Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Diane Lunsford is talking with Susan Dormady Eisenberg, author of One More Seat at the Round Table: A Novel of Broadway's Camelot.
FQ: Thanks so much for your time today. Let’s start with your bio. It’s interesting how a lot of your early career was devoted to promoting performing arts while living in New York, and then it transitioned to writing publications for banks, hospitals, schools, and other organizations once in D.C. You are such a natural with your storytelling toward theatre, and I have to ask how much of Jane’s character is channeling the ‘inner workings’ of you?
EISENBERG: Thanks for interviewing me and offering such kind words about my work! Your opening question is very interesting. When I’m writing, I’m never aware that I might be putting part of myself into my characters. In Jane’s case, I envisioned her as detail-oriented, sensitive to the moods and feelings of colleagues, and eager to expand her skill-set. As we know, she applies these qualities to her early production work for Camelot. In hindsight, I suppose I shared these traits doing promotion for the arts and also in my freelance writing, so maybe I was channeling my own ‘inner workings’ with Jane’s work ethic. But I get so involved with my characters, they appear to live in the world and seem entirely separate from me.
FQ: In line with my previous question, was there ever a time when you would have liked to be on the Broadway stage? If so, what would be the play that would satisfy such a ‘bucket list’ coup?
EISENBERG: When I was young, I desperately hoped to perform on Broadway in musicals, and I trained my soprano voice for years—in high school, college, and a long while afterward. And though I didn’t make it to Broadway, I performed the role of Guenevere in an amateur Syracuse production of Camelot when I was 28. And guess what? Our director persuaded the producers to let him borrow Oliver Smith’s original Broadway sets. When I stood on the high platform to view “the Jousts” between Lancelot and the knights, I had to pinch myself because Julie Andrews, my idol, had stood in that exact spot in the 1960 production. But I quit performing after doing Camelot, having realized I was a better writer than singing actress. But the experience satisfied my “bucket list” requirements. It was done on a grand scale in a large civic center with a full orchestra. I got an authentic taste of doing a Julie Andrews role and it was thrilling! Best of all, I met my wonderful husband Barry Eisenberg, who played a knight in the chorus. We’ve been happily together ever since.
FQ: Why do you suppose actors and actresses are on a much higher pedestal?
EISENBERG: Actors and actresses, whether in plays or musicals, sacrifice a lot for their art, and the struggle to get a foothold in theater can be soul-numbing. I put them on a pedestal because I know how much talent, training, perseverance, and will it takes to reach the professional realm, even if they are mainly working in regional theater or tours. I’ve heard veteran actors tell aspiring actors not to pursue this field if any other career will do, and I believe that’s a good yardstick. Which means the people we see on the professional stage need to be there and are giving us their all.
FQ: In line with my previous question, what would be your one solid piece of advice to an aspiring author when it comes to not only publishing but marketing their body of work?
EISENBERG: There is always a two-fold process when I’m planning to release my work to an audience beyond my family and small circle of beta readers. First, though I find a lot of joy in the writing process, I work hard to produce the best book—and tell the best story—I’m capable of. Then, when the novel is in the hands of a publisher, I turn my full attention to marketing because in order to find your work, potential readers need to know it’s there. The main advice I’d give aspiring writers is to take some online classes at Writer’s Digest or the Authors Guild and steep yourself in what book marketing professionals suggest. They know what works and what doesn’t, and with the increasing importance of social media, there are many creative ways to reach your potential audience. Also, I’ve heard it’s never too early to start developing your email list of contacts, even if your book won’t be out for many months. The conventional wisdom is that your best reader prospects are people who are willing to add their contact info to your email list.
FQ: I was intrigued by the many nuances throughout One More Seat at the Round Table in how the ‘rules’ on the road when it comes to ‘dalliances’ are a different set than those assigned to day-to-day life off the road. By no means am I priggish, but why do you suppose this is? I would imagine there’s more fact than fiction to this notion. What’s your opinion?
EISENBERG: When I worked in regional theater, I noticed how lonely performers got when they were away from their partners and families for weeks at a time. Actors tend to be extroverted, convivial people who form close friendships with colleagues, and sometimes those friendships morphed into sexual relationships (so I heard on the grapevine). It was my observation, however, that much of what happened on the road, stayed on the road.
FQ: In line with my previous question (and without too much of a spoiler), I enjoyed reading the outcome of the relationship between Dan Elsdon and Jane’s best friend, Sarah. Did you allow their situation to write for you, or was this a storyline that you had a few scenarios in mind and how did you make the decision on what the ultimate outcome would be?
EISENBERG: Thanks so much for asking about Dan and Sarah because their trajectory is vital to my plot. When I introduced Dan, I assumed he was a compulsive Don Juan and I didn’t imagine he would form a deep attachment to anyone in Camelot, given his engagement to a prominent socialite. When Sarah got involved with him, I figured her goose was cooked. But since I had no plan for these characters, I allowed their relationship to evolve organically. Their choices surprised me, and I found Dan’s growth as a person rewarding. From Jane and Sarah’s first dinner at Sardi’s, I was also committed to deepening the bond they forged in college. I believe in the importance of female friendship, so I was glad that, in the end, the main women characters supported one another in meaningful ways.
FQ: With the ever-evolving world of technology and the wonders of AI, do you think in the future, the theatre will take its last bow only to be replaced with feature-length virtual experiences where one sits with headgear on alone in his/her bedroom?
EISENBERG: Historians such as the great Oscar Brockett trace the origin of theater to Athens in the 5th century B.C. when dance-drama was presented before an audience. These rituals entertained and often incorporated costumes and masks. Flash forward to the present day when theater thrives in most places in the United States, whether it’s professionally produced (on Broadway or at regional companies) or presented by amateurs in community or school shows. The universal element is the live interplay between actors and audience members who respond to one another in real time. In my opinion, nothing could ever rival or replicate being “in the room where it happens,” to quote Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda. But perhaps access to virtual theater will be a good option for those who are unable to visit an auditorium. As for the art form itself, theater may change, but I believe it will endure.
FQ: You capture the essence of the beat of the city streets of New York, and I had a grin on my face when I read this particular passage: "...I bolted across 42nd Street with all its girly shows, but the city’s seamier side didn’t bother me. If you were going to live here, you had to accept the shady stuff along with the glamorous parts, and as long as you walked fast and looked confident, you’d stay relatively safe..." This is such a melancholic passage because I think the beat of this once-iconic place has changed quite a bit. What is your view in today’s climate toward the city’s character?
EISENBERG: I lived in New York City in the late ‘70s before 42nd Street was “Disneyfied.” I worked for The Joffrey Ballet then, and being in Manhattan was the answer to a prayer. Honestly, I didn’t feel at risk, even in Times Square, which was an unsavory area. Instead, the theater district with all its warts felt wonderfully exotic to me. I liked its energy. Nowadays it’s cleaner and seems safer, but I miss the old electricity when I visit. Honestly, I hated it when they tore down some historic theaters and the Hotel Piccadilly to build the Marriott Marquis.
FQ: I was enthralled with your devotion toward the light you would shine when folding Richard Burton’s character into the storyline; particularly how he was a cad, but a lovable one at that. There is a scene between him and Jane that I read and reread; it was so profound: "...Before you go, I’d like to put a thought in your mind about engagement. It’s a wise anonymous poem from the seventeenth century and in sonorous voice, he intoned: Love not me for comely grace for my pleasing eye or face, Nor for any outward part, No, nor for a constant heart. For these may fail or turn to ill, so thou and I shall sever. Keep therefore a true woman’s eye and love me still by know not why, So hast thou the same reason still to dote upon me ever..." I emphatically believe there are moments in a writer’s life when a passage grabs their creative mind in the most unexpected moment and writes profound magic for the writer. Was this one of those times?
EISENBERG: Yes, writing that scene was a transformational moment for me. I was casting about for something Burton could recite to Jane that would be new and fresh when I found that anonymous verse online. It was perfect. And when I put those words into Burton’s mouth, I was enthralled, as if he were in the room reciting the poem to me. I had not planned what would come next for Jane and the leading man, but I felt in my heart that he was seductive more than predatory. I like many scenes in my book, but that one is among my favorites.
FQ: Thank you again for writing an utterly delicious body of work. I cannot wait to read your next novel where you stated in your bio the subject will be Annie Oakley. Any chance we can get a teaser of what to expect?
EISENBERG: I worked for many years on my new book, Annie Oakley & The Wild West, which follows the career of American “trick shot” Annie Mosey Butler (stage name Oakley) from her teenage match against her future husband, Irish marksman Frank Butler, to her amazing success as the marquee star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West when it performed in London during Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee (1887). Though Annie is often confused with a brash western woman, Martha “Calamity Jane” Canary, she grew up in Ohio and was a prim Victorian, a lady who sat in her tent embroidering while Buffalo Bill’s rip-roaring show was happening in the ring. The central conflict in my novel is between Annie and her vain, temperamental boss, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who resented her prowess with a shotgun and her growing fame that threatened to eclipse him. I had a great time writing this book about the hopes and dreams of an icon who left few letters and gave few interviews. It was a challenge, but I had terrific sources.
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