Magazine Top Ten 2018: Joan Silber—It’s Not Just You

Posted by: yetheart, December 27, 2018 6:59 pm
Blog Image: 
Joan Silber. Photo credit: Shari Diamond

Joan Silber, who came to Forest Hills Library in August, is the prolific author of eight books of fiction and one nonfiction book on the art of time in fiction.

Her honors include being a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, winning the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for best first fiction, and winning the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction as well as the PEN/Faulkner Award for her latest book, Improvement.

Silber remembers vividly her childhood library, where she went every week to take out five books, the maximum allowed. “Once, I wanted to take out a Nancy Drew and the librarian stopped me, because it was in a section for older readers. My mother, who never interfered, actually had a little talk with the librarian about how children should not be kept back. I was enormously pleased. When I was nine, the town built a new library, and at first I felt betrayed by the abandonment of the old.”

Now, she often visits libraries to hear writers read their work—she acquired her library card as soon as she moved to her neighborhood. In addition to being a writer, Silber teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence— she credits teaching stories with helping her learn to write them. “I had only written novels when I first started teaching, and I really learned about writing stories from teaching them. I got a sense of the form by trying to suggest to students what shapes could grow out of whatever they were doing.”

Silber describes her creative process as revising as she goes—and relying on one dear friend to be a reader, preferring not to have too many people comment in the early stages.

Fiction, she says, “is always about what Buddhists call impermanence.” She came to this realization while working on her nonfiction book The Art of Time in Fiction. “In my own books, I’ve unwittingly had a high quota of characters dying, and this probably comes from my having lost both parents quite young—it’s in my sense of what life offers.”

ImprovementHer latest book Improvement features several characters who are working to better themselves and their lives—she says the title refers to the fact that “things often can’t be fixed but they can be improved.” Patterns are important in her work, whether the patterns in Turkish rugs or the patterns the main character Reyna sees in her tattoos. Visual art inspires her writing style.

Silber credits a trip to Italy where she loved seeing paintings called a predella—a set of panels depicting a story—with motivating her to write fiction in that kind of series. “When I started writing linked stories a decade later, I was happy to remember this—and I’ve continued it in the current novel.” She also owns Turkish rugs and “it gives me continuing pleasure to look at the patterns. I kept consulting them as I was writing.”

While she has never been the giver or receiver of a single act of generosity like the one that takes place in Improvement, Silber says “when I was traveling in southeast Asia, I was very impressed by the emphasis local Buddhist practice places on generosity—it’s the antidote to greed (which is one of the three ‘poisons’) and it counts in the ledger toward a better next life.”

Silber is a keen reader; “I love the privacy of reading, the joy of being oblivious to everything else. When I was little, my mother used to say, ‘The house could burn down and you’d have your nose in a book’ and I never understood how anyone could read any other way. Sometimes when I’m out and I’m bored, I think: I could be home reading. It’s like a secret vice. To nonreaders, I want to say— it’s something you always have. And it takes you really interesting places.”

Her current reads include Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight and Karen E. Bender’s story collection The New Order—both of which she recommends. When she is stuck on something, she returns to Alice Munro. “I love the way her stories take these unexpected routes, in time and in the unguessed-at sides her characters show.”

Time continues to be a strong theme in her work, even in her current writing project, a novel “that begins with a son’s discovery that his father has another, secret family, and the story takes him from teenage years to forties. I love the way people work out their dilemmas over a long span of time—the drama in that and the surprises.”

The two ideas she would convey to readers are that they can do better (she believes we live in an era where we’re not apt to ask enough of ourselves) and that it’s not just you—this second idea reverberates in reviewers’ comments on how stories move across the world. Silber admires the idea that it’s not just you—there is so much more out there to explore and consider.

Photo of Joan Silber by Shari Diamond.

This story originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Queens Library Magazine.

Read the Other Stories in the Queens Library Magazine Top Ten of 2018.