Let’s start with an introduction: Who is David Ebenbach?
Hi! Nice to meet you. Well, I’m a writer, which in my case is rooted in a blend of curiosity and introversion. I’m deeply, fundamentally, persistently curious about the human experience — what we feel, what we do, why we do what we do, and how we feel about doing it. At the same time, my favorite place to be, quarantine or not, is at home with just my family (and sometimes all alone at my desk). So that’s where writing comes in — digging into the human experience without, you know, getting overwhelmed by being around humans all the time. If you see what I mean.
And, as you’ll notice in most of my answers in this interview, I’m also a big “on the one hand… but on the other hand” person. Life is complicated!
Your new novel, How to Mars, is due to be published by Tachyon. It looks really fun: How would you introduce it to a potential reader?
On one level, How to Mars is the story of six people who, for a variety of personal reasons, volunteered to go on a dubious one-way mission to Mars. It’s dubious because it’s funded by a reality show that’s being made about the mission and it’s run by a really eccentric organization. The organization has left them with a lot of odd advice and guidance and one ironclad rule: NO SEX ON MARS. Well, of course a couple of the Marsonauts ignore that rule, and now there’s the first-ever pregnancy on another planet. That would be dangerous enough in the hostile environment of Mars, but there are also hints of an alien presence, and the engineer with the somewhat violent streak is starting to behave pretty erratically.
So that’s what How to Mars is about on one level. On another, though, it’s about all of us here on Earth — we’re thrown onto this planet without a decent instruction manual and we’ve got to make our way through life. So how do we do that? How do we live, as individuals and together?
What inspired you to write the novel? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
Do you know the Mars One project? Because there really was an eccentric organization that put out a call for volunteers to go on a one-way mission to Mars — and apparently people applied! Like, a lot of people. Maybe not quite as many as the organization claimed, and maybe the organization never really intended to send anyone to another planet, but the idea was so crazy that it got me thinking: Who would sign up for a mission like that — and what would happen if they actually went?
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
I really grew up on fantasy and science fiction — as a tween and teen I was all about J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, Douglas Adams, and so on. Those and many other authors taught me a lot about what a story was and how exciting it could be. But I think the real introduction happened when I was even younger than that. After all, stories for very little kids are often speculative and full of adventure, whether they involve muppet monsters (The Monster at the End of This Book) or sentient boa constrictors (Crictor) or kids who get smashed flat and use their flatness to help catch museum thieves (Flat Stanley). So that sense of wonder, that interest in impossible things being possible, started very early. And I guess it stuck!
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
You know, this is a great two-fer of a question. Because being a writer and working within the publishing industry feel to me like two really different things.
Being a writer is about being hunched over my laptop, pushing stories forward, and getting feedback and doing lots and lots of revision. When that’s going well, I love it. When I can’t make something work, I wonder why I’ve decided to subject myself to a life like this.
Engaging with the publishing mystery is also a split experience, though in a different way. When your work gets picked up and you’re working with great folks, like my agent or the people at Tachyon Publications, it feels like the victory lap after all that hard writing; you get to turn a manuscript into a book and then it reaches people, which is amazing, and you get to hear the world’s reaction to what you’ve done. It’s wonderful. On the other hand, there’s also a lot of rejection when you try to get your writing published, and that’s very hard. You have to be really tough.
So, come to think of it, I guess my answer to both parts of the question is actually the same: there are things that I struggle with, and there are things I absolutely love.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
On the one hand (here I go), I thrive on discipline — making sure I get back to the desk on a regular schedule. On the other hand, I definitely need room to breathe. In particular, I like to bounce back and forth between things. I write all kinds of stuff: poetry, short fiction, novels, some non-fiction, and the occasional short play. Jumping around helps me from becoming overwhelmed or stalled by any one project. And I feel like it keeps me limber on the page, too; you need to practice a lot of diverse skills to work in different genres. I hope to bring all those skills everywhere I go.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
When I was a kid, we had an enormous and enormously heavy manual typewriter, and I loved banging out words on it from a very young age. In fact, I wrote my first novel on that typewriter, as an eight-year-old. (I call it a novel, because that’s what I called it then, even though it was under ten pages.) It was a spy novel, starring the Smurfs (there would have been a serious copyright violation if I had tried to get it published), and the story was surprisingly violent. Off-brand for the Smurfs, really. But that experiment in storytelling was really the turning point, I think, and I sure do look back on it fondly. Every kid should probably have a thousand-pound manual typewriter.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
Well, genre fiction is such a big, broad label. And that means, for me, not being able to nail it down all that easily. First of all you’ve got big divisions, like fantasy and science-fiction, but even within those categories there’s so much variety. Take science-fiction, where you’ve got utopian/dystopian novels, time travel stories, alien invasions, space operas, futuristic societies (including Afrofuturist societies), steampunk, weird west stories, and a lot more. Where does magic realism fit in, for that matter? And there are so many books in all of these categories! So it’s hard to nail down. Of course some of it is amazing, and of course some of it isn’t. Kind of like everything else in the world. (The universe?) But as for where I fit in, I guess I’m a mix of what some people call “speculative fiction,” “literary fiction” and “comedic fiction.” Folks whose work I admire and want to be in conversation with include Charles Yu, Emily Mitchell, Seth Fried, Aimee Bender, and — probably above all—George Saunders.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
I don’t want to say too much about the current novel — they always feel fragile when they’re in-progress — so I’ll just say that it falls closer to the time travel sub-genre than to anything else. It’s also an alternate timeline from the one we know. And the future of the Jewish people is at stake. It’s the hardest project I’ve ever taken on.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
Everything I can get my hands on, always. But in particular these days I’m reading utopian novels, starting with Thomas More and Samuel Butler and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and working my way forward to Octavia Butler and Elan Mastai and so on.
If you could recommend only one novel or book to someone, what would it be?
This is the hardest question that has ever been asked! I personally think that William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is the best book ever written, so I suppose that one — but of course it’s not for everyone. Is there, could there be, a single book that would be a good recommendation for everyone? I’m not sure I think so.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
People are often surprised to hear I have a Ph.D. in Social Psychology. And then they ask whether studying Social Psychology has been a help in my writing. And I say, “You would think so.”
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
Well, I guess this is a pretty obvious answer, but it’s also the honest one: I most look forward to getting ourselves fully past the pandemic and attempted insurrections against democracy and malignantly deranged Presidents and all the other horrors of the last few years. If time travel is ever real, somebody needs to head back and prevent a lot of the things we’ve recently been through.
I’m also hoping to visit Mars, Pennsylvania. They have a flying saucer.
Author Photo Credit: Joe King