In this series, we interview emerging and established writers as well as professionals in the publishing world to give you insight – and tools – into the art and craft of writing.
The recipient of numerous prestigious prizes, Joan Silber is the author of six works of fiction. Among then, The PEN/Hemingway Award for Household Words and a National Book Award finalist for Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories. Her short fiction has twice been awarded the O. Henry Prize and twice won a Pushcart Prize. Joan’s stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Paris Review, to name a few. “Fools,” a short story, appears in the winter 2009 Northwestern Review. Her other works of fiction are In the City, In My Other Life, and Lucky Us. She’s also written about the craft of writing, entitled The Art of Time in Fiction. Joan is on the faculty at Sarah Lawrence College. She’s also taught at New York University, the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers, the University of Utah, Boston University, and the 92nd Street Y. She’s just finished a new book of linked stories, entitled Fools. Click HERE for Joan’s Amazon Author page.
Her latest novel, The Size of the World, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Prize in Fiction and one of the Seattle Times’ ten best books of fiction of 2008.
Excerpt from The Size of the World:
“Nobody talks about it now, but I hated Americans when I was young. We lived in a town in the mountains south of Palermo. Half the kids in our part of town were my cousins. Giuseppe Sneaky across the street was my uncle’s sister-in-law’s son, Giuseppe White-Head (who got called that because his hair was sort of light brown) had the same aunt, and every night the boys hung out in the piazza with my brother, whose names was also Giuseppe but who was called Piddu to keep things straight.”
“Silber’s sixth book again showcases her intricately crafted narrative style…The characters within the book’s delicate web illustrate how inescapable are the consequences of any human action, rippling from one generation to another across continents in this ‘great swarming world.’”
—Thailan Pham, People
Joan Silber has a quiet elegance about her that could be called timeless. With her casually pinned–up brown hair, she would fit into any century–past and future. She has a calm demeanor that puts you at ease immediately. She’s the kind of writer who’s listening for the arc of stories, yours and the ones she’s noticing in the place in which the two of you are sitting. Her work takes you all over the world with characters who are like you in surprising ways and so unlike you in others. She leads writing workshops in such a subtle way that you might be surprised to find yourself with clear ideas on how to improve a story without knowing exactly how you arrived at them. There’s always much to talk about with Joan and this interview was no exception. Wish we had more time!
Jimin: Where do your ideas originate?
Joan: I think the writing usually comes from a disturbance,something I’ve experienced that’s unresolved. The book I’m working on now came out of a trip to India three years ago, although India hardly appears in it. India was disturbing for the reasons anyone knows–brutal poverty and suffering right next to people just going about their business. There was much that was cheering but little that was consoling except for the Gandhi Museums in almost every city. When I got home, I knew I couldn’t write about India, with my very little bits of familiarity, and I was brooding on whether there was anything like an American Gandhi. I thought about Dorothy Day, a radical Catholic activist who began in the 1930s to set up “houses of hospitality” for the homeless and was as stubborn as Gandhi. So the first story in this current group of linked stories has to do with her and the circle of Village anarchists she left. This is a long example of one starting point for my fiction. What I want to say is that at this stage in my life, stories come out of a chain of ideas rather than a simpler autobiographical impulse (which I once had).
Jimin: What sort of writing ritual do you set up for yourself when you’re writing?
Joan: I take a lot of rambling notes. I keep going until I get stuck and then I take more notes. I work between lunch and dinner, not every day but as many days as I can. The time doesn’t vary. If lunch is over, it’s time to write.
Jimin: What’s the best, and/or worst, writing advice you’ve ever heard?
Joan: The worst writing advice always has to do with someone suggesting there’s one right way to do it. I don’t work in rough drafts. I revise the sentences as I go. The term “conflict” doesn’t always apply to my plots. I probably break a lot of other rules, but for better or worse I’ve figured out a way to do it my way. That would be my good advice: don’t listen to too much advice.
Jimin: What experience from your childhood informs who you are as a writer today?
Joan: I always loved to read. I had great enthusiasm for writers like Louisa May Alcott and Frances Hodgson Burnett and was outraged to hear they were viewed as sentimental. They seemed to me full of accurate passion. My father died when I was five, so the pathos of these books made more sense to me than a lot of things. But I liked crappy, perky books too–I just loved the enclosure of being in a story.
Jimin: Do people recognize themselves in your stories?
Joan: If I’m really using someone as a direct model, he or she is recognizable, and I take some pride in that. I am, after all, trying to be accurate. I don’t often use real people any more, and it’s easier if they’re no longer alive. (My brother appears very distinctly in The Size of the World, in circumstances invented by me, and anyone who knew him knows that character is him). I once showed a story to a friend who appeared in it, to make sure she was okay about it; she was. In my limited experience, people are often pleased to be seen clearly.
Jimin: How old were you when you started to write?
Joan: Second grade. I started in prose and moved to poetry by third grade. I have a memory of showing off by reciting my poems to my mother’s friends at her parties. Until I was out of college, I wanted to be a poet.
Jimin: What books are you currently reading?
Joan: I just got back from a vacation in Turkey, and I’m reading a Turkish novel, Dear Shameless Death, by a woman author, Latife Tekin. It’s about a family who moves from a village to a city, and there’s a lot of intensity around amazing folk rituals–bad luck has to be placated with every gesture. It’s been compared (rightly, I think) to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It also makes me think of John Berger’s Pig Earth and is quite eye-opening. I’m also reading History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life, by Jill Bialosky, which is beautifully done–both wrenching and judiciously written.
Jimin: What is your favorite short story?
Joan: Maybe Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog.” There’s another Chekhov story, “At the Manor,” which taught me a lot about using an unsympathetic character and shifting the perspective on him. I also love Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and Alice Munro’s “Carried Away” and “The Albanian Virgin.”
Jimin: What quality most intrigues you in a person?
Joan: I’m interested in people who go from being shallow to being more substantial. That’s really what I write about, and I’m always interested in people’s own tales that show this shape. Along these lines, I’m drawn to people who’ve had a number of different lives, gone from one identity and setting to another.
Jimin: Craig Seligman, in the New York Times book review of your novel, The Size of the World, has called your linked stories miniature novels in the way they explore an individual’s life and yet they’re so tightly thematically bound together that they form a single novel about how people can “find their provincialism challenged by exposure to another land, or to someone who’s been transformed by such exposure.” I agree and found myself discovering more recurring motifs in your stories long after I’d finished reading. Your stories stayed with me, with the question, How are these stories related?, and yielded more and more satisfying answers. What advice do you have for writers who find themselves with a group of stories and are not sure whether they should link them into a novel or keep them as a story collection?
Joan: I think the form of linked stories has allowed me to see a theme from different angles, to really chew over a question that’s obsessing me. I have a loyalty to the form because I’ve done my best work in it. But there are certainly story collections that might better be novels–sometimes there’s an element that needs more development, that needs the more exhaustive treatment a novel wants. I see this when I’m teaching.
Jimin: What’s next for you?
Joan: I’ve just finished a linked group of stories, called Fools. One story’s about a guy from Palm Beach who’s later homeless on the streets of Paris, one’s about anarchists in the twenties (that’s the story I talked about earlier), and one’s about a man whose wife is a Jewish convert to Sufism. They’re about money, the lure of ideas, and being a fool in the eyes of the world. In this era of money crash, it seemed interesting to reflect on what else people run on.
Jimin: Where could readers find out more about you?
Joan: I have a website–joansilber.net.
Jimin: Great. Thanks very much, Joan.
Joan: Thank you.
ABOUT JIMIN HAN
Jimin Han (BA, Cornell University; MFA, Sarah Lawrence College) teaches a novel writing workshop and an introduction to writing fiction course in the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. Her work can be found in The NuyorAsian Anthology, Global City Review, The Asian American Pacific Journal, “Weekend America” on NPR, KoreanAmericanStory.org, and EssentialMom.com, among others. She lives in South Salem, New York, with her two children, her husband, a dog, and a tortoise.
Jimin’s Story, ‘HOW TO BECOME FRIENDS WITH A FAMOUS WRITER’ is included in our collection of short stories, Memoir, Vol.1.
To read an excerpt, CLICK HERE.