Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Author Interview: Sue William Silverman, on her new memoir, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew

First, I read and admired Sue William Silverman's work. Then I listened to, and learned from her at an AWP panel. Read some more of her nonfiction. Met her briefly at another conference. Read more. Next, I interviewed Sue here on the blog about her craft book, Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir, which I've recommended to many students. That interview remains one of the most heavily trafficked posts here. I'm delighted in so many ways to have Sue back, this time talking about her new book from the University of Nebraska Press.

Please welcome Sue William Silverman.

LR. So – The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew. I'm guessing you've gotten a number of raised eyebrow questions about that subtitle. To me, the first two essays perfectly explain it. Subtitles do seem especially important in memoir. How did you come to this subtitle?  Was it long before publication? During editing? A collaboration with the publisher? 

SWS. Oh, that subtitle! The main reaction I get is a laugh, which I love. The book, in part, is supposed to be funny – or, well, ironic. I wanted a subtitle that would convey the tone of the book, not just the subject matter.

I came up with the subtitle long before I sent the book to the publisher. Initially, there was another one (I can’t remember what), but it didn’t quite fit. So my partner Marc and I brainstormed subtitles one day, and this one immediately rose to the top of the list.

LR. Since this is a memoir-in-essays (my favorite kind of nonfiction), I will ask the question I ask every writer who has assembled such a book. Since some of the essays were published in journals over a multi-year span, at what point did you realize you had a book percolating?  That the threads between different essays were strong enough to collect them?

SWS. Initially, I had no idea I was writing a book. I had already published two memoirs, a book on craft, and a poetry collection, so I wanted to write something I’d never tried before: stand-alone essays. I was about two years into this essay-writing business when it hit me that, in one form or another, all the essays were about how, growing up, I wanted to belong to the dominant culture/religion and that, in conjunction with this, my feelings toward Judaism were confused and ambiguous.

Once I realized this, I took the already published essays and reframed them (some more than others) to more closely align them with this theme of self-definition and identity.

I also wrote new sections to fill out and deepen this exploration. Most of these new essay/chapters wouldn’t have worked as stand-alone pieces as they more fully “speak” only to the other essays.

LR. I'm interested in the process of transforming the individual essays into a coherent, logical progression. Can you describe your process of selecting, revising, ordering, and writing additional transition pieces to make it work as a book? 

SWS. Let me give some examples.

The first essay I wrote is also title essay, “The Pat Boone Fan Club,” and sets the tone/theme of the book in that, growing up, I wanted the clean-cut, wholesome, overtly Christian 1960s pop star, Pat Boone, to adopt me, as if he could save me from my abusive Jewish father.

The next essay I wrote, originally titled “The Land of Look Behind,” focuses on my obsession with a homeless tramp who wandered around St. Thomas (where I spent most of my childhood). In the original, stand-alone version, the essay explored the idea of hypocrisy: the wealthy white parents on the island warned us kids, their children, that the tramp might be dangerous. However, ironically, and generally speaking, these white parents were the dangerous adults. In fact, the tramp wasn’t dangerous at all. Among the white parents, many were alcoholics. Others physically and emotionally abused their children. To say nothing of my own dangerous and hypocritical father.

This idea of hypocrisy remains, yet I re-slanted many details – for the book – to highlight the tramp’s role as a potential “savior.” I followed him around as if he, like Pat Boone, could save me – could lead me away from my father – as if he were a spiritual being and I was one of his followers. I also changed the title to “The Wandering Jew” to emphasize that aspect of culture.

As I continued on with the book, I shifted the lens a bit, with each essay, to approach this theme of identity from different angles. For example, there’s a section, “That Summer of War and Apricots,” about a trip to Israel to pick apricots on a kibbutz – but I still don’t discover my Jewish roots. There’s a section called “Galveston Island Breakdown: Some Directions” about an existential crisis I have when my marriage, myself, and my Volkswagen all break down. In “My Sorted Past,” I explore the idea of identity when I visit the movie set of the filming of my second memoir Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, and so on.

The final pieces I wrote for the book are what I call “bridge sections” in which I address the reader directly. These, sprinkled throughout the book, act as a kind of “meta” element to help guide the reader on this journey.

LR. Do you enjoy that part of the process, or is it a special kind of torture? One memoirist told me going from individual essays to a memoir-in-essays meant she had to "break the back of each piece," and that it felt like breaking her own back at the same time.
SWSActually, I loved this part of the process! I love to revise in any event, but, in terms of this book, it deepened my own understanding of how various encounters with people, or moments in time, were, in fact, a search for self. As I revised each essay – and/or wrote new ones – it was kind of like solving mysteries. For example: How did this tramp in the West Indies represent a savior? What were my true feelings toward him? Metaphorically, how was he just like Pat Boone in terms of my search? I write memoir/essays to make sense of my life, to discover the metaphors of it.

Ironically, therefore, my experience was probably the exact opposite from your friend’s in that, for me, this revision process helped form my backbone, rather than breaking my back.

LR. A few of the bridge pieces are in the form of letters to "Gentle Reader" signed SWS, and referring to the narrator as a "little Gefilte (fish)."  What was the genesis for those?

SWS. After I’d finished the “regular” essays, I felt I needed an additional unifying element to better hold the book together. In these sections the narrator takes on the “persona” of a gefilte fish – yes, very surreal, I know! But the gefilte fish acts as a metaphor for this narrator in her quest for identity: Who am I? Can I be a Christian? Can I accept Judaism? How can I find a “me” who feels comfortable in her skin?

Why a gefilte fish? Because it isn’t a “real” fish! There is no fish swimming in the ocean called “gefilte.” It’s kind of a mish-mash without a true identity. Which is how I myself felt growing up – a kind of mish-mash of identities – so it seemed like the perfect metaphoric image.

LR. In some places, you use subheads and/or segmented form. Elsewhere, the reader encounters multiple choice questions; excerpts from emails, signs, and website text; script formatting; and some varied type fonts. I've read that some writers and publishers -- cognizant (consciously or not) of how readers' visual expectations have changed because of the internet and shorter attention spans -- are building more visual elements, shorter "easy eyefuls" into book-length work (especially in YA fiction). To me, these things in your book seem to be purely creative, narrative-driven decisions, but I wondered if any of that crossed your mind?

SWS. Oh, interesting. It never occurred to me to write with that in mind: changes in readers’ expectations, shorter attention spans, etc. You’re right: all my decisions were narrative-driven. What did I need to best convey the material in this particular essay/chapter? How best to serve the needs of the piece? All decisions were based on that.

But that’s an interesting observation: that readers’ tastes have changed. And, for all I know, I might have been subconsciously influenced by that without realizing it!

LR. I often use something I'm reading in my teaching, and one of the micro ways in which I took this book into the classroom was to point out your excellent use of verbs – precise, interesting, unexpected, so carefully selected. Does that come naturally to you, or does attention to word choice mostly happen during revision? A little of both?

SWS. Thank you! I’m delighted you see this in my writing. Some of the word selection, as it does for all writers, comes naturally. However, most of this attention to word selection, metaphor, detail comes only with revision. Everything I write goes through a gazillion drafts – well, okay, maybe fifteen or twenty…I lose track. But a lot.

The first draft is usually getting the basic narrative in place. Then, with each subsequent draft, I move from this broad focus to smaller details. I’ll revise to ensure every image speaks to the theme. I try to find the most accurate words. I examine each sentence to ensure it builds on the previous one.

I can only accomplish so much in any given draft, so it’s a long process. But the longer I stay with a piece, the more I’ll discover the exact word or verb to convey the meaning at hand.

LR.  I understand Pat Boone has been supportive of the book; that you even attended his 80th birthday party. Can you tell me what it has been like – after admiring him from afar for so long, and spending so much time dissecting your unusual pull to him, and writing about it – to be in real contact with him, off the page?

SWS. Yes, Pat Boone likes the book! It’s both flattering and surreal to have developed a bit of a relationship with him. I first had a crush on him when I was a teeny-bopper! And now, all these years later, he knows my name…and admires my writing! I mean, that’s kind of wild.

Here’s what’s most gratifying: he’s really a nice person. My early childhood instincts were correct. The memoir revolves around three separate times I met Pat Boone. In one instance, when he invited me backstage after a Christmas concert, he pointed to an embroidered flower on the jacket I was wearing and said, “You remind me of a flower growing up through concrete.” By this time, he’d read my first two memoirs (one about my incestuous family, the other about a subsequent struggle with sex addiction), so he was referring to how I survived. In this sense, therefore, he did see me more clearly than my own father.

Then, when I told him I planned to attend his 80th Birthday Party Celebrity Roast at the Beverly Hilton (back on June 1st), he was genuinely delighted. He asked me to bring additional copies of my book for him to give to his family and friends. And, he invited me to attend the VIP reception before the dinner. When he saw me he gave me a big hug!

There were hundreds of people at the party, yet he took time to talk about the book with me. The very last line of the book is metaphoric and we discussed the meaning of it! I mean, could I ever have imagined discussing metaphors with Pat Boone!? (That said, he graduated magna cum laude in English from Columbia University.)

So while it’s true that, politically, we don’t have a thing in common, and I am distressed by the fact that he’s a member of the conservative Tea Party (I’m a liberal Democrat), still, I’ve been able to look past these differences and find this gentle, caring side of Pat Boone.

LR. Given that you are busy teaching writing at the graduate level, is it difficult to make progress on your own writing? What are you working on now (if you don't mind sharing)?

SWSProbably no writer feels as if she/he has enough time to write! But since I teach at a low-residency MFA in Writing program (Vermont College of Fine Arts), as opposed to teaching at a traditional college with daily classes, I probably have more time than others. So I can’t (or shouldn’t) complain.

Besides, I love to teach and am quite satisfied with this balance between teaching and writing.

I’m currently working on another memoir/essay collection. I’ve got a very rough draft. It’s still finding its form and focus, but I’m getting closer to figuring it out.

Also, I’m quite excited that I wrote a poem last week! It’s the first one I’ve written since my poetry collection was published back in 2006. I was worried I’d never write another one. The title is “If the Girl Never Learns to Cook or Sew” (yes, autobiographical). So maybe another poetry collection is percolating. I hope so!

Note from Lisa: Sue will *stop by* the blog for several days after this post runs, to answer any questions left in comments. She will also send a complimentary signed copy of The Pat Boone Fan Club to a randomly selected commenter (must have a US postal address). To be in the drawing, post your comment by end of day Wednesday, August 5.