When something awful happens, people often say that it builds character. More often than not, though, those who endure tragedies and disappointments are likely to become aggrieved, self-pitying, and sometimes vengeful. So it’s a relief to read Joan Silber’s stories, which have an almost godlike perspective on suffering, both self-inflicted and otherwise. Her characters endure pain, but neither the characters nor the story seems to luxuriate in that pain. Silber spent most of her teens looking after her sick mother, who died when Silber was in her twenties. In surviving adversity and loss, Silber herself has developed the kind of character many of us would kill for: apparently endless cheerful helpfulness and patience, a focus on the world around her, a complete lack of self-importance. Silber’s writing has a clean, brisk authority that doesn’t linger to congratulate itself over either its insight or its wonderful details. “Time is moving,” these stories seem to say, “so let’s get on with it while we still can.”
In Silber’s newest book, Ideas of Heaven: a Ring of Stories, a variety of characters of different ages, genders, and historical moments tell the stories of their lives and yearnings. Here is the sixteenth-century poet Gaspara Stampa at a party:
We had just barely finished supper when people started playing the Game of the Blind Men, a good game, really, and popular with this group. Each of the players had to tell how he had lost his sight because of love. The idea was to make the story as tricky as possible, full of obstacles and unflinching sacrifice, a set of tests. Rescuing the beloved from a fire, climbing the spikes of a fortress, crossing the Alps through the glare of snow. Lover after lover was struck in the eyes. Oh, why do we like to hear this? I thought, as we applauded the Alpine saga. We were all smiling, as if love’s wreckage were a shared joke, which I suppose it was.
Silber is the author of five books of fiction; she won a PEN/Hemingway Award for her first novel, Household Words, as well as 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 appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and other magazines. For some years, though, after her early success, Silber endured a long struggle to publish her later books—the literary equivalent of being dropped in the wilderness with nothing but a light sweater and a stick of gum. Recently, things have been looking up again. Her stories have been published in prize volumes and other anthologies. And Ideas of Heaven is a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction. Silber teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and has taught in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. She lives in New York City. We talked informally over dinner when we both happened to be in Chicago, and then on the phone and by email for the interview.
I. “IF THE CHARACTERS’ TROUBLES ARE TOO CASUAL, THE BOOK SEEMS TOO LIGHT TO ME. SOMETIMES I READ BOOKS AND WANT TO SAY, ‘OH, YOU’LL GET OVER IT.’”
THE BELIEVER: You describe your new book, Ideas of Heaven, as a “ring” of stories. Peter Ho Davies has said that the book “profoundly reinvents the short story collection.” Can you describe how this book differs from the more usual groups of linked stories?
JOAN SILBER: The usual way of linking stories is with the same characters throughout or in the same place, and often they’re in chronological order. What I wanted to do began gradually. I had written about a character who’s a villain in one story and I wanted him to be a human being in the next story. This comes from my beliefs as a person and as a fiction writer, about how flipping sympathies is a good thing. And then I wanted to write about Gaspara Stampa, the Venetian poet who’s mentioned in the second story, and I realized that this would string the three together. I liked this linking so much that I wanted to keep doing it. I starting telling friends that I was writing about sex and religion: forms of devotion, forms of consolation—those were my catchphrases for what I was writing. And I realized that I was going to use Giles, who’s mentioned in the first story, in the last story, and that would make a ring. The links got looser or more subtle as the thing went on, but I liked the idea that what’s a little detail in this picture is a big deal from another perspective. It’s a vision that you have automatically as you get older, that you’re not the whole thing. The world is not revolving around you—or it’s revolving around you from your point of view, but there are a lot of other revolutions going on at the same time. So it was a way of conveying that, of giving a broader canvas than fiction sometimes gives.
BLVR: The characters in Ideas of Heaven have so much perspective on their pasts and their lives. You’ve written about the idea of “weight” in fiction in more than one essay, writing about the work of Jane Austen, Alice Munro, Chekhov, and Flaubert. What is your current thinking about weight and complexity in fiction?
JS: I do complain that there’s not enough of it; it disappoints me sometimes in books that I pick up. But you’re asking what constitutes weight?
BLVR: These stories have so much depth. Has writing them taken your ideas about weight to a different place?
JS: My initial ideas about weight had something to do with depth of feeling and how much sorrow there is in a work. If the characters’ troubles are too casual, the book seems too light to me. Sometimes I read books and want to say, “Oh, you’ll get over it.” But then when we talk about Austen—she always knows how small her world is. And, in fact, it’s very frustrating to her characters a lot of the time, worse than frustrating. So there’s a way of presenting “lightness” from that perspective.
And then there was an idea in a Chekhov story that was very important to me years ago. It’s called “Strong Impressions”—he has a bunch of jurors on a murder trial sequestered together, and to pass the time they tell stories about the worst things that have happened to them. A few tell about near-deaths, but one man goes on about how he almost jilted his sweetheart because a lawyer friend argued him into not liking her. It’s an almost-funny story about tricky lawyers. And then after they’ve all listened, they hear the clock tower strike, and they realize that the prisoner who’s about to be tried for murder is also hearing it strike, and that everything in his life is on a whole different scale at this moment. And that’s where the story ends.
I taught that story to an amazing class I once had at Boston University, which had in it Ha Jin, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Peter Ho Davies, and another really good writer named Marshall Klimasewski, who’s finally get-ting a book out. It was just an amazing group. I was teaching that story, and I wanted to tell them something that had happened to me the week before. I had left the class early to get a plane to New York to go back to a dinner that was a big deal to me—my very fancy then-agent was having a farewell party for her assistant. My plane took off an hour late, my taxi in New York got caught in traffic, I was about to jump out of my skin. And it turned out that the taxi driver was from Beirut. This was in the early nineties when Beirut was just barely there anymore. And he was so impressed when he heard that I was a teacher that he wanted to ask my opinions about everything. And I thought, “I’m worried about getting to this dinner on time, and this guy’s whole city isn’t there anymore.” So you know how you bring up your anecdotal stories to the class—I wanted them to see how this had made me think of the Chekhov story. And I remember Ha Jin nodding, because of how his world had changed.
BLVR: Each of the stories is so full and layered that it could be a novel. How do you know when what you’re working on is a story and when it’s a novel?
JS: At the moment one person’s life doesn’t seem like enough for a novel to me. And I found I really did like covering long periods of time in short stories. I had once given a craft talk on it years earlier. So I thought, “I could just keep doing that. Why not?” This is a funny thing to say, my work has done OK, but I haven’t been over-the-top successful by any means. So in a way that frees you, because no one’s waiting for you to do the same thing, I thought, “I could do this now.” And then I liked it; it felt right when I did it.
II. “THE DANGER IS THAT YOU GET SO ATTACHED TO YOUR OWN SENTENCES, BUT THE THING WITH FICTION IS THAT IT’S NOT EXACTLY JUST ABOUT THE SENTENCES. I THINK IT TOOK ME YEARS TO UNDERSTAND THAT.”
BLVR: What is your process in inventing or developing characters?
JS: Sometimes there’s a core event that I have, a tale that someone’s told me. And often in the early versions the characters are much dopier and shallower. And then I’m working against stereotypes. I think, “They can’t just do that. That’s so obvious.” And that makes me pull at them more strongly, and I think that’s how they get deepened.
BLVR: How much does your own sense of them come from the past, and what is invented? What was your own family like?
JS: My own family was much like the one in Household Words, my first book. My father died when I was five, and my mother died when I was in my twenties. For someone who had an otherwise completely middle-class, untroubled childhood, those are very big events.
So a lot of what everybody else is told about how families work and how the world works was different for me. From a kid’s point of view, the worst could really happen. So that was instrumental, and like a lot of kids who are disaffected without knowing the word for it, I read a lot. Reading was very important to me, and I wanted to write from the time I was quite little.
BLVR: What are some of the books that you’re reading now, or that you’ve been reading recently, that are important to you?
JS: Alice Munro is the contemporary writer that I feel closest to, for obvious reasons. People that I know, like Charlie Baxter and Andrea Barrett, have certainly influenced me. And also my friend Kathleen Hill, although I didn’t read her work until I had been writing for a long time. But she’s a very meticulous, Proustlike crafts-person, and I think that her dedication and her fixity of purpose became important to me. By the time I’m reading stuff now, it’s not influential, which is different from loving it. It’s not bearing on my own work exactly.
BLVR: Do you show people your very first draft?
JS: Well, I don’t exactly work in drafts. I work the way you’re not supposed to, which is that I revise each sentence as I go. By the time I’m showing it to someone, it’s not really naked, even though the ending is usually a big mess or there’s some lump in the beginning.
BLVR: Did you always work this way? How did your process change over time?
JS: I always worked very slowly, and for years I thought, “If I don’t get over this, I’m never going to be a real writer.” And then I just decided it was OK. And I did get faster, but my method is the same. I do take notes—I’m not moving in the dark. I have some sort of overview. Even at the end of the day, I’ll sometimes make little notes on what’s going to happen next. But I don’t rough it out in sentences. There are other people who work this way, don’t they?
BLVR: There are a lot of people who work that way: each draft is absolutely exquisite, and then they completely change it and throw most of it out.
JS: The danger is that you get so attached to your own sentences, but the thing with fiction is that it’s not exactly just about the sentences. I think it took me years to understand that. I studied with Grace Paley. That’s the only fiction course I ever took, because I wanted to be a poet in college. And she was a big sentence person, so that may be a part of it.
BLVR: What were your turning points as a writer?
JS: There were good and bad turning points. The first good turning point, obviously, was getting the first book published. That made all the difference in the world. I can still remember taking one of my friends out to lunch to celebrate. She had just stopped drinking, so I had a Bloody Mary instead of ordering champagne, but it was a gala lunch. Winning the Hemingway was a great thing and a great surprise. And then after the first two books were published, I couldn’t sell the next one, which was a novel. There’s a big jump in the publication times from the second book, in ’87 (which then came out in paper in ’88), to the next one, a book of stories, in 2000. I had a story in the New Yorker during that time—another great celebration, I was living in Rome that year—but I couldn’t sell a book. So that’s a lot of years. And I wasn’t not writing—I was writing all that time. I think it’s true that certain kinds of defeat really change you. I had to learn a kind of equanimity. And there’s a difference in the writing between the first two novels and the last three books.
BLVR: Do you think that experience, the difficulty of it, affected them?
JS: A lot of time went by, so I got smarter from being old. But I think I stopped being what I would call a domestic realist—I just naturally moved away from closely paced scenes packed with social and sensory detail. And I began working much less from my own autobiographical material. I was always making some of it up, but by the time I was writing the third book, In My Other Life, those really were not my stories. Maybe two thirds of them are based on people that I knew, but none of the characters is me. So I was getting out of my own skin more, and that’s probably very significant.
III. “PEOPLE DO HAVE SEX IN MY STORIES, BUT SINCE THE MECHANICS ARE SORT OF BASIC AND FAMILIAR TO ANYONE, THE READER DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THERE FOR EVERY MOMENT IN A STORY TO GET THE IMPORT OF IT.”
BLVR: So many of your characters take risks: they have illegal drug habits, run shady businesses, or take wild sexual risks. Can you talk about this theme of risk-taking or self-destruction?
JS: I did have a youth that partook of some of that. When I first came to New York, I waitressed in a bar for three and a half years. That was in the late sixties and early seventies, so everything was happening in those bars. So of course I knew I wanted to tap that material. That’s the direct answer: I had the stuff, so I used it. I clearly am drawn to it. Sometimes I think, “Oh, my god, I’m still writing about these things all these years later, and thousands of other things have happened to me.” There is something intensely interesting to me about characters getting swept into unexpected appetites, of not knowing they were going to do these things.
BLVR: The difference between the intentions people have and what they actually do.
BLVR: The other thing, in thinking about material, is that that you take on two of the hardest things to write about—characters’ sexual and spiritual lives.
JS: People do have sex in my stories, but since the mechanics are sort of basic and familiar to anyone, the reader doesn’t have to be there for every moment in a story to get the import of it. I try to be subtle and discreet, but precise, and also connect it to character. The spiritual stuff was harder, I’d have to say. There’s a whole realm of really soppy writing that you absolutely don’t want to get into. So I was very proud when I was able to bring any-thing off, and there was a lot that got cut because it was too goppy. But during the writing I myself was getting very actively involved in Buddhism, albeit with a lot of qualifications. And now I go to a Buddhist group, a Vipassana group. I’m a terrible meditator; I’m not even sure that meditation is that important. But I love the ideas of it; they have been very important to me. So if you have this enthusiasm, you want to get it down as truthfully as you can. And also, it really does change the way you view the world, if you’re involved with something like that. What a lot of the world cares about starts to seem like small potatoes. You think, “They’re stuck on that?”
BLVR: Do you think it has affected the perspective you have in writing?
JS: Oh, yes. A lot of Buddhism is about perspective. They asked the Buddha if he could summarize his teachings in one sentence. It’s like what publishers ask you to do, to sum up your book in one sentence. And there were questions that he wouldn’t answer, but that one he said, “Oh, yeah, sure.” And the answer is, “Nothing whatsoever should be clung to as ‘me’ or ‘mine.’” It’s a very staggering notion. And a comforting one, if you come at it from the right side.
BLVR: You’ve said that you’re unhappy when you’re not writing. It seems to be a freakish thing most of us share, and not something we develop, but something inherent. When did you figure this out about yourself?
JS: It hasn’t always been true. There have been times when writing often made me miserable, I think. I don’t have an answer for that.
BLVR: Then let me ask, how do you survive the hard times in writing, either internal or external?
JS: I suffer. [Laughs] I mean, there have been times… you always do think, “I’ve been through this before, so I’ll get out of it another way.” But you sort of don’t believe it. And there are projects that are stillborn, so you don’t know when you’re on one that’s never going to work. There was a time, in those years when I couldn’t sell a book, when I considered stopping writing. I thought, “No one is making me do this. I don’t have to do it.” But I knew it was like saying, “I’m going to go eat worms.” It wasn’t real.
I certainly know people who have given it up. But some people have substitutes, and I don’t think I have a substitute that serves. Although I do other things. At this point, though, I sort of believe in it. After 9/11, a painter friend, a wonderful painter, said he wanted to do some-thing to help other people, that painting wasn’t enough. And I actually want to help other people, too, but I feel that writing does good, that it has a purpose in the world. I feel what I do isn’t aimless.
IV. “SO SOMETIMES FINDING A WAY TO AVOID WHAT YOU CAN’T DO CAN BE FRUITFUL.”
BLVR: You’ve experimented with form in various ways, not just in this book, but with the list-making in Lucky Us and so on. Can you talk about the relation of form to subject matter or ideas?
JS: I think when I began, I didn’t have a sense of form. And it occurred to me that I should. I lived for many years with a composer, and they talk about form all the time. Although I didn’t always know what he was saying, invoking that word was really helpful to me. So I began to look more for it and to be more aware of it. In Lucky Us, I had to think of the road not taken and the different things that could have happened. To get some-thing like HIV is to have had a weird kind of luck. It could have happened to any of us—certainly to me. So I wanted the structure to reflect that, to show the lines of alternate paths. In Ideas of Heaven I knew I was talking about the ways things connect. And I also thought that’s barbed, the way they’re all linked together. It creates violence. If those missionaries in China in “Ideas of Heaven” had never left home, they would have been fine. It isn’t just, “Oh, we’re all together, why can’t we all get along?” It’s also that we are all together, and it’s like the tigers chasing each other in the story where they turn into pancake batter. It’s volatile. I guess I wanted to get some of that too.
BLVR: It’s both a strength and a weakness?
JS: Or a danger. It’s both a strength and a danger.
BLVR: How much did your volunteer work with people who were suffering from AIDS affect Lucky Us?
JS: I had the idea for the book around the same time I started volunteering for Gay Men’s Health Crisis; it came out of the same impulse. So I actually wrote most of it when I was a buddy—I’d visit a guy with AIDS once a week, to do errands or just hang out.
He was an amazing guy—with great flair—who re-styled his hospital room by taping vials of flowers to the needle-disposal unit. Friends told me that a day before he died, he lit up one of his Camel Lights and announced, “I’ve decided not to give up smoking.” I knew him for the last two years of his life. Now I’m a buddy to a woman—she’s my age, unlike the character in the book—who’s great in a whole different way. So while I was writing Lucky Us, I was in the circle of illness—I was around people who were dealing with it—that certainly affected that book. I did it partly because I thought, “Oh, this is happening in the world, and I should think about it more,” but I’d always dealt with illness because I had a sick parent, growing up. I think illness is always in my mind as a possibility in life. My father died very quickly of a heart attack, but my mother was sick for a long time with a mysterious liver ailment that probably was from the doctors having screwed up a gall-bladder operation, although nobody really knows. But she was ill with a liver that didn’t work right for ten years at least. Or maybe twenty.
BLVR: Like Rhoda in Household Words.
JS: Very much like Rhoda. I did a lot of the caretaking, not in a really responsible way, but bringing her little trays. So that was a crucial part of my growing up. But even in that book, when I first started writing it, I was going to tell it through the mother, and then I was going to tell it through the two siblings. And then I just stuck with the mother. Already I wanted to get out of my own skin, I think. I was really quite young when I was writing that—I was maybe twenty-eight when I started. But that was the one good move that I made, and it got me out of the narcissism of my growing-up story.
BLVR: You really got very far outside your own skin in Ideas of Heaven. In what ways do you move into these very different characters?
JS: I go online to look stuff up. I know that’s not exact-ly what you asked. But it helps because you can get details, and that vivifies the character. And usually I’ve been to the places, so that helps. I don’t do anything that’s completely outside my own experience, if that’s the right word. I think it’s like method acting, where you’re always using your own experience to get inside the character. But the two historical stories that I did—I spent a year in Italy, and I did look at a lot of Renaissance paintings. When I started to write, I felt, I don’t really know how to do this, but I can guess. And there was a really good book on Gaspara Stampa that I used. With the missionaries—I spent all that time reading Victorian literature. In graduate school, the things I loved were Dickens and the Brontës and Eliot. So I felt like I could get the missionary wife’s voice because it wasn’t a totally unfamiliar world to me. Whereas there was a lot of stuff I couldn’t do.
BLVR: Is there anything you wish you could write that feels too far from your own knowledge or experience?
JS: I just finished work on a piece about an American woman who marries a Muslim from southern Thailand. The idea came from a woman I met traveling, and I assumed I’d tell it from her point of view, but then I saw I couldn’t get close enough to what her marriage was—I live too far from that part of the world, in all senses. I’d be talking through my hat, no matter how much research I did. So I told it from the viewpoint of her second husband, who’s jealous of the now-dead Thai, and it began to point to other issues I was interested in, about old attachments and new allegiances. So sometimes finding a way to avoid what you can’t do can be fruitful.
V. “OFTEN WHEN PEOPLE ARE WRITING ABOUT THEIR OWN EXPERIENCE, THERE’S A KIND OF SPECIAL PLEADING, WHICH IS ‘FEEL SORRY FOR THIS CHARACTER,’ OR ‘ADMIRE THIS CHARACTER.’”
BLVR: When you got your MA, was it in Victorian Literature?
JS: No, it was just in English. But I did work on Arnold Bennett, whom I love, and I did my thesis on Fanny Burney, a precursor of Jane Austen.
BLVR: I think this inhabiting of the different characters is why your work reminded me, from the first time I read it, of Chekhov or Alice Munro. In creating these characters, you create a balance between objectivity and compassion or engagement.
JS: When I was really young and reading Chekhov, that’s what I saw in him, that he did that. We had a book of his in the house when I was growing up, so I always loved him. I can remember a moment of reading a story called “At the Manor,” where a boorish old man holds forth in a long, bigoted rant that drives away his daughter’s only suitor, and Chekhov makes us feel bad for him anyway; he’s a lonely old man who’s a jerk, and I thought, I want to do that.
BLVR: I think I’m asking a perhaps-unanswerable question here, but how do you find that balance in writing?
JS: You can’t be too soft on your characters, right? You can’t forgive them for doing unspeakable things. But you also have to understand how they felt when they were doing it. I think it’s as basic as that. The one thing, and you must see this in teaching, too, is that often when people are writing about their own experience, there’s a kind of special pleading, which is “Feel sorry for this character,” or “Admire this character.” So I think you have to know to avoid that. I may have learned to do that in writing the first book in the voice of a character who was like my own mother, whom I was so at odds with (and for good reasons). To inhabit her sympathetically, but see her the way I saw her, was probably an important thing for me.
BLVR: Household Words was actually the first book that you wrote? How long did it take you?
JS:A long time. I think it took me five years, something like that.
BLVR: Many writers, when they’re learning, don’t know how to do summary. When I was examining “My Shape,” from Ideas of Heaven, I realized that there were only two scenes, that all the rest was summary so vivid that it felt like scene. How did you come to grips with scene and summary and the handling of time?
JS: I taught this class at Warren Wilson before I was really doing this myself. It was the year I was living in Italy, so I used a story by Natalia Ginzburg called “The Mother,” which is a biographical story. My Italian isn’t very good, but I could look at the story and see that a lot of it was written in the imperfect tense, which we don’t have in English. We say “would go”—the conditional—or we start in a progressive tense and switch to an indicative. But I remember being impressed by the fact that habitual action was being rendered as scene.
And Chekhov does that a lot—I had always noticed that. Even though the stories are so short, there’s often a sense, like in “The Darling,” where she does this every day, she does that all winter, and then there’s a little bit of a scene. So it’s really treating summary as scene that is the technical secret. But when I was writing the stories in In My Other Life, I felt that I was going into summary too much, and I was worried. And I remember writing to Charlie Baxter about it. Charlie loves Lars Gustafsson’s Stories of Happy People, and he told me to read it, and I thought, “Oh, it’s okay. People do this.”
BLVR: This is going back to the question of long stories and the handling of time. When you’re covering, in your stories and your novels, almost an entire life, how do you give that shape and form? How do you focus it to give a sense of what’s important?
JS: Sometimes it requires some commentary from the writer at the end, often in the mouth of a character. Sometimes I have trouble doing it! Sometimes I thought I was going someplace, and I didn’t get there as strongly as I thought. I do my best. I have some sense of what the story’s about thematically, usually. More and more as I work, I’m increasingly theme-focused. I think the last book made me more confident about that, so that’s been helpful.
BLVR: Where does a story usually start? What’s the initial kernel?
JS: It varies greatly. It used to be, like with In My Other Life, that I knew I was working with a certain reserve of material, and that I just had to choose the characters, and then I could tell their stories. Now there are ideas I want to talk about. In the last book, I knew I wanted to talk about the interface between spiritual and erotic longing. In this new book, I’m doing a lot about travel and the ethical discomforts of travel. Seeing other parts of the world is a great thing, but what about when you’re a person of privilege in a poor place, or you’re traveling merrily through a country where your country has done a lot of damage, or people are hostile to you for no reason you can get hold of? You can get caught in all kinds of things that don’t have much to do with you. Now I’m actually looking for examples of what I want to talk about, from memory and from half-imagined things. So I’m really working from theme in this one. I’ve been traveling a lot in Asia in recent years—in China and Laos and Vietnam and Thailand.
BLVR: I’m looking forward to reading it.
JS: Thank you. I hope it gets written.