Tag Archives: Dani Shapiro

Q&A with Dani Shapiro, Author of FAMILY HISTORY

A few weeks ago, I reviewed Family History, by Dani Shapiro. Dani commented on the post, and we emailed a bit. She graciously agreed to answer some questions about Family History and the writing process in general. Here are the questions and answers:



1. When you start out a book, are you sure how it’s going to end? Do you have the whole plot mapped out, or do you let it unfold organically as you’re writing?
 
One of my favorite quotes about the process of novel writing comes from E.L. Doctorow. He once said that writing a novel is like driving down a road at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights–but you can get all the way home that way. I’ve taken it a step further, when people ask me how I know when I’ve reached the end of the story. By crashing into the garage door, of course! Seriously, for me one of the most satisfying aspects of writing fiction is that at a certain point the characters take over and the story tells itself. There have been times when I’ve thought I knew what was coming around the bend. But I’ve usually been wrong. I’ve found that, left to its own devices, the imagination has its own coherence. If I knew how the story was going to end, what would engage my interest over the years it takes to write it? It’s very much a journey.


2. Family History‘s settings – NY and Boston – play a large role in the book. How do you choose settings? How important is it for you to have had firsthand experience living in the cities you write about?
 

I wrote Family History while I was still living in pre-9/11 New York. It was important to me that Rachel Jensen be an urban woman who was transplanted to a small town where she didn’t know the unwritten rules and rituals. And so I created the town of Hawthorne, Massachusetts — loosely basing it on Andover, Massachusetts where my own in-laws live. Since a prestigious prep school also figures into the setting, Andover was perfect since Phillips Academy is there. But I have also set stories in places I’ve never been. A few years ago I wrote a short story, “The Six Poisons”, which was published in One Story magazine. It took place in a yoga shala in Mysore, India. I had never been to a yoga shala in Mysore, and had in fact never been to India. So in that case I did a lot of research on the place. I read tons of yoga blogs, and really steeped myself in the sights and smells and sounds of the culture.


My latest novel, Black & White, is set in Manhattan. For a while, as I was trying to start the novel and kept stalling, I thought the story took place in a small town–and it wasn’t until I realized that it took place in Manhattan was I able to begin. In that case, the setting was an essential part of the inspiration for the book.


3. Who are your favorite authors? What have you read recently that you’ve enjoyed?


My favorite author is Virginia Woolf–I keep her work nearby on my desk at all times, and dip into it whenever I’m feeling in need of creative re-alignment. Some contemporary favorites are Lorrie Moore, Richard Ford (in particular The Sportswriter) Alice Munro, Don DeLillo. I’m reading Ethan Canin’s novel America, America right now and really admiring it.


4. Family History is such an intimate book. Do you know mothers who have been through Rachel’s experience, or do you know troubled kids like Kate? If not, how much research did you do to understand these characters’ lives?


Unlike setting, when it comes to the emotional lives of my characters, they arrive more or less whole in my imagination. I don’t think I could have dreamt up the characters of Rachel and Kate unless I had understood them from the beginning. Though I don’t know anyone who has been through exactly what they went through, I think that I drew on my own adolescence and that out-of-control feeling that I could still find a way to touch–and then pushed it much, much further. Also, I was a new mother myself when I began Family History and the book was very much inspired by my own maternal anxiety, my fear that I wouldn’t be able to protect my own child from harm.


5. One comment on the Family History post questioned how likely it was that Kate’s accusation about her father would have spread throughout their small town within 24 hours. Do you want to comment on that?


It’s an interesting comment, and I do have a response. First of all, Kate’s psychiatrist would have been legally required to report that Kate had made such an accusation. Because a school was also involved–Ned was a prominent teacher and coach–it seemed to me that there would be a wildfire effect. Now that I live in a small town myself, I see the way sometimes news–however inaccurate–travels at lightning speed. Particularly juicy, bad news.


6. You found me – a new Dani Shapiro reader – via my blog. How has social media affected your relationship with your readers?


Certainly the web creates much more contact between writers and readers–and this can be a good or bad thing for the writer depending on the day. When I’m working on a book, it’s necessary for me, at times, to really remove myself from the world in order to do my work, and having the internet available at the touch of my keyboard is a constant battle and enticement. What are people saying about me? How are they feeling about my books? On the other hand, given that I do write alone in a room most of the time, connecting with people who care about the written word is incredibly satisfying. I had never written to a blogger before I came upon your website (googling myself–usually a dangerous activity!) and I’m so glad I did.



All best,
Dani
http://www.danishapiro.com

FAMILY HISTORY by Dani Shapiro

Shapiro I just finished Dani Shapiro's Family History. I have to say, for starters, that I've had very little time to read since coming back from vacation, and I read it in short spurts here and there, maybe 15 pages at a time. Not my favorite way to read books, but I do think it may have colored my opinion of the book, perhaps for the better.

Family History is about Rachel and Ned Jensen, a couple living outside Boston with a very troubled adolescent daughter. The book is told partially through flashbacks, and a bit into the book we learn that Kate, the daughter, accidentally dropped her infant brother Josh on his head when he was only a few months old. While Kate was already showing signs of being in trouble – she was already withdrawn, sullen and non-communicative – the accident is a bit of a watershed, as the family truly disintegrates afterward. Family History is told through Rachel's eyes, and chronicles her attempts to keep her marriage together, nurture her son (who may be mentally impaired from the accident) and figure out how to help her unhappy and destructive daughter.

The good – Family History is immensely readable. Shapiro is a precise and compelling writer. She is especially gifted at describing emotions and family dynamics. I found this book very difficult to put down, which made the limited chances I had to read it all the more frustrating. I wanted nothing more over the last week or so to have an uninterrupted hour to just sit and get lost in it, which hasn't been the case with every book I've read recently.

The bad – it's also relentlessly depressing! Watching this family fall apart is very painful. As I read, I was struck by the randomness of life, by the fact that lives can change in a heartbeat. The Jensens' awful predicament can happen to anyone. And as someone with young daughters, I shuddered to think of going through what Rachel did – watch her adolescent daughter slip further and further away, despite her best efforts to stop it. I think my inability to read more than a few pages at a time actually made me like this book more than I would have had I read it straight through, as it kept me from just whirling down into the despairing mess of the Jensens' life.

Also, I think there were some loose ends in the book. Kate's condition – depression? schizophrenia? – is never really identified. Her actions are somewhat explained on the last page of the book… and then the book ends. No real resolution. Given the precision with which the story had been told up to that point, the end was disappointing.

On balance, though, I liked this book a lot and would recommend it. Please weigh in if you've read it (Nancy West…?).

BLACK AND WHITE by Dani Shapiro

ShapiroJust in time for Mother’s Day: Black & White, by Dani Shapiro.

I read about this book in The Washington Post on Tuesday. It’s the story of Clara, the grown daughter of a famous photographer named Ruth Dunne.  Ruth coerced her daughter into appearing in her photos from ages 3-14, and Clara has permanent scars from the experience.  She has completely distanced herself from her mother, severing ties by moving away and not telling her own young daughter a word about her childhood.

As the book opens, Clara learns from her sister that Ruth is dying, and the novel is the story of how Clara comes to terms with her dying mother as well as her own relationship with her daughter. Here are some excerpts from the Post review:

After setting herself up for so much potential failure, Shapiro does something rather thrilling with her story: She gets it just right.

After 14 silent years, there isn’t a trace of sentimentality in the reunion of Ruth and Clara. Instead, Clara becomes entangled convincingly in a snare of complex emotions: anger, guilt, fear, regret and, most painful of all, inescapable devotion. Ruth is a surprisingly sympathetic character whose love for her daughters, while ruinous, also seems genuine.

It seems natural rather than forced that Clara turns abruptly contrite during Ruth’s swift decline, and returns to Maine to fetch Sammy to New York for a last-minute introduction. A scene at this point perfectly displays Shapiro’s commanding craftsmanship: Ruth, with the demonic burst of energy that often possesses end-stage cancer patients, insists on taking Clara and Sammy gallery-hopping through Chelsea. Funny and tragic, the episode expertly describes the milieu through which Ruth has glided like an empress all her life, at the same time taking stock of Clara’s dread and Sammy’s childish ennui. It’s a portrait in three dimensions that beautifully captures both the stark black-and-white urgency of the moment and a range of subtler, softer shades of gray.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 1.

I’ve always wanted to read Shapiro’s Family History, but never have. Any Dani Shapiro fans out there?