[NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST]
The mechanics of sex
When something awful happens, people often say that it builds character. More often than not, though, those who endure tragedies and disappointments are likely to become aggrieved, self-pitying, and sometimes vengeful. So it’s a relief to read Joan Silber’s stories, which have an almost godlike perspective on suffering, both self-inflicted and otherwise. Her characters endure pain, but neither the characters nor the story seems to luxuriate in that pain. Silber spent most of her teens looking after her sick mother, who died when Silber was in her twenties. In surviving adversity and loss, Silber herself has developed the kind of character many of us would kill for: apparently endless cheerful helpfulness and patience, a focus on the world around her, a complete lack of self-importance. Silber’s writing has a clean, brisk authority that doesn’t linger to congratulate itself over either its insight or its wonderful details. “Time is moving,” these stories seem to say, “so let’s get on with it while we still can.”
In Silber’s newest book, Ideas of Heaven: a Ring of Stories, a variety of characters of different ages, genders, and historical moments tell the stories of their lives and yearnings. Here is the sixteenth-century poet Gaspara Stampa at a party:
We had just barely finished supper when people started playing the Game of the Blind Men, a good game, really, and popular with this group. Each of the players had to tell how he had lost his sight because of love. The idea was to make the story as tricky as possible, full of obstacles and unflinching sacrifice, a set of tests. Rescuing the beloved from a fire, climbing the spikes of a fortress, crossing the Alps through the glare of snow. Lover after lover was struck in the eyes. Oh, why do we like to hear this? I thought, as we applauded the Alpine saga. We were all smiling, as if love’s wreckage were a shared joke, which I suppose it was.
Silber is the author of five books of fiction; she won a PEN/Hemingway Award for her first novel, Household Words, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Her stories have appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and other magazines. For some years, though, after her early success, Silber endured a long struggle to publish her later books—the literary equivalent of being dropped in the wilderness with nothing but a light sweater and a stick of gum. Recently, things have been looking up again. Her stories have been published in prize volumes and other anthologies. And Ideas of Heaven is a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction. Silber teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and has taught in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. She lives in New York City. We talked informally over dinner when we both happened to be in Chicago, and then on the phone and by email for the interview.
THE BELIEVER: I think this inhabiting of the different characters is why your work reminded me, from the first time I read it, of Chekhov or Alice Munro. In creating these characters, you create a balance between objectivity and compassion or engagement.
JOAN SILBER: When I was really young and reading Chekhov, that’s what I saw in him, that he did that. We had a book of his in the house when I was growing up, so I always loved him. I can remember a moment of reading a story called “At the Manor,” where a boorish old man holds forth in a long, bigoted rant that drives away his daughter’s only suitor, and Chekhov makes us feel bad for him anyway; he’s a lonely old man who’s a jerk, and I thought, I want to do that.
BLVR: I think I’m asking a perhaps-unanswerable question here, but how do you find that balance in writing?
JS: You can’t be too soft on your characters, right? You can’t forgive them for doing unspeakable things. But you also have to understand how they felt when they were doing it. I think it’s as basic as that. The one thing, and you must see this in teaching, too, is that often when people are writing about their own experience, there’s a kind of special pleading, which is “Feel sorry for this character,” or “Admire this character.” So I think you have to know to avoid that. I may have learned to do that in writing the first book in the voice of a character who was like my own mother, whom I was so at odds with (and for good reasons). To inhabit her sympathetically, but see her the way I saw her, was probably an important thing for me.
We hope you enjoy this excerpt.
To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.