The eight stories that comprise Marisa Silver’s latest collection, Alone With You, address the complex ways that love manifests itself in the closest of human relationships. During our recent conversation, Marisa and I discussed many of the themes dealt with in Alone With You—optimism, contradiction, love, and what it means to be close with someone. Our discussion didn’t culminate with any definite conclusions—just as Silver’s stories don’t end with firm answers or resolutions. She leaves her characters moving firmly onward, despite the dysfunction and uncertainty in their lives. The ability to accept not knowing became a motif central to our talk, just as it is in the book.
Silver is also the author of two novels, The God of War and No Direction Home, as well as another collection of stories, Babe in Paradise. She lives in Los Angeles, where I recently met with her to discuss Alone With You over some iced tea.
Risa Kahn What I like about collections of short stories in general is that they end up becoming a discourse on a few ideas. In regards to Alone With You, say the idea you are “discoursing” about is that people in very close relationships experience a certain emotional distance—but that distance is inherent and perhaps necessary to be close with someone. This idea was then weaved through eight separate stories. For me, the book became a discussion and exploration of that primary idea. You gave me eight standpoints to view it from.
Marisa Silver That’s maybe where you come to having read it, but it’s not where I started. During the two and a half years of writing these stories, I was circling around some thoughts, which ended up coming through in the work—sometimes very directly, sometimes obliquely. But I’ve never really succeeded in writing towards an idea. Whenever I have, it’s dead in the water. The story sinks from its own self-importance. Theme and meaning and intention are things that I can talk about after the fact, almost as though I’m the student of my own work instead of the writer. I write from the inside out. Any connection happens because that’s the stuff I’m thinking about in my own life—though not necessarily overtly.
RK That was my experience reading the book—I kind of stumbled through it, and then re-read certain portions again, then let the stories linger in my mind for a bit. Then, I arrived at this one idea—actually, a few ideas. The whole experience really felt like an investigation that eventually reached this pinnacle.
MS That’s good! I love that people can read the collection and then see a larger idea at work, but that’s not at all where I started. I start with a shred of information.
RK Given the similarities I saw in the stories, I wondered what story you wrote first, or if you wrote parts of each simultaneously.
MS The first story I wrote in this collection was “The Visitor”. But, I never really know where stories start. I think a lot, and I ruminate a lot, and then suddenly something appears to me: a character, or a situation, or a line of dialogue, or a place. In terms of “The Visitor”, what occurred to me first was the ghost that one of the characters believes lives in her house. People living across the street from me believe there are ghosts in their house, and I started giving it some thought—what it’s like if you really think there’s a ghost in your house?
This is the way I write stories: it’s like a collage. I have a few different ideas in my head at once and they seem completely disconnected and disparate, but I believe that if they are all strongly in my head at once, and I’m really ruminating on them, then there’s some way in which they connect. And so as I write a story, I try to figure out what the connection is. Usually it’s something very different from what I originally thought. So, with “The Visitor”, I had this idea of ghosts, and I had this girl who works in a VA hospital helping a kid who has lost many of his limbs, and then the grandmother came in, and then I had the drug-addict mother who had died…and as I wrote the story I realized how they connected. “The Visitor” is about ghosts. It’s about visitation. It’s a lot about intersections of ideas: finding where they intersect, why they intersect. That’s how I write. I don’t think about, Oh this character is the protagonist and this character is going to be the instigator. I think, Why do I care about this? Why is this in my mind? Why does it compel me? Then I think deeper and deeper to understand what that compulsion is. It’s never what it seems to be. That’s where the level of surprise in the story is: when I understand the connection. And I think for a reader, that’s where the level of discovery is. When those connections that aren’t apparent at first become clear. That’s where the wonderful feeling where you go, “AH-ha!” comes in—where it just enlarges for you.
RK Yeah, I relate to that experience when I read. I’ll go through the story, I get an OK idea of the characters, maybe I re-read parts or maybe I don’t. Then, a week later, even a year later, it can hit me—that connection, that ‘AH-ha!’ feeling. And I think, OK, I get it. I can put that to rest.
MS Exactly. It’s like if someone turned the world inside out and you’re about to see it inside out for a minute. You suddenly have that moment of being utterly altered. Your subconscious is torqued a little bit to the left or to the right and you then think somehow differently.
RK There are two lines in this book that just…threw me….
MS All right, let’s hear ‘em!
(Risa pulls out the book)
RK OK, here’s the first line, from “Pond” :
She knew that whatever love was, it was also the opposite.
MS Mm hmmm…
RK And this one, from “Temporary”:
bq. Was it possible to care and not to care at the very same moment, the way it was possible to be a husband and not, a parent and not?
These lines really got me thinking…this might get a little personal (both laugh)…but, I believe in God and don’t believe in God at the exact same time. Same with love. I do believe in it and I don’t believe in it at the exact same time. And I’ve never been able to vocalize that. But when I read those lines, I was like, oh! I don’t need to debate and debate and debate. It just…is.
MS It just is. Exactly.
RK Like people can ask, “Do you believe in God” and I’ll answer “Yeah….No…..” and they’ll say, ”Oh, so you go back and forth between the two?” and I say, “No, I just do, and I don’t. Okay?!”
MS That’s what I definitely feel about life—it’s everything all at once. That’s the sort of great excitement about it, and at the same time there’s the great struggle of living it. We are inclined as human beings to want to be reductive, to choose a side, but human nature makes it impossible. The people we come in contact with make it utterly impossible to choose a side. It’s much more interesting not to make a choice, not to be reductive and instead to say “it’s all these things.” That it’s a constantly shifting position and you are always moving. I think that’s one of the reasons I write about family so much. They are very mutable. It’s a constantly shifting complex of people, everybody’s changing who they are vis-a-vis one another as they age. It’s this pulsating, utterly unstable thing. I’m not interested in presenting people when their feet are on the ground. I’m interested in portraying them when they are about to stumble, when they are about to turn left. Those are the dramatic moments.
RK I definitely see that in the stories. When you take characters about to stumble and put them next to the more reductive ones…then there’s the distance. And that’s the interesting part.
RK Another line that comes to mind, from “Alone With You”:
bq. One day Elise would discover a secret or a lie, a dirty magazine in the trash, and she would have to decide if she could manage all the opposites at once.
I thought that was beautiful. I think it encompasses a lot of what this book is about.
MS Yeah—like when you are young and you fall in love and you think, “Oh, if he ever cheated on me, I would leave him.” And suddenly you get older and you think, maybe not. Maybe it’s so much more complicated than that. You can parse emotions so minutely that you can’t make a choice. That’s more, to me, what’s interesting about human nature.
RK Agreed. On The Elegant Variation, you said in regards to short story writing that what you leave out is as important as what you leave in. Which made me think about all of the types of intimate relationships that you didn’t put in the book.
MS A story is such a condensed form as opposed to a novel. A story requires a kind of compression and it requires choosing a part to represent the whole. When I’m writing, certain things have more emotional juice for me than other things. The writer Antonya Nelson said that the obligations of a short story are similar to the obligations of lyric poetry—that they don’t have to be narratives in the same way, that they are actually kind of impressionistic. They are capturing moments of being, states of being under duress.
In the story “Temporary”, the character Vivian lives in this illegal loft with a young woman named Shelly. Shelly’s a really prominent character in the story but she has no dialogue, which I realized only after writing it. I thought, I should I give her some dialogue and then I realized, no, she has a different function in this story. In that same story there’s the couple trying to adopt a baby. You don’t ever meet them, but you do hear them. That’s all that you need for that story. You have to figure out how those relationships serve the story you are telling, how the characters function within the story’s concept.
RK I know you’ve written novels as well, namely The God of War. I’m not a writer, but I assume that when one writes a novel, there’s first that initial shred of information, which turns into a character, which turns into a story. But then the writer gets to know the character so well that soon it’s the character writing the story. Do you have that experience?
MS It’s kind of this push-me-pull-you thing between being in that subconscious place where a story is kind of coming out of me, as if it’s announcing itself to me, but at the same time, I am very much aware that I am crafting it. My job is to find out what the accurate truth is—the accurate behavior is, what the accurate next step is, what is the most resonate thing that a character could be doing in this situation. So, no, I don’t really ever feel like the characters are writing the story—I wish they would! I could go to sleep and wake up to a 300-page book! I’m very conscious of the fact that writing is a constant choice-making situation. I’m saying, ‘Is this getting anywhere?’ How can I get to the next place I need to be at? I don’t know where that place is. I’m trying things—I’m going in this direction and then I come back and I go in that direction and I hit my head against that wall fifteen times. The process doesn’t feel unfettered. The more I write, the more I think I understand how to use the craft. An obligation of a storyteller is to keep people interested. There’s a certain level of consciousness: Is this interesting? Am I doing something that even interests me?
RK How I sometimes define good writing is that it leaves me with a question and not an answer.
MS One reason why people are leery of short stories is because they tend not to give answers. The goal of the short story is to both finish and open up at the same time. It should conclude in a way that feels right for the scope of that story, but it should also leave a person wondering. There are some people like me, and like you obviously, who love that experience and there are some people who want a sense of closure. They want resolutions…
RK They want an ending.
MS Yes. In The God of War, I actually ended it with a question—and it was the fundamental question of the book. And when I wrote that question, I knew that was the end of the book. I kept thinking, gosh can I really end the book with the fundamental question of the book?
RK Yes, you absolutely can.
MS Yes! If there is an answer, it’s about finding an answer. It’s the whole journey.
RK So, you wrote that line, that question, and you knew the novel was finished. How do you know when you’re done with a short story collection?
MS There wasn’t another story I was compelled to write. I just felt this project was complete. Part of it has to do with where I am in my life at the moment and what I want to be doing, and I felt ready for another project. Sometimes I feel like I’ve done the best that I can do right now. Maybe three years form now I’ll be able to do more, or better, but right now, one more story felt redundant to me. I have one idea at a time. I write really slowly and when I glom onto an idea, I don’t let it go until I figure it out. I don’t have stuff in the desk drawer that I can whip out—I’m not that kind of writer. I work on what I work on until…I get it.
RK I wanted to go back and address a few ideas from the book that I’ve been, well, ‘working’ on. One being, that there’s always extreme distance in close relationships. Do you think that’s something that is inevitably going to happen, or do you think it’s a requirement to be close to someone—that there needs to be distance?
MS I don’t think it’s a requirement. I feel like the closer you are to a person, the more you’re defining who you are as an individual. You’re defining your likes and dislikes by deciding if that’s a person you want to be close to. And in the process of making those definitions, you’re becoming separate. Your individuality is defined. There’s something paradoxical about that process. Intimacy is a really hard thing. It’s really hard to get close to people. The urge to scurry away and separate yourself is pretty strong. Our need to connect and our need to be separate are equal.
MS Exactly. Within a set of relationships, everybody’s always trying to define who they are. And that process is something that brings us towards people and also separates us from people. Love is hard. Family love is really hard. It’s full of unpleasant feelings. It’s not all one thing or other.
RK A line from “Night Train to Frankfurt” is coming to mind…(pulls out book)
bq. “She knew that is was horrible to have such feelings towards her mother, whom she loved—if that was the right word for the mixture of frustration and gratitude and hatred and tolerance and surprising, intractable, illogical attachment she felt for Dorothy, who was as deeply and inescapably rooted inside Helen as her own fractured heart.”
That’s such a great, accurate description of love.
MS What does it mean to say I love you? It’s so complicated. What does that mean? It doesn’t mean stars and hearts. It means I exist in your presence…and…I don’t know what it means. I don’t know how to articulate it. I think what’s incredibly hard about children’s love towards their parents is that you are supposed to love them. It’s a given. And you do—and yet you have all these conflicting feelings. You have anger, you have the need to separate from them. You want to put up bars between you and them—that’s very much what God of War is about.
RK Another phrase that touches on the love between a parent and child that resonated really strongly with me was from “In the New World”. The scene where the teenage son has an outburst in front of Tomasz, his father,—and then…
bq. Tomasz thought about his own father and the dead children who had betrayed him, who had not lived long enough to mask their intense need for him with rage.
I read that and thought, phew, maybe my mom does get the point of all that angst I come at her with?
MS Eh, she probably doesn’t! I think there are issues that everyone deals with and they just kind of…exist…there’s no way to fix it. There’s no need to fix it really.
RK You just exist in it.
RK I want to bring up another post you wrote for The Elegant Variation. You were asked to give a speech on writing advice to a group of students, but all you could come up with was advice on love. Then you related what you came up with about love back to the process of writing. I was rereading the whole entry again after I finished Alone With You, and so many of the points you make about love remind me so much of the book’s characters and themes.
MS Oh, wow! I never thought of that!
RK (Reads from blog entry): “Love should bother you. You will never know your partner. You should never know your partner. You will never know how things end up. You should never know how things end up.”
MS Oh my gosh, you’re right! Look at that.
RK “But if you do get to the place where things end, your level of surprise and emotional distress should be tempered by your sense that you could not have ended up any place else.” All of those ideas reminded me of the relationships in the book so, so strongly.
MS Wow, that’s really lovely. That’s really beautiful. Here’s one thing I realize the more that I write: writing is living. It’s not an adjunct to living, it’s not the thing you do for a few hours a day and then you live. It is living. The process of writing is very much correlated to the process of being alive.
RK I get the exact same experience you were just describing, but with reading. Like, there’s no ‘I’m reading this book, and then I live my life’. I’m always thinking about certain things in books as I go about living—there’s no distance between the two.
MS Well it’s a great thing to love being a reader, and to honor that. A lot of people don’t honor that—they see it as something you do on an airline or something you do on vacation. But to really see it as something primary in your life, an activity that IS your work.
RK You know when you meet someone for the first and they ask, ‘So, what do you do?’ I’m always stuck. Maybe I should just start saying, “I’m a reader”?
MS I like that! You should absolutely say that.
RK There’s one story in the book where you switch points of view—“Pond”. Can you talk about that decision? You did it so seamlessly and I thought it added so much to the story.
MS I don’t know why I decided to do it but I did. It was like handing off the story. It’s initially the mother’s story, and then in the middle section it’s the daughter’s. Then I gave it to the dad. I realized the switching of points of view makes you as a reader see this situation from so many different angles. When I write I go sit in different places in my house. It sounds stupid, but if you only sit in one chair all the time you only see one point of view of the room. If you go sit in another chair, it sort of reminds you that the room is entirely different from another point of view. When I handed the story to different characters, I really discovered what the story was about.
RK When I broke up with my last boyfriend, I just moved the bed to the other side of the room, and the whole place felt instantly different!
MS (laughter) Much cheaper than getting a new apartment!
RK In “Night Train to Frankfurt”, the main character and her aging, sick mother Dorothy, have this kind of closeness that I think a lot of the other characters in the other stories either want, or need, or ponder maybe having—or, make sure they don’t have. Helen and Dorothy hold hands, ask each other serious, complex questions—What was it about that story that made you want to give them that closeness?
MS I think that when I start out with characters, I don’t know how they are going to relate to one another. As I get closer to the story, I see and understand more how they relate. When I start, characters seem to be more prickly and caustic. And then as I write them more and more I begin to understand where their softness’are, where their vulnerabilities are, what they need from each other and what they don’t want from each other. When I first started writing “Night Train to Frankfurt”, Helen and Dorothy were more estranged. Then as I continued writing, the incredible love that the daughter has for the mother became very apparent. The story takes place in this train car, so the setting of the story is incredibly compressed—Helen and Dorothy are very physically close to each other. I had to figure out what all that physical intimacy meant to them. Are they close emotionally? Is this situation uncomfortable for them? As I wrote Helen and Dorothy, I realized it’s a love story. I think the hardest thing for me to write about is love.
RK That makes sense. It’s the hardest thing to actually do, let alone describe.
MS It’s hard to understand what it means for two people to really love each other. Sometimes I start writing from the position of the characters not loving each other. I don’t start with love as a given. I write towards it, and see where I get.
RK “Whatever love was, it was also the opposite.”