Award-winning writer Joan Silber returns with another stunning collection of linked stories. The characters in Fools span generations and continents, but are linked by the glow of their ideals, whether obsessive and dangerous or positive and world-changing. We asked Silber a few questions about her writing process and the inspiration behind the new book.
You have written linked stories before. What is it about multiple stories dealing with a single theme and overlapping characters that appeals to you?
It began two books ago, with Ideas of Heaven, and I love this form. It lets me come in very close to a character and then move on to a different angle. It seems to give a larger canvas (something I always wanted when I was a novelist).
Is there a story that you wrote first that led to the others, or do you map all the connections out at the beginning?
The first story was "Fools," about a young woman who's an anarchist in the 1920s. I saw that I was interested in how people live for ideas—and can they live without them?—and this helped me come up with other stories. One of my favorite characters is Louise, daughter of politically principled parents who feels she can hold "two opinions" at once, even about marriage. I have to say I didn't have a plan for the book and the connections were formed from my own obsessions (like: How does money fit in?) and a curiosity about how certain characters turned out. I was especially happy when I found a way to revisit Liliane, who's a conniving young woman in Paris in one story and an elegant older woman in New York in another.
Some of these stories refer to very specific political situations in the 1920s, the 1950s and the present. What similarities do you see among these times?
What an interesting question. The stories do use our country's fear of political radicals—in the '20s the Sacco-Vanzetti case and in the 1950s the "blacklisting" of suspected communists—and later the post-9/11 fear of Muslims. I didn't call up these parallels on purpose, but my characters naturally encounter these spells of public panic. As it happened, in the last stages of writing the book, Occupy Wall Street was in the news, with an analysis of capitalism not very different from that of the anarchists I began with.
I think longing is a component of being human. It controls our relation to time—we're always watching to see if we'll get what we want.
What kind of research did you do for these stories?
I read the writings of Dorothy Day and some biographies of her. I read oral histories of old anarchists and of pacifists against World War II. I had a friend tell me about neighborhoods in Paris in the early 1960s. I read biographies of Gandhi. I got a student in a summer program to tell me about growing up in Okinawa. I read about Sufism, since I was traveling to Turkey anyway. And I kept looking up things online—how much money did Madoff steal? what was that beach I went to in Mumbai? I would gladly dawdle the day away doing research—and finding great details helps me invent.
In "The Hanging Fruit" and "Two Opinions," you create the span of almost an entire life in a single story. What kinds of challenges does that pose?
It was a great discovery for me that short stories could contain long time spans. The challenge is: Summarized action can be very washy to read. But I think it can be written so it's like a series of mini-scenes. The prose can be concrete and striking. And I like to show how change accrues gradually.
There is a real intimacy created between the reader and your first-person narrators. What does that point of view add to the storytelling?
I'm interested in what characters say to themselves, what they make of what they've done; I think of first-person narration as translating thoughts (as opposed to mimicking speech). I'm especially attached to those moments when a narrator makes a sweeping self-description. That said, I did experiment in this book with stories in third-person ("Better" and "Buying and Selling") and found I could get the same effects.
Your characters all long for something—political, spiritual, sexual—sometimes a combination of the three! How do you think that longing informs our lives?
In real life, I'm a relatively contented person, but I think longing is a component of being human. It controls our relation to time—we're always watching to see if we'll get what we want. In my plots, characters don't always know what they want at first—they often have an inaccurate idea of what they long for.
Who are some of your favorite writers and what makes them special to you?
My biggest influences are Chekhov and Alice Munro—Chekhov for the way he can shift our sympathies toward a character who has seemed for most of the story not to deserve them, and Munro for her use of long time spans and for the uncommon length of her stories, whose shapes we often don't see till the end. Both writers show us what we didn't know by shifting the perspective of the story. I'm also a fan of David Malouf and Colm Toibin. And I just belatedly discovered Pat Barker.]
What are you reading now?
I'm glad you asked—I'm totally immersed in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. I don't even know why it's so good. It's chock full of truly shocking bits of history—eye-opening in a very substantial way—and has a character who learns everything from the bottom up and can't be outsmarted, on a colossal scale.
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Read our review of Fools.