The expression still waters run deep could have been coined for Joan Silber. In person, she is charming, modest and even self-effacing; on the page, she bristles with feeling–humor, anger and lust are just part of her impressive range—and her capacity for creating sympathetic, likable characters who nevertheless do some highly unlikable things is one of her greatest gifts. In a conversation with Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough, Silber shares some of what she’s learned over her long and rich writing career.
YZM: Let’s talk about the concept of linked stories. What does this form allow that others don’t? How does such a book differ from a novel or a more conventional story collection?
JS: This is the third book of linked stories I’ve done. There are lots of things I love about the form. It lets me treat material from different angles–a minor character in one is major in another—and I can work different sides of a theme. In this book, for instance, we see the dilemmas in being a fool for an idea, and the disadvantages in not being one.
Linked stories used to be considered an apprentice form, written by writers who really wanted to do novels. (Not true for me–I’d done three novels first.) Now it has its own popularity—there are definitely more linked collections around.
One of my favorite things about the form is that characters who are dislikeable in one story can be humans we’re allied with in another. (Liliane, for example.) There’s a beautiful quote from John Berger in which he says, “Never again shall a single story be told as if it were the only one.”