Interview with Memoirist Sue William Silverman — Special Edition

I am pleased to publish this interview with award winning memoirist Sue William Silverman about the writing of her newest memoir and her advice to those of us who write from personal experience. The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, follows two earlier memoirs, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You and Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey Through Sexual Addiction. An essay, “Your Mother Should Know” appears in the recent anthology Family Troubles: Memoirists on the Hazards of Revealing Family, edited by Joy Castro for University of Nebraska Press. She is the author of Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir. You can learn more about Sue and the resources she shares for writers on her webpage.

Sheila
This is your third memoir–how would you describe your process for this one as compared to the others? What were the differences in the way you approached the writing?

Sue
The biggest difference is that this new book didn’t start out as a book! But to back up for a moment: when I started Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, my first memoir, I specifically knew it would be about growing up in my incestuous family. When I began Love Sick, I also knew the subject matter up front – this one about the 28 days I spent in rehab for a sexual addiction.

However, the origin of The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew was dramatically different. Initially, I thought I was just writing stand-alone essays on a wide range of issues, the first one happening to be about Pat Boone. Briefly, Pat Boone is a squeaky-clean, wholesome, 1960s pop-music idol, also known, more recently, as an outspoken Christian conservative. He was also one of my teenage crushes!

Then, years later, in 2003 – long after my teenage crush – I happened to notice that Pat Boone would be performing in West Michigan, about 20 minutes from my home. I attended the concert, barged backstage afterward, and told him what he meant to me growing up: that because my Jewish father molested me, I’d looked to him, Pat Boone (the antithesis of my own father), as a safe parent. He offered hope. I wrote an essay about this.

From there, I went on to write about other events in my life: a homeless tramp with whom I was obsessed when I lived, as a child, in the West Indies; a high school boyfriend who reminded me of Pat Boone; two separate marriages to – and divorces from – Christian men, and so on.

It wasn’t until I was a few years into this project that I suddenly realized that all the essays focused, in one way or another, on a kind of spiritual crisis in which I’d lived most of my life. Then, I understood I had a collection of essays, thematically linked.

During a long revision process, I rewrote the existing essays in order to more forcefully focus on this theme. I also wrote new sections to fill in gaps. And, finally, I wrote several “bridge” sections to tie the whole together.

Besides the fact that the Pat Boone book isn’t a straight-through narrative like the two previous memoirs, the other big difference is that this new book is much more ironic – much less dark.

Sheila
What else would you like people to know about your latest book and the others?

Sue
My new book has a very different voice from the first two. In The Pat Boone Fan Club, I’m writing with much more irony – and hopefully some humor (at least that was my intent). This book isn’t nearly as dark as the first two. I think, what this says for writers, is that we have different voices, different images and metaphors, with which to tell our stories.

Sheila
What are the most important things you think memoirists must remember as they work on their stories?

Sue
That they are taking a life and turning it into art. To do so, the goal is to discover the story behind the story – the metaphors of the experience. As the author, discover what it is about that original experience that you didn’t know at the time it actually occurred. Now is the time to reflect back on the experience and figure out what it all meant. For example, as a young teenager, for me, Pat Boone was just a famous singing sensation. Only when I wrote about him did I realize that, for me, he was a metaphor for an ideal or idealized father.

Sheila
What often interferes with their goals?

Sue
Fear. For example, I wrote fiction for years because I was afraid to write that first memoir about my incestuous family. I was scared to see on paper, in black and white, the destruction caused by my father. Subsequently, I was afraid to write about sex addiction. I had a lot of shame around that part of my life.

Ironically, in terms of The Pat Boone Fan Club, I was scared to reveal the ambiguous feelings I had, growing up, toward Judaism. Even though there’s a reason for this – the fact that my Jewish father sexually molested me – still, I figured there would be a segment of the Jewish population who would be upset about the book. That’s why I think it took me so long to figure out the theme: I was scared to face the implications.

That said, I have to write my truths. My job as a memoirist isn’t to make people (or myself!) feel comfortable. So, ultimately, I pushed forward and wrote, wrote, wrote!

Sheila
How might people remedy the fear that causes problems for them in writing?

Sue
Initially, when I work with students who are afraid to write their truths, I encourage them to think about just writing a word at a time, or a sentence at a time…then a paragraph at a time. Ease yourself into the material. Don’t overwhelm yourself by thinking about writing an entire book.

When it comes to fear about what others might think, I encourage students to initially just write for themselves. Pretend that they are the only ones who will ever see it…and worry about publishing later, after all the words are written.

Sheila
You’ve written a valuable book on the craft of writing memoir. Did having written that book make a difference for you too? In what way?

Sue
I teach in the low-residency MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. By writing Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir, I was “forced,” if you will, to refine and clarify my own thinking on craft…and how to teachcraft to my students.

Sheila
How do you use your writing experience to help your graduate students write well and continue in the craft and process of memoir writing?

Sue
Writing exercises are particularly helpful, I find, when a writer is stuck. An exercise is a no-pressure writing tool. It isn’t supposed to be a finished product or a brilliant piece of writing (though it can be, of course)! I remind students that an exercise is a way to play with words, with images – and see where they lead you. An exercise isn’t necessarily meant to be shown to anyone, so, as I say, no pressure. Then, usually from an exercise, the writer is able to re-enter his/her current writing project with newfound energy.

Sheila
What else would you like people to know about the calling to write memoir?

Sue
That it is, indeed, a calling. I think it was Charles Bukowski who said that you don’t choose writing, writing chooses you. This, I feel, is particularly true for memoir. I wrote my secrets because I had to…because, ultimately, it became harder to maintain silence than to write.

Sheila
Is there anything you’d like to add about the publishing process concerning memoir and/or about the advice many are getting that publishers aren’t into memoir anymore even as more and more of them are coming out?

Sue
Try not to even think about publishing during the writing process. There will always be naysayers and, frankly, according to “them,” the novel has been dead for years and no one reads poetry. Well, the novel is alive and well. People (albeit not enough people) read poetry. And the actual reading public loves to read memoir. If you’ve written your book well, you’ll find a publisher. So, as I say, during the writing process just focus on each and every word.

Sheila
Thank you for sharing your experience and the workings of your mind and pen as you write. It always feels good to me to hear from a writer about her process. It helps me learn how to feel comfortable in the unsettling drafting stage, how not be overwhelmed. And you’ve helped me not think about the predictions of those who like to sour our publishing aspirations! I certainly hope there is a fourth memoir in the works.


Leave a Reply