into this topic?

Several years ago I was having a conversation with a professor of 19th-century women's history. This woman is a specialist in the lives of 19th-century women who are fascinating figures but are not especially well known today. The professor was telling me all sorts of anecdotes about interesting women and then she said, "Oh, and the there's the 19th wife." I said, "The 19th what?" And that's how it all began.

The story of Ann Eliza Young must have required a great deal of research. Can you describe your research process? Did you have as much trouble accessing some of the closed archives as your characters did?

Research is like a walk through the woods without a map. You keep going, turning at the oak tree or stopping at the open vista or hopping the little stream. That's my process. With historical research, almost always one thing leads to another. A book leads to a newspaper article which leads to a house which leads to an oil portrait. With contemporary research, it's more or less the same. Visiting a town leads to a conversation in the bakery which leads to an email address which leads to a phone conversation which leads to another phone number. You never know what will happen, which is why it's so much fun.

The novel is written as several "primary source documents." Some of them are directly inspired or informed by actual historical texts. For example, in the novel Brigham gives a few sermons. I read a number of Brigham's sermons to understand his style and the subjects that interested him. Thus, although I am the author of the sermons in The 19th Wife, Brigham's actual sermons inform their style and content. A few people have told me they thought they were authentic sermons, which both surprises me and brings a little bit of satisfaction. Anyway, I wrote these "primary source documents" in part to recreate for the reader my experience of researching this novel. I want the novel to read, in part, as an adventure into the past, for that is what history is, or should be.

The 19th Wife combines historical fiction with a modern murder mystery. Why did you decide to make a dual narrative? Do you personally prefer one story over the other?

I wrote the double narrative as a way to contain the large and complex story of polygamy in the United States. In the 19th century, American polygamy is a Mormon story. In the 21st century, American polygamy is something else and no longer involves the LDS Church, or at least not directly. I wanted to write a book that could give the reader an understanding of where polygamy comes from and why it is practiced today.

I don't prefer one narrative over the other. I know some people do; I knew they would while I was writing the novel. It's inevitable. But to me they go together and I can't imagine one without the other, even though I wrote them somewhat separately.

As an author, an editor, and a teacher, your professional life is built around books! What do you do in your free time?

I'm a book man. I've somehow pieced together a life where just about everything I do is in honor of the book and words. I know how fortunate I am to lead this life. As a kid I never really had a vision of my future life being so bookish; I wouldn't even have known such a life was possible. I just realized what I truly cared about and the kinds of people I wanted to work with. Thankfully a number of people gave me a shot or a job or a contract at the right time and life is like research: one thing always leads to the next.

I have a few non-booky obsessions. I love tennis. I can (and do) watch it all day. Tennis blogs can eat up my afternoons. My two favorite weeks of the year are when the tennis world rolls into New York for the US Open. I'm out there under the swampy sun, enthralled by the sport and its players and their grand achievements and failures.

I'm also obsessed, I'll admit, by my dog and dogs in general. My dog's name is Elektra, which happens to be the name of the dog in The 19th Wife. The real Elektra is always at my feet when I'm writing. And so she just worked her way into the story, which pretty much describes her personality.

What are you working on now?

A new novel. See above.

What are you reading now?

Because I'm an editor-at-large at Random House, I have two separate reading piles, one for books I'm editing, the other for books I'm lounging on the couch with. In my editing pile is Norris Church Mailer's wonderful memoir, A Ticket to the Circus, which will come out in April, 2010. And I just finished Gary Shteyngart's hilarious and heartbreaking new novel, which will come out in the summer of 2010.

For fun I'm reading A Perfect Spy by John le Carre.

—interview by Abby Blachly

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