"Embracing my tribe of writers": A Conversation with Sue William Silverman
Supriya Bhatnagar | April 2020
Sue William Silverman
Sue William Silverman is an award-winning essayist and memoirist. Her seven books include How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences named by Bitch Media as one of “9 essay collections feminists should read in 2020.” Other books include Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, which won the AWP Award Series Prize for Creative Nonfiction; Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, which was made into a Lifetime TV original movie; The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew; a craft book, Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir; and a second poetry collection, If the Girl Never Learns. She’s a professional speaker who has appeared on numerous television and radio programs, and she teaches in the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Supriya Bhatnagar: Sue, it has been an honor for me to have known you ever since I started working at AWP twenty-one years back. You had won the Creative Nonfiction Prize a few years earlier, and yours was the first Award Series-winning book that I read and admired. I have deeply valued your support and advice over the years, and you have been a steadfast friend of AWP all along. Can you talk about this prize a bit from your perspective. Why did you enter?
Sue William Silverman: Thank you for such lovely words. They are fully reciprocated.
I have such a clear memory of putting my manuscript in an envelope, carrying it to the post office as if it might break, or I might break, and mailing it to AWP.
I was scared for anyone, other than my therapist, to know about my incestuous childhood—the topic of the book—even though I was sure I’d lose the contest, anyway. Yet I had to try! I felt it would be deeply meaningful for a book on this sensitive subject to win a literary prize.
Women’s narratives have been routinely discounted and overlooked, considered unworthy texts, beneath serious consideration. I wanted to help shatter this misconception: Our stories are as vital, as literary, as are traditional male stories.
I should add I also have a clear memory of sitting at my rickety antique desk when the wonderful former AWP director David Fenza called to say I’d won. It was a call that changed the trajectory of my life.
Bhatnagar: Why this book?
Silverman: Most memoirists have a core narrative—one frequently explored first—before we branch out to other concerns. My core issue, which most impacted my life, was incest. I had to write this first before I could “see” the rest of my stories.
Bhatnagar: How has winning this prize impacted your writing career?
Silverman: By winning the AWP award, my community of writers took me more seriously. It helped me secure a teaching job at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Additionally, this award gave me a platform upon which to stand, with others in the genre, to undermine critics who label memoir navel gazing. A literary memoir is turning life into art. I now had credentials to make this claim: not only for me, of course, but for the genre itself. Writing a life through a reflective and metaphorical lens is as profound a pursuit as writing fiction or poetry.
Writing also led me into activism, into speaking publicly about the value of memoir as well as about issues concerning the #MeToo movement.
Bhatnagar: Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, (such a poignant and haunting title) has done very well since it was published, and you have written other successful books. Can you talk a bit about them?
Silverman: Thank you! Sure. My second memoir, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, delves into the adult ramifications of my difficult childhood.
Subsequently, I wrote The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew that focuses on my ironic and frequently misguided quest for spirituality. This memoir-in-essays isn’t nearly as dark as my previous work.
My recently published book, How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, explores my death-phobia, but it’s also about preserving memories, language, and sensory experiences to achieve a kind of immortality—if not surviving physical death itself. Additionally, it’s about overcoming everyday inconveniences such as heartbreak, aging, loss. (The Trump Administration!) It’s structured as a kind of quasi-road trip through my life trying to escape all forms of death, while discovering how to survive life.
I know this seems like a lot to write about one small life! But, to me, a memoir is a slice of life, not a whole life. We all have many stories to tell. It’s like turning the lens of a camera from one theme to another. I’m already at work on another book.
I’ve also written two poetry collections, If the Girl Never Learns and Hieroglyphics in Neon, as well as a craft book Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir.
I want to add that the publication of all these books, in one way or another, is a result of AWP. Sure, the first book won the award, but I found editors for the others through contacts I made mainly hanging around the book fair during AWP conferences.
Bhatnagar: We are extremely honored that you have decided to give back to the AWP Award Series by supporting this competition through a planned gift. AWP feels so fortunate to be able to endow this prize in your name, and it will be called “The Sue William Silverman Prize in Creative Nonfiction.” Your thoughts? What made you decide to give this gift to AWP?
What do you want your legacy to be?
Silverman: You mention the term “giving back.” And while this is certainly true, I’ve also been considering the word, or the idea, of “embracing.” I want to embrace AWP and my tribe of writers as I have been embraced.
Wherever one is on one’s writing path, we are all the same: writers. We embrace truth in a manner only found in art. To write truth is to break silences, to have one’s voice heard, regardless of one’s narrative. Once we lose even one narrative thread we are all, in some crucial way, lost. AWP is our organization that helps gather and sustain these narratives—our narratives.
My legacy? In my own small way to help ensure that future writers are part of, included in, the embrace.
Supriya Bhatnagar has a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Rajasthan, Jaipur, India, and a BA in nonfiction writing and editing and an MFA in creative nonfiction from George Mason University. Her short stories have appeared in Femina and 4Indianwoman.com. Her memoir, and then there were three..., was published in 2010 by Serving House Books. Essays from this book have appeared in Perigee and Artful Dodge. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee.