Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Alone With You includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Marisa Silver. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Marisa Silver returns with an indelible collection of eight stories that mine the complexities of familial relationships and the surprising ways love manifests itself in our lives. In Alone With You, her brilliantly etched characters struggle to deal with life’s abrupt and painful changes. Silver has the signature talent of rendering her fictional inhabitants instantly relatable, in all their imperfections. Through them she powerfully underscores our own unquenchable need for connection.
1. In “Temporary,” Vivian seems content and almost revels in mediocrity. She remembers being labeled by an advisor as a “below-the-radar kind of girl” (p. 4), yet this does not seem to bother her. Why does she continually seek transience and lack motivation?
2. Talk about the temporary things in Vivian’s life – her living situation, her job, her friends. How do they shape her? What kind of person is she?
3. Why does Candy take a special, almost mothering, interest in El Lobo in “The Visitor”? Does she react to him because he refuses to interact with her, simply wanting what she can’t have, or is it more than that?
4. Is her detachment and practicality an asset for Candy as a nurse? What are the advantages and disadvantages of her attitude towards gruesome wounds and her patients in general?
5. Talk about the different relationships Julia and Burton have with their daughter Martha in “Pond.” Why does Julia insist upon giving Martha as much autonomy as possible? Why does Burton have such trouble reconciling his love for his daughter with his love for his grandson?
6. How does reading parts of the story through the perspective of Julia, Martha, and Burton impact your reading of this story? Why do you think this story is titled “Pond”?
7. Reread and discuss the passage from “In the New World” on page 81. Tomasz muses, “His father had lost three children. But in the end, the man was not scared by death. It was the fact that Tomasz had healed that terrified him, that made him mute and unknowable to his youngest son. Each day Tomasz lived was another day he could die. It had never occurred to Tomasz that he could have hurt his father simply by being alive” (p. 81). How do you interpret this passage? How does it apply to Tomasz’s relationship with his own son, Teo? Do you see Tomasz’s adding support to a crumbling house as a metaphor?
8. In “Leap,” why does Patsy jump? How is this symbolic? Why do Sheila and Colin remain married? Do you think their relationship has become a charade, or that it will ever work again?
9. Why do you think Dorothy only tries unconventional means of treatment in “Night Train to Frankfort”? What makes Helen realize at the end of the story that her mother really does want to live?
10. How does Connie’s family contrast with the family with car trouble in “Three Girls”? Discuss the differences between the families and their “three girls.” Which family does the title of the story refer to?
11. In each story, discuss the character’s detachment from each other, and from themselves. Is this a defense mechanism, or a character trait? Which protagonist has the greatest sense of self, and why?
12. In the title story, “Alone With You,” Marie feels the need to leave those she loves in the face of her illness. Why is she so against letting her family care for her? Do you agree with her thought that “It was only that they had discovered that they needed to look away from one another to find their futures,” (p. 164)?
13. Mother-daughter relationships are featured prominently throughout Alone With You. In many instances, the daughter ends up behaving more like a mother figure. Compare these relationships in two or more stories. What do they share, and how are they different?
14. The theme of caregiving pervades the novel. Why do you think Silver chose to set many of her characters against backdrops of hospitals, sickness, and disease?
15. Alone with You is full of dysfunctional relationships, affairs, and cheating. Some characters choose to stay with their partner, and some leave. In “Pond,” Burton muses about “how easy it was to flee from love, about the disaster of choosing loneliness,” (p. 63). In “Leap,” Sheila realizes that “it was possible to be okay and not okay at the same time, that a thing – a dog, say, or love – could only exist alongside the possibility of its absence,” (p. 100). Discuss a few of the couples in the novel, and examine the reasons for their choices. Who do you think ends up happiest?
16. Silver masterfully uses descriptive details and imagery. Share a passage that impressed itself upon your mind, and discuss her use of language and metaphor.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. In “Night Train to Frankfort,” Helen reads a poem by Pablo Neruda to her mother, Dorothy. Neruda is “the only poet [Dorothy] had gone out of her way to read.” Helen selected “Tonight I can write the saddest lines,” from Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. Borrow a copy from your library, or look up more of his poetry online. What do you like or dislike about his poetry? Why do you think it he is Dorothy’s favorite poet?
2. Marisa Silver’s novel The God of War, earned great acclaim and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Read it as well, and discuss the differences in her style and language. Is her writing different in the novel than it was in short stories?
3. Visit Marisa Silver’s website at http://www.marisasilver.com to learn more about the author and her books, sign up to have her call into your book club, or find out if she’ll be doing a reading near you!
A Conversation with Marisa Silver
1. After the critical acclaim for The God of War, did you feel pressure to live up to expectations with Alone With You?
I don’t think I worry so much about living up to others’ expectations as I think about making sure that my writing is developing, that I am integrating what I am learning through my own work, through reading, and through generally living so that each book represents some kind of step forward for me personally and artistically. I want my writing to reflect the fact that as I live, I think more carefully and hopefully more deeply about what writing can be and about what being alive is.
2. How is the process of writing a novel different from that of writing short stories? Do you prefer one over the other?
The more obvious differences have to do with what a short story requires. For me, a short story is about compression. It is about choosing the very few actions, emotional beats, and bits of characterization that can suggest a whole universe. I always think of it as a kind of high wire act, because I have to be very careful that the images, the pieces of dialogue, the one or two details that describe a person accomplish enough to create a deep resonance. It is as if I want to make sure that every word says what it means and at the same time suggests other layers of meaning, so that even within the framework of a twenty or thirty page piece, an enormous amount of information and emotional range is conveyed.
A short story is very much about what is not said. For me, the choice of what to leave out, what not to say, is as important as what I do choose to say. A novel can take the time to describe a place, or a family history, or the deep interiority of a character. A short story can’t take that time, and yet, it has to suggest all these things or else the experience for a reader is not rich enough. So it is not that the novel can tell us more than the short story (although in overt ways, of course it can.) It is that a short story has to tell us as much of itself through its negative space as though the words that appear on paper.
Another strong difference for me is that a short story generally conveys an existential situation, a state of being, rather than a fully-fledged plot. Of course things “happen” within the pages of my short stories, but the plots tend to be smaller in scope. In my novels, the plots have to do more heavy lifting. They have to propel a reader through a longer reading experience, and so they have to have more complexity.
3. You started out writing and directing films. What made you decide to go to graduate school and switch to writing short stories and novels? Do you ever see yourself returning to screenwriting and/or directing?
The more films I made, the more I began to recognize that the kinds of stories I wanted to tell and the ways in which I wanted to tell those stories would not be supported easily in the medium of film. In general, film works with broader strokes and I’m interested in all the little in between moments, the tiny gestures and notions that are the smallest atoms of human interaction. Writing gives me the opportunity to find the large meaning in the small instances. And it also gives me the opportunity to spend a lot of time by myself. Which I quite like!
4. You masterfully capture many different ages, genders and perspectives. How do you get into the voice of each character?
It’s hard to put into words how I work to convey character because, as I’m sure is true for many writers, the process of working is such a subconscious and associate one. Things just sort of “happen." Characters feel like they arrive on the page. But they don’t simply arrive, they are arrived at, even if the journey towards them happens unconsciously. I think about creating character much the same way I think about getting to now a person. At first, I might seize on some superficial information to try to get a grasp of who a person is – the way he wears his hair, the way she smokes a cigarette. I listen to speech, for accents. I look at the lines on someone’s face and try to guess at his age. There’s a scar? I wonder what that’s about. Maybe I’ll ask. Then, as I get to know a person better, I get more information – personal history, emotional responses to given situations, attitudes. The more information I get, and the more intimate my relationship with that person becomes, the more I deepen my understanding of who this person is.
It’s the same with a character in a story. I start with a tiny shred of information about a character, then I write scenes, give her words, decide if those words feel right. Once I’ve found her language, the way she speaks, then I’m beginning to know her better. I throw action in her way so she has to respond, to behave, and then I learn even more. And all the while, I’m shaping and reshaping the character so that she becomes palpable. I always remember that there is no objective “truth” about any character. A person might have a mythology about him or herself that serves a certain emotional need. And characters are often revealed through other’s perspectives, and those perspectives are filtered through the emotions and desires of that other person. It’s complicated!
5. Do you base any characters on people you know? What inspires you?
I never base characters on particular people, although I sometimes use small details from people I know or people I’ve observed. I don’t think my friends would talk to me anymore if they knew they might be fodder for my work!
What inspires me? The way life is such a messy blend of joy and sorrow. The way we love and hurt one another at the same time. The incredible forbearance of human beings in the face of incredible emotional or physical difficulty. How asserting an identity can save a person but serve to separate them from those he loves best. The huge, ungainly, amazing, frightening thing that is living.
6. Is there any reason you used hospitals and sickness as a backdrop in many of these stories?
Many of my stories explore the issues of separation and intimacy, and I think that these issues are brought to the fore when the possibility of loss is most immanent. These stories are never only, or even mostly, about illness or loss. These threads are always part of a greater weave that is full of humor and moments of happiness and moments of connection. It’s all happening the same time, just like life.
7. Why did you choose the theme of loneliness and transience?
I suppose I think a lot about how hard it is to connect to other people. In my own life, I feel a tremendous tension between separation and intimacy and I guess I was working on these themes in order to explore what I feel. As for transience, I guess I don’t feel there is any fixed state of being in life. It is a constantly changing, reformulating proposition – relationships alter, feelings change, the world changes. You have to locate yourself in life and in love again and again.
8. What led you to pick these eight stories for this collection? Did you get to pick the order they appeared in the book? How did you decide their sequence?
I’m not prolific enough to have “chosen” these stories! These are the ones I wrote over the last few years. I tend to hold onto ideas for a long time, even if, at first, they don’t seem to be working. I find that if something attaches to me on an emotional level, it is hard for me to let it go. Variables might change – characters, action, settings, but the central emotion that drew me to an idea in the first place settles on me like a burr. It sticks and I just have to work and work until I figure out how best to express this idea in narrative form. Some of these ideas have been lingering in my head for even longer than the two and half years it took to write these stories. I can trace certain characters and ideas back years. Ideas are like ancestral bloodlines – they go back and back in time, they are the building blocks of who I am.
My editor and I looked at many different orderings for the stories. Ultimately, the ordering was sort of intuitive. We just felt when the flow of ideas and differing tones and the feelings engendered by ordering felt right. Ordering a story collection is really an artistic process. Each story has to stand alone. But the collection as a whole has to suggest something about the entirety, maybe an idea that is bigger than what any single story can suggest. So it’s very exciting to figure out the order because the way the stories appear becomes a narrative of its own.
9. The book has many different types of mother-daughter relationships. Do you have a close relationship with your mother? What led you to dedicate this book to her?
I’m very close to my mother and I was so happy to dedicate this to her and my two sisters. My mother has been an incredible source of support and courage for me. She has had a wonderful working life as a film director. She took me very seriously when I was a little girl, allowing me into her own creative process and making me feel that my ideas were of value. She always asked me to read her screenplays and to watch cuts of her films and she really cared about my comments. I even got to sit in on casting sessions and weight in on what I thought of the actors! And she took me to the old movies. Some of my fondest memories are of sitting in art houses watching Italian films then discussing them with her. She cared about story telling and cared about what I thought about narrative. What a great gift to give a child, to let her know her ideas matter.
10. In The God of War, the setting of the Salton Sea provided a fantastic and influential backdrop to the story. The short stories in Alone With You have no specific settings. Was this a deliberate choice?
I wouldn’t say the stories don’t have specific settings. I’d just say that the settings are only as detailed as they need to be for each story. For me, stories describe states of being, and sometimes what is important about place is how that place informs the characters in an existential sense. For instance, the sisters in “Three Girls” live in a college town where it snows. And they live by a frozen river. That’s all we really need to know. I wanted to convey a sense of isolation and claustrophobia to underscore the way the girls are isolated within the strangeness of their family and their parents’ alcoholism. In “Night Train to Frankfurt,” the place is nominally Germany but the essential location of the story is the inside of the train. This is another isolated space. It is dark outside, the mother and daughter can’t see much beyond the windows. They are together in this kind of moving chrysalis and this forces them to deal with their relationship and with the mother’s impending death. What I discovered when I wrote “The God of War” that, for me, setting is an invaluable tool for exploring character. I’m less interested in writing about place in a sort of travelogue sense and more in writing about how different characters interact with the place they are in. I think we all treat our cities, our homes, our rooms differently, and that how we do tells us a huge amount about who we are.