05/08/2014 04:09 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2014

The Fearless Confessions of Sue William Silverman

Sue William Silverman's new memoir is The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew. Her two other memoirs are Love Sick: One Woman's Journey through Sexual Addiction, which is also a Lifetime TV movie, and Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, which won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award in creative nonfiction. Her craft book is Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir. As a professional speaker, Sue has appeared on The View, Anderson Cooper 360, and more. She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Loren Kleinman (LK): I love the title of your essay collection: The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew. How did you come up with the title and what message were you trying to showcase?

Sue William Silverman (SWS): I wanted the title to reflect the tone of the book. My two previous memoirs are dark; with this one I've reached a place in my writing where I can use humor, even if it's dark humor. I mean, it is ironic that I -- a Jewish liberal feminist -- grew up with a huge crush on the conservative Christian Pat Boone.

In the subtitle, I try to capture my conflicted, ambiguous feelings toward Judaism, and my desire (while growing up) to be Christian, or to fit into America's predominantly Christian culture and religion. Even though the reason for seeking this refuge stems from growing up with a scary Jewish father, still, with the passage of time -- this distance -- I'm able to portray this narrative ironically.

Really, though, I think this is a very American book that has to do with the restless desire we have to reinvent ourselves.

LK: At the heart of the book, you bring the reader through three interactions with "1960s pop-music icon, turned Christian provocateur, Pat Boone, who plays a pivotal role in my desire to belong to the dominant culture." Why did you choose to focus on Pat Boone? Was it a matter of imagining societal acceptance?

SWS: As a memoirist, I use what my life gives me. In this sense, I was "given" Pat Boone! When I was a teenager, girls either loved Elvis Presley (and his edgy blue suede shoes) or Pat Boone (and his snow-white bucks). Because of the danger in my family, I was drawn to Pat Boone's squeaky-clean, wholesome image: he was a family man with four perky daughters. I, with my child-mind, my magical thinking, wanted to be his fifth. Literally!

Pat Boone, therefore, represents someone wholly other from my own father, who hurt me. Boone is a symbol of my desire to fit in, to belong: to be, well, all-American!

Growing up, and even as an adult, I lived in various places where I was decidedly a minority as a Jew. Pat Boone was like a beacon, a light from a country where nothing bad happens. This is what I mean to convey in the book.

Let me quickly add that, in this search for identity, I write about other things in the book as well, such as a homeless tramp with whom I was obsessed when I lived, as a child, in the West Indies; a high school boyfriend who reminded me of Pat Boone; two separate marriages to -- and divorces from -- Christian men, and so on.

LK: Do you consider the book more memoir or confession? Is there a difference?

SWS: Memoir. And I say this, in part, because the word "confession" is frequently used to disparage a genre whose popularity and innovations have been fueled by women and ethnic writers -- writers considered "other."

A memoir, to me, is a literary search for meaning and metaphor in one's life. Memoir offers insight through the emotional and psychic exploration of a life. In the case of my current book, for example, the question is why did I want to be Christian? What and who are the metaphors that embody that experience?

Ironically, a few years ago, I wrote a craft book called Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir, because I wanted to explore this controversy a bit -- and claim that confession is a good thing -- as long as the writer is creating art, is taking her/his life and turning it into art. There is, in fact, nothing wrong with confessing! However, for writers, this is a term that has to be re-appropriated from those who use it negatively.

Ideally, memoirists must be fearless in their confessions, speak their truths, even if we upset those who would prefer, say, women not bear witness to things like domestic violence, child abuse, discrimination, etc.

LK: You also wrote Love Sick: One Woman's Journey through Sexual Addiction, which was also made into a Lifetime Television Original Movie. How do you come to write that book? What was the writing process like?

SWS: I began the book because, only through writing, am I able to fully understand my own life, my own experiences. To write one's life is to provide an organization to it, a structure, as well as discover the metaphors.

In Love Sick, I examine the 28 days I spent in rehab for a sexual addiction. The toughest part of the writing was to overcome the shame I felt confessing -- yes, confessing! -- that I struggled with this addiction.

In many ways, society doesn't understand sex addiction, and, in particular, women sex addicts are labeled sluts, whores... and worse. But the only way to lessen the shame was to write about it. Claiming an experience can be very empowering!

Subsequently, in terms of the publication, I've been gratified by the hundreds of e-mails I've received from women (and some men, too) thanking me, in effect, for telling their story, too.

The Lifetime TV movie was an added bonus! Plus, I visited the set and was able to write about the filming experience in this new book, The Pat Boone Fan Club. Watching an actress (Sally Pressman) play me -- watching this part of my life interpreted by a screenwriter, a director and actors -- afforded me another vantage point from which to explore who this woman, this "me" is. So, in the Pat Boone book, I devote an entire chapter to it.

LK: You are also a poet with a collection out called Hieroglyphics in Neon (Orchises Press). Can you talk about the title of this collection and its relationship to the use of language?

SWS: First of all, I love neon! The book's cover image, which is this wild grouping of neon signs, is a photo I took several years ago in Amsterdam. I also like the juxtaposition in the title of the word "neon" with the word "hieroglyphics." I think it captures something about the challenge of writing, which is to take a theme that is old and seemingly etched in rock -- love, death, belonging -- and make it fresh, make it glow.

As it turns out, writing verse also led me, subsequently, to write shorter nonfiction pieces, rather than a book with one single long narrative. In short, the poetry led me to explore a wider range of voices within the Pat Boone book.

LK: YA writer Heath L. Buckmaster, author of Box of Hair: A Fairy Tale, writes, "Often, it's not about becoming a new person, but becoming the person you were meant to be, and already are, but don't know how to be." Is this true of memoir? Of confessional writing?

SWS: That's a fascinating quote! True, writing memoir isn't necessarily going to make me into a different person. At the same time, it affords me the opportunity to see myself more clearly, to understand what happened to me in a more profound way.

This self-knowledge, which comes from writing memoir, certainly has an effect on me. It is empowering to reveal my secrets and no longer live in a dark place of silence. Yes, that power was probably in me all along. The writing of each memoir allows me to access that power.

Just having a voice, using that voice to write one's truth, is a powerful thing. I am overwhelmingly gratified to be a writer -- that I get to spend my life writing. I can't imagine my life any other way.