Sue William Silverman’s most recent memoir is The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, a finalist in Foreword Reviews’ IndieFab Book of the Year Award. Her two other memoirs are Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, also a Lifetime TV movie, and Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, which won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award in creative nonfiction. Her craft book is Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir, and her poetry collection is Hieroglyphics in Neon. She teaches in the low-residency MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. For more information please visit Sue at www.SueWilliamSilverman.com.
Each of Sue’s memoirs explores a different aspect of her life. In Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, she examines the silence and the secrets in which she lived growing up in an incestuous family. In Love Sick, she explores the ramifications (a sex addiction) of being sexually molested by her father. The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew continues in this vein, but here the focus is on a misguided and ironic search for a spiritual identity.
Sue wrote these three memoirs in order to explore and better understand each of these themes. While she knew the facts of what happened to her, in these various experiences, she wrote to understand what the facts mean. What’s the story behind the story? What are the metaphors of her life? Memoir, to Sue, is much more than the re-telling of a life. It’s reflecting upon it, and this reflection is what turns life into art.
Sue was born in Washington, D.C., before moving to the West Indies in second grade. She returned to the States (New Jersey) for high school, and, after graduating from college, worked on Capitol Hill. From there, she moved to Galveston, Texas, to work on a historic preservation project. Galveston is where Sue began her career as a serious writer. Each of these places where she lived—and others—impacted her life and plays a role in her writing.
Sue, there are so many secrets and conflicts in your memoirs for one person. How did the unfortunate sexual abuse from your father play into your upbringing?
The sexual abuse I experienced growing up affected every aspect of my upbringing. Basically, I lived a double life – as did my whole family. To the outside world, my father, mother, older sister, and I appeared perfect. My father had a high-powered career in government, then later as a bank president. We lived in nice houses, drove nice cars, and seemed to be a happy upper-middle-class family.
Behind closed doors, however, the secrets began. Yet, while my father molested me, my mother pretended not to notice. The word “incest” was never mentioned. We had traditional family dinners, went on vacations, and, in that sense, we “ignored” that my father would sneak into my bedroom at night. Nothing about it, ever, was mentioned.
I never told anyone. I didn’t know to tell anyone. I didn’t have the language to tell anyone. This was back in the Fifties, and people really didn’t talk about child abuse then. Since this was the only childhood I knew, as strange as it sounds, as far as I knew, it was normal. Mainly, I grew up feeling lost and confused. I was a poor student. All because I didn’t really understand what was wrong, how to define it, or how to fix it.
From experience, I know how difficult is to write an excellent memoir. How did you decide to write these stories?
I actually began as a fiction writer—trying to tell my story in novels. All these novels were bad because the voice was emotionally inauthentic. It was actually at the urging of a therapist that I switched to memoir. He convinced me I should write my true story.
As soon as I switched to creative nonfiction, I found my emotionally authentic voice.
How was the publishing process for you?
I submitted the first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award Series. Astonishingly (I was shocked), it won in the category of creative nonfiction. For the second memoir, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, a writer friend introduced me to his agent who sold it to W. W. Norton. The third memoir, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, is published with the University of Nebraska Press as part of its American Lives Series. It’s more a collection of thematically linked essays, and seemed like a good fit for this series.
My craft book Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir was written at the invitation of the University of Georgia Press,
Did you feel like changing your mind during the crafting process? In what context?
No, I never felt like changing my mind. Once I began writing I fully committed to the process. Mainly, I write memoir to understand what I don’t know about my life. I write to figure out my life—give my life an organization—and meaning. Therefore, I always feel deeply engaged in the writing of each book.
In this sense, I find writing memoir, even about traumatic events, centering. It may seem counterintuitive. But not understanding my life is more upsetting or disorienting. Once I’m in the writing process and organizing my life on paper – once events start making sense on the page – then I feel better.
Which one was the hardest story to write?
Actually, the hardest scene I ever wrote (in Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You) was about my cat dying of feline leukemia. Oh, you know, animals are so innocent, and my cat, at the time he died, was all I had to hold onto. He got ill shortly after I hit bottom, when my life was in shambles, and this one more loss was truly devastating. So writing about losing my cat was just incredibly sad.
Did you heal after the first memoir? What was your family’s reaction? What changed in your family after your book was released?
I can’t say that I write memoir to heal. In many ways, much of the healing was accomplished through therapy, prior to writing my first memoir. Writing memoir, to me, is more about discovering the metaphors and the meaning of the experience, organizing my life on the page.
At its core, writing memoir is turning life into art. That’s the intense focus. That said, sure, writing does lessen the power traumatic events hold on me, but that’s more a secondary kind of goal.
I started writing my first memoir shortly after my parents died. My sister’s reaction was guarded but supportive. I mean, she hasn’t read my first two books, which I understand. It’d be too difficult for her. But, at the same time, she’s told her friends about them.
And, she did read The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew. She even shared it with her book club. In short, she’s been quite supportive.
But I know I’m lucky; other memoirists struggle much more in terms of telling their family secrets.
The new generation, your students, must ask you many incommode questions, regarding your life’s stories. What do they ask you? What do you tell them?
Actually, my students are very respectful. Mainly, outside of craft questions, my students worry about possible fallout from their families when telling their own secrets. That’s their main concern. I encourage them to tell their stories anyway.
From my perspective, the job of a writer isn’t to make people feel comfortable or settled. Rather, the job of a memoirist is to tell her truth. We own our stories. As writers, it’s incumbent upon us to tell them.
At the same time, I encourage students to take the whole process one step at a time. First and foremost, during the writing, I encourage students to not even think about anyone reading it…to not worry about what their families or anyone else might say. First, just set the story down on paper.
Then, after the manuscript is written, they always have a choice not to publish. In any event, publishing really is a second step, and I hope writers won’t worry about that until after the writing is finished.
It’s too much pressure to worry about what someone might think or say when you’re still trying to get your words down on paper.
Can a writer with your experience (and a movie) live from writing?
I don’t support myself just through writing. None of my writing friends do, either. Most every writer I know teaches or earns a living by other means. You know, it can take five or so years to complete a book. It’s a long process.
That said, sure, there are some authors who earn a living from their books. It’s just that there aren’t too many.
In short, don’t become a writer with the belief that you’ll be able to support yourself. However, if it turns out that you can, just know how lucky you are.
At the same time, I love to teach. So I feel very lucky, anyway!
I write because it saves my life. Much more important than money, right?!
Talk about your readers. How do you interact with them? What was your highest compliment coming from a reader?
I interact with readers through e-mail, through Facebook, when I give readings. I love meeting or hearing from people who read my work. It’s a strong bond to connect with someone who feels touched by my words…so I, in turn, feel touched by them. I answer every e-mail I receive.
Generally speaking, the highest compliment I receive from readers are those who tell me that I’ve told their story, too. That I “speak” for them, too. You know, I’m lucky to be a writer, to have a voice. It means a lot to me to give a voice to others who are struggling with similar issues with which I’ve struggled.
Let’s talk about the book and the movie “Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction.” What motivated you to write this memoir? What is the takeaway from it? How was the movie received?
As with the other memoirs, I wrote Love Sick to better understand the impact of the addiction on my life, to understand the metaphors of the experience. To make sense of it.
Also, at the time I wrote it, it was the first memoir about sex addiction written from a woman’s perspective. I felt it important for people to better understand this addiction. Of all the addictions, it’s the least understood. I mean, at its core, it’s not about sex per se. It’s using sex as a “drug,” to numb pain, much as an alcoholic uses alcohol. So, as I say, I wanted to write a book that would honestly convey the addiction and the devastation it can cause.
The movie was well received! I thought that Lifetime did a wonderful job of conveying my memoir, without sensationalizing it. The actress Sally Pressman played me, and did an amazing job capturing my emotional essence. Plus, I got to play a cameo role! The whole experience was very positive.
Do you have any secrets about writing? What is your formula?
Two things: write fearlessly. And revise, revise, revise. Writing is incredibly hard work, and you have to love it and be very tenacious.
What are you working on now?
I’m not even sure how this happened, but I’m working on three books more or less at the same time: a fourth memoir, a novel, and a second poetry collection. Yikes! But I enjoy switching from one to the other.
By Maria D. Holderman