Marisa Silver on the Tangled Nature of Memory

“We are never living just in the present. We’re constantly sourcing back to the past or thinking about what comes next.”

The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: Read Marisa Silver’s new short story, “The Memory Wing.”

The Memory Wing” is a new story by Marisa Silver. To mark the story’s publication in The Atlantic, Silver and Thomas Gebremedhin, a senior editor at the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Thomas Gebremedhin: Your story “The Memory Wing” concerns a woman named Evelyn who begrudgingly visits her former son-in-law’s mother, Helene, at a nursing home. In the first few paragraphs we learn a lot, including that the women had a fraught relationship even while their children were married and that they share a dead granddaughter. How much of this character-building—the biographies, the tensions—do you have figured out before you start writing, and how much of it do you discover during the writing? Do you outline?

Marisa Silver: I generally start with very little, in terms of character. I put characters into situations and see what behavior and responses feel right for them, and then I see how the narrative develops as a result. This process goes on for a long time; I etch the characters more specifically and more deeply as I go. I’m driving a character at the outset, but once she comes alive to me, once I hear her voice and know how she moves and what she would say or do in given situations, the character takes over. It is not until that handoff happens that I feel like the story really takes flight. It’s always important to me to find what a character does not understand about her own nature, or what in her nature she tries to cover up. The resulting tension gives action and dialogue more layered resonance. I find characters in the slipstream between the expressed and the hidden or unknown.

In the case of “The Memory Wing,” I knew I had two grandmothers who didn’t like each other very much. And I knew their children were divorced. And I knew a beloved granddaughter was the last thing that linked the grandmothers. I did not know that this love still linked them. That was only something I discovered when I wrote the final scene.

A story, for me, must be shaped and articulated through strong craft choices, but at the same time, it must suggest the wayward incoherence of life. We look backwards, and can see patterns and meaning and even a structure to our actions and our choices. But as we live forward, we are really just doing the next indicated thing, pulled by situation and emotion and desire. Meaning is relatively nonexistent. I don’t outline, because I want to assume that same lack of awareness as my characters. I don’t want to have any idea where I’m heading, just as they don’t. And, either to justify the fact that I have no capacity to imagine a fully fledged plot from the outset or because I am leery of plot as being fundamentally important, I have come to believe that the less I know at the beginning, the better. Surprise shifts a character’s knowing, and it shifts a reader’s, too.

Gebremedhin: One of the story’s predominant themes is the tangled nature of memory and time. The narrative isn’t linear; instead, it moves back and forth through time, one memory cracking open to reveal another. How did you land on this structure?

Silver: When I write, I generally have two or three ideas in my mind that don’t immediately appear linked to me. But because these ideas are in my mind at the same time, I believe that they are related—some subconscious preoccupation of mine connects them. The writing, then, is the exploration to discover the linkages. I’m not talking about obvious connections. The connection I look for is the subtextual. Connections between seemingly unrelated things necessarily create a fractured structure. I’m looking not just at the different story elements. I’m looking for what emerges when pieces are laid next to one another. As you suggest, time is a key element that I am dealing with when I am looking at the way in which different narrative arcs impact one another. We are never living just in the present. We’re constantly sourcing back to the past or thinking about what comes next. When I write a story, I focus a lot of my curiosity on why and when we reach into the past, what emotions cause us to go back. The obvious reasons—to find the causal connection between what happened before and now in order to explain something—is the most reductive and least interesting aspect of memory to me. I’m curious about other reasons that memory is a constant.

Gebremedhin: Part of the action of the story is set in the French Riviera during the summer of 1975, when Evelyn and Helene’s 16-year-old granddaughter went missing for a few days. Did you draw on personal memories of the time to fill in the story or research it for a more objective look?

Silver: I’ve been to that area a couple of times, once as a kid—my parents took me there, with one of my grandmothers, actually. Later as a young adult. The memories I have are very specific. Some of them, I used. The airplane dropping toothpaste from the sky, for instance. The rest is imagined. What’s interesting is how few details you really need to set a location in a reader’s mind. What matters are the details of place that have emotional resonance for the characters. A world is created by what a character observes. I’m not trying to describe the Riviera. I’m trying to describe Evelyn’s Riviera, or Helene’s.

Gebremedhin: Evelyn’s past is marked by tragedy; her present can be challenging, too. And yet, at times, the story is incredibly funny. Does humor come naturally to you in fiction? What’s key to folding comedy into a story?

Silver: I would not call myself a comic writer, in the sense that I don’t usually take a comic situation as the jumping-off point for a story. I tend to be moved by the way a challenging experience can cause just the tiniest shift of perspective that changes the way a character sees the world. The aperture of knowledge opening just a fraction wider—that’s what I’m after. But people are so often amusing, even at their worst. Their determination to cling to what they believe or some idea they have of themselves can have tragic consequences, but it can also be incredibly funny. Helene marching down to the beach in high heels, clutching her purse—well, that’s how she would go to the beach, because she is frightened by what she cannot control. The fact that she can’t behave in any other way than she does makes for a comic moment. But that comedy is rooted in her character.

Gebremedhin: You’ve written two story collections and four novels, but you started your career in Hollywood as a screenwriter and director. How does your sensibility as a filmmaker inform your short fiction and novels? Do you prefer one medium over the other?

Silver: Well, it’s been many moons since I directed a film. I don’t think of myself as a filmmaker any longer, and I’m more informed by the fiction I read than by the films I watch. Still, as you suggest, there are many aspects of the filmmaking craft that bear upon writing in interesting ways. The two that stand out most for me have to do with the staging of scenes and the editorial process. When you write a scene, you can imagine characters moving in a space at the same time that the camera angle changes. In other words, the writing can be both visual and visualized. Camera angles correlate to narrative distance and point of view in fiction. Are we omniscient, seeing the whole room? Are we in a close-up? Is that close view bringing us into a close third-person interiority, or are we looking closely at someone from another’s point of view? I sometimes think about a camera on a crane, taking in the wide view, then swooping in for the close-up shot, then taking off again.

The editing process of film correlates to how we move from scene to scene in writing. Do we need interstitial material to carry a reader and characters from one scene to another, not just physically, but also psychologically, or can we, in filmic terms, “cut to”? Can we leave what is unseen and unwritten for the viewer/reader to fill in? I think that this use of elision is important. We want to bring a reader into the work, and part of that has to do with allowing them to do the work of making sense of what isn’t there.

Gebremedhin: And, just for fun, let’s say “The Memory Wing” is going to be adapted—who plays Evelyn?

Silver: Very fun! I would choose Laurie Metcalf, because she is sharp and funny, and because she breathes complexity and humanity into even her most comic creations. And because, as an actress, she can do no wrong.