The Unruliness of Life: A Conversation with Marisa Silver

May 13, 2021   •   By Meredith Maran

I’M NOT A huge fan of historical fiction, nor of fictionalized biographies. But I went bonkers over Mary Coin, Marisa Silver’s 2013 New York Times best seller, a fictionalized tale of Depression-era photojournalist Dorothea Lange. I’m not into dark, twisty fairy tales, either, but I devoured Silver’s 2016 novel, Little Nothing, then made my way through her backlist: the novels No Direction Home (2005) and The God of War (2008); the story collections Babe in Paradise (2001) and Alone With You (2010).


And now, at last, we have a new Silver novel: The Mysteries. Set in the Midwest of the 1970s, centered on the friendships between two seven-year-old girls and their families, the novel is a psychological domestic drama — a “neighborhood drama,” if you will — told from multiple points of view. Silver’s history as a director is evident in the cinematic quality of her writing. Her first film, made when she was 23, was Old Enough, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1984; her last was He Said, She Said, 1991, starring Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth Perkins, co-directed with Silver’s then-boyfriend, now-husband Ken Kwapis. Characters, settings, and action all spring to life in the parallel universes of mind, heart, and senses. 


Diving in, I found myself trying and failing to delay the dreaded end, while relishing such eerily believable seven-year-old reflections as, “She thinks that if she saw a nun crouched down, knees parted so that Ellen could see up her skirt to a flash of red panties, which is what she’s looking at right now, she would never be able to go to school again.”


And this bit demanded rereading. “She turns off the TV and contemplates the fallen face of the blank screen where just moments before there was such activity and color. There’s a space between being inside the show and being back in her world that feels strange and empty.”


Lucky us. Not only do we get the lush delight of new words in print from Marisa Silver, but we also get to talk novel-writing with Silver, who teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, her alma mater, about why, when, and how her best book yet came to be.


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MEREDITH MARAN: Can you talk about your process of starting, writing, and finishing a novel?


MARISA SILVER: If only I could! I’d finish my next seven novels! But let me try … I start with a tiny seed: an image, a voice, an event. I never see the whole novel in its full shape until I reach the end. My process is, “Take one step. See what you’ve got. Take the next step.”


No outline, then?


Never. I write not knowing where things will end up. There’s a lot of going forward, hitting a wall, backing up, going 30 degrees to the right. Writing fiction for me is really like pawing through a dark tunnel, looking for that tiny speck of light. I get to know the characters as I carve into them. The only useful thing about my process is that I give myself a word goal, a thousand words a day, just to make sure there’s some kind of progress.


Sounds a bit painful.


Maybe this is a justification. I tell myself if I’m not surprised by where I end up, no one else will be surprised, either. But it’s hard not knowing the answers as I go.


Tell me about the origin of The Mysteries.


The central event of the story — I won’t mention the details; no spoiler alert required — happened to my father when he was a child. He was in a car with his mother and a friend of his, and he witnessed a traumatic event. It was a story he told me, but never explained or analyzed. I always wondered how that affected him and my grandmother, and what the repercussions were.


That was the springboard. Then came the voice of Miggy, my protagonist. She was suddenly there, this complicated, vexing, richly feeling seven-year-old. When she appeared I thought, holy moly, how do you get inside the consciousness of a seven-year-old? How do I find the voice that expresses her in an intimate way, but in language she’d be able to use to describe her own interiority?


Again, you’ve written a period novel, this time set in the 1970s. Why did you pick that decade?


I didn’t have any grand plan about it. Stories tell you when they need to take place. This one happens in the era when I was a child. The things that occur wouldn’t have if there were cell phones and texting. Also, it’s not a California story or a New York story. It takes place in the Midwest, where I was as a seven-year-old.


You wrote The Mysteries from the points of view of two seven-year-old girls, and their parents, and an omniscient narrator. Ambitious choice!


In my mind the book was always about people’s ways of dealing with these mysteries, the strange ambiguities of life and death. Although Miggy is the central driver, it never felt right to limit the point of view to hers. I wanted to create a small universe of people, using the omniscient voice as the bubble they’re all inside of.


I’d never written before in a telescopic narrative voice, but I’d always loved and admired it when I read it — like a film camera that drops down really close to a character, then pulls up, then drops down next to another character, juggling between intimacy and distance. It felt appropriate to include the omniscient voice in particular, to provide a spin on Miggy’s experience that she, at seven, wouldn’t be able to articulate.


Reading The Mysteries is a flowing, almost dreamlike experience. You’ve said you don’t work from an outline. But your writerly choices feel very premeditated in a good way. It’s clear the author is firmly in charge. 


What I want to suggest in my books is the unruliness of life. To do that, shape is equally important as unruliness — but you don’t want to squash the life out of a story by applying craft. The challenge is to keep the subconscious choices from being overwhelmed by the analytical choices — to use craft choices without destroying the impulse.


How you structure a book, how you stage a scene can deliver the subtext of what’s going on as much as dialogue can. What dialogue tells you is explicit. The white space in which characters aren’t talking is implicit. The two together deliver the overall feeling of the book. The main thing when I write is to let my subconscious sing, while shaping my subconscious into some kind of form that delivers a story.


One of the things I loved about this novel, and Mary Coin, and your work in general, is the lyricism of your prose. Do you draft the whole manuscript, then go back and work on the prose sentence by sentence?


Phrases come to me as I’m writing. When I go back and edit, I’m actually stripping away most of that stuff! I try not to be indulgent with the language. I want to use description to create a dimensionalized portrait of a character — to help us see her gait, the way she talks, her manner. I don’t want the writing to be about me being a writer, showing off my lovely poeticisms. Just the facts, ma’am!


How does teaching in an MFA program affect your writing life?


I was nervous when I first started teaching. I thought applying the kind of analytical brain you need to teach would give me less access to the subconscious brain required to write. But teaching has turned out to be an utter boom to my writing. It reignites my excitement about the work. Also, when it comes to revising my work, articulating lots of craft ideas with my students refamiliarizes me with my craft tool kit.


This will be your first and, presumably, last virtual book tour. How do you feel about meeting your readers on screen? 


It’s really fun to go out and meet booksellers and strangers. It was always astonishing to me that I’d go to some city I had no connection to and people would come. It was such an honor, and it can’t be done now. Given the situation of the world, this is something I’m not going to complain about. The good news is the evidence that people are reading during this period, that they’re reaching for books however they can get them.


Have you and your husband considered adapting any of your fiction for the screen? Would you like for that to happen? 


Some of my stories and books have been optioned at different times, but nothing’s come of it yet. One thing I know from having been on the other side of the camera, and from having a husband who’s in the film business, is how hard it is to get a movie made. I’d be delighted if Ken, or anyone else, wanted to turn one of my books into film. I never think about what kind of movie my books would make while I’m writing them, but it would be fascinating to see how a filmmaker would approach these products of my imagination.


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Meredith Maran, a regular reviewer for LARB, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, is the author of The New Old Me and a dozen other books.