Ira Silverberg is the Literature Director at the National Endowment for the Arts. Prior to his current position at the NEA, Silverberg worked as a publisher, literary agent, and editor. He has represented National Book Award nominees, including Adam Haslett, Christopher Sorrentino, and Rene Steinke. As the Literature Director at the NEA, Silverberg oversees the disbursement of fellowships to creative writers and translators, in addition to overseeing “The Big Read,” a nationwide reading initiative. He was scheduled to visit American University to speak more in depth about his role at the NEA on October 30, 2012, but alas, Hurricane Sandy had her way, and the event was canceled. Ira’s visit to American University is currently being rescheduled for a future date, but he was generous enough to answer a handful of questions for Café Americain via e-mail.
CA: What are some of the programs you are most proud of at the NEA?
IS: The Literature Program supports Creative Writing Fellowships in Poetry, Prose, and does Translation Fellowships as well. Supporting an individual who is hard at work on a book, providing them with a fellowship so they can take some time to write, feeds the literary ecosystem.
CA: When awarding fellowships, what excites the panel? What kind of work stands out most, good and bad?
IS: All manuscripts are read by four separate readers, blind. No panelist ever knows who they are reading so it’s really about the work. What excites one panelist may not excite another – and that’s why you bring peer panels together to discuss it; to discuss artistic excellence as it extends beyond personal taste. I would never say that one type, or another, of work “excites” a panel. It’s about panelist’s individual reactions, then a cumulative response. Some panelists are particularly passionate about one thing, others something else. There’s no way to game, or gauge, a blind process.
CA: Which modern writers are you reading? Who excites you right now and why?
IS: I just finished the new Eggers and loved it. I also just finished the new Collected Poems (and Journals) of Joe Brainard that Library of America did. Just got a copy of A.M. Homes new book and am really looking forward to that.
I’ve also done a lot of reading for work as of late—we do a program called “The Big Read,” which brings communities together around reading and public activities. I had never read Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake—only her stories—and I found it magnificent. I read Charles Portis’s True Grit, which has a great, pure voice. And now I’m reading Luis Urrea’s Into the Beautiful North, which is bringing me into a world in Mexico and issues around the border. He’s a fantastic and forthright stylist.
CA: I’ve known many of my cohorts to intern at the NEA—they love it! What does an internship at the NEA look like as far as responsibilities and opportunities?
IS: Internships at the NEA are an incredible opportunity to watch the largest annual funder of art and literature in America do its work. Interns observe panels and help manage panel logistics among other things. It’s a great opportunity for the right person.
CA: You have been a literary agent at Sterling Lord Literistic. I read that you’ve represented one of my favorite authors, Adam Haslett. His short story, “The Beginnings of Grief” stands out as one of the most important stories I’ve ever read. What does it mean to you to be a literary agent?
IS: As I am no longer an agent, what I can say is that when I was an agent I had the most unique privilege in the world (for me, it was) which was to see a writer’s work early on; to watch them craft; to be as intimate as one can be with their process. It was a truly meaningful experience.
CA: I’m wondering if you ever knew the agent Wendy Weil, who recently passed away? I had the chance to hear her speak at Boise State University. She was really quite fabulous, in my opinion. She, among others, has described the agent to writer relationship as something akin to dating or courtship. What kind of advice (or rules of courtship) could you give to a young writer seeking an agent?
IS: I knew Wendy a bit. It’s quite a loss to the industry.
I’ve always thought that choosing an agent is like choosing a doctor or lawyer – it’s very personal, and intimate but it’s also a professional relationship and a level of respect and honesty must be maintained on both sides.
CA: Have you heard of this Tumblr called SlushPile Hell? The subtitle reads: “One grumpy literary agent, a sea of query fails, and other publishing nonsense.” As young writers learning to navigate the publishing world, what kind of advice could you give on writing query letters?
IS: Young writers should pay more attention to their writing and less attention to publishing. If they insist on being in the know, Poets & Writers is the essential magazine for emerging literary talent.
K. Tyler Christensen
Photo: Tim Pannell