Years ago I was in a little Cape Cod town poking around in its delightfully tiny indie bookshop with aisles so narrow that you had to walk sideways. I came across Dani Shapiro’s memoir Slow Motion, then browsed the blurb and the first few pages. I bought it, took it home, began reading and couldn’t put it down. Shapiro has continued to mine her emotional and spiritual life in books such as Devotion and in her novels Black & White and Family History.
Lori: You achieved writing success while in graduate school. Looking back, would you want that to happen the same way all over again, or would a longer bumpier journey be preferable?
Dani: Funny, I actually do consider my journey bumpy. I hardly know a writer whose journey hasn’t had some bumps along the way. Even though I wrote what turned out to be my first book when I was in graduate school, and sold it before graduation, and even though, at the time, that looked like an incredibly good thing, in many ways I don’t think that first book was ready for prime-time. I don’t think my second novel was ready either–so even though I was publishing, it wasn’t really until my third novel, and then my memoir Slow Motion, that I began to really find myself as a writer. I hope that I’m still finding myself, as a writer — that each of my books is better than the last. And perhaps that’s what the beginning of my career taught me: that it isn’t about grabbing some brass ring (of publication, of the great review, or any of the outer manifestations of success) but really, the writer competing with herself.
In your essay for the LA Times, you wrote “my internal life as a writer has been a constant battle with the small, whispering voice (well, sometimes it shouts) that tells me I can’t do it.” Do you still wrestle with that voice or have you succeeded in quelling it?
I don’t think we ever quell that voice. Every single piece of writing I’ve ever begun has been a triumph over that voice. I’ve made my peace with the fact that doing good work has very little to do with confidence–courage, yes, but confidence is highly overrated.
You are a co-founder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. How does that surrounding inspire you and the writers who attend?
Don’t get me started on Sirenland! Positano is one of the magical spots on earth, and there’s something about the hotel where we do the conference, the people who attend, the faculty we choose, and that magical, unlikely village that all conspire together to create a very special week for all involved. People cry when they arrive (because it’s so beautiful) and they cry when they leave (because they don’t want to leave, and they’ve made lifelong friendships). It’s one of my favorite weeks of the year.
The depth of emotion in your book “Slow Motion” was remarkable to me. Was it easy or difficult for you to go to that place?
It’s never easy. No, it certainly wasn’t easy. But by that, I don’t mean that it was emotionally difficult, but rather, that it was creatively difficult. I think I had processed, as best as I could, the events I wrote about in Slow Motion to the point at which I could write about that time in my life with a sense of distance and even irony. I found myself thinking of my younger self as “that girl”. Or even, “that poor girl”. Part of the act of writing memoir has to do with thinking of oneself as a character. But certainly it was a very painful time I was trying to shape into a story.
You were raised in a deeply religious family yet abandoned the traditional aspects for many years. In what way does that speak to you as a writer?
It has never really spoken to me (at least not consciously) as a writer until I wrote Devotion. Devotion, my recent memoir, came out of a need to explore spiritual questions at a time in my life–mid-life, I suppose–when the questions started feeling relevant to me. And to my family, particularly my son, who was six or seven years old, and wondering about God and heaven and death…and I didn’t have language with which to discuss those matters with him. So I wrote a book to sort out what I felt. What I believed. Which, of course, is an ongoing journey, even though the book is finished.
What is your advice for aspiring memoir writers?
Be fearless. Be honest. Understand that some of the best work you’ll do will feel shameful and mortifying. Do it anyway. What you’re really doing is taking the chaos and shaping it into a story.
You have stated that when you’re writing, you never feel lonely. Explain what writing means to you in that solitary state.
My work keeps me company. Particularly when I’m writing fiction, my characters, and the world of my novel, are as real to me as my “actual” life. I’m not an entirely solitary creature by nature––I’m a wife and a mother and a friend and a member of a community, and I like to go out and be part of the world––but if I haven’t had the hours to do my work, I feel a bit lost and unreal. I think that’s true of most writers. We find ourselves on the page.
Do you create a certain work because you have a purpose or because you were inspired? Or perhaps a bit of both?
I never approach my books with a sense of purpose, but rather, with an image, or a character, or perhaps more than one character who begins to take a hold of me. I never know where I’m going. It’s like moving furniture around a room in the pitch darkness. I find the walls and the door by bumping into things, by feeling my way around.
What are you working on now? Books/stories/essays?
I’m working on a new book called Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life. It’s part memoir, part meditation on the creative process. The idea for it grew out of a blog I’ve kept for the past few years which seems to have spoken to writers, both published writers and fledgling writers. I’ve come to the realization that everything I know about how to live, I’ve learned from grappling with the page. I also have been reviewing quite a bit for the New York Times Book Review, which I’ve really been enjoying. And I’ve taken breaks from the book to write stories and essays. And I teach, and do a bit of public speaking too. The challenge is to stay tuned into the work.
When you’re not writing, what are some of the everyday family things you do or enjoy?
We live in the country, so we do a lot of country things–just simple stuff, like picking my son up at school and going to a farm we love to get fresh ice cream–but we also travel a lot as a family. We were recently in London and in Tuscany before heading to Sirenland to teach. And my husband Michael is a filmmaker who is about to direct his first feature, and we’ll be down in Florida with him this summer, on the set. I know that’s not an everyday thing… but it’s what our lives are like. We’re very much a threesome, our little family, and our son is certainly being influenced by having two parents who are artists. Whether this means he’ll grow up to be an artist, or to be an investment banker, I’m not sure.