Small Press Spotlight: Sue William Silverman

by Rigoberto González | Oct-08-2014

The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, University of Nebraska Press, 2014.

Sue William Silverman’s memoir, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, is also a Lifetime television movie. Her memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction. She is also the author of Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir, teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is a professional speaker (http://www.SueWilliamSilverman.com).

This is your third memoir and you’re covering time periods that overlap with your first two books, though the lens of this book is a lifelong admiration of, maybe even obsession with, Pat Boone. Child abuse, which was at the center of your first memoir, casts a long shadow in this one—your reach for Pat Boone was a reach for salvation, an escape, a refuge (“I want to be Christian even though I don't exactly believe in God. Only Pat Boone”). How did you discover and how did you shape an entirely different book, even as you revisited the troubling landscape of your childhood and youth in particular? And how did you negotiate holding on to the Pat Boone attraction without holding on to the trauma that led you to him?

Generally speaking, each memoir is only a slice of a life, not a whole life or story. Thematically, any one book needs a relatively tight focus. In this new book, therefore, I examine my life through different themes from those of my two previous memoirs. Here, the context for the child abuse is depicted through my ambiguous relationship to Judaism and my desire for the overtly Christian Pat Boone to be my father. So even as I, again, write about my life, it’s like switching a camera lens and looking at events from a new angle.

Additionally, unlike my first two memoirs, each of which has a single narrative arc, this new book is a memoir in essay form. This way, I’m able to write about a range of events (such as picking apricots in Israel, a vacation to Yugoslavia with an anti-Semitic boyfriend, etc.), even though Pat Boone is at the heart of the book. My goal was for an overall picture to emerge from out of individual experiences.

My need for Pat Boone – an early 1960s pop-music idol – remained, without holding onto the trauma, because he was a savior figure for me, transcending the trauma. He was like a light in the distance, a song in the darkness. I seek to transform his impossibly wholesome, squeaky-clean, All-American image into an image that is real, one that resonates for readers.

I was particularly intrigued by the chapter “See the Difference,” in which you chronicle your struggle with a bout of C-diff. There is so much that can be read about the literal pain and purging that takes place, the healing and the recovery that precedes the final Pat Boone concert mentioned in the book. But it wasn’t until this chapter that I realized how you didn’t employ dates as much as you do here. Interestingly enough I didn’t miss them because the cultural and historical references situated me within the different time periods. Was this a different approach than in the previous memoirs (and why?) or is this a device in all your works? And how do you advise the writing student about when the inclusion of more exact dates is necessary or unavoidable?

In most of my writing, as in The Pat Boone Fan Club, I try to avoid exact dates as much as possible, because memoir is more about the metaphors of an experience, which both the writer and the reader experience in the present/ presence of the text. It’s only now, in the present, that I’m making sense of the past by writing about it. Since the understanding of events after the fact is such a large part of memoir, this tends to diminish the need for an exact time frame.

To this same end, all three of my memoirs are mostly written in present tense because the past is always with us. As Faulkner so famously wrote, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”

The section, “See the Difference,” however, is an exception. Here, I wanted specific dates in order to show the arc of the illness, its mis-diagnosis and mis-treatment. I wanted to be precise in showing how imprecise medicine can be.

What to tell students? Well, it’s a personal choice, just like verb tense. But, to paraphrase John Gardner, memoir should be a “vivid and continuous (non)fictional dream.” The more the narrative flows metaphorically and unobtrusively, the more events become vivid and continuous. To me, bogging down a memoir with lots of dates can cause unnecessary clutter. Most readers forget the dates anyway. So use them sparingly, as needed. More importantly, allow imagistic details to establish time and place. Does the narrator, for example, have a crush on Pat Boone, the Beatles, or Blake Shelton? Even one such detail is revelatory – and not just in terms of a time frame. Such details will always bring the reader more deeply inside the experience than simply a date.

The complexity of faith is perhaps one of the most compelling elements of The Pat Boone Fan Club. The narrator navigates her distancing from the Jewish faith and its associations with her abusive father very much aware of what the Christian (and later, politically conservative) icon represents for her—she’s forgiving of Pat Boone and builds a loyalty from her gratitude. The “encore” at the end of the book is arresting in how it weaves the girlhood daydream/fantasy with an actual dream that took place during sleep. The dream is perfectly situated after the first-term election of Barack Obama. What has been the response from either Jewish and/or politically liberal readers about this narrative that details such a surprising attraction? There’s a level of humor about it, and you bring that up from the beginning, but very quickly it’s established as a constant struggle (a “swimming against the current” she calls it) between what will be gained and what will be lost: “My name is Gefilte and I am not a fish. My name is Gefilte and I am not a Jew. Or am I?"

Yes, the main struggle is that search for spirituality and identity, even as it includes Pat Boone, someone with whom I disagree politically. What supersedes political differences is that he’s been incredibly supportive of me. For example, the second time I saw him, backstage after his Christmas concert, he pointed to an embroidered flower on my jacket and told me (referencing my troubled childhood) that I reminded him of a flower growing up through concrete. Ironically, he sees me more clearly than my own father ever did!

Even though, of course, he didn’t transform me into the WASP-y girl I wanted to be, he did help me understand my own strength – much of which comes from my own culture. I hope that this rather paradoxical relationship gives the book more texture and nuance.

The reaction I’ve received from actual readers – Jewish and gentile – has been very positive. The reaction from Jewish media and organizations, however, is mixed. Some are very supportive and understand my struggle. Others find my journey problematic, or at least the book problematic.

This reaction saddens me. I certainly don’t portray my struggle with Judaism in black and white terms. Far from it. Yes, I associate Judaism with my family of origin, and with the childhood abuse I experienced, but I also come to understand that being a Jew is, fundamentally, a part of who I am culturally. 

The “Gentle Reader” sections were an interesting device. The author S.W.S. addresses the reader directly, intimately, confiding another level of vulnerability in the act of retelling/writing – the narrator pauses and reflects on what has been shared. I appreciated those breaks in the narrative because they sustain another sensibility – the Gefilte trope, certainly, but also the voice that steps out of the memory, the reconstruction of the past, and into the present moment. It’s a comforting space. And kind of soothing, actually, because it’s here more than anywhere else that she’s able to laugh at the ironies of her journey (and the trope). Why is humor as an entry point to the difficult stories of life so essential? Was it a challenge to keep a close watch on the use of humor in a book with a tongue-in-cheek subtitle like “My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew”? Or is humor not a matter of control?

Humor is definitely a matter of control. Trying too hard to be funny pushes readers away, rather than inviting them into the moment. Humor must evolve from the material, rather than be imposed upon it.

This hoped-for humor in these five “Gentle Reader” sections is important because it acknowledges that the “author-me” understands the irony of a Jewish-atheist-liberal-Democrat who, growing up, wanted the conservative Tea Party member Pat Boone to be her/ my father! In short, I wanted to alert the reader that I myself understand the irony, even though parts of my life  were sad and scary.

Actually, this is a very Jewish sensibility! There’s a tradition of Jewish humor born of oppression. This is one way I discovered I’m more Jewish than I thought.

The Gefilte fish is a metaphor because it, like the narrator, lacks a true identity! It’s really a mish-mash of who-knows-what kind of scaly things molded into a fishy meatball.

Yet I wanted that Gefilte fish image to be funny and sad.  So while the image is absurd, I also felt sad for this little lost Gefilte fish, my alter-ego.  By balancing the absurdity with a sense of longing, I wanted these moments to be emotionally authentic.

At the end of "The Fireproof Librarian" chapter there's a wonderfully compelling statement: "No, you can't start a fire without a spark. Sometimes you can't start one anyway. Sometimes you just smolder, waiting for your chance to burst into flame." It sounds as if, applied to the act of writing, there's a story to tell at every point-in the desire, in the attempt, whether or not a fire happens, something happens. What is the process of finding the story for you? What is your next fire?
Generally speaking, there are huge blocks of time in which our desire to break through the everydayness of life is repressed. Creativity, however, allows us to take those long-smoldering periods and transform them into works of art, which is a kind of bursting into flame.

In order for this “bursting forth” to occur, we usually need distance from an event to create the proper context. In “The Fireproof Librarian,” for example, at the time it happened, in the event, I was just this lowly library employee angry about the cover-up of asbestos in the building. Now, many years later, as a writer, I’m finally able to see this idea of smoldering as a metaphor for my life. Over time, memoirists discover the metaphors of a narrative to make the story one that evokes empathy and understanding. Some of the pieces in The Pat Boone Fan Club are more experimental than my previous writing. Without going into too much detail (because writers are notoriously superstitious), I'm working on a new book that continues this experimentation through writing about the final, ultimate topic of death and the (ironic) possibility of escaping it through writing!

This is a great period for memoir, generally, and we writers in this genre should be pushing the boundaries. That's what I'm trying to do!




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