In her fourth memoir, How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, Sue William Silverman proves, once again, that stories both live inside us until we are ready to process them onto parchment and keep us alive in ways that will outlast our physical bodies when we do. With genius and ingenuity, Silverman invites us to ride shotgun with her as she gathers memories and grapples with fear along the Route 17’s of her life. You will go there with her, speeding through her panoramic landscape of language and perspective, securely belted into each masterfully rendered scene and honest reflection. Enjoy the ride, the wind and rain in your hair, as Silverman accelerates through self-awareness and desire. But hold on when she swerves in and out of the shadows she’s here to dissolve with her bright sun of interrogation.
Each bite-size essay is the perfect distance to the next pit stop. From the fluid and floral tropics of St. Thomas to the cookie-cutter formality of Glen Rock, NJ. From the real and perceived Janet Leigh-danger of a young single woman living alone to an infatuation with serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer, during her recovery from addiction. From the assault under the boardwalk at the New Jersey Shore to the unspoken guilt and grief of a teenaged Silverman, finally released through hypnotism. Each morsel an exemplar of craft.
It was such a privilege to sit down with Silverman during AWP 2020 in San Antonio for a few minutes of pure sanity on the cusp of coronavirus social distancing. I hope you’ll read this book for the road trip you’ve yet to take, with all the thrill and adventure, the close calls and flat tires, the out-of-the-way cafes and motels, the way stations of a life learning how to survive death. Then, get in your own car and write.
The Rumpus: Let’s chat about your essay titles. Do you know them going in or do you use working titles?
Sue William Silverman: I would say that every title in the book started off with a working title because you never really know where you’re going until maybe the tenth draft. So, the titles did change over the course of the writing. Then, putting the whole collection together, the titles changed as well.
Rumpus: Because titles do a lot of work.
Silverman: They really do. I look for titles that aren’t too prescriptive. I like ones that suggest what the essay is about, that will enhance the meaning of the essay but not say directly that this is what it’s about.
Rumpus: I particularly loved the titles “At the Terminal Gate” and “On the Reliance of Verbs to Survive Death.” The double meanings in that word choice, “Terminal,” both a physical location of anticipated journey but also an end point, a kind of death. And “Gate,” a portal word. Perfect for exploring the question, Where does Grandfather go when he dies? Then, in “On the Reliance of Verbs to Survive Death,” you play with tense. Someone has died and you want to refer to the “is” but it really is the “was.” Or is it? There is such difficulty with language when death occurs.
Silverman: Right, because the person physically no longer exists; but since so much of the book is about memory, they do still exist within me. That particular essay is about the death of my beloved therapist, and this has now been quite a few years ago that he died, but he is still within me. So, he is an “is”; he’s not a “was” to me.
Rumpus: The title of your book also sets up the tension of the narrator’s fear of death while introducing the humor and irony that the reader will find inside.
Silverman: Exactly. If the book were just called “I’m Scared of Dying,” that’s like, so what?! Everybody is. There is this engagement of the narrator wanting to survive both physical death and also the more minor and more spiritual deaths that we encounter throughout life. That’s where the inconveniences come in. It was very important to me for the book to sound like it’s going to approach the idea of death in a lot of different ways. And I did want a title that was ironic. Obviously, she’s not going to survive death. Although I’m still sort of holding out—
Rumpus: —You’re doing a good job! [Laughter] You’re very funny in the book. Would you say that humor or irony is your better writing friend?
Silverman: To me, irony is the humor. It’s meant to be funny, but not so much like “ha ha” humor, like a standup comedian. I see it more as all the struggles that we go through to live, with death at the end of it all. There’s such an enormous irony to it.
Rumpus: Death gets the last laugh.
Silverman: Yes, it does. Sadly.
Rumpus: But we really want to be laughing all the way along.
Silverman: You sort of have to appreciate the vast ironies in life, but I think what I wanted to do in this book is push irony as far as I could. I had to start off with a title like “How to Survive Death” in order to frame the whole book with a sense of irony. Yes, there are sad moments in the book, there’s a sexual assault and then the whole aftermath of that. Yet, this narrator still struggles to overcome those things. It’s a more subtle irony. Even though these traumatic things happened to the narrator, she’s not going to give in to them. Maybe, temporarily, she does, but ultimately, she doesn’t. Ultimately, she’s a fighter and kind of a badass. She’s just going to keep going forward. The overall structure of the book starts on this road trip on Route 17, which is an industry-blighted, ugly route in New Jersey. But I loved it as a teenager.
Rumpus: It represented so much freedom. And escape.
Silverman: It did. The structure of the book is this road trip down the Route 17 of my life, a plowing forward. My foot is always on the gas. At times, maybe I have to slam on the brakes, but, ultimately, I’m going to keep going forward. So, Route 17, which I pick up in the essay titles and enhance in references throughout the book, becomes a central metaphor: that idea of life being a road trip through your memories and collecting your memories on each stop along the way.
Rumpus: It works really well. As a reader, I felt securely grounded in where I was going with the narrator. There are, literally, maps. There’s Route 17; there’s the gold Plymouth Savoy. And there are other roads, like when you drive to the Adam Lambert concert and from Grand Haven to Galveston. We’re not only on Route 17; but we’re always on Route 17.
Silverman: Right, it’s Route 17 both physically as a tangible object and then it’s Route 17 as metaphor.
Rumpus: That lets us travel way beyond the roads into interiority and memory. You do it through repetition, like you mentioned, but other techniques, too: the images, the slanted and sensory details that create this exterior world that we see out the window. But we all talk and think in our cars, right? So, we get to see the narrator share her internal thoughts and processing.
Silverman: Exactly. In many ways, the book is about collecting our memories as a form of immortality. When something first happens, we have an initial memory of it. Over the years, memories shift, and they change depending upon what life events occur. Our memories are always in flux. But I feel that one way to survive death is to be a collector of memories. My memories as a writer will survive me because I’ve written them down.
Rumpus: Language is a way of being immortal.
Silverman: We’re made up of language; that’s how we communicate. Particularly, as a writer. Ironically, I stumbled upon this list of archaic words one day and I was fascinated by them. Beautiful words that had gone out of usage. I wanted to resurrect them. So, every section starts off with one and its definition, and some are used in an example that helps to jumpstart the whole essay into being. If we can resurrect words and language, why can’t the body or our memories be resurrected as well? Like we were talking about my therapist who died. Through language I resurrect him.
Rumpus: Let’s go back to that essay. I particularly love the ending lines:
I save his email: I’m still here. Everything will be fine. Years later everything is—and everything isn’t.
I want to respond.
This is it.
That’s it! His resurrection. I wrote “meta” in the margin. Really as a technique, but also meta as a philosophy of life and death, too. Such a brilliant, lovely tribute. Can you say more about that?
Silverman: Well, I think when you’re writing you’re just sort of writing. You don’t think, I should go meta here. It just comes out the way it does. But in hindsight, there is the idea of a more deliberate meta layer to it, of the narrator being both inside the book and outside the book. I coined two phrases in my craft book [Fearless Confessions:A Writer’s Guide to Memoir]. The Voice of Innocence tells the story. The Voice of Experience is the I, as the author, who considers the experience and discovers the metaphors and what I need to reflect on so that I, and the reader with me, can learn from this. I think the meta voice is part of that Voice of Experience.
Rumpus: I’ve been taught Fearless Confessions, and it’s a great way to separate those voices and learn to write memoir. But I feel like you’re introducing a new narrator here, a new level of narration. There are several places in the book where I thought, She’s pushing that Voice of Experience as far as it goes. It’s like almost a different you.
Silverman: It’s funny because I hadn’t thought of it. I agree with you. I think I’ve taken the Voice of Experience and added more of the author real me into it so that it’s not a total artistic construct.
Rumpus: Like breaking the fourth wall. It’s the author outside of the book, coming in and saying, If you didn’t get it, I’m going to tell you it right here. It’s the Sue I’m talking to right now.
Silverman: That’s right. It’s the real me who just had to say something to my therapist who had died. I had to talk to Randy directly.
Rumpus: I’d like to juxtapose two essays in the book that feel like an arc to me. The first is “My Death in the Family” that starts out with the line, “I die at four years old,” and ends with the line, “To survive death, I must first survive my father.” Maybe surprisingly, the second essay is “Miss Route 17’s Own Graceland” where the narrator drives fifteen hundred miles from Grand Haven to Galveston just to stand on the beach. The song, “I’m Still Standing,” is serenading us along the way. To me, these two essays are in conversation with each other. This child girl with her origin story and this young woman with her important shift in sand. Is it a conversation of body and soul?
Silverman: That’s so interesting. There are various origins of my fear of death; one was seeing my dead grandfather, but having my father sexually abuse me as a child probably was one of the initial feelings. He had stolen my body, in a way, which is a form of death. To survive, I did have to overcome what my father had done to me. The book is also the search for a kind of spiritual home, and that second essay title is about going to Graceland. So, that scene on the beach in Galveston, with the traditional symbol of water, is rejuvenation and life-giving. If I could claim these few inches of sand in a place that felt very spiritual to me, one I loved, this was my Graceland. A reclaiming of my body and my soul, and yes, sort of a morphing of the body and the soul together. That’s exactly what the narrator was doing in that moment.
Rumpus: You hadn’t been there in a long time. It wasn’t like you were just missing the last place that you lived.
Silverman: No, no, no. Many years had passed since I lived in Galveston. But, all of a sudden, it just overcame me, a kind of a spiritual pull, like, Sue, Go to Galveston. So, I got in the car and I just drove. And when I got to the beach, it was like [exhales] taking a deep breath, and reclaiming different parts of myself that maybe I had scattered alongside that metaphorical Route 17. I felt very much at peace and at home in that moment standing all alone on a beach in Galveston.
Rumpus: The song, “I’m Still Standing,” works so well in that essay, but I also wanted to flip it because you’re standing still, maybe for the first time.
Silverman: A very important point because a lot of the book is fleeing. Collecting memories as I go, but I’m trying to outdistance death, outdistance maybe scary things that had happened to me. Then, I’m on the beach in Galveston, not moving, not speaking. It’s just me, alone. I’m absorbing everything that had happened to me. I’m still standing, but, yes, perfectly still. And I think at that point, I could start fully moving forward in a more life-giving way.
Rumpus: It was still going to require more work—
Silverman: —of course.
Both: —which is why the book doesn’t end there.
Photograph of Sue William Silverman by Jess Dewes.