I’m beyond excited to introduce one of my writing heroes to the Debutante Ball this week: Sue William Silverman.
I was introduced to her work in grad school, at which time I read Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey Through Sexual Addiction and wrote a five-page annotation about her beautiful use of description to slow time and build tension. I normally wrote 2-3 page annotations, so five pages was proof of how much I loved her lyrical prose. I also read her craft book, Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir, and went on to read her other two memoirs after I graduated. Silverman’s work was intrinsic to my development as a writer, both on a craft level, and also in terms of subject matter—she wrote about the forbidden, something I knew I wanted to do. I got to know her outside her work through a Facebook Binders group, where she is always helpful and encouraging to other writers, and I gathered all my courage and asked her to blurb my book, and miraculously, she said yes.
As soon as I started recruiting guest writers for The Debutante Ball, I knew I wanted to ask her to participate. Not only did she agree, but she offered up an entire collection of her books for the giveaway:
The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, a finalist in “Foreword Reviews’ IndieFab Book of the Year Award” in the essay category.
Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction which was favorably reviewed in the Oprah magazine, Elle, Kirkus, and others. The memoir was also made into a Lifetime Television Original Movie.
Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, which won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award in creative nonfiction.
Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir, a craft book for beginning and experienced writers alike, is a step-by-step guide to shaping memory into art, to turning imagery into metaphor – all the elements needed to craft raw experience into a fully formed story. Poets & Writers named Fearless Confessions one of the “essential books for writers.”
Hieroglyphics in Neon is a collection of poetry, published by Orchises Press.
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Now, on to the interview!
Have you ever met someone you idolized? What was it like?
Pat Boone. Let me say that for writers of creative nonfiction, being a stalker – or doing whatever it takes to meet your idol – is perfectly acceptable behavior! After all, you can get either an essay or even a whole book from stalking, as I did, with The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew.
OK, some background. For those of you who never heard of Pat Boone—or who only know of him as a right-wing, Christian Conservative—he was also, back in the 1960s, a famous pop singer, a clean-cut version of Elvis Presley. Back when I was a kid, I wanted Pat Boone to adopt me. He was the antithesis of my Jewish father who misloved me. Pat Boone had four daughters; I wanted to be his fifth. Back then, Pat Boone represented safety to me, which wasn’t present in my own home. So, while I liked his singing, my obsession went much deeper.
As a tween, living in New Jersey, I once ventured into New York City to attend his weekly television show on CBS. After the show I got his autograph, but was too shy to ask him to adopt me.
Flash-forward several decades. I’m now an adult living in Michigan, and one day I saw Pat Boone’s photograph in the local newspaper, advertising a concert as part of Tulip Time Festival. I attended. Afterward, while everyone else departed the mega-church where he performed, I snuck backstage and tracked him down. With only a hint of decorum, talking as fast as possible (I didn’t know when security would throw me out), I told him what he meant to me growing up. And, the thing of it is, he was quite nice, albeit somewhat taken aback. Nevertheless, he listened to my story.
Subsequently, I sent him my first two books. He actually read them and sent me a fan letter! He also invited me to another concert and asked me to meet him backstage in the green room to have a real conversation. It was everything I could have hoped for. He complimented me on my writing and told me that I reminded him of a flower growing up through concrete, having overcome my incestuous background.
So even though he never adopted me, he did see me more clearly than my own father.
These encounters became the basis of the book, a series of thematically linked essays. They aren’t all about Pat Boone, but they do focus on a search for self, a search for Home, and my desire, during adolescence, to be Christian.
In short, if I hadn’t barged backstage to meet him, there would not have been a book. I wouldn’t have had the experience itself to write about. Nor would I have understood the irony and complexity of Pat Boone himself, a man who is sweet and supportive, one-on-one, in private – even as he’s so controversial in public.Oh, and Pat Boone likes my book, named after him! I attended his 80thbirthday party at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, and I have a photograph of the two of us together, holding the book. It’s been quite a saga! And you can see the photo of us on my website if you like.
When you were a teenager, what did you think you’d be when you grew up?
I had zero ambition or prospects growing up. I was rootless. My father was sexually molesting me. My mother pretended not to notice. My older sister ignored me. I had friends, but I was living a double life, pretending, on the surface, that all was fine, while hiding how lost I felt inside.
I got terrible grades. I cared nothing for school. I had no inclination to go to college.
But here’s what I did have:In junior and senior high school, when my family lived in New Jersey, periodically we’d go into New York City for dinner, or to attend a Broadway play. I sat in the back seat of the car, and we’d drive past homeless people, some living in refrigerator cartons. I was drawn to these people. In my adolescent mind, all I could envision was a kind of freedom I thought they possessed. My own family was so scary, I felt attracted by the prospect of being all alone, anonymous. I even had my own subway grate picked out. Honestly, that was what I aspired to.
I’m still almost shocked that I have the life I do…that I didn’t grow up to be a homeless person.
Have you ever tried writing in a different genre? How did that turn out?
It was a disaster!
I began as a fiction writer. For at least ten years, probably more, I churned out one terrible novel after another. All of them, in one way or another, were about incest and/or sex addiction. In other words, I was trying to tell my story – but not. By fictionalizing it, the writing was emotionally inauthentic. Many writers have written powerful autobiographical novels. But I would not be one of them.
Ironically, it was my therapist at the time, not a writing instructor, who suggested I switch to memoir. I did. Immediately I felt as if I’d found my artistic home, my emotional center. I found my language and my metaphors. I wrote my first book, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, in three months. It just fell out of me. However, you could say I’d been writing it, albeit as fiction, for over ten years. Let me hasten to add, however, that my other books, on average, took about five years to write.
I did publish a poetry collection, Hieroglyphics in Neon,and have another collection almost completed. I’m only now trying fiction again.
The road to publication is twisty at best—tell us about some of your twists.
Once I finished that first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, I wanted to publish it, of course. But I was also scared. Given that, my first step was to submit it to a contest that I knew I’d lose! That way, I could feel like I was trying to publish the book, but wouldn’t have to deal with the real fear of seeing it out in the world. So I sent it to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Award Series, and, much to my shock, it won in the category of creative nonfiction. I truly never thought the judge would select a memoir on the topic of incest as the winning book. Part of the prize was publication with the University of Georgia Press.
With my second memoir, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, I stumbled into a bit of luck. I was giving a reading at a writers’ conference. One of the other writers liked my work and said I should send my new memoir to his agent. The agent took it on, and sold it to W. W. Norton.
The story about publishing my poetry collection, Hieroglyphics in Neon, was even more of a chance encounter. I was attending a cocktail party at the conference sponsored by AWP, and I happened to set my drink down at a table beside a man who seemed friendly enough. It turns out he was the owner/editor of Orchises Press, which publishes poetry. How fortuitous! I’d just finished my collection. I asked if I could submit it. He agreed, and published the book.
I have two more AWP conference stories in terms of publishing, which, as you’ll see, is a good place for contacts.
Several years after the University of Georgia Press published my first book, I stopped by their booth in the Book Fair to talk to one of the editors, and we discussed what types of books the Press was currently interested in. The editor said they wanted to publish more craft books on writing. Without thinking about it or even questioning myself as to whether I could write such a book, I volunteered to write one. And that’s the origin of Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir. Without that serendipitous conversation, I would never have thought to write a book on the craft of writing!
The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew was not, I felt, a book that would easily fit into the New York publishing marketplace, given that it’s an essay collection. In any event, I’d recently written blurbs for a few memoirs published by the University of Nebraska Press, their American Lives Series. While attending the AWP conference, I stopped by their booth at the Book Fair to meet one of the editors in person. We got to talking. I mentioned this essay collection I was completing. She said she’d love to see it. I sent it to her. And I had another publisher.
One thing I’d like to add is that for us, as writers, it’s important to know what kind of publisher is a good fit for any given book. While I thought that Love Sick could hold its own in the large New York publishing world, I felt the Pat Boone book couldn’t. I know many writers dream of a big advance with a large publisher, but sometimes your book will be better off if it finds a home with an independent or university press. I’m extremely lucky that I’ve had wonderful experiences with all my publishers and editors!
What is your next big project?
I recently completed a fourth memoir, How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, and I’m ecstatic that I’ve just been offered a contract.
But I want to say something about the fact that I’ve written four memoirs! It’s a lot, I know. For writers of creative nonfiction, however, it’s important to understand that we all have more than one memoir – more than one story. Sometimes, beginning writers of CNF, think they have to cram their whole life into one book. Not so! Just the opposite, in fact. I see any given memoir as only a slice of a life. Each of my books, in this vein, has a different thematic focus.
As mentioned, I’m also tackling a novel. Wish me luck!
About Sue William Silverman:
Sue William Silverman is the award-winning author of three memoirs, a book on the craft of memoir writing, a poetry collection, and numerous essays. She teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Sue is the author of three memoirs: The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew is part of the “American Lives Series” with the University of Nebraska Press. Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award Series in Creative Nonfiction. Her memoir, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, was also made into a Lifetime TV Original Movie. Her craft book, Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir, is a staple in CNF classrooms, and she also has a poetry collection, Hieroglyphics in Neon.