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In the Author's Words: Joan Silber

Two literary lights discuss time, freedom and the creative process

By Caroline Leavitt

This article, part of Leavitt's ongoing interview series with renowned authors, originally appeared on CarolineLeavittville. Look for more installments on Next Avenue.

Truth: Joan Silber is one of my favorite people on the planet. When I first read her book Household Words, I carried it around, rereading it, underlining passages, so haunted, I couldn't put it down. I eventually tracked her down and had lunch with her and we became friends. Actually, one of the high points of the Jewish Book Council auditions was seeing her there — a terrific surprise! Even better, at the reception, when I drifted into a side room just to get a minute of alone time — Joan was already there.

Her new collection of short stories, Fools, is, in a word, genius. And I'm not the only one who says so. The Boston Globe raves: "Silber deftly constructs whole, fully realized lives in just a few pages." Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, says, "This tightly constructed collection shows her talents at their finest. "
Silber’s first book, the novel Household Words, won the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her five other works of fiction include In the City, In My Other LifeLucky UsIdeas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories, a finalist for the National Book Award and the Story Prize, and The Size of the World, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Prize in Fiction and one of the Seattle Times’ 10 best books of fiction of 2008.
In the summer of 2009 Silber published a nonfiction book in Graywolf Press’ “The Art of” series, The Art of Time in Fiction. She’s been the recipient of an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship plus grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Her short fiction has been chosen for both an O. Henry Prize and a Pushcart Prize — twice each. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Paris Review and other magazines. Her most recent story, “Fools,” appears in the winter 2009 Northwestern Review.
Silber teaches fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She has also taught at New York University, the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers, the University of Utah, Boston University and the 92nd Street Y. Her summer teaching has included conferences at Napa Valley, Bread Loaf, Indiana University, Manhattanville College, Stonecoast and Aspen.
(MORE: On Rereading Favorite Books)  
Caroline Leavitt: I loved Fools. So much of it pivots around the issue of the small choices we make that have long-range impacts. Can you talk about this?
Joan Silber: Your question about small choices reminds me that I have a slightly odd sense of drama. In my stories, people amble along and are surprised by what happens. In most of what I write, people go deeper in spite of themselves. I love this inadvertency.
I have to admit that while I was writing this book, the old tune “Everybody Plays the Fool” would occasionally refuse to stop playing in my head.
Tell me how you came up with the title, which I love. And isn't being a fool a gift, in a way?
I came up with the title Fools when I was reading about anarchists; it was so clear that people have always laughed at them — do without government? are they crazy? — and I didn’t want them laughed at. When I've told people the title, I’d add, “But fools in a good way.” I love what you say about the “gift” of being a fool — it has to do with sacrificing a self-image to something higher. I think we worry too much about being in that role.
And the Blake quote I use in the front — “If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise” — is like a plot distillation for fiction writers.
Fools moves back and forth through time and sometimes characters reappear in stories. Did you always know this was the structure? Did anything surprise you about it?
Even when I was young, I was interested in long time spans (my first novel covered 20 years) and this increased as I got older. Alice Munro is the writer who showed me how short stories might contain great sweeps of time — and do it more strikingly than novels. And once I started connecting stories — this is my third such book — I had another way to follow consequences over years and years. This pattern also helps me think of new ones. I look for threads I can pick up.
These time maneuvers have helped me make the work bigger. I always think I’m a miniaturist by nature — I like to get in very close — and I wanted the work to have a wider perspective, a more spacious feel. More in line with what my beliefs are now.
What’s your writing life like?
I’m a steady writer. I show up at my desk after lunch and try to work until dinner. I revise the sentences as I go — I don’t go through multiple drafts. I take notes before I start to write, but I’m always surprised later at how little is there: I thought that was going to be a whole story? More stuff is required than I ever think.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I’ve been obsessed with questions of freedom and solitude. At the end of Jane Eyre, Jane says she and Rochester are “as free as in solitude, as gay as in company.” Our culture tends to view solitude as something no one would ever want, but the freedom in it has great attractions. In Fools I was working on this in the story “Two Opinions,” where Louise carves out her own form of separation. And it’s come up in two stories I finished since Fools. I just saw a show at the Asia Society in New York, "The Artful Recluse: Painting, Poetry and Politics in 17th-Century China." Amazing landscapes — and they say “recluse” like it's a good word.
I think a good deal about stories versus novels. I feel that I'm working in a hybrid form and I have the sense there are now more books like this — composite novels, linked stories. I'm glad.

Caroline Leavitt Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times best-selling author of Pictures of You and the recent Is This Tomorrow, a May Indie Next Pick and a San Francisco Chronicle Lit Pick/Editors Choice. She reviews for People magazine, the Boston Globe and the San Francisco Chronicle and teaches writing through Stanford and UCLA online and privately. Read More
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