In Seven Questions, we interview writers, editors, designers, and others in publishing. Today we talk to Marisa Silver, whose story “Leap” appears in Ecotone’s fifth anniversary issue and was named a distinguished story in The Best American Short Stories 2011. It now has home in our anthology Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone’s First Decade as well.
What books are open on your desk right now?
Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, by Danilo Kis, The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, and about twenty other books not yet read, sort of read, almost all read, read.
Where did the idea for “Leap,” your story in Astoria to Zion, come from?
A friend told me that her dog had jumped off the edge of a cliff. Chasing a rabbit? A botched suicide attempt? I had to find out.
If you could spend a year writing anywhere in the world, where would it be?
I want to say Berlin, or Istanbul, or Marrakech, because those cities fascinate me. But that would be the reason I shouldn’t go to those places—I’d spend my time wandering and watching, and I’d get nothing done. I’d be better off on an island where the distractions would be of a more natural kind, where I would be thrown back on myself and my own abilities, and where my prize for a good day’s work would be a walk to look out at the ocean, watch birds swoop down to fish, and think about time, which is really what fiction is all about.
Name a book you bought for its cover.
Even though I’ve probably made too many disappointing purchases based on cover art, I would say that any cover of a book put out by Faber & Faber is so immediately appealing it’s hard not to want to read what’s inside.
Your most recent novel, Mary Coin, arises from the photograph Migrant Mother. What was it about the image that inspired you?
A few years ago, I went to an exhibit focusing on photography of the West at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Lange’s famous photo was part of the exhibition. I had seen the image many, many times and was always drawn to the woman’s face, which seems to me such a mixture of strength and resignation, as well as to the curious composition of the photograph—the way the children face away from the camera. But what struck me seeing the photo this time was not the image itself but what was written on the curatorial label next to the image. The description noted that the woman in the photograph did not reveal who she was until she was sick and dying, when she appealed for help from the public in order to pay for her medical care. This fact struck me powerfully. Here was a woman who was the subject of, arguably, one of the most famous images of the twentieth century and who, for the better part of her life, did not lay claim to this legacy. I was immediately filled with questions. Did she choose her anonymity or was it chosen for her? Was there something about the taking of the photograph, and its subsequent ubiquity that troubled her? And what must it have meant to her, nearing the end of her life and in a time of physical duress, to have made the decision to finally reveal herself?
When did you know there was a novel there?
I thought there was a novel when I first imagined the idea. I knew there was a novel when I finally finished it. The other 98 percent of the time I had no idea.
Typing or longhand? typing
Silence or music? silence
Morning or night? late morning until late afternoon
E-reader or print? print
Vowel or consonant? I am partial to all the letters in the alphabet.
Train or plane? plane
Bookmark or dog-ear? bookmark
Cake or pie? ice cream
Mountains or sea? sea
Dog or cat? I have a huge, floppy dog I love and who loves me if I am holding food. I crave a cat but I live in the land of coyotes. Also, if I ended up with one of those very self-sufficient cats that didn’t seem to need me, even if I was holding food, that would be deeply humiliating.
Marisa Silver is the author, most recently, of the novel Mary Coin, a New York Times bestseller. She is also the author of two previous novels, No Direction Home and The God of War, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction. Her first collection of short stories, Babe in Paradise, was named a New York Times Notable Book and was a Los Angeles Times Best Book of 2001. When her second collection, Alone With You, was published, the New York Times called her “one of California’s most celebrated contemporary writers.” Silver made her fiction debut in the New Yorker when she was featured in that magazine’s first “Debut Fiction” issue. Her stories have been included in The Best American Short Stories and The PEN / O. Henry Prize Stories, as well as other anthologies.