There’s a reason Joan Silber’s story collection Fools feels so deftly cohesive. It was born out of one central idea: its title. “The whole idea of being a fool for an idea gripped me, particularly because we’ve sort of gone the other way: You’re a joker if you do anything that’s not for personal advantage,” Silber says. “I wanted to keep looking at that.”
And she does, in story after story, which echo one another through a cast of foolish characters often separated by great geographic distance or many years. Silber, who maneuvers across vast spans of time both within and between stories, says she’s always been interested in longer timelines. Her first novel, for example, covered 20 years. “I’m interested in how changes accrue and how something here has consequences later,” Silber says.
Silber also pulled in real bits of history about anarchy, Gandhi and social activist and journalist Dorothy Day to the collection, which was initially inspired by a trip to India. “I love doing the research,” Silber says. “It’s a way to delay the writing.” In this case, research meant reading about her historical subjects, and visits to the Lower East Side radical bookstore down the street from her.
By sheer coincidence, a childhood friend of Silber’s was a distant relative of Forster Batterham, an anarchist who Dorothy Day left after she converted to Catholicism. Batterham shows up as a character in Fools. “I talked to Elspeth [Leacock] and her sister of what they remembered of him,” she says. “They remembered things like him feeding his ice cream cone to his cat.” Silber says such details gave her “a sort of unauthorized sense of him.”
Silber’s interest in anarchy is personal, she says. “I’ve been a person marching against wars my whole life, starting with the Vietnam War and more recently with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars,” Silber says. “I’ve been out there. I’m not wildly politically active, but those are my sentiments.”
But, she adds, “During Occupy Wall Street, there were lots of slogans that were these beautiful quotes from anarchists. The problem, obviously, has been to live it out,” she acknowledges. “That was one of the paradoxes I was looking at. I’m practical by nature; I’m not an ideologue and we live in an era where ideologues have really done damage, but my admiration for the anarchists is very real.”
Jaime Netzer is a writer and editor living in Austin, Texas. Her fiction has been published in Twelve Stories and Corium Magazine and is forthcoming in Parcel. She’s at work on her first novel.