Joan Silber’s most recent novel, The Size of the World, is sweeping yet intimate, the kind of book that will take you across continents, and deep into characters’ individual lives. She is the author of the story collection, Ideas of Heaven, which was nominated for the National Book Award, as well as four other works of fiction.
The Millions: The Size of the World is billed as a novel, although it could also be called a novel-in-stories or a collection of linked stories. While the book is in fact short stories that are either tangentially or deeply connected, it has the narrative drive of a more conventional novel. Really, it’s addictive. When you were writing the book, did you conceive of it as belonging to a particular genre? How did you balance writing separate narratives while still maintaining such delightful readability?
Joan Silber: I did have the idea that I wanted to write a composite fiction more unified than what I’d done before – a hybrid between the novel and linked stories – but I didn’t exactly know what I was doing till I was into it. Which is to say, I made it up as I went along but I mostly knew what I was after. It was very gratifying to me to see how certain characters (Owen especially, who has the ending chapter) could come in again and be re-imagined in a way that pushed the story further. I’m very glad if the connections themselves caused a kind of narrative suspense.
I knew this form would suit a book about people leaving home, with settings in Vietnam, Thailand, Mexico, etc. But sometimes I think I won’t ever go back to writing a single-plotted novel. There’s a quote from John Berger, “Never again will a single story be told as if it’s the only one.” I think that’s pretty much what I believe, and this method fits with that, for me.
TM: Last month you wrote for The Millions about reading books written by the citizens of the countries you’re traveling in. Did this reading prepare and/or inspire you to pen your novel? What other kinds of research, if any, did you do for this book?
JS:I love doing research. Well, it’s easier than writing. In the early stages the research gives me details – Michael Herr’s Dispatches told me civilians in Vietnam were not liked by the military, for instance. Later, I zoom in on what I want – after I had written about an American woman married to a southern Thai Muslim, I went hunting for historical material on southern Thailand. And I found a great memoir by a tin prospector that served as the basis for another section.
I’m addicted to online research. While I was writing the book, I hit Google many, many times a day, looking up the Feast of San Giuseppe in Sicily or the rules for Thai monks or the languages of Indian groups in Chiapas, Mexico.
TM: I love to teach your story “My Shape” (which appears in Ideas of Heaven and was recently anthologized in the second edition of The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction) because it’s a great example of how to tell a story in lush, detailed summary, rather than depicting it largely in scene. This pacing technique returns in The Size of the World, where you manage to capture a character’s whole life (or close to that) in a single chapter. Is this is a conscious craft decision on your part? What’s attractive to you about this kind of storytelling?
JS: I have two somewhat contradictory impulses at this point in my life. I’m a miniaturist by nature – I love the small moment seen intensely. And I love the sweep of time passing. (In real life too, it moves me to see how people surprise themselves by where they end up.) It was a nice discovery for me to see that summary could be written as if it were scene, drawn with details. And this allowed me to get the intimacy of close narration into stories with a broader scope.
I do like life-stories. The deepest ironies are in those lurching shifts people make, bit by bit.
TM: The narratives in The Size of the World are all told in the first person, as are the stories in Ideas of Heaven. Can you talk a little bit about your interest in the first person? What have been its benefits and drawbacks for you?
JS: I came a little late to first person – my first two books were written without it. It strikes me now (I just thought this) that, oddly enough, I came to it as I began to move further from myself. Perhaps third-person at first gave me a distance I needed, and then I needed something else. I’m always trying to capture the emotional logic of characters, what they say to themselves about what they’re doing. I like the directness of hearing them sum themselves up. I’m not really trying to capture their speaking voices so much as their inner voices. The sentences are meant as translations of their thoughts.
If there’s a decision about whether to “style” the prose to sound historical or flavored with vernacular, I usually opt for neutral wording. So, for instance, in the chapter about Annunziata, who comes from Sicily to New Jersey, I avoided inflecting her English (she’d probably think in Sicilian anyway) but I took pains to convey her reasoning.
“Pains” is right. It takes a lot of trial-and-error to get the voices, especially at first. But the commenting that first-person voices can do is very handy for jumping over spans of time.
TM: Ideas of Heaven was nominated for the National Book Award in 2004, and you were one of five women finalists. I was dismayed by the outcry following the nomination announcement; how did you deal with such reactions?
JS: I think critics felt left out of the loop, since they’d never heard of us. (I’d heard of most of us, actually.) Their strongest objection was that we weren’t famous, which we already knew. I didn’t immediately think the criticism was anti-female, but after a while I came to think that some of it was. The good part was that we five got to know each other – we had dinners at my house and at Lily’s and have lunched in recent times. Christine Schutt has a terrific new novel out (Kate Walbert and I were at the kick-off reading) and Lily Tuck has a biography of the writer Elsa Morante out very soon. And we all like to think that Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s daughter was named Willa and not Kimberly because of our advice.
There were many good after-effects for me. A few months after the nomination, The New York Review of Books ran a great piece by Lorrie Moore, on that book and my others. What writer doesn’t want that? I feel that the nomination put me on the map and is the reason I’ve been getting good coverage on this new book.
TM: Jessica on the Written Nerd blog calls you one of the most underrated writers in America, even after your National Book Award nomination. How do you feel about such a title?
JS: I was very thrilled to see what she wrote.
TM And, because this is a lit blog, I must ask you: What was the last great book you read?
JS: I can think of two – Colm Toibin’s Mothers and Sons, a story collection, and Margot Livesey’s novel, The House on Fortune Street. Toibin (whose previous book, The Master, I unexpectedly loved) packs each story with deft complexity, a resistance to the obvious, and a level of insight that is both cutting and humane. There’s something beautifully startling about his work – I’m still trying to figure out how he does it. Margot Livesey’s latest, The House on Fortune Street, is a novel with four interlocking parts, quite brilliantly composed. The plot has a center – there is the puzzle of a suicide to be solved – but it spins out in other directions. My judgment of various characters kept shifting and getting turned around. Especially remarkable is the nuanced treatment of a decent man with a Lewis Carroll-like attraction to young girls. A rare and original book.