Jill Eisenstadt was working for a Manhattan ad agency, sifting through entries for an America’s homemaker contest, when she got the word. Simon and Schuster wanted to buy From Rockaway, her semiautobiographical novel about aimless teenagers growing up in a blue-collar, beachfront section of Queens, N.Y. “She was so flattered,” recalls author Joe McGinniss, who had been Eisenstadt’s mentor at Bennington College. “They were offering her $5,000.” To recent graduate Eisenstadt, the sum was transporting. To McGinniss, who has written a couple of best-sellers, including 1983’s Fatal Vision, it was a number that needed improving. He made a few calls, and before long Knopf had doubled the Simon and Schuster offer. And the bucks didn’t stop there. Director Sydney (Out of Africa) Pollack picked up the movie option for an additional $50,000. At which point Eisenstadt quit her job and headed for the Yucatan—typewriter and boyfriend in tow.
But that was chapters ago. Now Eisenstadt, 24, is back in her sparsely furnished New York apartment (one table, one sofa, one desk, one mattress, one shower-capped plastic doll on the towel rack in the bathroom), contemplating the perils of blitzkrieg celebrity. A magazine caricature was downright mean; she wishes reporters would read her book before interviewing her, and why don’t critics say that it’s funny? Above all she hopes she’s finished with the makeup and fussiness of photo sessions. “I always hated those ladies in stores who adjusted you and accessorized you with things you’d never wear,” she says. But she’d better get used to the publicity machine. Like it or not, this slight, freckled woman with a head of unruly red hair has landed full in the glare of the literary spotlight.
“She is terrific,” says McGinniss, “and so different from those young writers brooding about their own metaphysical conditions. She doesn’t have the jaded, self-absorbed, narcissistic, worn-out voice of alienated youth that’s become so common. Jill is entirely different.” Not everyone agrees. Eisenstadt went to school with Bret Easton Ellis, the 23-year-old author of Less Than Zero, whose latest novel is called The Rules of Attraction. Reviewers have detected several similarities between Attraction and Rockaway. Though Ellis concentrates on the aimless lives of trust-fund casualties—worlds away from the middle-class Catholic kids in From Rockaway—-there are common threads. Both books feature a Bennington-style college called Camden, and both involve a minor character named Lars. Both authors dedicated their first novels to McGinniss. Still, Eisenstadt resists the Ellis comparison, as she does the suggestion that she is somehow “like” young hip-lit stars Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney. She does not regard herself as one of the pack. “I wish I were older,” she says, “so I wouldn’t be compared to a million other people.”
Eisenstadt grew up in a Jewish enclave in Far Rockaway. Her father and grandfather developed the formula for Sweet ‘N Low, and her mother is a free-lance calligrapher. Jill’s imagination was in evidence at an early age. “She had an imaginary friend named Eddie,” remembers her father. “She’d talk to that boy in her room for hours. Then one day, out of the blue, when she was about 6 years old, Eddie ate a peach from our backyard tree. And he died. She never mentioned him again. I’ll tell you, she almost made me believe that boy was real.”
Eisenstadt’s imagination is still working overtime. She often writes six hours a day. Spare time is reserved for boyfriend Michael Drinkard, another writer. Jill also plays tennis with her father once a week, occasionally picks up her flute—an ex-music major, she once played in Carnegie Hall—and sees a lot of movies. Her novel in progress is about “twin brothers whose father runs a beauty parlor,” she says. That at least should help set her apart from the pack.