A Writer’s Insight: Amy Silverberg

Amy Silverberg’s story, “Suburbia!” appears in the spring 2017 issue of The Southern Review. Hear Silverberg read an excerpt of her story in our audio gallery here; read more about her approach to humor in fiction, as well as her thoughts about adulthood and urban planning, below.

Kathleen Boland: “Suburbia!” revolves around the distance between Maria’s suburban hometown and the city of Los Angeles. Though these locations are geographically close, they’re emotionally distant, a truth made all too clear in the bet made by Maria’s father.

Amy Silverberg: I grew up an hour away from Los Angeles, and even though I lived so close, I rarely came to the city unless my parents had a reason to take me. I was under eighteen; I didn’t have my own car. I think a city—even if it’s geographically close—always feels like night and day in comparison. Really, living in a city has always seemed emblematic of adulthood to me, of being able to make one’s own choices, create one’s own life. I suppose I set the story in L.A. because I live here, and it has, for me, a strange and particular identity which I associate with people moving here to “start their lives” and “make their dreams come true.” Those are clichés, of course, but it’s true that so many waitresses are actresses, and comedians, and writers—I’m always sitting in the back of a café listening to people tell each other about the auditions they bombed or nailed. I’m a stand-up comic, and everyone I know is working a day job, trying to juggle their shifts around so they can make it to a show, that kind of thing. It’s a unique kind of striving. And even while I’m in the hustle (though my day job is teaching and not in the service industry), I find it endlessly interesting and stressful and worth writing about.

KB: Why is the mother left out of the bet? Or, what is the significance of having the bet be between the father and daughter, rather than the sister and brother or the mother and daughter?

AS: I’m not sure I have a great answer other than the central force of the story seemed to be coming from the relationship between father and daughter. It made sense to me as I was writing it that the father would try to shield the mother from the bet, or at least, not inform her completely—keep her in the dark. I think parents are rarely on the exact same page regarding how hard or quickly they should push their kid out of the nest. My students volunteer that sort of information all the time: “My mom wants me to call every day; my dad says don’t worry about it. . .” The beginning of adulthood, around age eighteen, seems rife with those decisions, for both parents and kids.

KB: Without giving it away, the story takes a big left turn near the end. Did you know from the outset that you’d be landing in a surreal moment, or was the end as much a surprise for you as it is for the reader?

AS: The ending turned out to be as much of a surprise for me as it is for the reader. In fact, I haven’t written anything I could call “surreal” before or since. I do remember I’d read “The Paperhanger” by William Gay at the time. I was into the ominousness of that story, that you weren’t quite sure where it was going, but the tone of the voice was confident and a little spooky. I thought “Suburbia!” would turn out more like that, too—creepier, not as light. The first few sentences felt ominous as I wrote them, but the story lightened up as I went along.

KB: There’s a lot of indirect humor underscored by punctuation, such as the “When?!” after the laundry confusion, or Maria’s response of “How are Mom and Dad?!?” when James quotes Whitman. Most notably, however, is the exclamation point in the title. In your mind, what’s the difference between stories entitled “Suburbia” and “Suburbia!”? What’s the relationship between punctuation and humor in this story?

AS: I’ve always loved the exclamation point, and I could probably stand to cool it. It’s my favorite punctuation mark! I’m a big fan of Lorrie Moore and the way she uses the exclamation point as a kind of willed, as opposed to felt, excitement. It might be simpler for me: I read everything aloud as I write it, and I’m interested in performance (as a stand-up comic, but also separately, as a fiction writer) and when I feel as though something should be exclaimed, I use the punctuation. It mostly has to do with rhythm, I think, the way it sounds and the way it looks on the page. I wish I could use an exclamation point as deftly as Lorrie Moore, but alas!

KB: Brevity is the soul of wit—and also pretty essential for story writing. What’s the difference in process for creating stories and jokes?

AS: Recently I told a friend about being in a workshop with Aimee Bender at the University of Southern California and she’d written on one of my stories “this is too jokey—there are too many jokes in here” and, of course, she was right. The problem was that the jokes didn’t come organically from the character, but rather, from me. You could see the writer wedging them in, the classic set up/punch lines that could’ve worked anywhere (on Twitter, for instance) and, therefore, didn’t work in the story because they weren’t particular to the narrator. I love joke writing; it’s one of my favorite things. Jokes I tell onstage usually come from a kernel of truth about my life that I then blow out or exaggerate. But I’m not the protagonist in my fiction, and my jokes—jokes that I would tell—rarely belong there.

KB: What’s your definition of adulthood? Is there one?

AS: My definition of adulthood I guess is the same definition I have for the city—being able to make one’s own choices, create one’s own life. But I think that definition points to a state of mind rather than an age. I associate my own adulthood with feeling most myself, living a life only I could have created by doing the things I love day in and day out. This is a very personal definition, I guess.  Maybe every definition is personal?

Amy Silverberg is a writer and comedian based in Los Angeles. She’s currently a doctoral candidate in the Creative Writing & Literature Program at the University of Southern California. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Collagist, Joyland, and Hobart.

Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review and an MFA candidate in fiction at Louisiana State University.

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