Q & A with author Jen Silverman
May is Short Story Month and to celebrate, we were fortunate enough to chat with author Jen Silverman about her book The Island Dwellers, the appeal of short stories, and what exciting projects she is currently working on.
1. Why was it important for you to write The Island Dwellers, and what do you hope readers gain from this collection of stories?
The Island Dwellers is a collection of interlinked stories, set half in the US and half in Japan. It’s a book about nomads, travelers, people caught between the known and the deeply unfamiliar - in their relationships, their geographies, and their identities. I wrote some of the stories during the time in which I was living in Japan, and some after I’d returned to the US. For me, these stories are about intimacy first and foremost – how we navigate it, how we resist it, how desperately we require it, and how we reach for it across languages, across all boundaries. My favorite books are the ones that make me feel like I’m in on a secret – like the book and I know something intimate about each other. I hope that readers feel that way about The Island Dwellers - and in so doing, feel seen.
2. Since we’re about to celebrate Short Story Month, what do you think is the most interesting or exciting part of writing in this form?
Short stories speak straight to the part of me that has been a working playwright for the past decade. Short stories, to me, are about voice and character. My favorites don’t revolve around plot – they’re driven by force of personality. The point isn’t what happens, it’s who are you? I always write stories in the first person, because I think of them in the same sort of way I think of monologues – what does this person have to communicate, what demands to be said? I am learning, with my novel, that this kind of intense urgency is a lot harder to maintain in long-form.
3. What was the most challenging part of writing The Island Dwellers, and how did you overcome it?
Honestly, I wrote most of those stories without thinking that they would be made public. Theatre is inherently public work – a play doesn’t fully exist until it’s been produced, it demands audience presence as part of its aesthetic DNA. For me, these stories were the antidote to my theatre-life – they existed because they were utterly private modes of engagement. The hard part has been adjusting to the realization that they’ll be out in the world en masse, doing their own thing. But it’s also the exciting part.
4. What projects are you working on now, and what can your fans look forward to after reading The Island Dwellers?
In terms of fiction, I’m in the early stages of a novel, also for Random House. This summer, two of my new plays are being produced – Dangerous House at Williamstown Theatre Festival, and Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties at MCC, off-Broadway. Collective Rage has been published by Samuel French (acting edition) and Oberon Books (trade edition), but Dangerous House is still in the stages where I’m rewriting it drastically from workshop to workshop. I’ve also spent this past winter and spring in a writers’ room in LA, writing on a new TV show – I’m not yet allowed to say what it is, but it’s fierce and queer, and I’m excited for it to come out. Working across these media has felt hugely fulfilling – each one demands a different relationship to structure and image, and in some way, those different relationships all feed each other.
Jen Silverman is a New York–based writer and playwright, a two-time MacDowell Fellow, and the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts grant and the Yale Drama Series prize.