The day I met Joan Silber she was getting ready to fly off to places she had never been before: Prague, Budapest, and Istanbul. We met in Roots & Vines, where you can buy Vietnamese coffee and Stella Artois, bagels and bánh mì, down in the Lower East Side, the intersection of Chinatown and Hispanic Delancey Street, near the vestiges of the old Jewish immigrant neighborhood. All of this seemed right. Silber’s books, the National Book Award-nominated Ideas of Heaven and the just-out-in-paperback The Size of the World, are all about travel and collisions of cultures, about people crossing the boundaries between worlds.
Silber’s novel, Household Words, won the PEN/Hemingway Award in 1981; after a second novel, In the City, she disappeared, then returned as a short story writer. She’s found new success in the past five years writing hybrid books, collages of stories that pattern together different kinds of lives. In Ideas of Heaven, for instance, she manages to link a broad cast of stories: one about the Renaissance Italian poet Gaspara Stampa, one about a missionary to China at the time of the Boxer Rebellion, another about a failed dancer in contemporary New York—all these different lives, side by side, somehow making sense together in a seamless whole. Her most recent book, The Art of Time in Fiction, is a study of the craft of writing, just out from Graywolf Press, and it gave us an excuse to talk.
Gabriel Brownstein (Rail): You started out as a novelist, and then became a short story writer, and now you write these books that link together various stories in intricate webs—can you talk a little about the progress of your career?
Joan Silber: I started writing novels out of the usual useful stupidity. I thought, oh, I can write a novel—the first novel involved a twenty-year time span, and I didn’t even know that was hard to do, I just did it. And then like a lot of other writers I had more trouble with the second novel, and eventually I went to stories. I’d published one collection, In My Other Life, before I got the idea of doing a web. I wrote one story, and I wanted to pull a piece out to do a second piece, and then I liked that so much that I thought, I could do this again.
Rail: So your books seem to have these really complicated architectures, but they just sort of come about, patch-work like?
Silber: Yeah, I make them up as I go along, though I do think about thematic links. By nature, I think I’m a miniaturist. I like my little, small, tiny things, so linking stories was a way to do that. Each picture is fairly detailed, but I have a chance for a larger canvas.
Rail: Your books seem to keep getting larger. The first book, as you say, has a twenty-year span, and that’s pretty big, but The Size of the World—well, the title says it all—the book has six whole lives in it, and three continents, and more than a century, and three wars.
Silber: I think everybody’s life is getting bigger. In “The God of Small Things,” Arundhati Roy quotes John Berger, where he said something like, in the future, one story can’t be told as if it’s the only story. And I believe everybody thinks that now. There are all these contingencies. As my mother used to say, you’re not the only pebble on the beach. We’re just as narcissistic as ever, but at least we can’t resist the evidence that we’re not the only thing going on.
Rail: So is that why you travel so much? To set stories like “Gaspara Stampa” in Renaissance Italy, or “Ideas of Heaven” in China?
Silber: Well, travel has certainly changed me. After I started using it for writing, “Gaspara Stampa” was the boldest leap, because it’s set in the 1500s. I did live a year in Italy, in Rome, and we went to Venice a bunch of times, so I felt I had some familiarity with the place—and Stampa’s poems are so confessional, we know directly what she felt. And I suppose it gave me nerve that there isn’t another novel written about her, not in English. I had kind of open territory.
Rail: Do your stories often come out of places you go?
Silber: Sometimes it’s years later. I was in Italy 20 years ago. And sometimes people have told me stories. My first trip to Asia was to China in 2001. The whole time I was there, I was so amazed—I kept thinking, “I’m in China! They’re speaking Chinese!” I got up early one morning in a city called Luoyang to watch people doing martial arts exercises in the park (which I can see in Seward Park now that I live in this neighborhood) and this man, who was in his late seventies at the time, had a bunch of students he was teaching English, and he asked if they could practice speaking with us. I was happy to have someone to talk to—he wanted to know what I did and I said I was a professor, and he asked did I know Oberlin College—it turned out this guy had been taught by a later generation of missionaries (in the 30s) from Oberlin College—the model for Oliver College, in the story I was only just starting to write. He wasn’t at all surprised that I had heard of his missionaries and had read a book of letters by one. He thought everyone knew them. He told me the name of his teacher, proudly. So we wrote back and forth. And he put me in touch with a classmate of his in the U.S., and information from him led me to materials I used to research my story.
Rail: There’s a preoccupation with Buddhism in your books.
Sibler: Sure. I always think Buddhism can be expressed in two old slogans, “Don’t worry, it won’t last, nothing does” and “Get over yourself.” It’s a very “get with the program” kind of religion. “Don’t pretend it’s not like this. It really is.” Impermanence is here to stay.
Rail: Yes. You do seem to write about impermanence.
Silber: One of the questions I always get if I talk to a book group is “How come there is so much loss?” or “How come this stuff is so sad?” My first thought is always—“Have you read the papers lately? Do you know what’s going on out there?” But the other answer to that question is my own particular history. As it happens, my father died when I was five—otherwise I had this completely insulated suburban upbringing. So I think you just carry that around as a kid, it’s kind of like you know something that no one else is really talking about. I remember once as a kid telling kids from another town about my father and they didn’t believe me. It was just too improbable. Kids always make up stuff—they thought I was just inventing—as if I were saying “I’m a rich orphan” or “I’m really a princess.” Anyway, I think that’s part of why loss is a big part of my work.
And I think a lot of what seems painful in my stories isn’t painful when I’m writing it.
Rail: The new book, The Size of the World, seems in some ways a 9/11 book, but in a broader context, putting the events of 9/11 in a big context of the relations between East and West.
Silber: I’m glad you say that. If that’s true, that’s great. In those years under Bush you couldn’t not think about politics. We were surrounded by such villainous stuff. So I did end up writing one story about the Patriot Act.
Rail: Do I sense, in your new book, The Art of Time in Fiction, a little bit of hostility toward writing workshops? Or discomfort with them?
Silber: I think workshops can give students too much of a template. Like, “you have to have a conflict” or “you have to have an epiphany” and these principles can be too strict. One thing I was driving at, in The Art of Time in Fiction, is that people too often think writing is all craft. I think there are just some simplicities that come out of people having to tell students what to do. Craft’s the part that can be taught, but I think we overemphasize that. I think people have to require more of themselves. Emphasis on craft sometimes doesn’t demand of people that they think more about what their writing means.
Rail: They could ask, “what is your writing about” instead of “could this paragraph be longer.”
Silber: Exactly. So in the Time book, one of my points was about time in fiction’s content. I came to the idea that fiction is always talking about time passing and the human conundrum of impermanence. I wanted to push people into thinking about the whole enterprise. You know, what literature is for. Don’t you think?
Rail: I’m not sure. What’s it for?
Silber: I don’t know what it’s for. [Laughs.] Well, it’s for thinking about things.
Brownstein is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at St. John's University.