I first met Susan Shapiro through her book, Five Men Who Broke my Heart (the title got me). As soon as I finished (I fell in love with that book), I quickly bought up everything else of hers that I could find. And I quickly found that I couldn't go to any sort of literary party or event without her name coming up--and people smiling. Her new novel, What's Never Said is about all my favorite things, loss, love, and the quirkiness of memory and you can pre-order it RIGHT NOW. (What are you waiting for/)
So here is the scoop: She's an award-winning journalism professor, has written for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, L.A. Times and Newsweek. She's the New York Times bestselling author of 9 books including Unhooked, Speed Shrinking, Overexposed, and the acclaimed memoirs Lighting Up, Only as Good as Your Word and Five Men Who Broke My Heart. Her recent coauthored memoir The Bosnia List was published in 2014 by Penguin Books and Heliotrope publishes her new novel What's Never Said in August 2015. She and her husband, a TV/film writer, live in Greenwich Village, where she teaches her popular "instant gratification takes too long" classes at the New School, NYU, and in private workshops and seminars. You can follow her on Twitter at @susanshapironet or reach her at ProfSue123@gmail.com.
AND NOTE: I will be appearing with Susan at the WRITER'S DIGEST CONFERENCE PANELS
Saturday August 1, 2015 from 2:00-5:30pm
Roosevelt Hotel in midtown NYC
Saturday August 1, 2015 from 2:00-5:30pm
Roosevelt Hotel in midtown NYC
I always have to ask, what sparked this book? What was the thing haunting you so you felt you had to write this?
The first scene in What’s Never Said, where a 50-year-old woman sees her old flame –her former professor - and he doesn’t remember her – really happened. It freaked me out. I thought: I exaggerated our connection in my mind all these years. I overestimated my place in his romantic lexicon. I’ve lost my looks completely if the older suitor who’d exalted my beauty didn’t even recognize me.
In real life, my husband Charlie was with me. On the way home in the cab, I told him what happened, in tears. Charlie laughed and said my ex knew exactly who I was because he was staring at him weirdly the whole night, pacing around us. Charlie was wondering what the guy’s problem was and now he knew. It fascinated me that thirty years after our breakup, my ex might still be upset. I was actually thrilled because it meant #1) he remembered me #2) Maybe I hadn’t totally gone to seed #3) if he was still holding a grudge that long, he’d obviously had deep feelings too and had been hurt as much as I’d been.
I love the whole idea of lost love, and actually I think it’s never lost. We always love the people we once loved, even if we don’t want to be with them or can’t be with them anymore, don’t you think?
Yes! I had several intimate intense relationships early on, from age 13, and didn’t know what I was doing pre-therapy. I didn’t marry until age 35. Now that I’ve been monogamous with the same (awesome) man for 25 years, I’ve often wondered about the past. An early poem I published in my twenties started, “If all your old lovers lives in a row of dark houses on the same street…”
Though I was a failed poet, I stayed obsessed with the topic. In my first comic memoir, as a 40-year-old journalist, I went back to re-meet my top five heartbreaks of all time, to do ex-it interviews and find out what really happened. And I wrote about how I never really got over anything. The way I describe the two books is: “In Five Men Who Broke My Heart, Susan Shapiro spilled all the secrets of her lost loves. But there was one secret she could never tell, until now. And in fiction.”
I admire the way you write about memory--what we choose to remember, and what we force ourselves to forget, or...even more interestingly, what we think we remember. Can you talk about this please?
I address this in a scene in Five Men Who Broke My Heart, where I’m given a Holocaust book to review. “I finished reading the Holocaust book, a posthumous memoir by an Auschwitz survivor who had blocked out the evil he witnessed in the camps. Fifty years later he dredged it up. After completing the memoir, he’d had a heart attack and died. His memory killed him. I was enrapt, not about the atrocities of the Third Reich, but with the lines debating whether he should have relived what he experienced. The author was issuing a warning: Don’t look back, the past can kill you. Getting assigned this book right now was an omen, I decided. My review focused on the dilemma, the treacherous deep-sea dive of memory, the twisted search for vanished footsteps, the perils of digging too deep.”
In Five Men, I would have told anyone: go back and re-visit your exes – for creative energy, for closure. It was a great experience. But I think What’s Never Said is the darker sequel. Maybe what’s cute and funny at 40 isn’t so adorable in your fifties.
On the other hand, a reader named Michelle Mead, contacted me to say that Five Men had inspired her to reach out to an ex she’d had at 21. She sent him a letter and at age 57 she finally would up married to him. I’m a romantic. I was fixed up with my husband and I’ve fixed up thirty marriages, with about 25 kids. But that’s another book…
How difficult was it to traverse thirty years and three different settings?
Everything about What’s Never Said was difficult. It took six years to finish. It was my first book that was third person, half in a male’s head, which I’d never done before. I had a brilliant Philip Rothian or Woody Allen character in mind but some critics from my writing group didn’t like Daniel. I finally decided you didn’t have to like Daniel for the book to work, you just had to understand him.
My great agent Ryan Harbage found me a young editor I loved at a big publisher who was going to publish the book in 2009. But she gave me a choice and I picked another novel I’d spent thirteen years on, Overexposed, sure she’d take What’s Never Said as my next book. But then Overexposed tanked, selling about five copies, and she left the job and her state. And What’s Never Said was orphaned. Since then a lot of editors said “This is great. Can you just not make it about New York poets, writing and shrinks because that doesn’t play in Peoria.” That was 90 percent of the book. It seems I don’t play in Peoria either.
Anyway, it was a miracle this spring to find Naomi Rosenbaltt at Heliotrope Books. She’d published my student Royal Young’s great memoir Fame Shark and had just started taking fiction. She’s this awesome Village hipchick, my age, and she’d had a flirtation with her own teacher, so she just totally got the whole book. I had a shrink appointment, depressed that I didn’t get a big advance from a big publisher. And for some reason I was jealous of my cousin Molly Jong Fast’s beautiful purple cover for her last book. My shrink asked, “What will make you happy about this?” I had a boring summer planned, just working, with no classes, work, or shrinks around in August. So I said, “If this novel came out in August, in hardcover, with a purple cover.” And Naomi gave me everything I wanted. I dedicated the book to her and to my first editor Danielle Perez, who bought three books of mine from Random House. They both live in Greenwich Village, where my book is set, so it felt poetic.
What kind of writer are you? Do you outline and map things out, or do you just sort of follow your pen? Have you noticed a difference in writing in each of your books? Does it always seem hard to you, the way it does for me? (And if not, what’s your secret?)
A colleague joked that I’m a memoirist writing a novel about poetry. But I never understand writers who say “I am a short story writer,” or “I am a book reviewer” because most others I know have to switch genres to make a living. I certainly have to. I seem to pick a genre, fail, and then have to reinvent myself every five years.
While I couldn’t sell the novel for six years, I actually coauthored two memoirs by men I was close to – The Bosnia List I wrote with my physical therapist, who was a Bosnian war survivor. And Unhooked, an addiction book I wrote with my addiction specialist, became a surprise New York Times bestseller last year. Plus teaching at night has been a miracle: I show up, they pay me. The same time every month.
Every book has been different. Five Men and Lighting Up came out fast and furiously. I’d just quit smoking, drinking and toking so books became my new addiction. Novels are much harder for me. My colleagues say my nonfiction is better than my fiction and my family says my nonfiction is fiction. First person nonfiction comes easiest. But there are certain books – like What’s Never Said, I couldn’t write as a memoir. The story –a year long romantic relationship doesn’t work out, I’m sad - wasn’t dramatic or unusual enough. I’m working on another memoir now.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Whether anyone is going to read, review or write about What’s Never Said.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
What book events should we come to? Oh so glad you asked. I’m doing a Speed Shrinking for Love charity benefit at Housing Works on August 4, a “Secrets of Publishing Panel” at the Strand bookstore on August 5 and a “Shrinks Are Away reading” at the great St. Marks Bookshop on Tuesday August 4 with Royal Young, Kate Walter and my Bosnia List coauthor Kenan Trebincevic. They’re all open to the public. I’m listing them on my website susanshapiro.net and on Twitter at @susanshapiro.net