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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, Rachel Devlin shares the inspiration and creative work behind her new book, Snapshots Of My Father, John Silber.

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Written by JJ Barnes

I interviewed Rachel Devlin about her life and career, what inspired her to write her new book, Snapshots Of My Father, John Silber, and her creative process.

Tell me a bit about who you are.

For most of my life, I was a wife, a mother, and a homemaker.  I had a few jobs, working in an office very briefly.  Then I worked as a proof-reader and also did some paste-up for a phototypesetting firm for a time.  I was mostly a homemaker when my family lived on a farm in the countryside, where, besides learning to ride the horses, I did my share of mucking out stables alongside my kids. 

When my youngest daughter entered middle school, I went back to college to become a teacher, and then taught every age from kindergarten to fifth grade.  I loved teaching the younger children to read, and with the older ones it was most rewarding to teach the writing process.

the best creativity magazine in the UK, the best book magazine in the UK, the best arts magazine in the UK, the best entertainment magazine in the UK, the best celebrity magazine in the UK, book marketing UK, book promotion UK, music marketing UK, music promotion UK, film marketing UK, film promotion UK, arts and entertainment magazine, online magazine uk, creativity magazine

When did you first want to write a book?

I always liked to write.  I remember writing poetry from a very early age, and wrote longer, more ambitious poems in high school and college.  I was always keeping notebooks of what I thought were interesting conversations, observations, and reflections. 

When I lived in Los Angeles for several years in my twenties, I wrote a screenplay which got its round of rejections.  Back in New England in my thirties, I wrote a novel that also didn’t find an audience.  The negative letters hurt, but I never gave up.  Writing had become my natural way to think about any subject.  I often write personal, creative essays. 

When did you take a step to start writing?

I started working on my biography, Snapshots of My Father, John Silber, shortly after my well-known father, my Pop, died.  I struggled with how to begin.  How could I write a biography of the man, John Silber, who was larger than life—who was on the commission that created Head Start; who rescued Boston University when it was languishing near bankruptcy and obscurity to infuse it with the energy and will to become a major institution of learning and research; who was a controversial, yet intellectually challenging, candidate for governor of Massachusetts; who many knew as a friend that would help with reasoned advice, or even financial help when needed; who on the other hand had a quicksilver temper that could flare unexpectedly; who was always alive in the moment—never blasé or bored—in fact the most electrifying person to be with?

These were the questions that assailed me when people who knew my father, told me I should write about him.  A complete biography of his life and his interests would require years of research and several volumes.  The task was too daunting.  Where could I begin?

This quandary continued to plague me for a few years after my father died, until I realized I didn’t need to try to write the whole chronological story.  Instead, I could pierce the shell of this unfathomable subject and pull out aspects of my father, facet by facet—hoping to create an authentic picture of him by presenting true impressions of his many parts.  I felt that I was circling my father, striving with each chapter to approach him from another angle—trying my best to bring him to life.

How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release? 

I was lucky that I had plenty of time to work on the project.  From beginning to end it took about seven years to complete.  When I started telling people I was writing the book, so many had John Silber stories of their own that added greatly to the richness of my text.  Also, Boston University Photography allowed me to go through their massive files. Allan Dines, a photographer in Boston for more than thirty years had also captured shots from important events.  The result is that the book is beautifully illustrated with 200 photographs.

What were your biggest challenges with writing Snapshots Of My Father, John Silber?

It was important to me to investigate my motives. There is nothing wrong with wanting people to read your story, hoping they will buy your book.  For these reasons you don’t want to bore everyone to tears with a sanitized version of a life. 

The life story of my father, my Pop, is in many ways inspirational.  Born with a birth defect, a shortened right arm that ended at the elbow in what he called a “stub,” he nevertheless became an athlete, an artist, and a philosopher, articulating his ideas on education, culture, and politics on the national stage.

My book is a loving portrait of my Pop, and yet his story would be meaningless to me, and boring for readers, if it were only the positive, PR version of his achievements.  I needed to tell the true story, warts and all, to bring him to life.  To do this it was necessary to take a clear-eyed look at his temperament and personality, his quicksilver temper that could flair unexpectedly and that most likely cost him the election for governor of Massachusetts.

Once I had assured myself that my motives were in line with writing an honest and forthright portrait, I wanted to ensure that I was not trespassing on personal ground that my sisters would blame me for.  I asked my five sisters to read the manuscript with the assurance that I would remove anything I had written about them if they disliked it.  Luckily, they loved what I had written, and all of them had stories and insights that added to the book.

What was your research process for Snapshots Of My Father, John Silber?

I talked to my sisters and other people who knew my dad and who had stories that I hadn’t heard before, or that refreshed my memory.  I also double-checked some events by reading articles from old magazines or newspapers.  So often what people told me, and what I read, brought forth more memories for me.  I was fortunate to have been there and observed so much, and to have heard what my dad had to say about his life.  I was very lucky to have, not only all of our family pictures, but to also have the great treasure trove of photographs at Boston University and from Allan Dines Photography available to choose from. 

How did you plan the structure of Snapshots Of My Father, John Silber?

The first chapter of the book, and the first chapter I wrote, is about my maternal grandmother, my father’s mother-in-law, so often a dread figure in men’s lives, but someone Pop admired, and with whom he had a special relationship.  He admired the way she created a beautiful life out of so little during the Depression, and he modeled the way my siblings and I were raised on her example.  Whenever we traveled, we did it her way, taking along air mattresses so we could camp out in one hotel room—a great saving when you have seven children.  That way we were able to travel a great deal, back and forth across the country regularly, and around Europe, as well.

Once I had the first chapter on paper, the rest of the book began to take shape in my mind in three distinct parts.  Because my father was an artist, I thought of the parts in terms of an artwork.  In the Background I go into the formative years and early influences; in the Foreground I look at my mother, my siblings, and me, and Pop’s trajectory from Texas to Boston University and what life became like there, including his run for governor of Massachusetts; and in the Patina I describe the later years, the hardships he weathered, and his continued accomplishments while out of the public eye.  As works of art take on an extra richness as they age, so did Pop’s character take on a mantle of valor and validity as he was severely tested by debility and fate.

Because of the method I used to write this book, plumbing the depths of my father’s life in different areas, each chapter can easily stand alone.  So it is fine if a reader wants to jump ahead and read a particular part, such as the chapter on the behind-the-scenes goings-on in the race for governor of Massachusetts in 1990.  However, I believe I also succeeded in building an understanding, from each chapter to the next, and then to my conclusion, so that the book is an effective and valid whole.  Therefore it is worthwhile to read it from beginning to end, and I hope most readers will do so.

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Did you get support editing, and how much editing did Snapshots Of My Father, John Silber need?

I was lucky to have my sisters, children, and a few friends who were willing to read the manuscript and make notes and suggestions for me.  I consider myself a real stickler for style and accuracy, but even after I had perfected the work to my satisfaction, the publisher’s professional editor found several points to correct, or at least question. I felt grateful for the help I got from everyone so that I could feel confident about my book going forward.

What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a book?

The first requirement is ego.  Even if you are a humble and reserved person in many ways, you have to believe, at gut level, that your ideas and insights are valuable commodities that an audience out there in the world would be receptive to.  And secondly, you have to be the kind of person that doesn’t just fritter those ideas, descriptions, and stories away in idle conversation, but the kind who likes to scribble them down, hone them, get them just right on paper (or device of choice).

With those criteria taken for granted, you may still need to find stimulation—an impetus to get you started.  For me, that was joining a writing group, meeting once a month with a group of women to read poetry and short essays, write short pieces, and then read to each other.  In the dynamic of the all-women group, I found a clean directness of motivation and focus.   

Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?

I’m thinking of writing a novel set in the 1980s.  I find the time before social media and cell phones to have such interesting social interactions.

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And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishments?  Was it worth the effort?

It is tremendously satisfying to have written the book and for it to have turned out even better than I had imagined it.  To have this accomplishment in physical form, as an artifact in the world, delights me.

People who knew my dad have been so appreciative.  They continue to tell me John Silber stories, which I love to hear. 

Pop all our book, website, and social media links here so the readers can find you:

On Facebook:  Rachel Devlin

On Instagram:  rachelsilberdevlin

Twitter:  Rachel Silber Devlin @RSilberDevlin



Reviews and Articles about Snapshots Of My Father, John Silber

Review by Jeff Jacoby in his newsletter, Arguable, on November 29, 2022

Review by Roger Kimball in The New Criterion, The Critics Notebook by the Editors, Dispatch December 13, 2022

Review in Midwest Book Review, January 2023

Review by Travis Hairgrove for Rockwall Herald Banner, January 20, 2023

Review in Posh Lifestyle and Beauty Blog, Winter Reading Guide 2023, February 21, 2023

Review on UrbanMatter website in “10 Writers You Should Read During Texas Writers Month,” with Memoirists/Biographers Based in Texas, May 4, 2023

Review in Texas Lifestyle Magazine’s roundup of Texas authors, celebrating Texas Authors Month May 4, 2023

Review by Peter Wood in The American Conservative, “The Autocrat of Boston Univrsity,” October 16, 2023

Review by Bill O’Reilly on, December 4, 2023, beginning at 20:48 minutes

Interviews with Rachel Devlin

On Mic podcast with Jordan Rich, November 2022

Jordan Rich filling in for Dan Rea on NightSide on WBZ AM 1030, December 5, 2022

The Learning Curve podcast, “The Last Candid Man:  Bu’s John Silber,” with Gerard Robinson and Cara Candal for the Pioneer Institute, March 1, 2023

The Writer’s Block with Matt Robinson on The Needham Channel public television, March 7, 2023

Interview with Al Vuona on his podcast, The Public Eye, on WICN 90.5 FM on March 26, 2023

Interview with Yolanda Cellucci on April 26, 2023

Interview on The Neil Haley Show May16, 2023.  The part with me begins at 14 minutes into the show.

Interview on Spectrum TV Austin with panel of authors for National Paperback Book Day, July 2023

Interview with Mindy Reed on her KOOP Austin radio show, Writing on the Air, September 27, 2023:

Articles, blog posts, etc. by Rachel Devlin

“John Silber stuck to his principles to the very end,” Letter to the Editor in The Boston Globe, April 22, 2020

On Writing Snapshots of My Father, John Silber: Finding a Vector Into an Immense Life Story” for Women Writers/ Women’s Books, January 4, 2023

“The Fascination of a Train Wreck: Selling a Personal Story” – Guest Post by Rachel Silber Devlin for the blog WordMothers, February 1, 2023

“Transformation in Higher Education:  John Silber, Philosopher President” op-ed for Fierce Education, February 17, 2023

“John Silber, my father, never caved” op-ed for Commonwealth Magazine, February 25, 2023

Getting Your Mind Right for Writing” article for the blog Books Uplift, April 5, 2023

An excerpt from my book Snapshots of My Father, John Silber on the When Women Inspire website, May 16, 2023

Author Q & A on Books Uplift, January 4, 2024

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