Greenwich Village in the 1920s is the setting for Pauline Samuels's coming of age. Fresh from high school in Newark, Pauline plunges into the social whirl of speakeasies and artists' parties, political rallies and casual love affairs. As her experiences multiply, so does her self-awareness. Thus, at the end of the novel, this bright young woman is no longer the callow flapper of the first chapter. Silber, who won the 1981 Ernest Hemingway Award, has written a densely textured period piece that deftly chronicles the timeless story of a young woman's awakening to the world around her and to her own psyche. Highly recommended for public libraries. Andrea Caron Kempf, Johnson Cty. Community Coll. Lib., Overland Park, Kan.
"I know no one else who writes as Joan Silber does, with such an immediate contemporary voice, about our secret yearnings for a spiritual life," observes Margot Livesey, author of Banishing Verona.
Joan Slber is the author of four other books of fiction -- Lucky Us, In My Other Life, In the City, and Household Words, winner of a PEN/Hemingway Award. Her work appears in the current O. Henry Prize Stories and The Pushcart Prize, and in Norton's The Story Behind the Story: 26 Stories by Contemporary Writers and How They Work. Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Paris Review, and other magazines. She's received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEA, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Silber lives in New York City and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and has taught in the Warren Wilson College M.F.A. Program. She is currently at work on a novel about travel, and is also writing a book on time in fiction for Graywolf's Craft of Fiction series.
Silber says that the first story in Ideas of Heaven grew out of an incident someone told her about a dance coach humiliating his female student. The coach's repeated question, "How much do you want it?" suggested, for Silber, the lure of a higher purpose and the religious impulse sometimes embedded in odd places. The story's villain became the protagonist of the next story, and Silber saw that what she really wanted to write about was sex and religion -- "forms of dedication, forms of consolation" -- which she saw often filling in for each other.
Author biography courtesy of the National Book Foundation.
Good To Know
Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Silber:
"The title story of Ideas of Heaven is about American missionaries in China, and I based it loosely on a book of letters from a woman sent out in the 1890s by Oberlin College. I visited China just as I was beginning this story, and something quite amazing happened. In a park in Luoyang a man in his 70s began chatting with me in very good, American-accented English. When he heard I was a college professor, he asked if I'd heard of Oberlin College. It turned out he'd been taught by Oberlin missionaries in Shanxi in the 1930s -- a later group of the Congregationalists who were the models for my characters. I couldn't get over the coincidence, though I don't think it seemed astounding to him. His name is Li Xing Ye (he uses Mark Lee in English), and we've written many letters back and forth since then. I sent him a copy of the book and he was very pleased -- he did say it would take him a long time to read it."
"Grace Paley, my first fiction writing teacher, was a crucial influence. She taught me that humor could be a component of serious fiction and that character was always the thing to look at. Her first assignment was to write something in the voice of an actual person you didn't like.
"I've lived in New York my whole adult life, and as Burt Lancaster says in The Sweet Smell of Success, ‘I love this dirty town.' New Yorkers tend to stake their honor on their degree of self-possession -- whining is okay but panicking is not. They don't necessarily succeed in this and can blunder as badly as anywhere, but this is their standard, their own form of cowboy valor. I have to admit that I'm drawn to this sort of urban restraint."
"When my writing career was not going well, I began putting in volunteer time as a Buddy -- a kind of weekly helper -- to a person with AIDS. It turned out to be a totally great thing to do -- it retuned my perspective and expanded what I thought I could do. I'm still doing it eight years later."