MacArthur Fellowship Will Buy Writing Time for Deborah Eisenberg

September 22, 2009

September 22, 2009 — Deborah Eisenberg, a short story writer and English professor at the University of Virginia, is among 24 creative individuals receiving a 2009 MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called "genius grant."

Eisenberg joined the College of Arts & Sciences in the English Department in 1994 and teaches fiction writing at U.Va. in the fall. She said she'd be taking her class out to dinner to celebrate the $500,000 award, which "represents time" for writing, she said.

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story:

Before she wrote short stories, Eisenberg worked as a waitress in New York City. One customer kept asking her what else she did, because so many young adults working in restaurants were actors or playwrights or artists in their other lives. Eisenberg insisted she wasn't anything else.

At least, not yet.

She was flabbergasted to receive the phone call that she was to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, Eisenberg said. The award comes with a five-year, $500,000 prize for each person.

Other members of the U.Va. faculty who have received MacArthur Fellowships include Terry Belanger, University Professor emeritus, former director of the Rare Book School, 2005; Janine Jagger, epidemiologist and research professor of neurosurgery, 2002; and Brooks Pate, professor of chemistry, 2001.

Some might say Eisenberg came late to writing – she began around age 30, she said – but after her fourth collection of short stories, "Twilight of the Superheroes," was published in 2006, Ben Marcus in the New York Times, wrote, "Deborah Eisenberg offers commanding proof that in the right hands, the short story can be a legitimate art form, not just a test run for writers warming up to write a novel."

The latest book should "establish her as one of the most important fiction writers now at work," Marcus said.

Her first published work was a play, performed in 1982, based on one of her stories. She had shown the story to a good friend, who presented it at a dramatic reading. Eisenberg was so shy, she didn't show up. She left town.

The story was well received, and the friend connected her with producer Joseph Papp, founder of New York's Public Theatre, who wanted her to write a play. He hated what she came up with, but several years later another theater, Second Stage, produced "Pastorale."

In the meantime, Eisenberg kept waiting tables and writing. Her stories eventually caught the attention of New Yorker magazine.

Eisenberg's collections include "Twilight of the Superheroes," "All Around Atlantis," "Under the 82nd Airborne" and "Transactions in a Foreign Currency." Another edition was published combining the first two books, "The Stories (So Far) of Deborah Eisenberg." She also wrote a monograph, "Air: Twenty Four Hours," about the painter Jennifer Bartlett.

Winner of the 2000 Rea Award for the Short Story, a Whiting Writers' Award, a Lannan Foundation Fellowship and five O. Henry Awards, Eisenberg always had a passion for literature, she said, but was too afraid to try her hand at putting pen to paper.

Calling herself a slow writer, she said it takes an enormous amount of patience to write. She will try, she added, to use her fellowship time wisely.

When she is not teaching fiction in the English department's Creative Writing Program, she returns to live in New York City with longtime companion, actor Wallace Shawn.

The customer who believed Eisenberg wasn't just a waitress was the late author Laurie Colwin, who ended up being a mentor and friend until her death in 1992.

About the MacArthur Fellows Program

MacArthur Fellowships provide $500,000 in no-strings-attached support over the next five years, to be used at the recipient's discretion. The MacArthur Fellows Program awards the unrestricted fellowships to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction. There are three criteria for selection of fellows: exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.

— By Anne Bromley