Thursday, September 22, 2022

Q&A with Roberta Silman




Roberta Silman is the author of the new novel Summer Lightning. Her other books include Secrets and Shadows, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and The Atlantic. She lives in Massachusetts.


Q: What inspired you to write Summer Lightning and how did you create your cast of characters?


A: Summer Lightning is my most autobiographical work and comes from my childhood and young adulthood. I was born in Brooklyn and our family moved to the south shore of Long Island when I was almost 8.


Belle and Isaac are based loosely on my parents, but they met later than Lindbergh’s take-off. However, my father had a real interest in Lindbergh, which intersected with my own life when I worked at The Saturday Review as a young woman during the time when the poetry editor there trashed Anne Lindbergh’s poems.


In our family we were three girls and although Sophy and Vivie contain aspects of our personalities, these two sisters became more and more fictional as I wrote. But the values in the household were values prized by my parents.


I was interested that whoever did the PW review got that, saying: “Yet what will resonate most with readers is Silman’s intensely emotional description of the Kaplows’ commitment to family and helping others. Silman portrays the Kaplows as genuine people who manage to instill true integrity in their children.”  


The Black maid in the household is based on a real person and the affinity for Black people that permeated the household was real. However, the story of Vivie and Herbert falling in love and what resulted is all fictional.


I think when I started thinking about this novel I had a vague idea that I wanted to write about Jewish liberal values of the 1940s and 1950s being tested, and then I remember meeting a Black man on his way to Oxford when I went to Europe with art study group in 1954 and somehow the story of Vivie and Herbert suddenly appeared before me. A real gift.


The art thread came from Marilyn Lurio, an artist friend in Westchester where my husband and I raised our kids and lived for 52 years. She introduced me to the work of the women artists like Isabel Bishop and Nell Blaine and that whole group that I describe in the novel.


I actually got the idea for the art thread from a reader who read an early draft of the novel and suggested it needed a bit more of an edge and mentioned Larry Rivers’ autobiography. And then, without warning, there were Belle and Larry interacting.


I also knew about these people because I was working at The Saturday Review at the end of the 1950s and knew Katherine Kuh and was starting to become interested in the art world.


It seemed a perfect way to convey Belle’s yearning for something more, which was something I felt about my own mother who lived from 1910 to 1999 and who was wonderfully smart and almost scarily intuitive, but who never had the opportunities she and my father so generously gave my sisters and me.


The early pages of the novel with Isaac’s German connection are actually true. My father did work in the German Book Store during the First World War and was educated by a man named Hoffmann. And he did visit his parents in the early 1930s and urged his siblings to go to Palestine and arrange for his parents and two youngest brothers to come to America.


And I did have a wonderful piano teacher who died when I was 16 and who wasn’t Jewish and who had come to America in the 1930s to escape Hitler’s rise to power because she had a son with a withered arm. But the connection between my father’s German employer and the piano teacher was made up.


When you ask me how I created the cast of characters, I realize as I am writing to you that the characters were mainly in my life and some of what happened to them is true, but a lot became more present to me as I started to write because I knew their story needed to be told.


So, as I thought about these people who meant so much to me their lives began to connect into a coherent story. Like pieces of a puzzle that are lying there on the edge of the table waiting to find their proper place.


Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you? 


A: When I first started writing I thought there would be a real Lindbergh thread. My father was very interested in Lindbergh’s trajectory and horrified by his political beliefs and the rumors about his personal life, which turned out to be true. But after Roth’s Plot Against America, that was not really possible.


However, in my Lindbergh research I found some shocking things which are referred to in the rather slim Lindbergh thread. His craziness with America First, etc., seemed to match the craziness we are experiencing now, and that’s why I kept the references to him and his family so readers realize what we are going through now is by no means new.


My research into the art world also surprised me because it led me to realize how conservative so many of us were in the middle of the century about race and sex and gender and how far we have come. My grandchildren are color and gender blind, which people certainly were not. So there is real progress and we shouldn’t forget it.


I also must confess that when this novel began to form in my mind in the late 1990s I was more attentive to my mom’s stories of her and my father’s life when we children were very young or before we were born.


That served me well because several of the incidents in the book came from those stories — like taking in a pregnant teenager when she was a young mother, and my father’s cousin dying of a botched abortion, and the fire at the summer camp which gave Isaac a chance to find himself again.


Too often we think life begins only after we are born, but a lot happened to these two people before I came into the world, and it became important to me as I wrote because I realized that those events had formed their personalities and knowing their back story helped me make Belle and Isaac more layered characters.


Q: The writer Amy Gottlieb said of the book, “Like Doctorow’s Ragtime, the historical sweep of Summer Lightning is dazzling and immersive.” What do you think of that comparison?


A: I am flattered by the comparison. I think the history comes from being brought up in a family of news junkies. If you’re interested in today’s news, you are also interested in how we got here.


My father was an immigrant from Lithuania and my mother the only child born in America of a large family of Polish Jews. What was happening in Europe was very important to them.


The immersion into the events of the Second World War was true in many households like mine. The war was very present, especially if you were Jewish. We also had friends and relatives who went to war; some came home and some didn’t. That makes an enormous impression on an impressionable child like me.


Then going to Cornell in 1952 where the long arm of McCarthy had made trouble was also a factor. And then I married a man who studied government and history while we were at college together. (He had the luxury of two undergraduate degrees, one a BA in government, and then a few years into our marriage, a BS in civil engineering.)


We were very affected by the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education while at college and horrified at the racism that ensued. We also lived in England in 1963-64 when JFK was assassinated and then came back to all the civil rights unrest. Part of being a human being in our world was knowing and participating in politics and trying to right what was wrong.


So as I wrote this intergenerational saga I tried to convey not only the personal stories of the characters, but also the responsibilities we felt to each other as human beings, striving always to live decent honest lives. That included obligations to and responsibilities for our country, as well.


The lives of my characters are lived in the context of what is happening around them, and that is what Doctorow was conveying, as well. It’s what Dickens and Tolstoy and Roth in American Pastoral and The Plot Against America do so well.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way.


A: I had no idea how the novel would end until I was deep into writing it. I had always known that I wanted to mine my parents’ life and I see this novel as my love letter to them, even though Belle and Isaac became more and more fictional as I wrote.


But what became important to me as I got into the various drafts of the novel was not only the sisters’ relationship to their parents when they were children, but also when they became young adults, starting off on their own.


This is a very tricky time in families, and I think that comes through in the story of Vivie and Herbert. For example, towards the end when Vivie needs to go to Florida to see Herbert who has been injured in a race riot, she calls Belle, never dreaming that her mother would want to come with her. But Belle surprised both Vivie and me by saying she would go.


And then, when I was nearing the end of the book and a little panicky about how I could end it, I stumbled upon an article talking about Larry Rivers’ involvement with a staging of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex in July 1966, just a month before Frank O’Hara died in a crazy accident on Fire Island, and I knew I had a way to end the book.


And that’s when I realized that the quotation from As You like It — how love is a madness and mysterious beyond everything else — could close the circle of this story.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have a great interest in Russian literature and fell in love with Akhmatova and Mandelstam when I was very young and even learned enough Russian to read their poems.


So now, I am finally working on a long story called “The Russian Lesson” which is pieces of Akhmatova’s life that can show the young what it is like to live in a repressive authoritarian country. How one is affected, how one’s work is affected, and how, against so many odds, this fascinating woman survived to become one of the great poets of the 20th century.


The recent tilt towards authoritarianism in our own country somehow made this project more urgent and gave it a focus it did not have when I started thinking about it a decade ago.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: That, like so many writers, I am grateful for your attention to fiction. Thanks so much!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Roberta Silman.

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