Jen Silverman on Writing for Different MediumsBy Finn Cohen, Associate Editor • October 10, 2023
After we published “The Children Are Fragile,” the short story by Jen Silverman, in our April 2021 issue, I extended an open-door offer to them for more work in the future — with the expectation that we might not get any for a long while, given their work schedule. As a playwright, a novelist, a screenwriter, a television producer, and a poet, Jen is busy.
Their plays The Moors, The Roommate, Witch, Wink, and Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties; In Essence, a Queer and Occasionally Hazardous Exploration; Do You Remember When You Were in Middle School and You Read about Shackleton and How He Explored the Antarctic?; Imagine the Antarctic as a Pussy and It’s Sort of Like That have been staged to great acclaim across the U.S. and in Australia, the United Kingdom, and Europe. As the author of the novel We Play Ourselves, the short-story collection The Island Dwellers, and the poetry chapbook Bath, Jen has been short-listed and long-listed for literary awards. Over the last year, they spent time in Tokyo as a producer and writer for the second season of the Max series Tokyo Vice. Yet somehow they found time to send us “Scale,” which is in our Halloween-adjacent October issue.
When I caught up with Jen late this summer, after the edits on “Scale” were finished, they were a few months into returning to New York City, where they’re working on the book for a new musical with the composer Dave Malloy, workshopping an upcoming new play called Spain about propaganda, and wondering how long the writers’ strike in Hollywood (which has since ended) would keep a number of other projects on hold.
Finn Cohen: How long was the idea for “Scale” generating before you started writing?
Jen Silverman: The idea had been with me for a while, and I had been encountering reflections of that idea in classics like The Metamorphosis: the transformation from a human body into something other. I didn’t think about this at the time — I’m thinking about it as I’m saying it now — but the body that transforms in the classics that I was reading is always a male body. But slippage between the human and the other, the way that we contain inside of ourselves things that we just don’t know until they emerge — that has always been something that interests me. The themes were constantly tumbling around my mind and then the image of a woman realizing that her skin was turning to scales was what cracked it open. I sat down and wrote the first draft in a few days or a week at the most. It wasn’t mapped out at all. I just sort of discovered it.
Finn: When was this?
Jen: Time for me is a soup right now. I have my computer here and I’ll just look at the draft — [long pause] November 2021.
Finn: So when you had the idea for transformation, the reptilian aspect of it — was that already there? Or did that happen as you were writing?
Jen: I think that was there from the beginning. The scale appearing was the entry point for me, and for some reason, it never occurred to me that it would be any other kind of transformation. [Laughs.]
Finn: Well, I ask because — and I didn’t think about it until this week when I was preparing to talk with you — the pangolin was such a significant creature starting in March 2020. For a while there was the idea that that was the animal COVID came from.
Jen: Is that right? I thought it was bats? I must have consciously missed that. But I wonder if unconsciously I heard something that stuck. That’s interesting.
Finn: It also seems in the story that the world is going to some degree normally, but I did get a sense in reading it of isolation. I didn’t get a sense of the hustle and bustle of the city itself. Which is why I asked when you wrote it, because it did strike me as somewhat desolate.
Jen: Without “Scale” being about the pandemic, I think there are probably a million ways in which it is infused by that moment in time. All of these things were happening to our individual and collective bodies as a result of a novel virus entering us. A number of people that I know had at that time — and some still have — long COVID, all of these ways in which a body becomes unrecognizable in terms of what it’s doing. That was very much part of the conversation around me. So while the themes of transformation and slippage have been artistically alive for me for years before the pandemic — in my theater work, I was always coming back to that question of how do we transform, what might we become, what is possible for us that we don’t yet know about ourselves — the pandemic put a version of that question into a dangerous relief.
Finn: In our exchanges for this story and “The Children Are Fragile,” you’ve been very specific about the presentation of dialogue. You work in multiple mediums where dialogue is received and structured differently. Are there deliberate approaches that you take with fiction, or is that approach similar throughout?
Jen: The instincts that I trust feel very similar from medium to medium. But each medium requires a very specific set of tools. What would work onstage won’t work in a story; what works on TV doesn’t work onstage. I have to be mindful of what medium I’m working in and what it not just requires, but also thrives on. You mentioned dialogue — for me it’s so important, both in terms of what it shows you about the person who’s speaking, but also the way people speak: the rhythms that they use, the ways in which we cut ourselves off, or someone cuts us off, the way that that rhythm and pattern of thought is communicated. In a play, my dialogue would look like sort of a stacked column of text, because I track the ways in which thought moves with line breaks. And in a story, on the page, one doesn’t do that. Instead I’m very specific about what’s a dash, what’s a comma, beyond even the demands of grammar, because those things are breaths and pauses and changes of intention. So even though the manifestation looks different from one form to another, the desire for those things to be clearly delineated is consistent.
Finn: As you’ve gone through this editing process, have you interpreted the story differently?
Jen: Sometimes when I come back to a piece of writing that emerged swiftly and strongly, it feels like it exists apart from the moment that I’m in when I’m revisiting it, such that it can feel almost mysterious to me. I’ve had that with certain plays. When I came back to edit “Scale,” it felt so far away that I could see it very clearly as a piece of writing, without recalling all of my intentions when I wrote it. With some of your edits, I was like, Oh, that’s exactly right; that’s much cleaner. There were other things that you had left as they were, but in re-reading, I could see what a stronger version would be. But generally the story felt like something that I needed to maintain and protect from my own current impulses; the impulses that had generated it had created something that was so specific, I didn’t want to rework it to fit the moment that I’m in now.
Finn: First thought/best thought — that’s a really simplistic way of putting it. Sometimes the thing that comes out is the thing that’s meant to be there, artistically. Time can be an enemy of that if you allow yourself to keep working on it.
Jen: Yeah — and the instinct to overclarify something, or to simplify it for the sake of clarity. In reading “Scale” again there were moments where I thought, This could mean multiple things, what did I mean when I first wrote it? And then meditating on it, I felt like, Actually, I don’t want to try to pin this thing down. Moments where the story is fluid or slippery, where it contains multiple potentials — that’s where some of the power comes from, for me as a reader.
Finn: What are you working on now?
Jen: Theater, right now. Because the writers’ strike is for TV and film work. I’ve been in a series of theater workshops for various projects. One was for my new play Spain, that’s going up at Second Stage Theatre in New York, in November. The director and I and the designers had a few weeks to work with actors and look closely at my latest draft, before we start production rehearsals in October.
Next I’m going into a dance workshop for a musical. I’m writing the book [the script of a musical — Ed.] and I and the composer and the choreographer/director are working with a company of dancers to build a major sequence that happens in Act Two. What I find so intriguing about this workshop is that of course the musical has a story, but the work we’ll be doing next is not about the spoken or sung text. It’s about what the dancers are doing with their bodies to tell that story.
Finn: Have you ever written a musical before?
Jen: I’ve written a number of plays with songs. So I’ve spent a lot of time working with composers and writing lyrics for music. But I haven’t done a traditional book for a musical. The composer that I’m working with right now is also the lyricist. So we’re figuring out together that fun balance of like, What’s book, what’s lyrics? How do we figure out the best way to generate language that can then become something else, you know?
Finn: I was a music major, but I really do not like musicals or opera. But I’ve always been kind of fascinated about that process: How do you find a way to fit story into a melody?
Jen: I’ve been working on this musical for a couple of years, and I’m learning so much about the form. Writing a book for a musical seems to me to share almost nothing in common with writing a play. It seems to have much more in common with a screenplay. A screenplay doesn’t really permit for a five-page scene or a seven-minute monologue; the form is about what we see more than what we hear, so language happens in a really economical, condensed form. For musicals, nobody is showing up to see a ten-page book scene; people want music, which is the language of a musical, the way that visuals are the language of the screenplay. So it’s about figuring out how the book can give you an excellent narrative structure and compelling characters, while being a generous container for all this other stuff: music, dance, etc. The challenge is constantly interesting, and constantly surprising.
Finn: Yeah, I can imagine. Because you’re, in some ways, boxed in by a rhythm, the syllabic aspect. And I know that composers can be possessive about a particular melody that doesn’t have to do with words.
Jen: It’s different with every collaboration. With this musical, because the composer is also the lyricist, I might write mock lyrics to show him what I feel a moment needs to be. Or I might write a monologue and say to him, this wants to be a song, and then he’ll turn it into a song. So there’s less constraint on me to find a rhythmic container. Conversely, when I write songs for my plays, I always write the lyrics. In that case, I’ll tell my composer, When the music starts to come to you, let’s get in a room together and I’ll tailor the lyrics for your rhythms and melodies. And then we’re there together, sleeves rolled up, doctoring the whole thing, which is kind of thrilling. Composer Daniel Kluger and I are doing that right now, because there’s a piece of original music in Spain.
Finn: Do you think writing fiction allows you to create more “good” ambiguity than theater or film? Because you have people inhabiting roles in those mediums; you have scenes and there’s a more physical experience with theater.
Jen: A similarity that fiction and theater have is that they can thrive on ambiguity in a way that I think TV and film structurally cannot. TV can thrive on moral ambiguity or the ambiguity in a character. That stuff is really rich. But I think in terms of questions like, What is happening right now? And what does it mean? I can’t think of many examples of TV and film that I thought did well with that ambiguity. Theater is similar to fiction in that every audience member inside of a theater is having a different experience at the same time, and there’s power and value in that. Every time I go to a play with a friend, and we walk out and we’re talking about, you know, “Oh, this thing really moved me” or whatever, there’s always a disparity in terms of what we responded to and why. There can even be a disparity in what we noticed, because your eyes can roam anywhere on a stage. I love building moments of mystery or heightened theatricality in plays and in books; asking an audience to hold two thoughts at the same time, or creating a space inside which the answers aren’t intellectually obvious, but they might be emotionally obvious.
Finn: Having worked in multiple mediums, do you think a story like “Scale” could work as a play or a show?
Jen: [Laughs.] I hadn’t until right now. [Long pause.] I think it could. I don’t know that there’s enough duration there for a TV show. If one were to build it out more, I could see it being sort of a strange indie film, or in terms of the metaphors at its heart, I could see it being a piece of theater. Sometimes there will be a finished piece of writing where I think, Actually, this still has a life that it has yet to live. And then I might translate it into a different form in order for it to really achieve a full life. But in the absence of that sort of certainty, I wouldn’t necessarily turn something that I had done in one medium into another.
Finn: You could make it a musical.
Jen: Only if you write the lyrics.
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