Monday, May 17, 2010

An Interview with David Ebershoff

David Ebershoff, author of The Danish Girl, has kindly taken some time out to answer a few questions about his book for me. The Danish Girl is about a transgendered painter, the first person to undergo a successful sex change operation. You can read my full review of The Danish Girl at The Zen Leaf. Thank you very much, David, for the interview!


1) In writing about a historical figure, what prompted you to change/fictionalize many of the details around Einar, especially with regards to his various friendships and relationships?

We know a lot about Lili Elbe, but there is much, much more we don’t know. I wanted to use fiction to write about her because I wanted to focus on her heart. Not her biological heart, of course, but the center of her emotions. We have many clues about her emotional life – her diary entries, her public statements, even Einar Wegener’s art – but they are only clues, not a complete mapping of what she felt across the years. And thus I turned to my imagination to fill in, especially with her relationships – for what better way to understand a person’s heart than to understand his or her relationships? Her most important relationship was her marriage to Gerda, whom I call Greta in the book. Every marriage or intimate relationship has what I think of as a black cave of privacy – a space known to only the two people in that relationship. I wanted to take the reader into that cave, to give the reader access to this extraordinary marriage. Yet the historical record simply does not provide enough details to show the reader what that space was really like and how these two remarkable people experienced it. In my view, this is the role of historical fiction: to fill in the holes of history. To imagine what might have been, or could be.

2) Why did you choose to represent Einar and Lili as dissociative personalities, rather than as two facets of one personality?

This is something we know about Lili: she thought of herself and Einar as two distinct people. She made this clear to everyone around her, at times even expressing disdain for him. In fact, after her surgeries, she proclaimed him to be dead. Einar was a successful and productive artist; for years he was always painting and showing his work. But Lili never painted. She claimed to have no interest in it nor any skill. This strikes me as both peculiar and telling: it’s a detail about her story that helps me understand her and how she viewed herself. This of course is different from how most transgender people today view themselves. Yet it is authentic to her story. In writing The Danish Girl I never intended to (nor did I think I ever could) represent the experience of all trans people. I only wanted to represent the emotional experience of one person.

3) One of the themes that comes up often in your book is the danger of knowledge. Einar's mental and physical health deteriorate as he learns more about the feminine side of himself, and even the advances in science that make his surgery possible eventually place his life in danger. What does this say about knowledge in general? Would Einar have been happier had he never tried on those stockings and opened up that part of himself?

When I write fiction I try not to answer questions like these, I simply try to raise them. I want my stories to highlight ambiguity and uncertainty, for what is life if not ambiguous and uncertain. Lili sought out medical help in order to save herself. On the other hand, the doctor whom she considered her savior also led her to her ultimate fate. Was he right to do so? Did Lili err in placing so much trust in him? I can’t answer those questions. I can simply ask them and let the reader ponder them.

4) You mention in an interview in the back of The Danish Girl that "there is a universality to Einar's question of identity." We all can be unsatisfied with who we are. Do you think that transgendered issues are a more extreme example of that dissatisfaction, or just a less accepted one?

Both. Many people look in the mirror and see what they want to change – the nose, the teeth, that little line around the mouth. Or they see what they don’t have. Last year I heard Serena Williams talk about burning calories on the tennis court because, as she said, “Every girl wants to lose five pounds.” I was stunned and fascinated – this kind of dissatisfaction from the number one tennis player in the world? From a woman with one of the most admired bodies on the planet? Yet this is how Serena sees herself and by sharing it with us we can understand her a little more. I’m not equating transgender issues to wanting to lose five pounds. Not at all. Yet I believe both come from the very human longing to be the truest version of oneself. We all want our outer selves to correlate to our inner selves so that the world can see us, and know us, for who we really are. This is universal. Of course transgender issues are less accepted and less understood than many, if not most, issues of identity. Yet this is changing (if slowly) in part because people are beginning to understand gender identity in these universal terms.

5) It's implied in the book that Einar's gender issues stem primarily from physical deformity. What if there had not been a physical deformity and Einar's gender confusion was entirely psychological/emotional? Do you think the character would have taken the same journey?

Your question points to one of the great beauties (and wonders) of reading. You find this implied in the book while others have found just the opposite. This goes back to ambiguity and uncertainty. Where did Lili come from? Was it from the fact that she was most likely intersex? Or was she the soul within Einar’s frame? Or is it a mysterious combination of both? A brew of biological, psychological, emotional, artistic, cultural, and historical circumstances that gave the world Lili Elbe? In The Danish Girl I wanted to ask these questions. I leave it to the reader to answer them – or to decide that these are the kinds of questions that will ultimately remain unanswerable.


Amy said...

After reading this interview I find myself wanting to read the book even more. It sounds like Lily viewed herself quite differently from what I've heard of trans-gendered people today - by viewing herself as two separate people, but it sounds very interesting. I had no idea that she was possibly intersex, which makes it strike me even more as I just finished a non-fiction book on the subject. I really hope I can find a copy of this soon!

LisaMM said...

What a fascinating interview. I agree with the answer to the last question, how everyone sees something different when they read a book, and that is one of the great beauties and wonders of reading. So true!

Trisha said...

Love the interview! I've always enjoyed fictional stories based on real characters as I feel they can be just as 'true' as non-fiction. The universal and human truth of a situation can be better expressed in fiction, at times.

Amanda said...

I'm glad you guys all liked the interview. This was my first ever and I feel like I'm terrible with them!