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November 10, 2004
Hanging Out with Joan Silber & Lily Tuckby Ron Hogan
National Book Award nominee Joan Silber (left) isn't too upset by the backlash against a fiction shortlist that includes her "ring of stories," Ideas of Heaven, and books by four other women. She's actually managing to enjoy being at the heart of a literary scandal. "I didn't think that was ever going to happen to me," she joked over a late morning coffee at Housing Works recently.
"And it's not personal," she went on. "The wounding thing is when people say they don't like the books themselves. The general attacks just seem stupid."
Fellow nominee Lily Tuck (right) agreed, and pointed out the industry's confused (or even "double-faced") posturing over the awards. "Last year, when the National Book Foundation nominated Stephen King for a lifetime achievement award," she recalled, "there was a huge hue and cry about how he was a popular writer, not a literary writer. Now they're screaming and yelling that were too literary and not popular enough." She's glad for the nomination, though, especially because it offers new life for her novel, The News from Paraguay. "The book was about to disappear completely," she recalled. "It wasn't exactly remaindered, but it had been sent back to the warehouse." Silber added, "There's a sticker on my book now, so whatever happens, I feel that I'm more on the map, and that's enjoyable."
I mentioned a point that had come up in my earlier conversation with Christine Schutt about Knopf's bottom-line decision to turn down her novel, which finally found a home at Northwestern University Press, and asked if either of them had felt themselves in similar jeopardy. "I feel fairly safe at HarperCollins now," Tuck said, "and I have a lovely, lovely editor who's very supportive. But before that I switched publishers three times, and each time it was a struggle to find a new one." Silber had a similarly "long, zigzagging" career trajectory: "I started with Viking and published two books with them when I was young, and then I had a long time when I couldnt publish with anybody. I finally published with a small press, Sarabande Books, moved to Algonquin and now I'm with Norton."
The two authors were acquainted with each other before the National Book Foundation released its nominations; Tuck had thrown a book party for mutual friend Margot Livesey where she met Silber, and the two had stayed in touch. But the bond between them--and the other three nominees--has strengthened in the last month. "We met as a somewhat besieged group," Silber said. "The attacks made us draw closer together." "We all feel very supportive of each other," Tuck noted. "Of course everybody would like to win, but its not like were horribly competitive." Both noted that they were actually too distraught over last week's election results--each had spent time canvassing in Pennsylvania--to dwell too much on the negative chatter. Of next week's ceremony, Silber observed, "It's terrible not to let us know in advance. This is the only literary award that does that. They try to make it like the Oscars, and were not actors. Although we wish each other well, we're going to have to compose ourselves on the spot either way, and I don't think anyones looking forward to that." She is, however, looking forward to seeing her close friend, Jean Valentine, who's up for the poetry award, and the three of us eagerly swapped hints of what we'd be wearing to the party: mostly variations on the "basic black" advice Silber got from previous NBA winner Andrea Barrett. (I'm still sitting on the fence about actually renting a tux, seeing as I'll be well off the main floor for most of the proceedings...) Both were hesitant to discuss the exact nature of their new work, but Tuck allowed that it wouldn't be another historical novel, and both enthused over how much fun the research process was. "I used to speak Spanish, but I can't anymore," Tuck admitted, "and I can't read it, either, but that's probably a good thing. If I could, I'd probably still be reading books about Paraguay instead of having written the novel."
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