Meet A NYFA Artist: Joan Silber
Photo Credit: Shari Diamond
NYFA speaks with Joan Silber (NYFA Fellow in Fiction, 1986) about her work, her creative process, anarchists, and the inspiration behind her new book, Fools, a series of interconnected short stories out now from W.W. Norton & Company.
NYFA: Congratulations on your new book Fools. Can you tell us about the inspiration for the work, where it originated from, and how you settled on the title?
JS: I came up with the title Fools when I was reading about anarchists–it was so clear that people have always laughed at them (get rid of government? are they crazy?) and I didn’t want them laughed at. When I had to say the title to people, I’d say, “But fools in a good way.“ Being a fool (in the book, at least) can have to do with sacrificing a self-image to something higher, which is not always a bad thing.
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.
I never knew I’d write a book that began with anarchists. Here’s how it happened: a few years ago I traveled in India, which was beautiful and disturbing in all the ways everyone knows, and I was struck by the way almost every city has a Gandhi museum–the very existence of Gandhi was one consoling thing about India. When I came home, I was thinking about whether America had anyone remotely like him, and I thought of Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker and (like Gandhi) was both a political and a religious leader. I knew that Day had been an anarchist in the Village in the 1920s–and it turned out that her lover–the father of her child–was the great-uncle of an old friend of mine, and she was able to talk to me about him. (I was so taken with him my protagonist developed a crush.) This story led to other stories.
NYFA: As a writer, what’s your creative process like? Does your craft consist of an everyday regimen or is it more sporadic?
JS: My writing process is pretty steady. I work between lunch and dinner. It’s true that I sometimes have three desserts to postpone working, but mostly I try to show up at my desk. And I revise as I go, a method which is often condemned in writing classes but which works fine for me.
NYFA: Did you always know that these six stories were going to be in the book? Are there drafts of other stories that you decided to leave out?
JS: I began some stories that never went anywhere, but all the stories I finished went into the book. I wasn’t sure of the right order (which is unusual for me) and my editor suggested arranging them chronologically.
NYFA: Fools follows a similar interlocking structural format as some of your previous work, including 2004 National Book Award Finalist Ideas of Heaven and 2008’s The Size of the World. How did you arrive at this structure and what do you see as some of its benefits?
JS: I love this form of interlocking stories, and I feel I’ve done my best work in it. I always wanted the work to be bigger, and this has let me take a wider view, hop across time and work an idea from different angles. I get to have the close focus of a story and then make connections over a longer span. I came to it when I wrote the first story in Ideas of Heaven–I wantedthe guy who was the villian in that to tell his own story. I wanted our sympathies to shift.
I have the sense there are more books out now in this hybrid between novel and stories, and I’m glad of this.
NYFA: The stories in Fools span not only decades, but also continents. They’re concerned with exploring the ways in which actions are not only confined to the present moment, but transcend boundaries of space and time. Can you tell us a bit more about your interest in this?
JS: I’ve done a lot ot traveling–especially in the past dozen years–and it’s been very important to me. It jolts a person to find out how little she knows (I get to be a fool in a good way). An interest in history will give anyone a sense of reverberations over time–and as a writer I’ve never had a simple sense of cause-and-effect in the short term. My plots, such as they are, have tended to trace change as it moves underground.
And at this point in my life as a writer, I’m sort of against making one individual ego the measure of all things. I like picking up a thread from an earlier story and showing how it can have a different meaning entirely for a different character.
NYFA: What are you currently reading?
JS: I’m currently reading Hilary Mantel–I finished Wolf Hall and am immersed in Bring Up the Bodies. These are eye-opening books–who knew I would care about Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell?–the cruelty of history is newly comprehensible.
NYFA: Do you have any advice that you’d like to leave for writers at the beginning of their careers?
JS: My key advice for younger writers is: cultivate equanimity. Anyone’s writing life is full of ups and downs (I’ve had a long zigzagging career myself). You need independence of mind and some degree of personal calm.
Joan Silber’s featured reading last summer as part of the Fiction Addiction reading series at 2A.
PEN America reading with Joan Silber, Abeer Hoque, Lisa Ko, and Sarah Schulman, moderated by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh at Greenlight Bookstore.
—Interview by James Ciano
For more information on Joan Silber, please visit her website.
For more interviews with artists, please see our Business of Art Articles.