An Interview with Joan Silber

When things don’t go as planned, people tend to say it will build character. In reality, those who experience tragedy and misfortune are more prone to become frustrated, feeling sorry for themselves, and sometimes seek revenge.

It’s therefore a relief to read Joan Silber’s stories, which have a more enlightened view on suffering and its consequences. Her characters experience pain, but neither the characters nor the story are drawn to that pain.

Silber endured a great deal of hardship in her teenage years caring for her ailing mother, who passed away when Silber was in her twenties.

Despite going through adversity and sorrow, Silber has developed a remarkable character that many envy: she is always cheerful, helpful and patient, has a focus on her environment, and exudes no sense of vanity.

Her writing is clear, direct and to the point, without dwelling on its profoundness or its intricate details. Her stories appear to be saying that time is fleeting, so let us make the most of it while we still can.

In Silber’s latest work, Ideas of Heaven: a Ring of Stories, the tales of those from a range of ages, genders, and eras are presented. An example of this is Gaspara Stampa, a sixteenth-century poet, at a party:

After we had just finished dinner, the group began to play the Game of the Blind Men, which was a great game and was very popular.

Every participant had to explain how they became blind due to love, making the tale as intricate as possible with a lot of hardships and selflessness. Tales of saving their beloved from a fire, scaling the walls of a castle, and crossing the Alps in the blinding snow.

One story after another described the lovers getting struck in the eyes. I questioned why we would enjoy hearing such tales, however we all had smiles on our faces, almost as if the destruction of love was a shared joke – which I guess it was.

The author of five works of fiction, Silber, has obtained recognition for her writing.

Including a PEN/Hemingway Award for her debut novel, Household Words, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

Her stories have been printed in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and other magazines. After enduring a lengthy battle to get her later books published, Silber’s writing was included in prize volumes and other compilations. In addition, her novel Ideas of Heaven is a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction. She is an educator at Sarah Lawrence College and has also taught in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers.

She resides in New York City. We spoke informally when we both happened to be in Chicago, and then conducted the interview through the phone and email.

— Sarah Stone’s Words


In Ideas of Heaven you refer to it as a “ring” of stories. Peter Ho Davies has commented that this book “radically changes the traditional short story collection.” Could you explain how your book is different from the standard groups of related stories?

Joan Silber’s approach to stringing stories together is one that gradually developed. With her aims to make villains human beings, she took her own beliefs and used them to create a story based around the Venetian poet Gaspara Stampa.

She shared with her friends her plan to write about ‘forms of devotion’ and ‘forms of consolation’, and then connected Giles, who is mentioned in the first story, in the last story to create a ring.

As the story progressed, the links became looser, but the idea of giving a broader canvas than fiction usually does was still held. This conveys that the world does not revolve around one person, instead there are many revolutions going on simultaneously.

BLVR: In Ideas of Heaven, the characters demonstrate a profound understanding of their own histories and existences.

You have expressed your thoughts on the concept of “weight” in narrative composition in various pieces, discussing the works of authors such as Austen, Munro, Chekhov, and Flaubert. What are your current views on the role of complexity and gravity in fiction?

I express my dissatisfaction that there is insufficient weightiness in books I read. So, what would be considered a substantial amount of depth?

BLVR: Have the stories you’ve written altered your perspectives on weight in any way?

JS: I initially used to think that the heaviness of a work could be gauged by the depth of emotion it conveyed. If the troubles of the characters were too trivial, the work appeared too weightless to me.

On occasion I’d find myself saying something along the lines of, “Oh, you’ll get over it.” But in regards to Austen, she was always acutely aware of the limitations of her world, often causing huge agitation for her characters. This is how she was able to present “lightness” in her works in an entirely different manner.

Years ago, I was particularly struck by an idea from a Chekhov story titled “Strong Impressions”. It features a group of jurors sequestered for a murder trial who pass the time by telling stories about the worst experiences of their lives.

A few of them recount near-death experiences, while one man explains how he almost gave up on his sweetheart at the suggestion of a lawyer friend. It is an almost humorous tale of cunning legal counsel.

As they listen to each other, they become aware of the clock tower striking, and it dawns on them that the prisoner on trial for murder is also hearing it and that his life is on an entirely different level at that moment. And that’s where the story ends.

I once had the pleasure of teaching a memorable class at Boston University, which included the likes of Ha Jin, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Peter Ho Davies, as well as another talented writer, Marshall Klimasewski, who is now releasing his first book.

I was telling them a story, and wanted to share an experience I had the week before. I had to leave class early to catch a flight to New York for a dinner hosted by my then-agent for her assistant, but was delayed an hour.

The taxi driver I got in New York was from Beirut, and in the early nineties that city was barely still standing. He was surprised to hear I was a teacher, and wanted to ask me questions about everything. It made me consider the Chekhov story in a different light.

I could see Ha Jin understanding this, as he had experienced a similar shift in his world.

When crafting a piece of writing, how does one distinguish between a story and a novel? BLVR notes that each of their stories are so detailed and multi-dimensional, they could easily be novels.

JS reflected that a single life was too little to write a novel about and that she enjoyed the challenge of depicting long stretches of time in her short stories. She had previously discussed the craft of it in a talk years ago, and decided that she could continue doing it.

Despite not having been overly successful, JS was liberated by the lack of expectation, allowing her to attempt something new. As it happened, she found that it felt right.


BLVR: Could you describe the method you use when coming up with or creating characters?

On occasion, I have a story that has been given to me that I must make into an event. Generally, the characters in the early versions are quite simple and shallow. I then take it upon myself to alter them and make them into something that does not fit the usual stereotype. This is how I make them into more complex characters with more depth.

BLVR: What elements of your memories of them are based on the past, and what elements are new? Could you tell me a little bit about your family?

JS: My family was much like the one described in Household Words, my initial publication. Sadly, my dad passed away when I was five and my mum when I was in my twenties. This was a major disruption to my otherwise tranquil, middle-class upbringing.

I was given a different perspective on how families and the world works than a lot of people. As a child, I was aware of the worst possibilities and I turned to reading as a way to comprehend what I was feeling.

Consequently, reading was extremely significant to me, and I had wanted to write even as a small child.

BLVR: Could you tell me about any books that you are currently or have recently read that have had a significant impact on you?

An image of a man giving a thumbs up can be seen, with a thought bubble next to him containing the words “I’m feeling great!”

JS: I feel a particular affinity to Alice Munro as a contemporary writer. My friends Charlie Baxter, Andrea Barrett, and Kathleen Hill have all had an influence on me, although I didn’t discover Kathleen’s work until later.

Her commitment to detail and her Proustian attention to craftsmanship have been important sources of inspiration for me. When I now read books, I don’t do so with the intention of being influenced by them, but rather out of admiration and love.

Do you make your initial version of something visible to other people?

JS: In my process, I don’t work with drafts. I tend to alter each sentence as I write, so by the time I’m ready to share, it’s not exactly in its raw form. Even though the beginning and end may be a bit disorganized, I’ve already gone through and made revisions.

BLVR: Have you generally maintained the same approach or has your technique evolved as time passed?

JS commented that they used to laboriously work and they believed they would never be a successful writer with their sluggishness.

Ultimately, they realized it was alright and they did become faster, yet their process remained the same. They take notes, but it is not an aimless procedure; they have an overview.

Additionally, JS often jots down notes at the end of the day that indicate what will occur the next day. JS then pondered if there are other individuals who work in a similar fashion.

Many people craft their projects with great care and precision, only to end up scrapping a large portion of their work when they revise it.

JS stated that they took years to understand that fiction is not only about the sentences. They only took one fiction course, which was with the renowned author Grace Paley.

At the time, they wanted to become a poet, so they believe Paley’s way of crafting sentences may have been the root of their attachment to sentences.

What events can be identified as having a major influence on your writing journey?

JS: There were a combination of great and difficult points. Getting the first book published was a big victory and I remember taking a friend to lunch to celebrate – with a Bloody Mary rather than champagne.

Winning the Hemingway was also incredibly gratifying. There was a considerable gap between the publication of the second book in ’87 (and later in paper in ’88) to the following book of stories in 2000.

During that time I had a story in the New Yorker, but couldn’t get another book published. There was a lot of frustration, but I kept writing. I eventually had to learn to accept defeat and I think this is evident in the writing of the last three books as compared to the first two novels.

BLVR: Was the hardship of it something that had an impact on them?

JS: As I grew older, I got wiser. Nevertheless, I shifted away from writing about the everyday and the mundane, and I stopped relying heavily on autobiographical material.

For example, when I wrote In My Other Life, almost two-thirds of the stories were based on people I knew, but none of them were based on me. Moving away from my own experiences was incredibly significant for me.

III. Although sexual activity is included in my stories, the mechanics of it are not complex, so the reader does not need to be present for every part of the story to understand it.

BLVR: In many of your works, the protagonists are often engaging in dangerous activities or making risky decisions, such as using illicit drugs, conducting illicit businesses, or taking risks in their sexual lives.

Could you discuss why this theme of risk-taking or self-sabotage appears in your writing?

When I arrived in New York in the late sixties and early seventies, I worked as a waitress in a bar for three and a half years, so naturally I wanted to use the experiences I had there in my writing.

It fascinates me how people can be taken by unexpected desires, not knowing what they will do. Even after all these years, I’m still drawn to this kind of subject matter.

BLVR: A comparison between what individuals plan to do and what they actually manage to accomplish.

JS: Affirmative.

BLVR: It is difficult to write about characters’ sexual and spiritual lives, yet this is something that you focus on in your work.

JS stated that while sex is included in her stories, it is presented in a subtle, discreet and precise manner and is connected to the character.

She found it more difficult to include spiritual matters as she was conscious of not wanting to be overly soppy. However, she was proud of any success she had in this area, even though much was cut due to it being overly sentimental.

In addition, she was actively involved in Buddhism and attends a Vipassana group, even though she is not a great meditator and is unsure if it is crucial.

Despite this, she is passionate about the ideas and this has changed her world view and made her realise that many of the things the world is concerned about are of little importance.

Has this altered the way you approach writing?

JS: Absolutely. A big part of Buddhism is about perspective. It is said that the Buddha was asked to explain his teachings in one sentence and, just like when authors are requested to summarize their book in one sentence, he agreed to answer. His response was,

“Nothing should be held onto as ‘me’ or ‘mine.'” This is a rather profound concept and can be calming if you look at it through the right lens.

BLVR: When did you come to the realization that, like many of us, you become discontent when you don’t write? Is it something that is innate, instead of something that you had to learn?

At times, the act of writing has been a source of great distress for me, for which I have no explanation.

How do you make it through the difficult moments in writing, be it internal or external?

JS: [ Laughs ] I’m certainly feeling the pressure. There have been times where I’ve thought I’d been in a similar situation before and I could get out of it. It’s very disheartening when you’re working on a project that isn’t going anywhere.

I remember a period in my life when I was struggling to sell books, and it made me consider quitting writing altogether. I thought, “There’s no one forcing me to do this, so why am I doing it?” But then I realized it would be like telling myself to “go eat worms” – it wasn’t a realistic option.

I am aware of people who have stopped writing, but some have found replacements that work for them. I, on the other hand, haven’t yet. I do other things, but I still believe in writing and its power to do good in the world.

After the tragic events of 9/11, a dear friend of mine, a painter, felt that creating art was not enough, and I feel the same way. I don’t think my writing is aimless and without purpose.

  1. Discovering a substitute for something that can’t be done can be beneficial.

BLVR: You have tested out various types of forms for your works, including Lucky Us with its list-making. Can you tell us about the connection between form and the subject material or concepts?

At first, I did not think about form when creating. Then, I began to understand the importance of form after living with a composer, who talked about it often. This inspired me to think more about form when creating.

For instance, in Lucky Us, I wanted to show how luck can change the course of life, and how HIV could have happened to any of us.

In Ideas of Heaven, I wanted to show how things are connected, and how violent these connections can be. It is not just about getting along, but about the tiger-like volatility of our being together. I wanted to capture this in my writing.

BLVR: Is it both a boon and a challenge?

The potential of JavaScript can be a great asset, yet it can also be a hazard. It encompasses a power that is both beneficial and detrimental.

What impact did your volunteer engagement with AIDS patients have on the creation of Lucky Us?

At the same time I began volunteering for Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an idea for a book came to me. Consequently, I wrote a majority of it while working as a buddy, where my job was to go to a man with AIDS and spend time with him, either doing errands or simply chatting.

He had a great flair for style and even managed to decorate his hospital room by taping vials of flowers to the needle-disposal unit. His friends told me that, the day prior to his death, he lit up a Camel Light and said, “I’m not giving up smoking.”

I had known him for the last two years of his life. Currently, I’m a companion to a girl, who, unlike the character in my book, is around my age and remarkable in a completely different way. While I was writing Lucky Us, I was close to people living with illness, which surely had an impact on the book. I did it partly since I thought, “This is going on in the world, and I should think about it more,” but I had been exposed to sickness since I was young, due to my parent being ill.

I believe illness is always in the back of my mind as a potentiality of life. My father died suddenly from a heart attack, while my mother had a long-term liver ailment, which may have been caused by a botched gall-bladder operation, but that is uncertain.

This liver problem persisted for at least ten years, and possibly even twenty.

BLVR can be likened to Rhoda in the literary piece Household Words.

JS revealed that she had been a caretaker for her family, mostly in an informal manner. She initially wanted to tell the story from the perspective of the mother and two siblings. However, in the end, she chose to focus on the mother.

JS shared that she was relatively young when she started writing the book, around 28 years old, and that this decision was key to avoiding the self-centeredness of her childhood.

BLVR: In Ideas of Heaven, you really showcased a great range of characters. How did you go about embodying such different personas?

In order to bring my characters to life, I rely on going online for details. I don’t venture outside of my own personal experiences but there have been two occasions when I’ve done so.

For example, when I wrote two historical stories, I spent a year in Italy and looked at a lot of Renaissance paintings.

To get the voice of a missionary wife, I read a lot of Victorian literature including works from Dickens, the Brontes, and Eliot. These experiences helped me feel familiar with the world that I was writing about, but I still had some difficulty with certain parts.

BLVR: Is there a subject that you’d like to write about, but you feel like your knowledge and background don’t allow you to do so?

JS, after meeting a woman while traveling, developed an idea for a piece about an American female who married a Muslim from southern Thailand.

While it was his original plan to tell the story from her perspective, he realized that he was too far away, both geographically and experientially, to accurately do so.

Thus, he decided to tell it from the viewpoint of her second husband, which opened up other opportunities to explore connections between the past and current allegiances. This example of taking a different route than planned unexpectedly yielded a positive outcome.

  1. “Sometimes an author’s work can be influenced by their own life and this may lead to an inclination to create a character that elicits pity or admiration from readers.”

BLVR: Was your Master’s degree in Victorian Literature?

JS: I didn’t write it in any other language than English, but I did focus on Arnold Bennett, whom I am fond of, and my thesis was dedicated to Fanny Burney, who was a predecessor of Jane Austen.

BLVR: The inhabiting of multiple characters in your work reminded me of Chekhov and Alice Munro when I first encountered it. By creating these characters, you managed to establish a balance between objectivity and empathy.

JS: Even though I was young when I read Chekhov, I could tell he had a special ability.

We had a book of his at home, and I was especially fond of “At the Manor,” where a boorish elderly gentleman made a long, prejudiced speech that alienated his daughter’s potential partner.

Even though he was a lonely jerk, Chekhov managed to make the audience feel for him. That’s what I wanted to do.

What system do you use to strike a balance when you are writing? Is it a difficult query to answer?

JS suggested that when creating characters, it is important not to be too lenient and to recognize their actions.

This is also true when writing about personal experiences. One example of this is when the author wrote the first book in the voice of someone similar to their mother, who they had a conflicted relationship with. To successfully portray the character in a sympathetic way while still seeing them objectively was a significant learning experience.

BLVR: Was Household Words the first book you ever composed? How long did it take to complete?

It took me a very lengthy period of time to achieve this – I believe it was around five years.

BLVR: As a writer learning the craft, many stumble when it comes to summarizing. When I read “My Shape” from Ideas of Heaven, I observed that there were only two scenes, while the remainder was done with such detail that it felt like a scene.

How did you approach scene and summary while managing time?

JS: Before I was really doing this (teaching), I taught this class at Warren Wilson. It was the year I was living in Italy, so I used a story written by Natalia Ginzburg called “The Mother.”

Despite my limited Italian, I noticed that the story was written in the imperfect tense, which is not present in the English language. Instead, we use “would go” or switch between the progressive and indicative. However, I was struck by how the author managed to render habitual action as a scene.

I had long taken note of Chekhov’s technique in which even his short stories had a feeling to them, like in “The Darling” where the protagonist performed mundane activities over the course of a winter season, resulting in a scene instead of a summary.

This, I concluded, was the technical key. When I was crafting the stories in my book In My Other Life , I was concerned that I had gone too much into summary, so I wrote to Charlie Baxter for counsel. He suggested I read Lars Gustafsson’s Stories of Happy People , and I thought, “Ah, this works.”

BLVR: When constructing a narrative that encompasses a person’s entire life, how do you decide what to include and what to exclude in order to give the story a sense of focus and purpose? How do you determine what is important?

JS stated that sometimes the writer must include a remark from a character at the end of the piece, and that it can be difficult to do.

He admitted that he sometimes had ideas for his stories that he couldn’t execute as well as he’d hoped. He added that he does his best and he typically has a good understanding of the theme his story is attempting to convey.

With the completion of his last book, he became more confident in his ability to focus on the theme, which has proven beneficial.

BLVR: What is usually the starting point for a story? What is the essential element?

JS: It can differ significantly. In the past, for instance with In My Other Life, I knew there was a certain limit of material to work with and I just had to pick the characters and then tell their stories. At present, I have ideas that I would like to discuss.

In my last book, I wanted to tackle the relationship between spiritual and sensual yearning. In my upcoming book, I am focusing on travel and the ethical quandaries it can bring.

It can be a wonderful experience to see different parts of the world, but what happens when you, as someone of privilege, are in a poorer place, or you are in a country where your home country has done much harm, or people are hostile to you for no understandable reason.

You can find yourself in all kinds of situations that you have no control over. Currently, I am looking for examples of what I want to talk about, based on my personal experiences and some that are imagined.

So this time I am starting from a topic. I have been doing a lot of traveling in countries such as China, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand in recent years.

I’m highly anticipating perusing the text.

JS expressed gratitude and expressed a wish that the task would be completed.

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