Monday, February 1, 2010

Dani Shapiro on her newest memoir

Dani Shapiro’s thought-provoking books -- from the bestselling memoir Slow Motion to stirring domestic dramas like my favorite Black and White—illuminate the complexities of everyday family life. Her short stories and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, Elle, Vogue, Ploughshares, and O, The Oprah Magazine, among other publications. Publisher’s Weekly just gave her new book, Devotion, a starred rave:

Shapiro’s newest memoir, a mid-life exploration of spirituality begins with her son’s difficult questions—about God, mortality and the afterlife—and Shapiro’s realization that her answers are lacking, long-avoided in favor of everyday concerns. Determined to find a more satisfying set of answers, Shapiro seeks out the help of a yogi, a Buddhist and a rabbi, and comes away with, if not the answers to life and what comes after, an insightful and penetrating memoir that readers will instantly identify with. Shapiro’s ambivalent relationship with her family, her Jewish heritage and her secularity are as universal as they are personal, and she exposes familiar but hard-to-discuss doubts to real effect: she’s neither showboating nor seeking pat answers, but using honest self-reflection to provoke herself and her readers into taking stock of their own spiritual inventory. Absorbing, intimate, direct and profound, Shapiro’s memoir is a satisfying journey that will touch fans and win her plenty of new ones.

Joan: Congratulations on the release of Devotion. Can you tell us a little about it? (Readers, check out Dani's gorgeous book trailer here.)

Dani: Devotion is a memoir about my search for something to believe. I grew up in a very religious family and fled all organized religion as early as I possibly could. For many years I felt no need to replace it with any other kind of spiritual belief. Which was fine, for a long time—but then I found myself in my forties, with a young son who started asking me questions about what I believed, and I really wanted to be able to answer that question. What do I believe? I had no idea. And as is true with much of my work, I had to write a book in order to find out—in order to even give myself permission to find out.

Joan: How did you decide to return to memoir after fiction?

Dani: My books tend to present themselves to me in the form in which they belong. I suppose I could have written a novel in which a character goes on a spiritual search, but when Devotion flew into my head one morning as I was practicing yoga, it was very much as a memoir. I wanted to use my own self, my own life, as a laboratory, using both my history and my present to ask myself some of the deepest questions I could. For instance, in Devotion I explore my troubled relationship with my own mother, to ask the question: is it possible, truly possible, to ever give up on someone? I write about my son’s life-threatening illness as an infant in order to think about prayer. I mean, I prayed at the time. I prayed like crazy. But if you had asked me to whom or what I was praying, I wouldn’t have had an answer. I just knew I had to cover my bases.

Joan: In addition to your books, you write meaningful essays, which seem very personal, yet universal to many writers (I’m always astounded how much you ‘get’ me, without knowing me). Recently you wrote about betrayal, how we use moments from our life in our writing, in this case about a relative featured in your memoir. Every time I write anything remotely pulled from my own life, I edit it out, unwilling to analyze and present truths. How does one allow for such brutal honesty?

Dani: I think it’s possible to be honest without being brutal. At least I hope it is. I save the brutal part of honesty for my own self in my writing, but not others. When my mother was still living, I took great care not to hurt her. And though she may not have liked some of what I wrote, I was always aware of the ways in which I protected her. When I am writing very personal non-fiction, I always ask myself the question why. Am I writing this piece out of revenge? Because I want so-and-so to read it? Out of anger? Resentment? Good personal non-fiction may read as confessional, at times, but it isn’t a diary entry, and I think a reader can smell a vendetta from a mile away. For the past ten years, I have kept this quote from Edward Albee in my date book: “For the anger and rage to work aesthetically, the writer’s got to distance himself from it and write from what Frank O’Hara referred to in one of his poems as ‘the memory of my feelings’. Rage is incoherent. Observed rage can be coherent.”

God I love that quote. Both because it’s a reminder that good writing considers what works aesthetically, and because it comes from powers of observation and recollection—not from the heat of the moment.

Joan: And did you send the copy of Devotion to your relative? If so, what was her reaction?

Dani: I waited to send a copy of Devotion to my relative until I had finished books, because all the way along, I wanted to be sure to soften or remove any bit of language, any description that might inadvertently cause her pain. I should say here that my portrayal of her in my book is incredibly loving and she is absolutely a hero of the story. But our lives are very different, and I wanted to take great care. In the end, she called me while reading the book, in tears, to tell me how beautiful she thought it is, and described it as “a form of Kaddish,” the Jewish prayer for mourning. It was a profound compliment.

Joan: Another of your recent posts cites this Colette quote: “The writer who loses her self-doubt, who gives way as she grows old to a sudden euphoria, to prolixity, should stop writing immediately: the time has come for her to lay aside her pen.” There is a fine balance then, isn’t there, between self-doubt and having the confidence to put your manuscript out there?

Dani: I don’t know any confident writers. I really don’t. That’s one of the most illuminating things about having been around for a while—the realization that it doesn’t get easier, that no writer gets up in the morning and looks at herself in the mirror while brushing her teeth, thinking: you’re published in The New Yorker, or You’ve won the Pulitzer, or whatever. We’re always doing that day’s work. Putting a manuscript out there is the result of a long string of days at the end of which, there is hopefully something to show for it, something that feels like maybe, just maybe, other people will respond. But confidence? I don’t trust confidence in writers. Now, if I were going to a surgeon, I’d want confidence.

Joan: Whether in memoir or fiction, you write about the painful and surprising acts we sometimes inflict on one another, survival of the soul and forgiveness. Coming from such emotionally charged writing sessions, how do you disconnect from your writing to join your everyday life? What makes you laugh?

Dani: Oh, that’s such a good question. Balancing a contented and joyous family life with the places I go internally to do my work – that’s one of the greatest challenges of all. I try to leave some space in between the time I finish work, and the time I pick my son up from school at the end of the day. And I don’t tend to write on weekends. And I don’t check email in the morning until he’s left for the day. These self-imposed rules do help. But it isn’t easy. Obviously, my inner life has some darkness to it, and some pain. I feel enormously lucky have a happy family, a wonderful soul-mate husband and a delicious ten year old boy who is the light of my life. As for what makes me laugh, lots of things make me laugh—my husband and son, my friends, my dogs… but I always have to remind myself to keep that space open and light and unoccluded. In fact, that’s very much what Devotion is about. I didn’t want to wake up one day and realize that this time in my life had zoomed by without my taking it in.

Joan: Which authors have influenced your writing? What are you reading now?

Dani: Virginia Woolf is my primary influence, both as a writer and as a thinker. There is a lucidity to her prose that I admire enormously. Contemporary writers I love include a couple of friends of mine—Amy Bloom and Jennifer Egan—as well as Ian McEwan, Richard Ford, the stories of Lorrie Moore. I just finished Rebecca Goldstein’s new novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, which I loved. I read a great deal of religious and spiritual thinkers while writing Devotion and wish I could still spend all day, every day, reading them: Buddhists like Sylvia Boorstein, Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield. Thomas Merton, the great Catholic Monk. A brilliant book called Yoga and the Quest for the True Self by Stephen Cope.

Joan: You’ve been involved with Sirenland Writers’ Conference in Positano, Italy, which I hope to one day attend. How did you pick that location? How much writing really gets done?

Dani: The location picked us! My husband and I were having dinner at a friend’s house in the country one evening, and the other guests were owners of a magnificent five star hotel in Positano. They asked if we’d like to bring some writers over, and it began from there. This March will be Sirenland’s fourth conference, and to answer your question, a huge amount of writing gets done. It’s truly all about the writing. We invite phenomenal writers and teachers like Jim Shepard, John Burnham Schwartz, Peter Cameron, Ron Carlson, and our partner-in-crime is Hannah Tinti, a wonderful novelist and editor of One Story Magazine. Students leave Positano in a daze of literary joy. I’m not kidding.

Joan: In this age of Facebook and Twitter, through which avenues do you feel most comfortable promoting your book?

Dani: I’ve been learning how very important social media is, and have grown more comfortable being a part of it. But one of the main things I’ve discovered is that people can’t just appear on Facebook and Twitter to promote their stuff. These are communities, and it’s important to be a real part of the community. I’m also going to be doing a lot of appearances around the country, readings and talks and panels, to promote Devotion. The travel and time away from home is a bit daunting, but the opportunity to connect with readers, particularly for this book which seems to create such an intense dialogue, is very exciting.

Joan: Many of our readers (and my fellow blog writers) have at least one book in the drawer. You didn’t come up against quite so much rejection when you were originally published. Can you share your story and perhaps offer some advice to aspiring authors?

Dani: I always tell my students that my story isn’t an instructive one – but lately I’ve been changing my tune about that. My first manuscript, which I finished while in the MFA Program at Sarah Lawrence, was sold while I was still in graduate school. So certainly that appeared to be a very good beginning—and in lots of ways it was, but looking back now, I don’t think I was ready. Certainly my manuscript wasn’t ready. I wouldn’t change a thing because it all led me to where I am today, and I’m pretty pleased with where I am today—but my first two books really were about learning to write in public. They’re both out of print and I’m happy for them to remain that way. It wasn’t until my third novel, Picturing the Wreck, that I started having a true feel for how to write a novel. Slow Motion, my memoir, was my fourth book – though many people think of it as my first because it was a bestseller and got a lot of media attention. Since then, my career has very much moved in a good direction. My books are beautifully published. If all that had happened in today’s publishing world, I probably wouldn’t have had that third chance, or fourth, or fifth. I’ve been lucky in that I truly know that I have grown as a writer with each book, and I’ve been able to do that.

Thank you so much for joining us today, Dani. My copy of Devotion will arrive on my porch this week. Readers, stop by my other blog for my thoughts sometime soon.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent interview, Joan. Must get a copy of Devotion. Unfortunately, it will have to wait until I return to Dallas. The Italian postal service is far from reliable and it's challenging to find books here in English.


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