One may often hear it remarked that adversity builds character, but the reality is that tragedy and disappointment can lead to frustration, self-pity and even anger. Joan Silber, however, offers a different perspective on the experience of suffering in her stories.
Despite having experienced pain herself as a result of her mother’s illness and subsequent death, Silber has developed an attitude of helpfulness, patience and humility.
Her writing conveys a sense of urgency and resolution, urging us to make the most of our time. There is no sense of lingering sorrow or self-congratulation in her work.
In Silber’s latest offering, _Ideas of Heaven: a Ring of Stories, _a multitude of characters of varying ages, genders, and eras relate the tales of their lives and aspirations. One such character, the sixteenth-century poet Gaspara Stampa, is featured at a gathering:
We had just concluded our meal when the Game of the Blind Men began; it was a popular and enjoyable activity.
The objective was to tell a story of how one had lost their sight due to love, and to make it as full of twists and turns as possible – rescuing a beloved from a blaze, scaling the walls of a fortress, passing through the snowy Alps.
As tale after tale of suffering in the name of love unfolded, we applauded each one with a smile, as if the tragedy of love was a source of amusement to us all; and, in a way, I suppose it was.
Jill Bialosky’s works of fiction have been widely recognized, with her first novel, Household Words, earning her a PEN/Hemingway Award.
In addition, she has been granted fellowships 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 featured in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and other magazines.
Unfortunately, she faced difficulty in getting her later books published, though recently her stories have been included in prize volumes and anthologies.
Ideas of Heaven has been named a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction. Bialosky is a professor at Sarah Lawrence College and has taught in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. She currently resides in New York City.
Our interview was conducted through a combination of informal conversation when we were both in Chicago, telephone calls, and emails.
— Sarah Stone’s words
Ideas of Heaven is described as a “ring” of stories by THE BELIEVER. Peter Ho Davies commented that the book “profoundly reinvents the short story collection.” Could you explain what makes this book distinct from the more traditional assemblage of interconnected stories?
Joan Silber discussed her creative process in writing her stories. She wanted to “flip sympathies” and link stories in a new way; rather than using the same characters or setting throughout or in chronological order.
She began to string together three stories around the character of the villain from the first story, as well as Gaspara Stampa, the Venetian poet mentioned in the second story.
She also mentioned Giles, who was mentioned in the first story, would be included in the last story to make a “ring”.
Additionally, she wanted to convey a broader canvas than fiction sometimes gives – that the world is not revolving solely around one’s own point of view, but there are multiple perspectives and revolutions occurring at the same time.
In BLVR, the protagonists of Ideas of Heaven are characterized by their profound reflections on life and the past. You have frequently discussed the notion of “weight” in literature in your essays, concerning the works of Jane Austen, Alice Munro, Chekhov, and Flaubert.
What is your current stance on the importance of weight and intricacy in fiction?
I often complain that there isn’t enough substance in the books I purchase; what would constitute a meaningful amount of content, in my opinion?
BLVR: Is writing these stories leading to your ideas on weight being reshaped in any way?
JS: When I think of weight in literature, I associate it with the depth of emotion present in the work. If the tribulations of the characters appear too trifling, I consider the book too light.
I have come across books where I inwardly remark, “This too shall pass.” Yet, when talking of Jane Austen, she is acutely aware of the boundaries of her realm and her figures often experience more than just disappointment. Therefore, there is a way to display a sense of “lightness” from this perspective.
Chekhov’s narrative, “Strong Impressions”, features a group of jurors who, while sequestered during a murder trial, share stories of the worst experiences they’ve had. One man speaks of almost jilting his beloved because of the advice of a lawyer friend.
Though the tale is humorous, when the clock tower strikes, the jurors are reminded of the severity of the accused’s situation. At that moment, the story comes to a close.
I still remember teaching a remarkable class at Boston University, which had Ha Jin, Jhumpa Lahiri, Peter Ho Davies, and the finally-published Marshall Klimasewski in it. It was one of the best classes I’ve ever had.
I was telling them a story and I wanted to share something that had happened to me the previous week. I had left the class early to catch a flight to New York for a significant dinner – my former agent had a farewell party for her assistant.
My plane was an hour late and the taxi ride was caught in traffic, so I was anxious. It turned out that the taxi driver was from Beirut, a city that was barely remaining in the early nineties. He was truly amazed when he heard I was a teacher and he wanted to ask my opinions on everything.
I wanted to share with the class how this experience made me think of the Chekhov story, and I remember Ha Jin nodding because of how his world had changed too.
BLVR: All the tales are so detailed and intricate that they could be a book. How do you decide if the piece of writing you are creating is a short story or a novel?
JS: At the moment, I don’t think one person’s life is sufficient for a full novel. I enjoyed writing stories that spanned longer periods of time, having once given a talk on the subject, so I figured I would continue doing that.
Interestingly, my work has been moderately successful, but not overly so – this gave me a sense of freedom because no one was expecting me to replicate what I had done before. I decided to give this a go, and I was pleased with the results – it felt like the right choice.
BLVR: How do you go about creating or developing characters?
JS: On occasions I have a central occurrence that someone has related to me. In the initial drafts, the characters are usually less astute and flat. And then I make it my mission to not conform to cliches. I think to myself, “It can’t simply be that way. It’s too foreseeable.” This causes me to tug at them more forcefully and I consider that how they become more profound.
BLVR: To what extent is your impression of them based on the past, and what is contrived? What type of family did you come from?
When I was five years old, my father passed away and when I was in my twenties, my mother did as well. This was a very traumatic experience for me, being from a middle-class, peaceful family, similar to the one depicted in Household Words, my first published book.
From my childhood perspective, I did not receive the same teachings that others were given in regards to how families and the world functioned. Unaware of what was causing my discontent, I read extensively in order to cope.
Reading played a huge role in my life and I had aspirations of writing from a young age.
BLVR: Could you tell me about the books that have been meaningful to you, both recently and currently?
A screenshot taken in 2018 shows an image from culture.org from the year 2005.
JS: I have a strong connection to Alice Munro as a contemporary writer for understandable reasons. I am also inspired by people I know, such as Charlie Baxter and Andrea Barrett.
Additionally, Kathleen Hill has been a good friend of mine for a long time, but I didn’t read her work until I had already been writing for quite a while.
She is very meticulous with her craft, similar to Proust, and her commitment and focused attitude has become something significant to me. With current readings, I don’t feel they are influential to my own writing, although I may still enjoy them.
Do you exhibit the initial draft of your work to others?
JS: I don’t work in drafts, as I’m not a fan of that approach. Instead, I revise each sentence as I progress. In other words, by the time I’m ready to share my work, it’s not “bare” anymore, although the ending may be a bit of a jumble or the start can be a bit clunky.
BLVR: Have you always taken this approach when working? How has your method changed over the years?
JS shared that for years they had worked slowly and feared that they would never become a genuine writer. But eventually, it was decided that it was acceptable and the speed increased, though the methods stayed the same. They take notes, have a general concept, and sometimes leave notes at the end of the day on what is to come. JS concluded by asking if there are other people who work in this manner.
BLVR: A large number of individuals operate in such a manner: they create a draft which is perfect in detail, and then they alter it extensively and discard most of their work.
JS shared that he got too attached to his own sentences in fiction writing.
He took a course with Grace Paley in college to learn more about writing fiction, since he initially wanted to become a poet. Paley was a big advocate of crafting sentences, which may have been a contributing factor.
What events were pivotal in your career as a writer?
JS: There were both advantageous and disadvantageous turning points. The most beneficial one was obviously when the first book was published. To commemorate, I took a friend out for lunch, where I had a Bloody Mary instead of champagne.
Winning the Hemingway was an incredible blessing and surprise. After the second book came out in ’87 and was printed in ’88, it was much longer before the next one, a book of stories, was released in 2000.
I had a story in the New Yorker during that time, and although I was living in Rome, I couldn’t get a book published. This led to a long period of time in which I was still writing, but could not see success. I think it’s true that certain defeats alter you.
I had to gain a sense of steadiness. Between the first two novels and the last three books, there is a noticeable difference in the writing.
BLVR: Did the difficulty of the experience have any kind of impact on [them]?
JS: As time passed, I gained wisdom. I no longer identified as a domestic realist, and thus stopped writing stories that were closely connected to my own life.
When I wrote my third book, In My Other Life, the majority of the characters were based on people I knew, but none of them were based on myself. I was getting further away from my autobiographical material, and that could very well be a major factor.
III. SEXUAL ACTIVITY OCCURS IN MY WRITINGS, YET SINCE THE WAY IT IS CARRIED OUT IS GENERALLY UNCOMPLICATED AND UNDERSTANDABLE FOR ANYONE, THE READER DOESN’T NEED TO BE IN ATTENDANCE FOR EACH INSTANCE IN A STORY TO FULLY APPRECIATE IT.
BLVR: In many of the characters that you write about, there is a tendency to take chances, whether it be through drug use, doing something ethically dubious, or engaging in daring sexual activities. Could you discuss the motif of taking risks or deliberately self-sabotaging?
When JS first came to New York, they waitressed in a bar for three and a half years during the late sixties and early seventies and experienced a lot of what was going on in those bars. This prompted them to draw from this material for their writing.
Even though JS has experienced many things since then, there is still something interesting to them about characters getting caught up in unexpected desires and not being aware of what they were getting into.
BLVR: Contrasting the objectives people plan to accomplish and what they truly execute.
When it comes to material, BLVR notes that it is a challenge to write about characters’ intimate and religious experiences.
JS: In my stories, sex does occur, but it’s usually not overly detailed. I want to be subtle, but also make sure it has relevance to the characters. Writing about spiritual matters was more difficult; I had to ensure I didn’t become overly sappy.
I was pleased when I managed to avoid that, although some bits had to be cut. During the time I was writing, I was very interested in Buddhism and now attend a Vipassana group. I’m not a great meditator, but I’m drawn to the ideas.
If you’re passionate about something, you want to portray it accurately. It definitely changes your perspective of the world; what others care about suddenly seems trivial. “They’re concerned with that?”
Has the impact of your experience altered the way you write?
JS commented that a great deal of Buddhism is all about perspective. He noted that the Buddha was once asked to condense his teachings into one statement and, unlike some other questions the Buddha wouldn’t answer, he responded to this one positively.
His answer was, “Nothing should be held onto as being ‘me’ or ‘mine.'” JS found this to be an incredibly profound and comforting idea if it is approached from the right point of view.
BLVR: When did you come to recognize that being without writing made you discontent, something that is seemingly a common trait among us rather than something that is learned?
At times, composition has not been an enjoyable activity for me. I’m at a loss to explain why this is the case.
BLVR: In that case, could you tell me what helps you make it through the tough patches when it comes to your writing, either internally or externally?
JS: [Laughs] I’ve been through a lot of tough times, and there have been moments when I’ve felt like I’m never going to make it out of this. There were even times when I thought about giving up writing since I couldn’t sell any books.
But I knew that it was like saying that I’m going to go eat worms. It was just not something I could actually do.
I’m aware that some people have found other activities to replace writing, but I don’t have anything that serves as a substitute.
Although I do participate in other activities, I still have faith in writing. After 9/11, an artist friend of mine mentioned he wanted to contribute to the world in a way that painting couldn’t and I feel the same; that writing can do good and has a purpose. I don’t think my writing is purposeless.
BLVR: You have explored the boundaries of form in multiple ways, such as the compilation of lists in Lucky Us. Could you discuss how form is related to its corresponding subject or ideas?
At first, I didn’t have an understanding of form in my writing.
After living with a composer, I began to take note of the concept of form, even if I didn’t always understand what was being said. In Lucky Us, I wanted the structure to portray the idea of alternate paths that could have been taken.
With Ideas of Heaven, I wanted to demonstrate the interconnectedness that both creates and results in violence. I also wanted to capture the feeling of volatility, like the tigers running into each other and turning into pancake batter.
BLVR: Could this be considered both an advantage and a disadvantage?
JS: A double-edged sword. It can be a great benefit, but also a potential hazard.
BLVR: To what extent did your volunteer experience assisting those with AIDS influence Lucky Us?
JS: It was while I was volunteering with Gay Men’s Health Crisis that I came up with the concept for my book; they both stemmed from the same motivation.
I spent a great deal of time writing it while I was a buddy, usually going to visit an individual with AIDS once a week, whether it was to run errands or just to spend time together.
He was an incredible person with a unique flair who had decorated his hospital room with bouquets of flowers taped to the sharps container.
On the day before his passing, he lit up a Camel Light and said, “I’m not going to quit smoking.” I was his friend during his final two years of life. At present, I am a companion to a really spectacular woman, who is my age and nothing like the character in the novel.
While I was writing Lucky Us, I was surrounded by those dealing with illness, which definitely had an influence on the book. I wanted to think more about the issue as it is happening in the world, but I had previously also experienced it because my parent was sick.
Illness is always in my consciousness as a potential reality as my father died from a heart attack suddenly, but my mother had a lengthy battle with a liver disease, which may have been due to a botched gall-bladder surgery, though that is unconfirmed.
She was ill for at least ten, if not twenty years.
BLVR: Similar to Rhoda in Charles Dickens’ Household Words.
When JS was growing up they took on many of the caretaking duties, not in a very organized way, but bringing trays and the like. JS initially planned to tell the story from the point of view of the mother, then two siblings, and eventually settled on the mother.
JS believes this was a good decision which prevented them from getting too wrapped up in their own story of growing up, as they were only about 28 when they started writing the book.
BLVR: How did you manage to go beyond yourself in Ideas of Heaven? What techniques did you use to take on the persona of the different characters?
When I’m researching for a project, I often turn to the internet to find details that give life to the characters. I usually have some personal experience with the locations involved, so that helps.
I’d like to think of it like method acting, where my own experiences are used to get inside the character’s head. For my two historical pieces, I spent a year in Italy and looked at Renaissance paintings to get the feel for the setting.
With the missionaries, I immersed myself in Victorian literature to get the voice of the missionary wife. That being said, there were still some things that I didn’t have the experience to write about.
Do you think there is any subject that is too far from your expertise or understanding that you would like to write about?
JS: I recently created a piece of work based on the story of an American female who wed a Muslim man from southern Thailand. I first got the idea from a woman I encountered while travelling, and wanted to tell it from her perspective.
Yet, I quickly realized that I was too far away both geographically and culturally to accurately portray the marriage. I wouldn’t be able to do it justice no matter how much research I conducted.
Therefore, I decided to tell the story from the viewpoint of her subsequent husband, who was envious of the now-deceased Thai man, which opened the door for me to explore other topics that I was keen to examine, such as long-term connections and fresh loyalties.
Therefore, sometimes an alternate approach can be beneficial.
BLVR: Did you receive your MA in Victorian Literature?
I studied Arnold Bennett, a writer I really admire, and my thesis was on Fanny Burney, who had an influence on Jane Austen. This was all done in English.
BLVR: It was the inhabitation of so many different characters that made me think of Chekhov or Alice Munro upon the first reading of your work. You have crafted a perfect harmony between objectivity and empathy through the characters you have created.
JS: When I was little, I was drawn to Chekhov while reading his works. My family had a book of his stories in our home, so I was always fond of him.
I recall the time I read a narrative entitled “At the Manor” in which an obnoxious old man gives a long and prejudiced monologue that drives away his daughter’s only admirer.
Even though he was being crude, Chekhov made us sympathize with him; he was a forlorn elderly person who had acted poorly, and this made me think, “I want to write like that.”
BLVR: Is this a question without a definitive answer? If so, what strategies do you use to create a harmonious balance while writing?
JS suggests that when writing about characters, you can’t be too lenient. You must understand their perspectives, yet not be too sympathetic. They should not simply be admired or pitied.
For example, when writing the first book in the series, the author had to inhabit the character of their mother, but still be able to view them objectively. It was an important lesson for them.
BLVR: Was Household Words the first book you wrote? How long did it take to complete?
JS: It was quite a while. I believe it took me an estimated five years to accomplish it.
When I was looking at “My Shape” from Ideas of Heaven, it became apparent that there were only two scenes, and the rest of the story was so vivid that it felt like a scene.
As a writer learning their craft, how did you come to understand the difference between scene and summary, and how to effectively handle the passing of time? BLVR.
I had taught a class at Warren Wilson before I was an expert at it. That particular year I had been living in Italy and I used a story by Natalia Ginzburg titled “The Mother” which was a biographical piece.
My Italian wasn’t very good, yet I observed that a lot of the writing was in the imperfect tense which isn’t present in English. While we use “would go” or a progressive tense before switching to an indicative one, I was impressed by how the story conveyed habitual actions in a scene.
I had always recognized that Chekhov did this frequently in his stories–even though they are brief, there’s usually a feeling that something has taken place, like in “The Darling” where she repeated the same action over the course of a winter, and then a fragment of a scene is inserted.
Thus, the technical secret lies in how summary is treated as a scene. As I was writing the stories in In My Other Life I was concerned that I had gone into too much detail in the summaries and so I wrote to Charlie Baxter about it.
He recommended that I read Lars Gustafsson’s Stories of Happy People and I thought to myself, “Oh, that’s alright. This is something people do.”
BLVR: How do you condense an entire life into a story or novel while still keeping the crucial details? How can you take a life and give it a design and structure that will enable readers to understand what matters?
JS: At times, it takes some extra words from the author to bring a story to a close, often in the voice of a character.
I have difficulty with that sometimes! There have been instances where I felt I had a decent destination for the piece, but I wasn’t able to deliver it as well as I had envisioned. I still continue to try my best. I tend to have an idea of the bigger message of the story, typically.
As I keep writing, I’m becoming more and more focused on the main theme and this last book gave me a boost in confidence so that’s been a bonus.
BLVR: What is the source of a story? What is the fundamental basis it begins with?
JS: It has changed significantly. For instance, with In My Other Life, I was aware of the limited material I had to work with, which enabled me to pick out the characters and create their stories. Now, I have specific topics I want to discuss.
In the past book, I wanted to delve into the connection between spiritual and passionate yearning. In the upcoming one, I’m exploring travel and the moral dilemmas associated with it.
When you’re a privileged person in a destitute location, or when your home country has done much harm in a nation you are currently visiting, or when you are met with animosity for no discernible cause, there are numerous issues to ponder.
Therefore, I am currently searching for examples, both from memory and from semi-fictional things, that illustrate what I want to write about. During the last few years, I have toured much of Asia, such as China, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand.
I’m anticipating the pleasure of reading it.
JS expressed his gratitude and voiced his expectation that his desired outcome would be achieved.
Adam Drucker, better known by the alias Doseone, has said his initial attraction to rap was as much about the……