The Beatrice Interview

Marisa Silver

"It feels good to believe that this isn't just a stepping stone to a novel for me."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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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 about her.

RH: When "The Passenger" appeared in the New Yorker...

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 movies?

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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BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Anne N. Marino | Complete Interview Index | Matthew Klam

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan