Marisa Silver came to fiction writing after directing several
motion pictures, including Old Enough, Vital Signs, and He Said,
She Said (which puts her only one degree of separation from Kevin Bacon).
Was directing something that she'd done instead of fulfilling a desire to write short
stories? "Oh, no," she said, "I wanted to make films. I had written short
stories in college, but it wasn't a goal. My real focus was on films, but I got to a
point where, although filmmaking was still very exciting and parts of it were
very satisfying, I felt like I was making films that were less and less important
to me personally. I tried to bring as much as I could to the films I did, and I'm
proud of the ones I made, but they didn't necessarily reflect what I was
thinking about human nature. I felt like I was on the wrong train." So she
went back to grad school to study creative writing, and then slowly put
together the collection of stories that became Babe in Paradise.
RH: What did it feel like to go back to grad school after
spending years in the "real world?"
MS: It was great. I was so much more focused on what I wanted to learn.
I certainly wasn't interested in the social aspects of school, the
extracurricular aspects of college life. And after that ten-year devotion to film,
it was wonderful to have my mind opened up to new ways of thinking
creatively. Film is a creative process with its own processes and rules, and I
enjoyed learning a new language, literally and figuratively, of storytelling.
I had no illusions about what I knew, and I had wonderful teachers and other
students, all of whom were very serious about the mechanics of writing, the
craft. They weren't there to come up with the Great American Novel in two
years; they were really serious about what makes a great story work.
RH: How did you make the financial adjustment? I know the film
industry doesn't provide a steady salary, but...
MS: It's more, yes. Luckily, I'm married and my husband works, so we
did lose income, but we didn't have to immediately move into the poorhouse
when I changed careers. And money's never been the driving factor. When
we had to cut corners, it was a happy sacrifice for both of us. If I had been on
my own, and filmmaking was my sole source of income, it would have been a
huge gulf to take that step, but I was very fortunate to have that support.
RH: What did you learn about storytelling as a narrative
filmmaker that you could bring to your short stories?
MS: I think there's a lot that's very similar in terms of constructing
scenes dramatically. How a scene plays out, what information you want to give
to an audience or to readers and when. And I think the concerns in film about
where you place the camera are related to the concerns in fiction about where
your point of view comes from. Are you close up to a person, looking right into
their eyes? Or do you stand back far enough to see them in a landscape?
One of the things I think I specifically brought to my writing was the attempt
to tell stories without a lot of explanatory language. I try to let the character's
behavior reveal the character, rather than tell how they're feeling or what
they want to do.
RH: When you were learning to write short stories, who did you
read and learn the most from?
MS: I learned a tremendous amount from reading Alice Munro. She's a
master of using time in stories, going back and forth, weaving flashbacks into
stories. I read a lot of Chekhov, a lot of William Trevor, and then a whole range
of authors from Herman Melville to John Updike. There's something to learn
from everybody; once you start thinking about how to put together a story,
when you read any story, you can consider how an author deals with a specific
time problem or point of view problem, and it becomes a lesson in itself.
RH: Your stories are all set in the Los Angeles area.
MS: It isn't so much my desire to tell the definitive story of life in Los
Angeles at this moment, because this collection is definitely not that, but to try
to understand how certain characters' lives might be touched by the city in
which they live. The focus is always on the characters and their problems and
crises, but it's underscored by how they interact with the city and what the
city might suddenly do to change the emotional tenor of their story. So the city
came second, but if you live in Los Angeles, your life is different than it would
be if you lived in Minnesota--for obvious reasons, and for subtle reasons, too.
The experience of driving on a freeway, for example, affects your emotions,
affects how you relate to other people.
RH: How did Babe become a recurring character?
MS: I think after I'd written the first Babe story, "Babe in Paradise," I
realized I wanted her to come back again, and I wrote "The Passenger," where
she's twenty-three and a limousine driver. Then I had to backtrack and figure
out what she was doing in the middle.
She had an almost iconic role to play in the collection. She stands for a lot of
themes that are present in other stories in which she doesn't appear. But I
never thought about writing a collection of just Babe stories, or about a novel.
I had other stories that I wanted to tell, and though I suppose you could always
fit her into the deep background of any story, there were just other characters
whose stories I wanted to tell. But she's a fun character to write. I like her, and
I like who she became over the course of the stories. She matured in ways that
you wouldn't have expected after the first and second stories. I haven't
thought about what happens to her next, but if I thought about it, and she was
doing something that was interesting to me, yeah, I would definitely write
RH: When "The Passenger" appeared in the New
MS: ...that was exciting. (laughs) I'd already sold the collection, so
it didn't get the collection sold, as it has for other writers. But it was an
incredibly affirming thing to have happen, my name showing up in the
magazine that I'd been reading since I was a child. More than anything,
though, the editorial work I did with the editors there was like a tutorial in
story writing. They didn't change anything in a substantive way, but they
made so many great suggestions about tightening, about moving paragraphs to
improve the flow and the rhythm of the piece. And that's true of all three of
the stories that eventually appeared in the magazine.
RH: What comes next?
MS: I'm going to write a novel, but I'll continue to write short stories. I
love the form, and I feel that there's more I can do to perfect my form. And I
have some ideas that are great short story ideas, but not great novel ideas. I've
loved short stories ever since I was young, reading Flannery O'Connor and
Ernest Hemingway, and it feels good to believe that this isn't just a stepping
stone to a novel for me, but a craft I can continue to develop.
RH: Is there anything that could lure you back to the
MS: Not much. It was wonderful, but I really prefer this mode of
expression. I prefer the live that I live doing it. It's just so much more
satisfying to me to have total control over how I express myself. I can
experiment more freely, I can honor my instincts more.
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