So Improvement is your eighth book of fiction. The last three books—which have done just fine, in my opinion—are books of linked stories. How come you decided to write a novel?
I wrote novels before I wrote stories (I was very backwards that way). At a certain point, I began working on long short stories, and I fell into my own way of connecting them—a minor character in one was major in the next, and the stories were moving toward the same theme. After three books in that form—a form I felt I’d done my best work in—I wanted to return to the novel, to write something with the intensity of a line carried through—while still using the skills I learned in spreading across a web.
My first advance review, in Kirkus, called Improvement, my alleged novel, a story cycle, and I was not at all insulted. Actually, they called it a “kaleidoscopic story cycle”—who would mind that?
Where did the idea come from? Don’t you worry about running out of ideas?
I worry all the time. My worst times are when I don’t have a project.
This book started from two things: Hurricane Sandy and Turkey.
When Hurricane Sandy hit New York, I heard a radio report about how some elderly residents of a housing project were managing very well without electricity or water or gas. (My own neighborhood, the Lower East Side, was in the dark zone, so I knew what they dealt with.) I began to think about self-reliance—a topic always dear to me–and the character of Kiki started to form. She’s in her sixties and most catastrophes don’t phase her. I wanted her viewed by her much younger niece, who’s busy getting herself into trouble. Once I’d given the niece Reyna a boyfriend at Rikers Island, I saw the story heightening.
I had wanted for a while to get Turkey—a complex place I’ve happily visited three times—into a story. I gave Kiki a past with a Turkish husband, so she’s lived in a culture beyond Europe and the familiar, and I gave her a few years in the Turkish countryside so she has some basic third-world rural skills.
I wrote the first chapter as a story—to my great joy, it got picked for Best American Short Stories and O.Henry Prize Stories. I didn’t know that it was going to become the first chapter of a novel and that I would spend the next three or four years thinking about it.
So what’s so kaleidoscopic about it?
There are eight chapters, and Kiki and her niece are only in three of them. I wanted to follow a constellation of characters whose lives bear the results of something the niece decides, and we also hear about the aunt’s past. Chapters are set in Richmond, Virginia; upstate New York; Cappadocia, Turkey; and Berlin. I’m always interested in the way events tumble into a chain of consequences, and I love fiction’s ability to move across time at any pace.
Why is the rug on the book’s cover losing some threads?
My own idea was that this connected to the idea of Improvement as repair. I’m not sure if the artist really had that in mind, but the questions of re-payment loom large in the story—how much can ever be made up? Can you make good on a mistake?
You wrote a whole book on The Art of Time in Fiction, and you’re known for writing stories that cover long spans of time. So what’s going on in this one?
Once again, I’ve done things backwards, in that the novel covers a more modest duration than the story collections have (nothing happens before 1970). Well, I did want to make it all one piece. I’m still very into what we call back-story, interested in various ways the past is a live component of current action. Then is often more important than now. I learned this from Alice Munro.
Not to talk politics or anything, but appalling things are going on in the world. What moral value does fiction have?
I’m always happy when someone refers to my fiction as “generous.” In the simplest sense, fiction gets us into other humans’ heads; it trains us in imagining the other. My particular kind of writing picks up characters the reader has forgotten about or scorned or not had in sight. When I was little, my mother, like many mothers of that era, liked to point out, “You’re not the only pebble on the beach.” “I know that,” I would say, but we never really know and it’s fiction’s job to try to convince us. This isn’t everything, but it’s basic equipment.
JOAN SILBER is the author of the story collection Fools, which was long-listed for the National Book Award and nominated for the PEN/Faulker Award. Her first novel, Household Words, won the PEN/Hemingway Award. She has published five other books of fiction, including Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories, a finalist for the National Book Award and the Story Prize, and The Size of the World, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Prize in Fiction and one of the Seattle Times’ 10 Best Books of Fiction. She’s been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and her work has appeared in the Paris Review, the New Yorker, Agni, Ploughshares, Boulevard, and Epoch, among other publications. The beginning of Improvement was published in Tin House, nominated for an O. Henry Prize, and included in The Best American Short Stories 2015.