I first encountered Sue William Silverman through the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ Post-Graduate Conference in 2012 and then at the annual Association of Writers & Writing Program (AWP) conferences. When I think of memoir, I think of Sue. Here’s my recent interview with her.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): In general, what is the most gratifying aspect of writing memoir? The most challenging? Now specific to The Pat Boone Fan Club, what were the most gratifying and challenging aspects—and why?
Sue William Silverman (SWS): One of the most gratifying aspects of writing memoir is the opportunity to fully explore one’s life. In my own case, I don’t truly understand my life until I write it. Through writing, I’m able to reflect back on the past and discover the metaphors of any given experience.
Ironically, that’s the most challenging aspect, too! Writing a life is not simply stating the facts as in “this happened, and then this happened, and then this next thing happened.” Rather, one has to dig deep into an experience and discover the “story behind surface story.” What does the experience mean?
In The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, I explore my ambiguous relationship toward Judaism, growing up. Because my Jewish father sexually molested me, I was very drawn to Pat Boone, the antithesis of my father; Pat Boone, in addition to being a pop-music idol, was also known for his wholesome, clean-cut, Christian image.
In this book, I needed to discover the origin and the depth of my crush on Pat Boone. I mean, as a kid, I just thought he was cute – much as any kid would have a crush on a celebrity. It wasn’t until I wrote the book that I discovered how, in fact, he was a metaphor: a metaphor for a safe father I never had.
TWM: How do you prepare a proposal for a memoir? Do you already know your theme(s)?
SWS: I’ve never written a book proposal! I always have to write the book itself in order to fully know what the theme, the arc, the metaphors will be. In many ways, there’s almost no reason (for me) to write a proposal since I have to write my life, anyway, whether the book gets published or not.
TWM: Did you already have essays that you assembled into this book? How did The Pat Boone Fan Club come about?
SWS: Initially, I didn’t know I was writing a book. The title essay was the first piece I wrote but, at that time, I just thought it would be a stand-alone essay. As depicted in that essay, I saw in the newspaper that Pat Boone was giving a concert about 20 minutes from my house. (This was relatively recently, so he was no longer a teen idol—rather an aging idol—and I was no longer a teen!) But, I’d had a crush on him most of my life, so I figured I’d go to the concert and sneak backstage to tell him what he meant to me. I did just that, wrote an account of it, and published the essay.
Then, I simply continued to write what I thought were all stand-alone essays. I was about two years or so into this essay writing, when I realized that all of the essays had a similar theme: a search for identity because of my ambiguous feelings toward Judaism. When I had that epiphany, I realized I could collect these thematically congruent essays into a book as a unified collection. At that point, I then wrote additional sections that weren’t stand alone, but that would help to enhance and round-out the book.
TWM: What was your strategy with the direct address, “Dear Gent[i]le Reader?”
SWS: Those “Dear Reader” sections act as a through-thread to make the book more unified and whole. In other words, in my first two memoirs, each has a unified structure or narrative. Not so with the Pat Boone book. There is a unified theme, but not a unified narrative. In other words, not all the sections are about Pat Boone. In one section, for example, I write about my feeling of being “other” when I attend a mostly Christian high school. In yet another section, I write about a search for my Jewish identity by working on a kibbutz in Israel. Through these “Dear Reader” sections, I’m better able to suggest to the reader how all these sections, together, form a thematic whole.
TWM: The Pat Boone Fan Club takes a departure from your other two memoirs, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, and Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You. What led you to go in this direction?
SWS: Each memoir, generally speaking (for all writers), is not about a whole life; rather, any given memoir, ideally, explores a slice of a life, following one theme. At the same time, all of us are complicated human beings, and, in this regard, we all have many stories to tell.
In this instance, after exploring my incestuous childhood in the one book, and writing about recovering from sexual addiction in another, I was led to explore, in more detail, my search for identity. I didn’t start out knowing what I was going to write. Rather, it was the writing, itself, that led me to this theme.
TWM: The subtitle of The Pat Boone Fan Club is: My Life as a White Anglo Saxon Jew. Was mentioning “Jew” a selling point? How did you characterize your target market?
SWS: I guess the word “Jew” in the subtitle is really just meant to be descriptive of the book and its theme, in that the book is about my life as a white, Anglo-Saxon Jew! I don’t exactly write with a target market in mind. That said, I do hope that my tribe will find the book of interest. Of course I hope others will, too. I think the search for identity is, to some extent, a universal theme.
TWM: What drove your decision to move from fiction writing to memoir?
SWS: Initially, yes, I started as a fiction writer and tried to tell my story as a novel. I wrote about four or five novels. None of them are published and none are very good! Really, I could never find an emotionally authentic voice in fiction. It wasn’t until I switched to memoir that I found that authentic voice in which to write my stories.
TWM: Did you ever encounter any repercussions from your memoir writing?
SWS: Virtually none from my family, which is surprising. Both my parents, I hasten to add, however, had died when I wrote my first memoir.
The main repercussions I experienced had to do with Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction. While I was promoting the book, I did many radio interviews and was asked some very inappropriate questions by radio “shock jocks.” Oh, one asked “where’s the kinkiest place you’ve ever had sex”—along those lines. In other words, I wrote a literary book about personal experience, and the interviewers wanted to sensationalize my story. Kind of demoralizing!
But, more importantly, I’ve received hundreds of e-mails from people (mainly women), from all over the country thanking me for my books. They relate to my experiences. Readers, in effect, thank me for telling their stories, too. That’s incredibly gratifying!
TWM: Do you use any type of beta reader or workshop for your own writing? Please talk about that.
SWS: I have one person who is a terrific editor who reads everything I write. I trust his feedback and judgment and pretty much always implement it.
TWM: As a teacher of memoir, what three mistakes do you see aspiring writers making time and time again?
SWS: To be honest, for the most part, it’s just one mistake. Beginning writers tend to mainly focus just on the surface experience: what happened.
Yet, the more important part of writing a memoir is to discover one’s metaphors, to reflect back on the experience, and discover, as I mentioned above, “the story behind the story.” What did the events in the past really mean? Looking back, what do you understand now that you didn’t at the time? And how does the writer, then, form an arc to show that internal growth, so that who the narrator is at the end of the memoir is different from who s/he is at the beginning.
TWM: What advice do you have for aspiring memoirists?
SWS: I teach in the low-residency MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and what I always assure my students is that their story is important. I encourage them to believe in themselves. Believe in their stories.
In other words, if you are writing memoir, and turning your life into art, you are writing a universal story, one which will resonate with others. Additionally, if you don’t tell your story, no one will. It will be lost for all time, which is incredibly sad. So it’s imperative to put aside your doubts and write, write, write!
About Sue William Silverman
Sue William Silverman’s new memoir, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, was a finalist in Foreword Reviews IndieFab Book of the Year Award. Her two other memoirs are Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, which is also a Lifetime TV movie, and Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, which won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award in creative nonfiction. Her craft book is Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir. As a professional speaker, Sue has appeared on various national radio and television programs such as “The View,” “Anderson Cooper—360,” “CNN-Headline News,” as well as the Discovery Channel. She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.