With numerous short stories to his credit, and his second book just about to hit the bookstores, you’d think that Ira Sher, who lives in Athens, just outside of Catskill, would be one of those lucky few who can make a living as a writer.
“But I can’t live off my writing,” he said recently in a phone interview from his home. “I’m a Web developer, primarily for not-for-profit companies like small literary magazines and small literary presses. That’s what I do to pay the bills, but whenever I have the time I’m writing.”
Sher’s newest novel “Singer” (336 pages, $24, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) tells the tale of Charlie, a traveling salesman for the Singer Sewing Company who is implicated in a series of motel fires. His friend Milton Menger joins him on the trip after Charlie’s hands are badly burned. The novel, which keeps the reader guessing about who is starting these fires till the very end, will be published on March 23.
WHERE: The University at Albany, 1400 Washington Ave., Albany
WHEN: 4:15 p.m. seminar in the Standish Room, Science Library, and 8 p.m. in the Assembly Hall of the Campus Center
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 442-5620
On Thursday, Sher will read from the book, along with fiction writer Stacey D’Erasmo, at 8 p.m. in Assembly Hall, in the Campus Center at the University at Albany’s uptown campus. Earlier in the day, the two will give a seminar at 4:15 in the Standish Room located in the Science Library of the uptown campus.
Although the publishing industry is clearly suffering today, Sher doesn’t believe it’s an unhealthy thing. “This has existed in the poetry world for quite a while now,” he said. “I think it’s unfortunate as a writer of fiction. I wish there was a larger readership, but different media seem to come and go in the public consciousness and sometimes they just sort of go.”
Sher believes that publishing will never come back to the state of where it was in the 1940s and 1950s.
“And that’s OK,” he said. “I also don’t think it’s going to be as depressed as it is now. When people look to narrative, they traditionally turned to novels, but they don’t do that anymore. Now they look to film. In the future people may begin to look more and more to video games. That’s where you have the ultimate feeling of putting yourself in the place of the characters.”
As a writer today, Sher knows he can’t rely on it as a steady paycheck. “I write because it’s something I enjoy doing,” he said, “and not because I need to make money from it.”
This has allowed him to write books that he wants to read. “I’m interested in things Americana,” he said. His first book, “Gentlemen of Space” (2003), was about the space industry and the media. This book is about advertising and the Singer Company.
“The way I write a novel,” said Sher, “I don’t really know what I’m doing when I get into it, but for some reason I wanted to write something about sewing machines.”
His research led him to Isaac Singer and the Singer company, a quintessentially American corporation and an early Industrial Revolution success story.
“I became fascinated by Singer,” said Sher. “He was such a complicated and even monstrous individual, and the more I read about him and the company, the more emblematic he and the company became to industry and to Americana itself.”
His new book chronicles a surreal road trip by the two college friends through the South in the early 1980s. “I liked the idea of setting the story in the South,” he said. “The South has a connotation of being a backward, gothic sort of place and that’s the kind of atmosphere I wanted to create.”
He used to go down to the South fairly often. He even did his graduate work at the University of Houston in Texas. “I have some good friends down there,” he said, “particularly in Tennessee. When I was researching this book, I went back down. I forced myself to stay in a lot of seedy motels. I have a lot of affection for those places and that part of the country.”
“Singer” has a mysterious film noir feel to it with some elements of fantasy. It’s a challenging book that moves backward and forward at the same time with equal touches of humor and horror.
Sher admits that because of his time constraints, the book was a bit more difficult to write than his first. “I have two children six and four years of age,” he said, “and when I was writing this book they were from one to four years old, so there was a lot of chaos in the house.”
He also underwent some professional chaos. “I lost a literary agent,” he said, “gained a literary agent, lost an editor, got another editor, lost that editor, got another editor, and went to a number of publishing houses before the book was accepted.”
Despite these travails, Sher continues to write. “The novel I’m writing now is a pretty different animal than my first two,” he said. “It’s a collaboration with my wife. We’ve given each other carte blanche to write and edit each other’s work. It’s been fun, and it’s forcing me to think more about the structure of how to write a novel.”
He’s also back to writing some short fiction. “I’ve begun to really enjoy immersing myself into a longer work that takes some years to write,” he said, “but with the kids around it’s easier to work on shorter fiction. I’m sure I’ll continue to go back and forth between novels and short stories.”
He’s excited to read at the Writers Institute. “The people they’ve brought in to read through the years is just amazing, some of my favorite authors,” said Sher, “and I feel honored to now be a part of that.”