I was probably introduced to Sue William Silverman’s work when I was in grad school. She was part of a coterie of creative nonfiction writers that I saw everywhere, and she was one of few women in that small club. I have followed her work for years – particularly her writings on memoir – and so I am beyond honored to have her here on the blog today. Enjoy.
- Tell me about your latest project.
My new memoir is The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, which explores my conflicted feelings toward Judaism and my efforts to pass as Christian – refuge from an abusive Jewish father. The theme revolves around what happens to a girl who grows up lacking a true spiritual and religious identity.
I examine this, most notably, in three separate encounters with the overtly Christian, 1960s pop-music icon Pat Boone. He represents someone wholly other from my father, a kind of talisman reflecting my desire to belong to the dominant culture. I try on other identities as well – Baby Boomer, hippy, kibbutznik, lefty, rebel – seeking an authentic self. The book is more ironic than dark: “The Jews are coming to visit, is how you think of it back then. As if you, yourself, are not a Jew.” At times, I even envision myself, surreally, as a gefilte fish swimming upstream (“with nary a fin”) in an attempt to reconcile with my heritage. The book simultaneously celebrates the inclusivity of American culture and subverts the notion of belonging.
2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?
I grew up in the West Indies, and I’m grateful no TV was available on the islands back then. I read all the time; I even preferred to read as opposed, say, to going swimming – even in the beautiful Caribbean.
I’m also lucky that my parents had bookcases stuffed with novels. So even as a kid I read quite sophisticated work. Oh, for example, one of the first novels I read – I was still in elementary school – was Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. By the time I was in high school, I’d read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Austen, Flaubert, Faulkner…. Given my scary and confusing childhood and adolescence, I found books a way to escape and feel, even momentarily, safe and far away in a different universe.
But I never wrote growing up – not even bad “roses are red” kind of poetry. Living in an incestuous family, I lived a double life. I had no language, no words, no voice to “speak” the truth of my life…until much later. But I read, read, read.
3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?
Since I have insomnia, I usually awake around 2 a.m., pick up my laptop from the floor, and, without turning on the light, prop it on my stomach. I’ll write maybe an hour or so until I grow tired. Then, around seven, my cat’s paw slides under the door to wake me up. I open the door, and Bijou makes a beeline for the bed. I snuggle beside her. I power up my computer again and continue to write until about ten, when I have breakfast. Afterward, I move my laptop to my office to write a few more hours. At some point, I’ll check e-mail and Facebook and see what the rest of the world is up to.
4. Who are you reading now?
Mermaid: A Memoir of Resilience by Eileen Cronin. It’s wonderful. I highly recommend it.
5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?
Wow, that’s tough. Okay, here you go: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys; The Lover by Marguerite Duras; and Collected Poems by Lynda Hull. The two novels, even in their fictional way, mirror a reality that reflects my own emotional experience growing up. They both take place under Colonialism and show what happens to women (and, well, men, too) in a paternalistic society. WSS takes place in the West Indies, where, as mentioned, I grew up. The Lover is set in Colonial Indochina. I strongly identify with the protagonists in both novels: their search for self-definition and identity.
Hull’s poetry is dark and edgy and takes no prisoners. It is so emotionally raw and authentic that I feel as if I am submerging into her soul when I read it.
6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?
The main thing I’ve done to “build a platform” is to be a professional speaker. After my first memoir was published, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, I received speaking invitations from non-profit organizations that work to prevent child abuse. In addition to giving traditional readings at colleges and universities, I also speak to departments of social work, psychology, and women’s studies. Additionally, I’ve been invited to be interviewed on a number of national TV and radio programs such as The View, Anderson Cooper – 360, CNN Headline News, the Montel Williams Show and others. I’ve also been featured in a few documentaries such as on the Discovery channel and WE-TV for Women.
The balance is always tricky. Once a book is first published, I spend virtually no time writing. But then things quiet down and the balance shifts back to writing.
7. What is a typical day like for you?
Well, to pick up from where I left off, above, about my writing habits, after I spend the morning and early afternoon writing, I take a walk. I live about five blocks from Lake Michigan, and I always head there first, before walking around my small downtown neighborhood. Then, later in the afternoon, I’ll answer more e-mails and check in with Facebook again.
Except when I travel or teach, I live an incredibly quiet life. Outside of Marc, my partner, I don’t have friends where I live – all my friends live elsewhere – or maybe they all “live” on Facebook!? So all in all my typical days are endlessly the same.
8. Describe your dream writing space?
This is pure fantasy, and I know I’d never have, well, the courage to pull it off. But I have a fantasy of writing in a run-down rooming house (or seedy motel) on the edge of nowhere (or like in the middle of a desert) with no air conditioning, no internet – totally off the grid. The room has sheer curtains, ripped of course. The floor is gritty with sand. No one would know how to find me. OK, I guess that sounds grim to most people. But I can’t let go of the image of that room.
9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?
As part of promoting my second memoir, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, I participated in a radio tour. Most of the interviews were fine, but a few were a nightmare. For example, one “shock jock” asked me “where’s the kinkiest place you’ve ever had sex?” This is on live radio! I was mortified. Of course, he hadn’t even read the book, so, in that sense, it wasn’t exactly a writing critique…but it was so devastating and humiliating that I’m still recovering from it!
How did I respond? Ironically, I absolutely can’t remember what I said. I don’t even remember if I actually answered him, or if I shrugged it off – but probably (hopefully) shrugged it off.
10. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?
I teach creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a low-residency program, and I always encourage my students to write fearlessly. Write the stories you most need to tell, now, I say to them. Emotionally submerge yourself as if you’re following a trail straight to the heart of your senses. In every scene determine what that moment tasted like, sounded like, felt like, looked like, smelled like – whether literally or metaphorically. How do these senses convey the interiority of the narrator? When turning life into art, I encourage my students to mine their experiences, and to try not to worry (too much) how their secrets and their truths might affect friends and family.
Sue William Silverman’s new memoir, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, is published with the University of Nebraska Press as part of its American Lives Series (series editor Tobias Wolff). Her two other memoirs are Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction (W. W. Norton), which is also a Lifetime television movie, and Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, which won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award in creative nonfiction. Her craft book, Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir, won Honorable Mention in ForeWord Reviews’ book-of-the-year award. As a professional speaker, Sue has appeared on such shows as The View, Anderson Cooper 360, and CNN-Headline News. She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Please visit www.SueWilliamSilverman.com.