December 5, 2011
by Paulette Beete
Ira Silverberg. Photo © Tim Pannell
Today we’re welcoming new literature director Ira Silverberg on his first day at the NEA! Silverberg joins the agency after a distinguished career in the private sector of literary publishing, including stints as a literary agent, director of foreign rights, and publisher, among other roles at firms such as Sterling Lord Literistic. As he packed up to head to DC, we spoke with the native New Yorker via e-mail about visiting New York’s leading museums as a kid, his admiration for Truman Capote, and the trouble with kale.
NEA: In five words or less, who is Ira Silverberg?
IRA SILVERBERG: Passionate advocate of literary writers.
NEA: What do you remember as your first engagement/experience with the arts?
SILVERBERG: Having grown up in the Bronx, school trips allowed for visits to the some of the world’s greatest museums. They were just a bus ride away. Those trips gave me my first inkling that there was something greater to connect with out there. There was something titillating about the Met, then the more modern work of the Guggenheim provided a different kind of thrill. When I first went to [the Museum of Modern Art] everything started to click. Viewing contemporary art allowed me to contemplate connections between the world I live in and the world the artist inhabits. I am humbled in the presence of great art and artists. I consider myself very privileged to have had a career working with them.
NEA: What do you hope to learn while you’re at the NEA?
SILVERBERG: I hope to learn more about how the other disciplines work. I’m intimately familiar with writers and publishing. I know a little about the process in the art world. But there’s so much to learn about theater, dance, performance, and music. I hope to take in what DC has to offer culturally, and what my colleagues have time to teach me.
NEA: What do you hope to accomplish while you’re at the NEA?
SILVERBERG: My goal is make sure our grantees in literary publishing—the non-profit presses and journals—are set up for the new digital age. There is a great deal of technical assistance needed to be a good publisher these days. Many of our grantees have grown up more as curators of great art—but getting it out in a difficult and changing publishing environment is a new part of the challenge. I hope that’s where the literature department can make a difference in the next few years.
NEA: What are you most proud of accomplishing in your career to date?
SILVERBERG: Seeing the first copy of a book I’ve edited or represented as an agent always provokes a feeling of great pride. Working with great writers for so many years still provides a great thrill. What could be better than helping get their words out into the world? Having three clients—Adam Haslett, Christopher Sorrentino, and René Steinke—nominated for the National Book Award in fiction has been a thrill; seeing former child soldier Ishmael Beah hit number one on The New York Times bestseller list was one of the most emotionally satisfying moments in my life; and helping to secure publication in The New Yorker for clients like Gabe Hudson, David Bezmozgis, and Sam Lipsyte always makes me feel triumphant.
NEA: Recently on the Big Read blog we asked folks, “What book or author are you most grateful for?” What’s your answer?
SILVERBERG: Truman Capote. He was an American original who made non-fiction literary and literary fiction accessible. He also added a glamour quotient to the world of letters. We are decidedly the dowdiest of the arts—writers like Capote helped to dress things up a bit. We always need a bit of that.
NEA: What does the phrase “Art Works” mean to you?
SILVERBERG: Art works to move me. Art works to take me to a higher place. Art works to teach me about others, to open my world up. Art works to keep me engaged in a profession I love and to keep me in the lives of artists. Art works to bring people together for a higher cause, to gather and celebrate.
NEA: Which contemporary artist are you secretly hoping to meet during your tenure at the NEA? (And why?)
SILVERBERG: I think Marina Abramović is one of the most compelling artists of our time. Her work is challenging, thought-provoking, multi-disciplinary, and inspiring. I’d be fascinated to talk to her about what inspires her—and what the process of making her performance pieces is like.
NEA: What would most people be surprised to learn about you?
SILVERBERG: While I am decidedly an urban person, my happiest times are spent at the weekend home my husband and I share in Bellport on Long Island. I putter in the garden. I’ve taken sailing classes. We keep a small boat and and take our dog to the National Seashore on Fire Island. We’re members of a local CSA and I enjoy the challenge of what to do with far too much kale. Why do they grow so much kale?
NEA: Any last words?
SILVERBERG: I love the field I work in and am honored to have been given the opportunity to to work more deeply in it as the Literature Director at NEA.
Visit our News Room to read more about Ira Silverberg.