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.
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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."
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In the fall of 2004, Joan Silber took time out to answer some of our questions about her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
When I was first trying to write, in my 20s, I went through a book of Chekhov's collected stories, and a not-so-famous one, "At the Manor," really hit me. Like a lot of Chekhov, it's about an unhappy family in the provinces -- the father is a bigot and a blowhard whose endless, boorish speeches drive away his daughter's suitor. But near the end, we have a moment of unexpected sympathy for the father, a sad old man who knows what a jerk he is. And yet he can't stop. I loved those shifts in sympathy the story put me through, and most of all I loved the combo of watching from distance and then suddenly being inside a character. Chekhov is the least sentimental of writers, very clear-eyed, even scathing, and yet he lands on the recognition of fellow-humanness, so his stories feel expansive. It knocked me out that fiction could do this and it gave me something to strive for. It strikes me as I write this that the story, "The High Road," in Ideas of Heaven owes a lot to this example.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Chekhov's stories -- See above.
Alice Munro -- I like all her work -- Open Secrets is my favorite. I wrote novels before I wrote stories (a very backwards way to proceed). I had a grudge against stories in which a single incident changed a character's whole life. Munro showed me that stories could contain vast amounts of time and move around freely between decades. Her work gave me a sense of the capaciousness and freedom of the story form and made me want to write what I call "biographical" stories.
Nadine Gordimer, Something Out There and The Late Bourgeois World -- Gordimer's great subject is how the effects of political injustice seep into the most intimate relations between people. I'm working on something now that has a plot detail involving the Patriot Act, a new direction for me; I suppose it's natural that politics should enter my work at this terrible time. Gordimer is my great example of how fiction with political content can be subtle and surprising, can illuminate corners beyond what we already know.
Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence -- I read everything by Wharton when I was young (not all of it good). In her best books there's this beautifully textured drama of characters butting against social strictures, and displaying, in their failed efforts, what one writer has called "the rugged sweetness of their resignation." I'm interested in acts of renunciation (which do not have a good name now), and plots that rest on what didn't happen.
Ha Jin, Waiting and The Bridegroom -- I think he's turning into one of the great writers of our time. As it happens, he was once in a class I taught at Boston University, and so I've followed his career with intense interest. In the China of his books, people's drives burst out of the bounds imposed on them, often with violent consequences.
Junichiro Tanizaki -- The Makioka Sisters -- The plot of this is like a Japanese Jane Austen (another favorite) -- A younger daughter can't marry until the middle sister is successfully married off. It takes place in 1930s Osaka, and when I read it I kept thinking I didn't know the rules for these people -- but it turns out they don't either, it's a society where things are shifting. The book has a very modern sensibility while it delivers the pleasures of a 19th-century novel -- this combination intrigues me.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?Zhang Yimou's To Live -- This covers an entire lifetime: the main character starts out as a spoiled, gambling rich kid and winds up an old, weathered peasant, with history beating him up at every turn. This is a monumental film on an intimate scale, with tiny bits of humor embedded in it.
Some Like It Hot -- It's too hilarious for words. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis are funny every second as cross-dressers in an all-woman band. I read a review from the time that said the comedy is always just on the edge of being dirty -- it's probably that delicate edge that makes it so funny. I saw the film again recently with my editor, Carol Houck Smith, and we were in stitches.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis -- I once spent a year of my life in Italy, so I'm especially susceptible to the lush textures of this film. I love the way the main character just wants to be a young guy mooning over this unattainable girl, and all the time the war is closing in around them.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I like R&B, rock, blues, and when I'm feeling inconsolable I like to listen to gospel. Singers who have been great favorites over the years are Sam Cooke, Percy Sledge, Etta James, Clarence Carter, Nina Simone, and, of course, Aretha. I don't listen to music when I'm writing, since the kind I like has words in it.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
I'd have people read Stacey d'Erasmo's A Seahorse Year, which has a truly brilliant evocation of a very likeable schizophrenic boy -- the writing here took me somewhere I'd never been. I'd get the club to read Margot Livesey's novel, Banishing Verona. Her book Eva Moves the Furniture is one of my favorite books of recent years -- a ghost story about how early loss gives vision and also isolates a character.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I always give my favorite recent novels, ones by friends, if possible. I kind of wish people would give me cookbooks; I love to read about food.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
Above my desk I have a lot of postcards stuck into the wallboard. When I was writing Ideas of Heaven, I had pictures of canals in Venice, monks in Thailand, and one of Louisa May Alcott that I thought looked like the missionaries in China in the title story. I try to be at my desk between lunch and dinner, so if I've finished eating, I know it's time to get myself over there. Sometimes I have three desserts, to stall.
What are you working on now?
I'm working now on a novel that started out being about the idea of travel. It has moved into the question of how different cultures think people should carry their emotions, and also into questions of allegiance and loyalty. Some of it is set in Asia, where I have been traveling as much as I can in recent years. One section is in Vietnam (my brother was a civilian engineer in Da Nang during the war and I've tried to think about that) and another section involves an American woman with a husband from the Muslim south of Thailand. Its structure will bear some similarities to Ideas of Heaven -- that is, it will have interlocking parts.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I've had a long, zigzagging career. My first novel won a prize, I got wonderful grants; my second novel had an underwhelming response, and for years I couldn't get a book published, though I sold a story to The New Yorker during that time. Then my luck turned after Sarabande Books took a story collection, and I've published three books in the past five years.
There was a time, right before my losing spell broke, when I thought of giving up writing. But I knew it was like saying, "I'm going to go eat worms." My days are structured around writing.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
I would pick Kathleen Hill, whose first book is Still Waters in Niger. It was presented to the world as a novel, but it ‘s a strange and beautiful version of that form -- a rich and exquisitely rendered meditation, set in East Africa, following the journey of an American who's returned to Niger after decades away. It's set in the midst of a drought, and its ruminations on human suffering, devotion, and patience place it outside the usual categories of literature -- I think of it as somewhere between the lyrical modern novel and the older tradition of religious confessions. And yet it remains earthbound, readable, easily held.
Another writer I'd pick, whose first book also focuses on Africa, is Sarah Stone. Her novel, The Sources of the Nile, is about an American woman in Burundi in love with a Paris-educated member of the Tutsi ruling class. It touches on moral questions with amazing delicacy, has some beautiful sexy bits, and is a substantial and utterly satisfying read.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Try to keep your focus on the work itself. Conversely, you have to remember the world contains a lot more than writing. Cultivate equanimity, or you'll drive yourself nuts.
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