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Joan Silber’s character-driven, revolutionary fiction unveiled at Hammer Museum

Sitting in front of a pink backdrop, Joan Silber (left) faces Mona Simpson (right) on stage. The former was featured in the Hammer Museum’s Some Favorite Writers series on Thursday. (Michael Gallagher/Daily Bruin)

By Paco Bacalski

Feb. 9, 2024 9:31 p.m.

This post was updated on Feb. 11 at 8:07 p.m.

With character-driven stories told across various times and places, Joan Silber is redefining the novel.

Award-winning author Silber gave a talk at the Hammer Museum on Thursday night as part of the institution’s Some Favorite Writers series. During the roughly 90-minute event, Silber read excerpts from her forthcoming novel, “Mercy,” which was followed by a conversation with UCLA English professor Mona Simpson and a Q&A session with the audience. Discussing her experiences as a novelist and her writing philosophy, Silber said her characters reflect the complexities and nuances of the real world.

“Life is always going to be more complicated than our ideas about it, and fiction loves that,” Silber said. “Fiction loves to come in while your ideas are failing you and real life is presenting something else.”

[Related: Monica Youn examines US history of Asian erasure in Hammer Museum Poetry Series]

(Michael Gallagher/Daily Bruin)
Joan Silber is pictured with a microphone in her hand. During Thursday’s event, the writer read excerpts from her upcoming novel, “Mercy.” (Michael Gallagher/Daily Bruin)

UCLA students and Westwood residents alike braved the evening’s cold weather to attend the talk, which featured refreshments such as cookies and coffee as well as books that audience members could have signed by Silber. Jazz music played softly overhead as those in attendance waited for Silber to take her place on the pink-lit stage. After a brief introduction by Simpson, Silber commenced the reading, which centered around a 16-year-old girl named Cara who runs away to Arizona alongside her deadbeat boyfriend Brody.

The passages – previously published in The New Yorker as a short story called “Evolution” – showcased the blend of sardonic wit and down-to-earth introspection that define Silber’s prose. Following the conclusion of the characters’ journey from New York City to Tucson, Silber suddenly leaps forward in time, with the story shifting to focus on a now-adult Cara as she reflects upon her past exploits with Brody. Such jumps in both time and space are typical of the author’s revolutionary style, Simpson said in her introductory remarks.

“She writes these connected short stories, which together span the globe and decades and sometimes centuries of time,” Simpson said. “They give the satisfactions of a novel. In fact, I think they are a new kind of novel that Joan Silber has created.”

In the ensuing discussion, Silber and Simpson touched upon many topics, such as the characters’ attitudes toward sex, the progression of Silber’s writing career and the upcoming book’s sprawling structure. Silber said the novel would feature two separate sets of characters, with the only connection between them being a chance encounter during Cara’s childhood. This concept of a “link story” was very much intertwined with a slump in her success, Silber said, as it came to her during a 13-year period in which she was unable to publish a book. She said the experience and lessened critical scrutiny she received in that time enabled her to pursue more complex kinds of stories.

“It caused the work to deepen in ways that they wouldn’t have otherwise, and it also caused me to feel freer about trying different forms,” Silber said.

Members of the audience – many of whom were students enrolled in English 137B: “Creative Writing: Advanced Short Story,” of which Simpson is one of the instructors – spoke up to ask Silber about her creative process, including questions about how she conceptualizes and constructs her characters. Silber said while she feels an affinity for her characters and considers their interior lives when writing, she doesn’t base them on herself or people she knows in real life. Responding to an inquiry about her method of following characters at multiple stages of their lives, she said it was based on her belief that significant events happen over longer time spans than a single scene.

[Related: Q&A: Author Justin Torres on pushing creative boundaries in new novel ‘Blackouts’]

Ashlynn Armendariz, a third-year English student, said she found Silber’s reading to be inspirational. Having also attended a talk given by Silber earlier in the day alongside their classmates in English 137B, Armendariz said they became motivated to buy Silber’s book after hearing her speak. Additionally, she said as an English student interested in creative writing, she appreciated the opportunity to gain insight into Silber’s writing process.

“You can just come here and say, ‘Hey, let me pick an author’s brain and then see if maybe I can learn from them and their work,’” Armendariz said.

As the event drew to a close, Silber was met with enthusiastic applause from the audience. Some attendees took the opportunity afterward to have Silber sign their books and to speak with her one on one. Answering one of her final questions of the night, she imparted words of wisdom to the aspiring writers in the room.

“It’s trial and error,” Silber said. “It’s trying it out and seeing what resonates and what doesn’t.”

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