Joan Silber is the author of nine books of fiction. Her newest, Secrets of Happiness, is out in May 2021 in the U.S. and in July 2021 in the U.K. Her last novel, Improvement, won The National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award. She also received the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story. Her other works of fiction include Fools, longlisted for the National Book Award and finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, The Size of the World, finalist for the Los Angeles Times Prize in Fiction, and Ideas of Heaven, finalist for the National Book Award and the Story Prize. She’s also written Lucky Us, In My Other Life, and In the City, and her first book, Household Words, won the PEN/Hemingway Award.
She’s the author of The Art of Time in Fiction, a study of how various writers have used time. Her short fiction has been chosen for the O. Henry Prize, Best American Short Stories, and the Pushcart Prize. Stories have appeared in Tin House, The Southern Review, Ploughshares, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and other magazines. She’s been the recipient of an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Joan taught fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College for many years and teaches in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program. She’s also taught at Boston University, the 92nd Street Y, the University of Utah, and New York University. Her summer teaching has included conferences at Napa Valley, Bread Loaf, Indiana University, Manhattanville College, Stonecoast, Aspen, and Sarah Lawrence College.
Suzi F. Garcia (SFG): Joan, it’s so lovely to meet you. I’m a big fan of your thought process, so I’m excited to dig in!
Joan Silber (JS): Good to meet you.
SFG: Speaking of your thought process, perspective is something that I see as being critical to your writing. Can you speak a little bit about your interest in perspective?
JS: I think I have always, to some extent, wanted to get over myself in the writing and wanted to move around.
The first book that I wrote when I was vastly younger than I am now was based on my own family, but the point of view it took was my mother’s, a character, whom I would offer was often at odds with in real life. So I wanted to make that jump as something that writing could do, and I think I got some of that idea from Chekhov, whose writing I loved.
We had a book of his in my house. My father died when I was a small child – when I was five – but he left a lot of books. He was the son of a shoemaker, but he was a very big reader and became a dentist, and he had sort of advanced in life. So there were all these books with his quite formal signature. It said Samuel S. Silver, so since I didn’t know him in real life, I was very drawn to them.
Chekhov was one of them, and I read Best Known Stories and Plays or something, and I loved those stories. Even at a reasonably naive age, I noticed that you wouldn’t like some of these characters right away, but by the end of the story, you’re with them.
So, I thought, “oh, fiction can do that,” in a way that not everything can, so I think I always wanted to do that, which is one aspect of it. In my own writing, I had taken a single point of view in my first two books.
I was doing just straight short stories, and then I did a novel that had different pieces, but I finally got the idea that, oh, I could do different characters that are part of some big schema here. I could do this whole thing, and it gave me, I feel like I would say, I have the soul of a miniaturist. I like the very close space, but I wanted to be bigger. And at that point, I was starting to travel a lot. I was trying to expand my life in lots of ways. That form of moving the perspective – oh, you think it’s not about this character, but what if it is about this character – that that really gave me something that I wanted. The other thing is, both as a novelist and a short story writer, it was always hard for me to think of new things like what I am going to write next, and this gave me a way to keep generating material because they were characters I could pull out of what I had written before.
SFG: Well, that leads nicely into my next question. Also, by the way, in reading your interviews, you often mention Chekhov. I haven’t read Chekhov in so long, but it’s inspired me to dust off my Chekhov and get back into it.
When we think about the first-person perspective, we also think about characterization, and many may even see them as tied together or one as the other. Still, it’s really about creating what E.M. Forster would call round characters.
A nameless girlfriend in one part of the novel may get an entire chapter in her perspective. How do you decide which character gets their own stories?
JS: I would say the short answer is trial and error. I’ll try this one, and I’ll say, no, that’s not it. So, there’s lots of writing a page or two, and it goes or doesn’t go. Sometimes, I know right away, and I have it in mind as I’m going, but often I don’t. Often, I’m just guessing and seeing what I come up with. I don’t plan ahead as much as a lot of writers do. My methods are a little more step by step.
SFG: More instinctual, maybe.
JS: I wish they were more instinctual, actually.[Laughter]
But I make it up as I go along more than a lot of people do.
SFG: So, by trial and error, what are you looking for when you start to write another character’s story?
JS: Oh well, I’m looking for another angle. When I first started trying to do it, maybe 30 years ago, I thought, Oh, I’ll do it this way. I was retelling the same story from another angle, and that is pointedly uninteresting or was when I was doing it anyway.
So you want to get a whole different thing, and I discovered that they often have a whole other point of emphasis. What’s important in Ideas of Heaven, which was the first place I did it, there’s a character who behaved very badly in one sequence, and then we see him in another story. That sequence of ill-behavior is nothing to him. He doesn’t behave well all the time either, but he has a whole other lifetime with another with different levels of importance to it. I mean, you’re very aware of that, as you walk around, your “big deal” is nothing to someone else, so I wanted to get that sense of it in it.
SFG: I love that. I am very excited about your new book. To be honest, it kind of touches home for me. I have some experience with that, not in my family, but in a family very close to me. One thing that particularly caught my attention was the transplant of the family from Thailand into New York to exist in the same space generally and specifically because of the Thai restaurant, where the father brings his family and where his lover/mistress is the hostess.
Can you discuss a bit of how space works in your writing and how you think about these overlapping spaces?
JS: Well, when I was writing this, I did have this whole decision of are they still in Thailand or are they here, and how am I going to do it? When I saw that I wanted to do this other family – I mean, I’ve been to Thailand a number of times, but I don’t know that much about it. I know Queens pretty well; I’ve been to those restaurants. I don’t mean that gives me everything, but it gave me little. When I’m talking from the viewpoint of someone who is half Thai-half American, I can talk about his American half with some competence, so I’m not overstepping too much by doing that, so that was a big part of it – that he’s a Queens guy mostly. So that was a big part of it
And I live in this great city, New York. I live on the lower East Side, which is a traditional immigrant neighborhood, and even for all, its gentrification still is. I’m on the edge of Chinatown. So, I can’t walk out the door without hearing another language, which is probably true in many parts of the country, but I love that. I love that, and I’ve been a great traveler for the past 20 years. I’ve been traveling in Asia as much as I can go and as much as I can afford. So, you know, you want to do what you love in what you’re writing. Was that what you asked me? I’m not sure if I answered the question.
SFG: I think that speaks a lot to what I was asking about space and how we see people linked in your writing, not just in relationships, but at times, they occupy the same spaces, and you get the sense of multiverse. There’s a sense of ghosts lingering in spaces. I think that when you talk about Asia, it’s so interesting that Turkey, for example, shows up in your work, and the idea of history is also a large part of your work. These connections between perspective and space are intricately tied, and I enjoyed that. You know, we talk about in TV shows, like Treme, that sometimes the place becomes a character, and, in some ways, we also see that in your work. You make space such a large part of the discussion like with Turkey or with New York specifically. So that was also the long way around of saying yes.[Laughter]
I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about many of the people you’re meeting with this week or graduate students, and they’re looking to publish in the future.
I’m an editor myself, and I think it’s important to discuss the process a little for newer authors. Can you talk about what you look for in a publisher –what kind of relationship you are looking for when you meet with publishers?
JS: Oh, I have a lot to say on this topic. I have a wonderful publisher now. I have Counterpoint, which is an independent press, but a good-sized one, and they have just been wonderful. When I won the National Book Critics Award, which was a big surprise, my editor had me Facetime the publicist. Her little daughter, who was two years old – it was earlier because they were in California – was bouncing up and down with excitement. She had no idea what the National Book Critics Prize was, but her mother was so excited that she [her daughter] was so excited. And that’s the kind of publisher they are. They’re very involved, so certainly what I’m looking for is someone who’s going to care. I would say that, in most cases, I have not felt like the choice was mine, I felt like the choice was theirs.
I think that one story that I should tell, and I haven’t told during this visit is, I have a very zigzagging publishing history. My first book published in my 30s did win an award, did well. The second book took a long time to write. People were sort of, they didn’t hate it, but they were kind of underwhelmed by it. Third book? Could not get anyone to publish it. Nobody wanted it. I published a story in the New Yorker, and I still couldn’t get it published. So, I had a 13-year period of time when I could not get a book published. I could publish stories in magazines, but I couldn’t get a book published. And, of course, the longer you go without getting a book published to last, the less anybody wants to do with you because you’re kind of a dead issue and, finally, I went to one small press and a slightly bigger press and another press.
Finally, an editor at Norton, who was my friend’s editor, took a chance on me, and then I kind of climbed my way back. So, my work changed when nobody wanted it partly because I was changing. I was going through all these, you know, like what is life and what am I going to do. I got involved with Buddhism. I was looking at how we look at life normally – what else is important and what else do people do? Maybe I’ll never publish a book again. All of that affected the work and fit into the work, and I think when I moved into this form which has turned out to be the best form for me, which is kind of a novel with different perspectives, with different parts, link stories like a novel. It’s covered a bit of a range, but I did that partly with the idea that nobody cares what I do anyway, so I might as well do what I want to do, or I might as well try what I don’t know how to do yet. It gave me what turned out to be useful freedom, and I tried a couple of new things that didn’t work. So, that’s part of the whole process, but what you look for in a publisher is someone who likes you, someone who’s backing your work, I think.
SFG: Yeah, that kind of support system.
Speaking of different publishers, you’ve also written extensively on the issue of time and fiction, including a book for Graywolf. Can you talk a little bit about what influenced you to write that book on time and why time was something that intrigued you?
JS: ًWhat influenced me to write that book was Charles Baxter, who was editing this series. We knew each other because we have taught for years at Warren Wilson together and are friends –
we’re still close in touch. Anyway, he said, I’m editing this series; what do you want to write about.
But I think that’s always been important to me because duration determines the meaning of a story; I mean, that’s my main point. And I use this as my example: the story of Princess Diana. If you end the story early on, she had this great wedding, and she married her Prince, and everything is fine. Well, that’s one story. As we know, it goes on from there. She gets her freedom, and that’s another story, and then she’s killed by public love; in a certain way, you know the publicity becomes this lethal force around her. Then, of course, Prince Charles has this whole other story, and I think he is quite happy with Camilla. I mean, I’m not his confidant, but that’s the sense that I get.
That’s a great example of real-life; depending on where you end it, the story changes its meaning and the point that it’s making. So, that was so useful to me because I like to find out what happened afterward. I always want to push things further. Anyway, I had lots of fun writing that book, and I’m very glad that I wrote it, and I also feel, I mean, I’ve taught for most of my adult life, and I’m glad that there’s something in print that captures my teaching in it.
SFG: I think it’s always so exciting to see how much there is on one particular issue. I always think of Hitchcock when we think about continuing the story past its natural end, like what comes next. It’s not easy to continue the story, so I’m so excited that that book’s out there, talking about time. I feel like you are a real cerebral writer, like we can feel that there is thought in each sentence.
What do you struggle with as a writer?
JS: Oh, what’s the hard thing for me? Plot is the hard thing for me. I’m not a natural, sort of, get-a-lot-of-drama-into-the-story kind of person. I’ve had to learn how to do that in ways that feel more natural to me. Characters are fine. Sentences, I can work them, so they sound okay. They’re often clunky, to begin with. But, getting the story to mount enough, and I would say my younger stories sometimes don’t have enough, you know, they don’t lift enough. The intensity of action isn’t high enough, and I’ve had to learn how to do that without being false about it.
SFG: So, how did you learn that? Who have you read that helped you learn how to create that plot?
JS: Oh, that’s interesting. Well, Alice Munro is my great example. As you know, she’s the writer that I’ve taken the most from because I like the way her stories go so far. Some of her stories are getting very dramatic. There’s a middle period where she has lots of crimes and terrible things going on. But I can’t tell you directly how I’ve copied her. I read this stuff, and then I go back, and I work, and I think of something, but I’m not sure I know exactly what that process is, but she’s been very useful to me.
SFG: I would say that there’s a fair amount of drama in your stories. I mean, someone dies in a car accident suddenly. Right now, we have a second family, I would say, those are almost soap operas. The next one will have amnesia.[Laughter]
I do think it’s interesting that there are these huge dramatic moments, but we’re so focused on the interiority of what happens. It’s a balance that I appreciate. I also think it’s interesting that you say that plot is not your strength, and you acknowledge Chekhov so much, and of course, Chekhov is so well known for his foreshadowing of plot. I mean, that’s probably his most famous quote about the gun.
JS: Well, that’s about that’s in plays, though.
SFG: That’s true, but plays are very forwarded by plot, I think. I’m not a play scholar. Now, I’m interested in comparing the plot between yourself and Chekhov, and I will be thinking about that for a long time. I don’t know how to formulate it yet, but I’m very interested in that conversation.
I was hoping you could tell us a bit of who you have been reading that you wish everybody was reading and why?
JS: The book that I read recently that I loved was Hamnet, which is this book about Shakespeare’s wife and Shakespeare writing the play Hamlet because he had a son named Hamnet who died of possibly something like the plague. Her writing is just wonderful. Her sentences or just the evocation of particular sensations are just amazing. I loved that.
A book I had very mixed feelings about, but I thought was terrific was The Overstory by Richard Powers, which is about trees. It has human characters, but it’s about the loss of forests, actually, and he’s an exciting writer in that he’s very idea-driven. I don’t think those are the best, strongest characters I have ever seen, and I don’t know if there were the best plot developments, but the books are sort of brilliant in their way, so I did like that.
The book I’ve loved in the year or two before was Disappearing Earth by Julia Philips, which is a novel that’s also linked pieces, and that’s incredible. It has two young girls who get into a car and disappear, and you don’t know what happens to them until much [later]; you don’t even know if you’re ever going to know. That mystery gets lost and comes back again, and it takes place on the Eastern coast of Russia, so it’s kind of terrific.