Tag Archives: “Family History”

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,

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…?).

Vacation Wrap-up

I am back from vacation. It was a relaxing week at the beach, with some (not enough – never enough) time for reading. I finished How To Talk To A Widower by Jonathan Tropper (reviewed here) and At A Loss For Words by Diane Schoemperlen (reviewed here) and am well into Family History by Dani Shapiro, which I am having a hard time putting down. I was up very late last night reading it and am quite enjoying it, though it's quite a difficult story.

One highlight of the trip was my annual visit to the very best bookstore on the planet: Island Bookstore in Corolla, NC. It's not a large store, but its fiction selection is better than any I have ever seen in any other bookstore, chain store or independent. I always find books there I've never heard of before. And I had my annual book gossip session with Meaghan, the Island Bookstore fiction expert, who came from behind the counter to take me through the shelves and point out new fiction to me. Her comfort zone for books is definitely wider than mine, so she pushes me to expand my tendencies beyond my usual "domestic fiction" themes of family and relationships.

Moore I wrote down the titles of a number of books that either Meaghan recommended or that I discovered on my own on Island Bookstore's shelves, and I'll share them here over the next month. Here's the first one – and this is one I actually bought from the store. It's called The Big Girls by Susanna Moore. It's the story of a women's prison, told by four narrators, one of whom is a psychiatrist at the prison. Here are a number of reviews of the book. It is apparently graphic, at times even violent, but it also sounds like a fascinating depiction of the world inside the prison, as well as the often very disturbed worlds inside the inmates' minds. It's now in my impossibly large TBR pile. If you're intrigued, here's the first chapter, reprinted on NYT.com.

Many more Island Bookstore recommendations to come.