Dani Shapiro, Best Selling Author
Dani Shapiro's most recent book's include Family History (Knopf, 2003) and the best-selling memoir Slow Motion, for which she co-wrote the screenplay, along with her husband, screenwriter Michael Maren, for Sony/Phoenix Pictures and Reese Witherspoon.
Her short stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, Elle, Bookforum, Oprah, Ploughshares, among others, and have been broadcast on National Public Radio. Her books have been translated into seven languages.
She lives with her husband and young son in Litchfield County, Connecticut. Her new novel will be published by Knopf in 2007.
Elegant and self assured is what my first impression of Dani Shapiro was, probably because she is elegant and quite self assured. I enjoyed talking to her I think because she is someone who is refreshingly comfortable in her own skin. Dani seems to be as equally "O.K." with the things that make her perfect, as she is with those things that have contributed to her vulnerable spirit.
She is talented and engaging.
She is who she is...
DR: Tell me about your life.
DS: Somebody asked me earlier today
"How did you decide to be a writer?"
I didn't decide to be a writer, I just was a writer. Who in their right mind would decide to be a writer? It is a torturous existence. I think it would be easier to have a "job" job.
I was an only child. I had a very lonely solitary childhood (not all only children do, I hope, since I am the mother of an only child). I wasn't a particularly happy kid so I escaped into my imagination. I would write these stories that were actually an escape for me. I didn't know you could actually be a writer. I didn't know any writers; my parents weren't friends of any writers or artists of any kind. I voraciously read but the idea that anybody actually wrote those books never entered into my mind. The author never entered into my mind. It was the book. It was always just the book.
I feel blessed. I feel incredibly blessed that I figured it out.
I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home. My father was Orthodox, my mother was not. There was a lot of conflict around that. I went to a Yeshiva until I was in seventh grade and then I went to prep school. I was miserable in both. When I was a junior in high school I decided to graduate early and just "get out of Dodge".
I applied to Sarah Lawrence College. Nobody from my school had ever gone there…I had a baby sitter who had gone there who was an artist. I think somehow that just that little bit; that my baby sitter had gone to Sarah Lawrence and that I had identified with her in some way…
It amazes me so much and it is so much what I think about as a writer, the way that moments like that…turn right, turn left… If she hadn't been my baby sitter my whole life would have been different.
Sarah Lawrence was a place where there were a lot of working writers who were teaching there. Grace Paley was my teacher and she was amazing. Russell Banks was teaching there. E.L. Doctorow was teaching there. There were great writers teaching there. I really think that I instantly had this revelation that "Oh! They do this. This is possible to do!"
I wasn't ready though.
I was seventeen and a really immature seventeen in a lot of ways. I wound up getting into a lot of trouble and dropping out of school. I came back to school - I like to call it the "seven year plan". I was definitely not on the four year plan. I mean, I am joking about it but my parents had been in a really bad car crash.
My father had died and my mother was shattered from head to toe. I had to take care of my mother. The fact that I was an only child definitely came into play here. I had to grow up - or not! I guess I had a choice but in my mind I had no choice. I had to rise to the occasion.
While my mother was recovering I went back to school. I finished my senior year and I started writing seriously and Grace Paley took me by the hand and said "You are a writer, honey. You should go to graduate school here." And she literally took me across the hall to graduate school. I never applied. I really don't remember applying. I mean maybe this is apocryphal -- maybe I did. I don't think I did. I think I just went. That would never happen today.
I think the fact that I had undergone this massive rebellion and that my parents had this horrible accident, gave me in some weird way, subject matter for my first novel. I felt compelled to write about it and I wrote a semi-autobiographical first novel while I was in graduate school. I had this fire under me! I basically went from
a) Complete fuck-up
I didn't even have a high school diploma because I hadn't graduated from high school. I just skipped my senior year, went to college, dropped out of college and suddenly I sold my first novel. I was twenty six years old.
I often have students ask me about my early writing life. I tell the story of selling my first novel while I was still in graduate school but I always feel like I have to puncture people's illusions about me. It wasn't a fairy tale. It was for me a very important and probably a very fortunate thing that I did because I needed the validation. I now am glad that my first novel is not in print. I am glad my second novel is not in print. The first novel that I am proud of is my third. Then I published a memoir and then Family History and now I have a new novel coming out in the spring but really I feel that I learned how to write. And yet, I so needed the validation. I so needed the world saying to me:
"This is what you should be doing"
because how do you hold on? I mean some people do but I was in such a fragile state in so many ways, I really needed that early success. It created a kind of momentum for me and the sense that I could keep doing it.
I really remember after I finished my second novel having the feeling that I was going to be doing this for the rest of my life because my second novel was much more imagined than my first. The idea that my imagination could create an entire book was liberating. Although every time I finish a book I feel "That's it. I've got nothing else. It all went into that book."
DR: How would you define success at this point in your life?
COMING SOON!Dani's new novel, Black & White, will be published in April 2007 by Knopf.
A New Novel From Dani Shapiro
Check in at DaniShapiro.com for more information and tour dates.
DS: The word that comes to mind is "contentment", which is such an incredibly elusive thing.
I know that I have become a better writer with each book. I have just written my best book. I want to always feel that way. I want to feel three years from now, and hopefully God willing when I have finished a new book, that it is better than the book that I have just finished, which is the best that I think that I can do right now. To me, in terms of my writing life, I try to have that be my yardstick and not to compare…
If I were to look at where I am from a place ten years ago or fifteen years ago, my younger self looking at where I am now would think "Oh my god! She must just be on top of the world!" I am with a publisher that I would dream of being with. I am being published very well. I make a living at it. I would have defined this as the ultimate.
I remember my first literary agent telling me when my first book was coming out that she had a client who was #3 on the best seller list and that he was obsessed with #2 and #1. I thought "That's ridiculous! I don't believe that for a minute!"
I now believe it.
I see it in myself when I am in a moment of doing that. I see it in my friends and in my colleagues. So, I think that real personal success for me is when -
I am not doing that and when I am just inhabiting my life and being aware of where I am; the great fortune of where I am!
DR: What do you think that the people who know you the best would say is the best thing about you?
DS: I think that they would probably say that I am generous. I think that they would say that I am a good listener. I hear people say that about me - that I am generous. I feel self-conscious even saying it because I don't think of myself as generous; I just do what I do.
DR: What would you change about your life if you could?
DS: I would have more homes. (Laughs) I'd have an apartment in New York and maybe a flat in Paris… (laughing)…I'm kidding…No, I would have an apartment in New York…
Let me put it this way:
There was a party last year and I was standing with a couple of women who I don't know well; really bright, kind of intense New York women and one of them was asking me about where I live in the country and how it is (city people are always wondering how that is). I said "It really is pretty great but I guess there is always a part of me that is looking for some place a little more perfect." Her friend that was standing there just looked at me and she said "If we are talking about degrees of perfection, I think everything is just fine." That really stayed with me.
There have been times when I would have changed a lot about me. Now I would say that I have this life that I built both professionally and personally that I wouldn't change. Or, that the things that I might want to change would then change everything else.
DR: Is there anything that you have that you don't want or that you want but don't have?
DS: There is nothing significant that I want right now that I don't have on any kind of important level. That is such a complicated question. I think that I am a very adaptive person and I have come to realize that, even though I am a very melancholy person, I mean I am not a cheerful person, I am a real "glass half full" kind of person.
When my parents had their accident, my father passed out at the wheel of the car. It was a snowy night and they were on the high way. they crossed the highway and there was traffic going in both directions. They made three entire revolutions around …I remember, really not too long after the accident, thinking "Thank God no one else was hurt." I was able to think that. Not just "poor us" but really "It could have been worse and it wasn't."
I never think "Why me" in life about anything. I don't understand "Why me?" I always think "Why not me?"
So there are probably things that I want in my life that I don't have but I just don't let myself want them because I really think that I choose contentment. I choose to adapt to the environment that I am in which, I have come to realize, is a gift.
DR: What is the thing that you most admire about yourself?
DS: I don't think that I have ever paused to consider that…
I am honest. I work hard. I think that I have found a way in my life to take what really were a lot of difficult early circumstances and work through them. I am proud of the life that I have built.
I got a phone call the other day from the mother of my best friend growing up. I haven't talked to the family in years and years. She was calling me about something and then started talking to me about my childhood and about what she saw as really difficult circumstance for me which was very helpful to me. At one point she said to me
"Dani, how is it that you are O.K.?"
And I had to laugh because I spent years and years in therapy and the question used to be
"Am I O.K.?
For years and years I would ask therapists
"Am I O.K.?"
It really at some point stopped being
"Am I O.K.?"
and it became
"Why am I O.K.?
Part of it is fortune; the right person at the right time, the right mentor, someone reaching out a hand - it didn't have to be a parent. In my case, very often it was professors…I recognized the hands and I grabbed them.
The other day I was walking down Amsterdam Avenue and I saw my 19th Century literature professor from Sarah Lawrence who was very dear to me. The last time that I saw him I was pregnant with my son so I hadn't seen him in eight years. I got my sunglasses on talking on my cell phone, bopping down Amsterdam…he's probably close to eighty, walking with a cane…we both just flung our arms around each other. I wish I could have seen it from a distant. I could have wept seeing him because he saved my life.
I had a number of those people. I think part of it was that. Part of it was just nature; that I am a survivor.
I am very proud of the life that I have built because it could easily have been otherwise.
DR: Are you very hard on yourself?
DS: Very. Very. Very.
DR: What do you do to get over being disappointed with yourself?
DS: I fill with self loathing and I beat myself up endlessly until I get somebody to talk sense into me. I don't do well with disappointment because it translates into feeling ashamed or being really mad at myself.
DR: What is your relationship to making mistakes?
DS: Well, seeing things as mistakes would be, perhaps a more gentle way of viewing it, right?
When I am talking about beating myself up I mean over mistakes, I mean over taking on something that might have been too much of a commitment, or sticking my foot in my mouth, or inadvertently hurting somebody's feelings. Those are mistakes! I tend to be hard on myself about those kinds of things.
DR: What are you most afraid of and how do you overcome that fear?
DS: I am afraid of physical risk.
I don't like flying. I don't like highways. I don't like subways. I think I would have done better in another century. Living in the country has been good to me that way. I don't give into my fears. I feel badly when I do. You almost have to know yourself well enough to know when being afraid is worth it and when it is not. There are things that I just feel like "That is just going to be too hard for me and I don't need to do that." But if something is going to be too hard for me and I feel like I would be missing out or that someone I love would be missing out…
I think that I am quite a fearful person but I push myself and I find ways to make myself comfortable.
DR: A hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?
DS: The images that come to mind are of my family and the quality of my love.
My new book is framed around the question of whether or not it is possible to be a great artist and a great mother, which I think that all women grapple with.
One of the things that I was afraid about, about becoming a mother is that my work would suffer because I am really ambitious and I care about my writing and I want lots and lots of people to read my work. But, I care more than anything in the whole world about my little boy. If I had great career success and somehow messed up that part, it would be completely meaningless to me. I have had more success since I have become a mother than I did before. The quality of the love for my husband and my child and what ripples that will a have moving into their lives and my son's children's lives -- that is it for me.
DR: So a hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?
DS: ...When you write books, they are going to exist a hundred years from now. Of course I hope that my books are read a hundred years from now but that is none of my business. What is my business is --
the quality of my love...
Additional Books by Dani ShapiroFAMILY HISTORY: A NOVEL
"Shapiro writes wonderfully. . .she gently regulates the tone of the novel to reflect the tenuous nature of its central conflict. Her portrayal of a mother and wife struggling to accept the limits of her love and custody will resonate with anyone who has wished they could protect someone, and failed."
-- Jillian Dunham, CHICAGO TRIBUNE
"Absorbing, sweetly stinging...Shapiro's book succeeds as a gracefully written story of reckoning inspired by tragedy and the long reach of familial roots."
--Elizabeth Bukowski, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
PICTURING THE WRECK
"Exposing the mind of an emotionally devastated 64-year-old man is a courageous literary endeavor for a young female author, and PICTURING THE WRECK gives credence to the power of the imagination and the writer's skill. With fluid prose and keen observation, Shapiro takes us achingly close to the center of a tortured heart and soul."
--Louisa Ermelino, PEOPLE