a conversation with Dani Shapiro      
photograph of Dani Shapiro


Bold Type: old Type: Your new novel, Family History, is your fifth book. So, is it getting easier to write, or harder?

Dani Shapiro: Harder. Absolutely. With each book you write you have to learn how to write that book—so every time you have to start all over again. I found that with each book I honed my sense of craft, but I was also much harder myself—it was an arduous process, not letting myself get away with anything. Another thing that differed with Family History is that I never fell in love with it, and I feel that served the book well. Grace Paley once said that if she loved a sentence she wrote enough to yell it out loud for her husband to hear, she would cut it. Now I finally understand what she means.

BT: You have written a lot about your personal life—you published a memoir (Slow Motion) and have had personal essays published in magazines. When doing research for this interview I read that there are a few autobiographical elements from your own life that appear in this novel. Do you find it easier to fictionalize the truth? Or is it easier to just write the truth and call it like it is?

DS: There are certain things I won't write about, and my son is one of them. When he had health difficulties as a baby, I knew I would never write about it as non-fiction, but yet obviously, I absorbed all the trauma of the situation and I found myself mining some of that territory in Family History. When it comes to the personal essays I write, I just convince myself that no one will ever read them. I had a piece in Elle magazine a while ago and someone came up to me at a cocktail party after it came out and told me she read it, and I found myself a bit horrified.

BT: The story of the Jensen's life is told in a series of flashbacks; when you worked out the story in your head did you plan on telling their story in this fashion? In some ways it had the tension of a mystery, I personally couldn't put the book down, was this intentional on your part?

DS: The structure of Family History came out of the story. With this book I was determined to write a linear story, as none of my other books have been linear. But, when it came to the story of the Jensen's life, the present was so informed by recent past. There are two distinct dramatic arcs, each going their own separate way, and I found that the "past" needed it's own space. I'm aware that the structure ratcheted up the tension, but the story itself is tense. I was tense when I was writing it, so in some ways it was helpful to be able to move between writing the "present" and the "past" of the narrative.

(*for those of you who haven't read the book—you might want to skip down a question—this one may be a "spoiler")

BT: In Family History you paint a harrowing picture of the near destruction of a "happy family," showing that the state of happiness is incredibly fragile, but at the end of the story you leave the reader with a sense of hope. Can you tell us more about that choice?

DS: Yes, at the end of the book I wanted there to be a sense of possibility, for a family to have to go through everything that they went through, their sense of redemption at the end is slight, but it's there. It's as if a beautiful and fragile vase breaks, and all the pieces are still there, and you can put it back together, and it still is beautiful, but it's damaged at the same time. You will always be able to see the cracks. I did want to convey that Rachel and Ned really did love each other, and in the end I left it up to them as to whether or not they were going to let their circumstances defeat them. I suppose that in the end Kate could have come home, which would have definitely been a "happy ending" complete with violins playing, but Kate wasn't yet ready to come home, and her parents knew it.

BT: You have had a lot of great reviews in your writing career. Do you read all your reviews? Do the bad ones still sting?

DS: Yes, I read almost all of my reviews. I now categorize reviews into four different groupings: there are the "good good" reviews—which is that the reviewer was smart and the review was positive; next is the "bad good" reviews—which is a positive review of the book, but it was obvious that the reviewer didn't totally "get it"; the "good bad" reviews are when the critic actually pinpoints a flaw or failure in your work, which is of course bad, but is also good, because you have a chance to learn from it. Luckily I haven't had too many of those. Lastly there are the "bad bad" reviews—which is a bad review where the reviewer totally "didn't get it." Obviously the "bad bad" reviews are the worst, but these days, I'm getting better at brushing them off.

BT: You have written short and long non-fiction, short and long fiction, and even a screenplay—what's your favorite medium to write? What about to read?

DS: Novels are my favorite to write and read. I do like writing personal essays too. I'm not really a short story writer, nor do I tend to gravitate to them as a reader. When I worked on a screenplay, it was actually in collaboration with my husband, who is screenwriter, so I wasn't totally on my own. I don't think I'd ever work on a screenplay independent of him.

BT: Everyone is always interested in "how writers write," as if it's as easy as a secret pen, or a particular time of day… do you have a particular methodology to your madness?

DS: It's changed a lot in the past few years—my habits have changed, and having a child has changed my schedule, too. Even though I have an office in my house, I need to go elsewhere to write. When I lived in New York City I went to the Writer's Room a lot, but when we moved to the country I needed to find a new place to write. And I realized that everything that I had started in the last few years that worked—a story, Family History, a long New Yorker piece—I had actually begun by hand—pen connecting to paper—so my insistence that I needed to have fingers on a keyboard, I finally realized to be a fallacy. When we moved out of the city to Connecticut a few years ago, I was somewhat nervous about finding a place where I could go and write. But I found a small inn only ten minutes from my house that has this amazing library—wood paneling, fireplace, great leather chairs—and now I go there every day and work, writing longhand in spiral bound notebooks. It's totally quiet, and in the winter I sit by the fire and have tea, it's the most perfect place in the world to write.

BT: So it seems like you've adapted to living in the "country." How does the quiet life impact your work?

DS: I love living in the country, so much so, that I'm even surprised by it. I have met lots of interesting people—the community was really welcoming, and I now probably have a more interesting social life than I did in the city. The quiet is good, because sometimes in the city the "noise" can get in the way, and by noise I don't mean actual noise, but just the distractions of the city. There's just so much stimulation in NYC, and these days I'm finding that the stimulation I need is coming from the inside, and not from around me.

BT: So do you have any advice to give for the aspiring literary novelists out there?

DS: I guess my advice for aspiring novelists would be to keep your own counsel, to not pay attention the fads, most of which are propagated by reviewers. I see a lot by teaching, students who try to "do" an Eggers, or emulate a current hip writer, when they should be just committing to being a writer. It's important to find your own voice, not from the outside, but from the inside. A lot of MFA students are trying too hard to get published or to find an agent, before their work is ready. I do understand the pressures they face, how they are nervous and scared, because they are spending a lot of money for a degree—a degree, which I always say, entitles you to nothing. Sometimes it's better to be patient, because if your work gets out there too soon, it might be worse, it could sink like a stone. You've got to take the long view and figure out what it means to be a writer for your life. 99% of being a writer is struggling with the page, and 1%, if you're lucky, is all the other stuff—the parties and the promotion—it's about finding a sense of perspective.

BT: Do you feel that you have more prove as a woman, when it comes to the literary world?

DS: I do think it's harder for women in the "literary world," and I would love for that to not be my answer. Ten years ago I used to get annoyed at that idea, that women writers have it harder then their male counterparts, but women do have to fight harder to be taken seriously. When a woman writes a novel about domestic issues, it's hard not have that book labeled as "women's fiction." And when women write more serious idea driven novels, they have to fight an uphill battle to be have that book taken seriously, and not dismissed as if they are just trying to "play with the boys."

BT: And on a final note, can you tell us what's next for you?

DS: I'm not sure. I'm just trying to recover from this one!

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    Photo credits: Marion Ettlinger