Hal Royaltey (hal) Wed 27 Jul 05 11:06
Our guest is Marisa Silver, here to discuss her just published debut novel, "No Direction Home". She describes herself this way: A recovering film director, I now work as a novelist and short story writer. I made my short fiction debut in the first debut fiction issue put out by The New Yorker. The magazine subsequently published two other stories, one of which was selected to be included in the Best American Short Stories, 2001. The collection, titled "Babe in Paradise" was published by WW Norton in 2001. My debut novel, "No Direction Home" came out in June from Norton. My short and to the point film career spanned about ten years and included the independent film "Old Enough" which debuted at Cannes and won first prize at the early incarnation of Sundance. I made three other features including "Permanent Record" with a cool soundtrack by the late great Joe Strummer, and "He Said, She Said" which I directed with my husband Ken Kwapis. Our interviewer is Howard Rodman <rodman>. He has been on the WELL for ten years. He's written fiction (his novel, Destiny Express, was published here by Atheneum, in the UK by Andre Deutsch, and in translation in France, Germany, Italy, and Japan); journalism; and screenplays, most notably the adaptation of Joseph Mitchell's JOE GOULD'S SECRET, which opened the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and son, and heads up the screenwriting department at USC. He believes with Lautreamont that writing is the most miserable path that leads to everything.
Howard A. Rodman (rodman) Wed 27 Jul 05 19:04
Let me just say I'm happy to be here, in a Conference where, in the past, Howards have been very well represented. I'm here as Marisa Silver's personal Michael Silverblatt. Which is to say, I'd like to ask her some questions about her life and work, as if we were on the radio. So, Marisa. At what point in your life did the grail of writing short fiction appear to you? What did you do to hone those skills?
Marisa Silver (marisasilver) Wed 27 Jul 05 19:52
Well Michael, I mean Howard...this is what happened: I began making films at twenty three and plowed forward in that career. I made a bunch of films -- some more personal than others. The more films I made, the more I realized how difficult it was for me to bend my vision of things to a media that is so often controlled by others. The aspects of story that hold great meaning to me -- the small detail, the eddies of human emotions, the subtleties of human intercourse -- well, that's not always the stuff of films, especially not Hollywood films these (and even those) days. I distinctly remember, having finished my last feature, He Said, She said, following it with a dark little television film, then realizing that I didn't have fire in my belly to go out and get the next film. I felt strongly that I was on a train that was hurtling forward, but that I was on the wrong train. So, I just stopped. I don't exactly remember "deciding" to write short fiction, but I do remember setting myself up in a small empty room in my house, and just beginning to write. And then slowly it occurred to me that I would benefit from putting myself in an MFA program, if for no other reason that one would provide some structure, a framework within which I would write. So I applied to some schools and decided to go to the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. This is what is called a "low residency" program in that students attend the school twice a year for ten day sessions and then work in correspondence with writer/teachers. I had wonderful teachers and the program suited the slightly misanthropic part of myself that doesn't want to hang around in groups all that much. I was on my own, but there was an expectation that I would produce work. During those years, I wrote what would later become the foundation for my collection.
Howard A. Rodman (rodman) Wed 27 Jul 05 20:46
Those of us who write screenplays always con ourselves into believing we're writing movies. Because a screenplay 'wants' to become a film; and after a while, if you write a lot of screenplays, unproduced screenplays, the whole act seems a bit-- Existential. And the bottom can drop out. But an unpublished short story bears an astonishing resemblance to a published short story. From a short distance: identical. All of which is a longwinded, pretentious, radio way of asking: when you were doing Warren Wilson, how much of an eye did you have toward publication? Was it then--is it ever--possible to separate the art and craft of writing from the dread (and sometimes wonderful) What Happens After? Coming from Filmland, was fiction to you a place where you were free from worries about outcome? About "success"?
Marisa Silver (marisasilver) Thu 28 Jul 05 07:47
Two things (or maybe more, we'll see:) When I was at Warren Wilson, there was absolutely, and I think, concertedly, NO talk of publication. Unlike other programs, they did not bring in agents and editors to start neophyte writers salivating. The teachers did not play the part of quasi-agents. Although I imagine some might have found this studious ignorance of "the real world" frustrating, I found it glorious and a huge breath of fresh air. Coming, as I did, from the hyper competitive world of filmmaking where everything was about making a sale, getting it made, etc. and where often creative decisions were made by deciding what the marketplace wants, I was so relieved not to think about any of that. In addition, I think, since I had come off a decade of work where I had some measure of satisfaction in that my work was seen, I did not feel the need to have my work seen for a while. I was happy to work in a void, to not have any thought to where my work might show up if ever it did. I had come off a decade of being super ambitious in one career, and I think I was thrilled to be relieved of the burden of ambition. Here's the second thing (or third). During my time at Warren Wilson, I was also in baby-making mode. I had my first child during my first year there. So, I think my ambitions were more focused on babies than on my career. In retrospect, it was wonderful to work without the burden of worry about a career. I think it freed me from worrying about the marketplace, about what sells, what doesn't. I made no creative decision based on anything other than my instinct. What a new experience that was!
Howard A. Rodman (rodman) Thu 28 Jul 05 13:50
I'm not alone in my envy for that kind of space in which to work. Even though, as you so well describe, the focus was on the work, not on the sale of the work, it must have been thrilling to receive the letter (or call) (or e-mail) from The New Yorker telling you that a story had been accepted for publication. How did that come about? What did that feel like? Did it embolden your work, now that there was a large and wonderful audience for it? Was it in any way daunting? Scary? Take us back (says the faux-Silverblatt) to that moment.
Marisa Silver (marisasilver) Thu 28 Jul 05 18:34
I think some 1950's movie dream music is required here, and a little vasaline on the lens... What happened was this: I got back some ambition a little after the birth of my second child. Suddenly, I felt that fire in my belly that had been missing at the end of my film days. I wanted my work to get out into the world. So I put together about six stories that I had completed and sent them off to a bunch of agents. I got names from friends, friends of friends, asked people to make introductory calls on my behalf, and sent off my manuscript with a bio letter. In a case of innocence being bliss, I had no idea about the process -- that you were supposed to send query letters and then wait six months to find out that no one had read your query letter, and if they did, then you were allowed to send one story and wait another six months...well, you get the idea. I didn't know this was the protocol. So I sent the MSS to about five or six agents and followed up quite quickly with calls to find out what they thought . I'm sure they were surprised! Happily, a few of them expressed real interest and I chose to go with one - he sounded like a great guy - we had an immediately comfortable rapport, and I liked the list of people he worked with. At about the same time he was selling the book, the New Yorker put out the call for it's first "debut fiction issue" so he submitted my stories. And then they selected one for the issue and a couple of others for later issues. It was thrilling to get work into the New Yorker. Strangely, although I had the good news that my agent sold the book around the same time, most people were far more excited about the stories being in the New Yorker! The magazine has such a history, such an iconic value in people's minds. I kept trying to get people excited about the fact that I sold the book, and they would respond, "Yeah, yeah, great, but what about The New Yorker!" The most exciting aspect of having the work in the magazine was going through the famed editing process with my editor there. It was an amazing education in and of itself to see how they approached the work on a sentence by sentence basis, word by word, really. I felt the stories got sharper and clearer as a result, and I tried to bring what I learned from that process to my other stories, as well. And the famed New Yorker fact checking department saved me from some embarrassment. The degree of detail that they attend to is amazing. I LOVED that. And when the stories were published, I have to say that I was thrilled to see my work in that New Yorker font that I had been reading all my life. Pretty cool. I was going to say that having work published, whether it is in The New Yorker or in a book, hasn't really changed my work, and I don't think it has fundamentally. But I think that hearing people comment about the work, hearing what they are moved by, what they are struck by, gives me a sense of what my strengths are as a writer, and this, in turn, does make me feel a little bolder about what I am setting out to do. But it also makes me caution myself not to "try" for effect.
Howard A. Rodman (rodman) Thu 28 Jul 05 21:14
Thanks, Marisa. We've been having this little chat in a small room with the blinds drawn. Tomorrow we're opening the doors to visitors. There are many things I'd like to ask--especially since our guest is being so articulately forthcoming--but I'll hold off a bit until more voices chime in. I enjoy talking about Marisa's pre- and post-publication life; and I love the Babe in Paradise stories-- But I'd hope that in the course of our stay at inkwell.vue we'd also get around to a more fine-grain appreciation of No Direction Home, whose measured and passionate tone we can all learn from.
Howard A. Rodman (rodman) Fri 29 Jul 05 10:12
I'm hitting the road for a trip up North but will check in tonight from a Remote Location.
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 29 Jul 05 10:47
(Note: Offsite readers who have questions or comments may send them to <firstname.lastname@example.org> and our hosts will add your remarks to the thread)
It's a new sun to me (nukem777) Fri 29 Jul 05 21:53
Marissa, it sounds like you are following your own drummer...how difficult do you find that and how do you handle all of the distractions that come in this age of instant everything?
Howard A. Rodman (rodman) Fri 29 Jul 05 22:25
That'sa great question for a Friday night. Marisa?
Marisa Silver (marisasilver) Sat 30 Jul 05 10:44
It is a great question. And maybe, in the end, the most important one for anyone who'se trying to create stuff in this strange world we live in where success is measured in numbers and in how often you or your work appear in national magazines. It's very hard to balance out the onslaught of information coming from the world and the need to work in a void so that what you make really comes from you and is not a reflexive response to the marketplace -- especially hard as we all need to support ourselves, even if we choose to write or paint or make videos...My husband sometimes hangs a piece of paper on the wall behind his desk that says "NO APPROVAL NECESSARY". It's a great reminder not to second guess yourself, or wonder whether anyone will like what you're up to. Don't sully the "vision" (lofty word, but can't think of a better one right now) by worrying about whether someone's going to pat you on the back or make you a star or give you lots of dough for your efforts. It's especially hard to deal with this when a book comes out into the world. As much as I like to shut out the world when I work and try not to worry about who will like what I'm doing, or if it fits some idea of what's popular at the moment, when a book comes out, I am invariably laid open to worries about marketing, critics, etc. The greatest challenge, for me, has been to be able to maintain a true understanding and appreciation of what my effort has meant to me, no matter what anybody else thinks about it. But that can be hard. No one is immune to criticism, whether it is good or bad. But I realize that, if I allow my experience to be validated or invalidated by the marketplace, I have really given up the value of what, in the case of the novel, took almost three years of my life. That journey, the ups and down, the frustrations and pleasure, is what the experience means to me. The effect the book has on the outside world, is something entirely other, something to appreciate and enjoy, maybe even at times be bummed by, but not something that should obviate the many rewards (and, let's be honest, the many moments of self-doubt and self loathing!) of the writing experience. Having said all that, I need to tell you that I am not always successful in the effort to rise above it all. I'm constantly stumbling, and constantly having to remind myself what matters. Someone might walk up to me and say "Hey, congrats on the book. Is it selling?" And I'll be right back there again, worrying about the wrong thing!
It's a new sun to me (nukem777) Sat 30 Jul 05 13:29
Thank you for your honest response...great one by the way. I used to labor under the illusion that if you are true to yourself some kind of karmic fairy dust would just sort of settle on everything you did and everyone you met and things would just miraculously work out. There's no doubt that that indeed sometimes happens, but I'm learning that it's not a guarantee...sometimes you can be doing everything right and it you find the pits in the cherry bowl of life anyway...sigh
Marisa Silver (marisasilver) Sat 30 Jul 05 14:13
Yeah. I wouldn't count on fairy dust. Maybe it's a question of what "working out" means. Is it huge monetary success? It is the adulation of others? Or is it just doing the thing you set out to do? I think we don't give ourselves enough credit for that. It's hard enough to conjur something out of your imagination and see it through. That is success in and of itself. I really admire people who just make what they make because they are driven to do so, no matter what the payback.
Howard A. Rodman (rodman) Sat 30 Jul 05 18:24
Someone once asked Nabokov why he'd written 'Lolita' and he replied, "to find out why I needed to write it." I don't think he was being flip. There is the local reward that comes with being in the moment while writing; the satisfaction, slightly less local, that comes at the end of a day's (or a week's) good work; and then there's the book-in-the-world... The contemplation of which is, at least for me, paralytic as regards the local work. I suspect Marisa makes what she makes because she is driven to as well. I'd like to ask a kinda sorta related question. Marisa, what, to the extent that you know them, were the mental and emotional shifts necessary to go from writing short fiction to embarking on something much longer? How much of the book was in your head when you started, and how much did you discover along the route?
Marisa Silver (marisasilver) Sun 31 Jul 05 09:32
It took me a long time to make that shift, actually. Too long, in my estimation, but I'm I'm impatient. At first, it felt like my inner rhythms were locked in on a 30-page product. I had spent so long working on the short story form, spent so long practicing that seemingly paradoxical requirement of the short story: that it be utterly concise and yet suggest total fullness and completeness, that I really couldn't figure out how to stretch an idea past that dreaded thirty page mark. I couldn't figure out what question to ask myself, in a literary sense, that would require more than thirty pages to answer. So I read and read, trying to figure out how other people did it. This was a good experience because, although I had spent my time during my MFA reading and analyzing short stories, trying to understand that form, I had spent virtually no time thinking about the novel. So, I sort of put myself on a self-guided tour. A lot of stuff I gleaned was, in retrospect, laughably obvious. The idea that I could dwell in the interior of character's minds for stretches of time -- a no brainer for most, but for me, it was a kind of "eureka" moment when I figured this out. I had spent so long figuring out how to get to know characters obliquely -- through precise actions, through the form and structure of a story, through omission -- that I hadn't ever considered that you could actually get to know a character rather directly. Stretching out the story was another matter altogether. Because I don't think it is any more valuable to have meaningless scenes in a novel than it is in a short story, or to have characters go on and on about stuff that could be more precisely rendered in an action, or even an image, I realized that I had to think about time, and I had to think about more complex series' of actions. The dreaded plot. Which, it turns out, is not something I can even figure out at the beginning. What happens always feel so much less emotionally central to me than why it happens, or what happens to the characters on the way to doing whatever they end up doing. It would be, I think, far easier to write if one had an architecture of plot to follow, but this just doesn't come to me that quickly. So I start with characters, and with intentions. In the case of No Direction Home, I began with a collection of people whose emotional crises, both big and small, centered around the same notion of abandonment. All the characters are, in differing ways, dealing this issue. Even though their lives are often very separate from one another, this theme is what propels them. So I had these characters with their particular predicaments, and I had the idea that they were all on the move, for one reason or another, to the same place. The rest I disovered along the way. So, there was not much to hang my hat on in the beginning. Which was a little (a lot) frightening. And I just kept pushing them forward, inch by inch, until their particular stories revealed themselves and I figured out how they all interwove.
Howard A. Rodman (rodman) Sun 31 Jul 05 10:13
Boy, does this make sense...
Howard A. Rodman (rodman) Sun 31 Jul 05 21:06
Anyone out there with questions for Marisa?
Gail Williams (gail) Mon 1 Aug 05 11:16
Sure! Everything I've ever worked on has had a collaborative component of some sort, if only a trusted feedback function, so I'm wondering whether you had anybody read your work before it was ready to submit to publishers, and if so, whether you sought professional expertise, or took it to friends and family?
Marisa Silver (marisasilver) Mon 1 Aug 05 14:28
Hi Gail. Thanks for joining the discussion. Feedback is a funny thing. Of course I got feedback on some of the stories I wrote while doing my MFA, and I get feedback from my editor and agent about my book when it was in early drafts, both of whom I trust very much. And my husband reads stuff when I want him to. But feedback demands its own interpretation. Sometimes people comment on stuff, or they propose "fixes", but I find, more often than not, that when they say they are having a problem with X, it is really Y that needs work. That's kind of vague. Let me be more specific. If someone says to me that the ending of a story or novel isn't satisfying to them, often, what they are responding to is not the ending exactly. They might be responding to the fact that some aspect of the story or some character, is not fully realized earlier on so that the ending doesn't feel warranted or justified. And sometimes when they say that a certain part of the book is "slow", I end up not looking directly at that part, but at something that comes before or after. So while feedback can be useful, it also demands that I not be so quick to assume that the problems lie where others say they do. I do find feedback helpful, but I often caution myself not to throw stuff out because someone didn't like it. It's a balancing act between being open to criticism, and making sure that I stick to my instinct if I feel strongly about it. Often, though, when I'm struggling with something, I actually don't find feedback all that helpful. Other's suggestions about how to fix problems rarely sit right with me, maybe simply because they are not coming organically from me and the process. Usually, I realize that I have to bang my head against the wall until I figure out a solution, that no one else is going to have the magic answer, as much as I wish they did.
Howard A. Rodman (rodman) Mon 1 Aug 05 17:15
I wish I could disagree with what Marisa said, but I can't. One of the most frustrating things about writing is that ideas from other readers, even good ideas, sometimes especially good ideas, come from the outside, and therefore just don't enable one to crack a problem, mend a clunky transition, "build " a character. What I'd like to ask, Marisa: in your short stories, and again in your novel, there are characters who bear little or no resemblance to the folks you know in daily life. Do you do much research? How do you do it? How much is so well-researched that we as readers don't see it as research, and how much is so fully imagined that we as readers don't realize it's made up?
Marisa Silver (marisasilver) Tue 2 Aug 05 07:14
Here's the thing: I know relatively few people very well -- it's a tiny crowd, my intimate circle, but, by nature, I spend a lot of time listening and observing, entering into casual conversation with a lot of people -- I always have, even as a child. I am wildly curious about the people I end up in a space with, even if for a short period of time, and have no problem striking up conversations with just about anybody -- it is never hard to find the connections between my experience and someone else's. The connections between and among people are more profound and obvious than the differences. So, in that sense, I encounter a wide variety of people in my daily life, even if I do not know them intimately, or know the details of their life in great depth, or share their particular situations. The fiction writer part (the fun part) comes in trying to understand what drives people to do what they do and this is as difficult to imagine for people whose lives closely mirror my own as it is for people who seemingly live differently from me. Trying to figure out why anybody does anything, what compels them, what thoughts and ethics and personal morality makes them choose one thing over another -- that's every character's mystery, no matter what their background. As for research, I do quite a lot of it but don't always use a lot of it overtly. I do it more so that, when I am writing, I can imagine a world, or a town, or a way of life, or a political situation, or a particular custom in my head. In this way, I hope that the very personal emotions and interactions I write about will have a sense of depth and veracity, even if I am not writing "the facts". I like doing the research (plus, it is always great, when stuck with the writing, to decide that you have to do more research -- gives you something to do rather than stare at the blank computer screen). What I don't like is a novel so freighted with research that it feels more like a compendium of interesting facts rather than a fictional flight. I try to do enough research to fire my imagination. I want the story not only to BE right, but to FEEL right. Those are two different things, I think. Make any sense?
wish you the very beat (tinymonster) Tue 2 Aug 05 09:01
It's a new sun to me (nukem777) Tue 2 Aug 05 10:16
Marisa, are you getting a 'jones' for this style of writing? Are you going to do more, has it inspired anything new for you now that you have one behind you? What sort of new things are possibly coming into your thinking for new endeavors. Not content, I'm not asking you to give anything away, but are you finding new creative juices bubbling up from your subconscious or what?
Marisa Silver (marisasilver) Tue 2 Aug 05 10:42
Absolutely. As difficult as writing often is, and it is, it feels like a necessary part of my life right now. I think one of the most satisfying parts of having written the novel is looking back over the 2 1/2 years it took to write it and seeing all the stages I went through with it. To work on something for that long allows you the opportunity to appreciate it as a process. And I love the learning curve of that process, love now (more than at the time, to be sure) seeing how certain problems that at one time seemed intractable, shook out in the end. So, yes, I'm at work on another novel, and am finding myself once again completely overwhelmed by the complications of the thing. I'm not sure it ever gets easier, but at least this time, I'm not so frightened of the problems, because I've been there before. I also love seeing what happens when I decide to focus on what is usually a shred of an idea. I start with so little, really. No Direction Home started with just a handful of sort-of ideas. It's kind of exciting to see what this tiny notion I'm mulling over day and night will develop into.
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