Interview with Sue William Silverman: On memoir and taking risks
This week I’m thrilled to interview Sue William Silverman, the acclaimed author of three memoirs, which she describes collectively as “a movement from darkness to light.” I posed some questions to Sue about the risks involved in writing memoir. Her answers reflect the uncompromising integrity of a writer who understands that getting at the truth means relinquishing blame—both self-blame and blaming those who have inflicted harm.
Silverman’s newest book, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, is by turns playful and dead-serious, but always intimate. Who doesn’t remember feeling, as a teenager, that you were born into the wrong skin? Silverman, though, had ample reason to gravitate toward the fatherly image of the well-scrubbed Pat Boone.
Your previous two memoirs delved into some intensely personal material. What inspired you to “go public” with your story?
With all my writing, I can’t so much say that I was inspired to “go public.” Rather, I’m inspired and obsessed to write! As a memoirist, I can only write my own personal narratives – even though, yes, the subject matter in all three memoirs is intensely personal.
For example, in my first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, I explore growing up in my incestuous family. In the second memoir, Love Sick, I write about recovering from a sexual addiction.
Now, in The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, I focus on a lifelong crush on this 1960s pop-music idol, depicting how this crush went far beyond just liking his music. Three separate encounters with Pat Boone frame my quest to belong to the dominant culture. With his wholesome, squeaky-clean image, this father of four daughters represented everything my Jewish father was not. I wanted the overtly Christian Pat Boone to adopt me, to be my father.
Beyond my father, I also wanted to flee my Russian Jewish heritage and fit into the WASPy suburb in which I lived. I wanted to look like one of Pat Boone’s daughters—resemble all my Christian high-school friends. More than anything, the book is a search for identity and a desire to belong.
And isn’t a desire to fit in and belong a true American story—the idea of assimilation, of America being a melting pot?
In short, to go public, means we’re engaging with others who can relate to our stories. This is a crucial part of the process. I receive hundreds of e-mails from readers who thank me, in effect, for telling their stories, too. I’m lucky, as a writer, to have a voice, to be able to tell my truths. By doing so, I – and all memoir writers – really speak to the human condition.
Did you worry about repercussions from family or friends? Was there a negotiation process, even if inside yourself, as you weighed the necessity of telling an honest story against other people’s desire for protection—or, possibly, exoneration?
I try to worry as little as possible about what others might think about my books during the writing process. Fear is what holds most writers and artists back. If I become overly concerned about anyone’s reaction, I’d never have the courage to proceed.
In short, while writing, I try not to consider friends, family, or even getting published – all that stuff over which I have no control anyway. In any event, my job as a writer is not to make people feel comfortable. Rather, my job is to tell my truths.
That said, as much as possible, I always change the names of friends, for example, to protect their privacy: of course! However, since I write under my real name, there’s no way to “protect” or disguise family.
People like to control what others know about them and their lives. Put someone in a book, even with non-controversial subject matter, and they tend to worry about being exposed. Can you give some advice to writers about how to approach this?
Do not think about those people during the writing process itself. As I suggest above, while I’m writing, I do my best to pretend no one will ever read my work. It’s better to stay focused on the words themselves, anyway, during this time of submersion into the self, this time of rigorous introspection. That helps me write more freely, with fewer inhibitions. Only later, after the essays or memoirs are all down on paper, do I determine how to deal with the outer world.
It’s also important to remember that a memoir isn’t about revenge! It’s about seeking one’s own truth. I believe I own my stories and, therefore, I am free to write them.
Additionally, you can’t really predict how anyone might react to your memoir, and sometimes we’re pleasantly surprised, as I was. With my first memoir, I assumed everyone on my father’s side of the family would be incredibly angry at me. That was not the case. In fact, I received many e-mails and phone calls from cousins, aunts, uncles, telling me how sorry they were that this had happened to me…that if only they’d known they would have helped me.
We never know where our words will lead us, how our words might be perceived once we send them out into the world.
Sue, thank you for your forthright answers. May your words lend courage to many people, writers or not, who struggle to believe in their own stories. And good luck with the new book! Let me add a tip for writers; I highly recommend your book Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir, which Poets and Writers has named one of the “essential books for writers.”
Thank you, Helen. It was my pleasure.
Sue William Silverman’s new memoir is The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew. Her two other memoirs are Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, which is also a Lifetime TV 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 is Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir. As a professional speaker, Sue has appeared on The View, Anderson Cooper 360, and more. She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
For more on Sue’s work, visit her website: http://www.suewilliamsilverman.com/
Check outThe Pat Boone Fan Club