Joan Silber is an American novelist and short story writer who now teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA Program. Her short fiction has been chosen for the O. Henry Prize, Best American Short Stories, and the Pushcart Prize, with her stories also appearing in Tin House, The Southern Review, Ploughshares, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and other magazines. Joan lives on the Lower East Side of Manhattan with her dog, Lucille, and travels as often as she can, with a particular interest in Asia.
Joan Silber reflects on the influences that shaped her fiction and committed political activism in the Autumn 2022 issue of Jewish Renaissance, a publication filled with articles that will stimulate, surprise and give you new insights. In each issue you will find out about Jewish history and lively debate on current events with reviews and interviews, keeping you abreast of the best in books, music, art, film and theatre.
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1. What inspired you to become a novelist?
As a child, I read so intensely and so much of my unspoken life was led in books, that think I had the ambition to write from a fairly young age. It wasn’t so much a single special book that inspired me as my general gratitude that this other world existed.
During later times of great discouragement, I considered giving up writing, but it was like saying, “I’m going to go eat worms.” Not sincere. I’ve probably been happiest as a writer in the last fifteen years.
2. You wrote in the Autumn 2022 issue of Jewish Renaissance about your friend and teacher, the writer Grace Paley. What did you personally like the most about her writing?
Grace used to say she emphasized “voice” when she taught writing, and I think I always loved — not just the way her people sounded but her insistence on the vibrancy of human phrasing, her faith in the tremendous importance of human personality. There’s a belief system in the way she writes. There were plenty of stodgy or trendy books around me when I was young; Grace’s work was formed by what I already knew I cared about.
3. You have won and been nominated for numerous awards; which has meant the most to you and why?
I had a hard middle-period as a writer — between the second and third books was a gap of thirteen years when I couldn’t get a book published. What really changed things for me — and came as a big surprise — was my fifth book, Ideas of Heaven, getting chosen as finalist for the National Book Award. This was also the year (2004) that five women were nominated, which hadn’t ever happened before and hasn’t since. I’m still friends with the four other women.
4. What is the proudest moment of your career so far?
I think I’m proudest of having developed the form in which I’ve done my best work — it’s a web of parts, something between a novel and linked stories, quite deliberate and designed. Each chapter has its own teller — a character who’s minor in one will be major in the next — and I’m digging away at the same ideas in each, as the lines of connection advance.
It’s a form that’s let me to do what I always wanted to do — to be small and big both at once — to get the intimacy of the close gaze and a wider sweep. To be near and distant.
5. Do you have any work coming up soon you’d like to share?
I’ve been working on a new novel, which had many snags at first but is going better lately. (Why did I think writing would get easier as I got older? Where did I ever read that?) The story begins in the 1970s — two young men, who meet in New York, are very good friends — they travel together, they do drugs together — and one finds himself betraying the other. The betrayal has consequences that continue, over years, in other characters’ lives. One chapter was in The New Yorker this September, which of course was an elating event. I’m writing, not only about betrayal, but about secrets and reconstruction.
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Thank you, Joan, for providing an insight into your ambition to write from a young age and for sharing what you most admired about your friend and teacher, Grace Paley.