Joan Silber was raised in New Jersey and received her B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied writing with Grace Paley. She moved to New York after college and has made it her home ever since. She holds an M.A. from New York University.
She’s written nine books of fiction. Her newest, Secrets of Happiness, is out in May 2021 in the U.S. and in July 2021 in the U.K. Her last novel, Improvement, won The National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award.
She also received the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story. Her other works of fiction include Fools, longlisted for the National Book Award and finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, The Size of the World, finalist for the Los Angeles Times Prize in Fiction, and Ideas of Heaven, finalist for the National Book Award and the Story Prize. She’s also written Lucky Us, In My Other Life, and In the City, and her first book, Household Words, won the PEN/Hemingway Award. She’s the author of The Art of Time in Fiction, a study of how various writers have used time.
Her short fiction has been chosen for the O. Henry Prize, Best American Short Stories, and the Pushcart Prize. Stories have appeared in Tin House, The Southern Review, Ploughshares, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and other magazines. She’s been the recipient of an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Joan taught fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College for many years and teaches in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program. She’s also taught at Boston University, the 92nd Street Y, the University of Utah, and New York University. Her summer teaching has included conferences at Napa Valley, Bread Loaf, Indiana University, Manhattanville College, Stonecoast, Aspen, and Sarah Lawrence College.
Joan lives on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, with her dog, Lucille, and she travels as often as she can, with a particular interest in Asia.
Hi Joan, great to have you on Famous Writing Routines. We’re really excited to talk to you about your writing routine and process. For those who may not know, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’ve written nine books of fiction. The most recent is Secrets of Happiness, recently out in paperback. I’m known for linking the stories and fates of seemingly distant characters—I’m always interested in the way an event or an idea has consequences over a widening net of people.
My novel Improvement won two awards, and other recent books include Fools, longlisted for the National Book Award, The Size of the World, finalist for the LA Times Fiction Prize, and Ideas of Heaven, shortlisted for the National Book Award and the Story Prize. I’ve also written The Art of Time in Fiction.
I taught for many years at Sarah Lawrence College and still teach in the Warren Wilson MFA Program. I live in New York City, on the Lower East Side, with my dog Jolie, a rescue dog from Taiwan.
You won the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction and the 2018 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for your novel Improvement. Can you describe the significance and impact these awards have had on your writing career?
I was totally amazed—my fellow nominees were incredible and justly famous writers, and I really did not think I would be picked. When they announced my name in the auditorium, I heard whooping around me from what I later realized were friends, my editor, and a critic who’d given me a great review—as I made my way onstage, quite dazed. It was a great moment and not one I will soon forget.
The immediate change it led to was publication in other parts of the world. There are translations in Chinese, Italian, and Rumanian. Annd have a wonderful publisher in the UK, and in September they’ll be bringing out re-issues of Fools and Ideas of Heaven.
I should say, since we’re on the topic, that I’ve had a long and zigzagging career. My first book did well—it won the PEN/Hemingway Award—but after the second book, seven years later, had an underwhelming response, I had a spell of thirteen years when I could not get a book published. I refer to this as my thirteen years in the desert, though I did sell a story to the New Yorker during this time. But mostly it was a time of discouragement. And over the course of those years, I changed and the work changed; I moved into other areas of interest—I was a volunteer for Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and I tried to school myself in different forms of Buddhism. In the process trying to get out of myself the writing changed (which did not happen all at once.)
Can you take us through the creative process behind your latest novel, Secrets of Happiness?
In a conversation in which we were praising a friend who had managed to take off for travel after a bad break-up, another friend said, “Oh, I knew someone who worked for a year in Asia, after she divorced her husband when she found out he had a whole other family, from Asia.” I loved the irony of this story—the great idea of going off to travel and her choice to see the same part of the world as the betrayer. I made my own tune out of it and took my character to Thailand (it was China in the original), a place I know better.
All the characters are invented by me—I don’t really use real people directly. But I knew I wanted the story to spin out into wider circles. So there are sections that focus on the Thai family, and sections that circle back to the one we started with.
What does a typical writing day look like for you?
I tend to write in the afternoon, which I guess is atypical. I use the morning for errands and exercise, and I start writing a little while after lunch and stop at 7. I revise as I go—I begin each day by looking at what I wrote the day before and tuning the sentences, figuring out more closely what I meant.
I don’t plan in advance (it might be easier if I did); I make up each section as I go along. But I do have an idea of the basic trajectory of the book, what the final shape of it is going to be. And I do write a lot of notes to myself about the characters, as I go along. There are always sections that go along just fine and others that give me a really hard time.
Do you have a target word count that you like to hit each day?
I have no word count requirement at all and probably don’t produce very much on a daily basis. I know lots of writers who love to work in spurts, but I am the slow and steady type. My demands on myself are more in terms of time—I like to know I’ve put in somewhere near 4 hours. Which I don’t do every day, but I try for 4 or 5 days a week
What would be your top advice for writers out there trying to get published?
I have three things that I tend to say to writers starting out.
- Cultivate equanimity. Every writer has to face rejection in various forms, and you need a belief system that will support you.
- Ask more of yourself. A lot of my teaching has had to do with getting writers to dig deeper. The process really does require more than most beginning writers imagine.
- Resist bad advice. I know it’s hard to know good from bad, but you’ll need to think through what’s true for you; there’s a lot of generic advice that can block what’s distinctive.
What does your writing workspace look like?
I live in an apartment in New York, and my writing space is an office area set up in the bedroom. I read in other parts of the house, but I do all my writing here.
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