SUSAN SHAPIRO with Anne Scardino
What’s Never Said
(Heliotrope Books, 2015)
Just as Harvard, Yale, and other colleges around the country are banning romances between students and faculty, popular New School writing professor Susan Shapiro’s witty, poignant third novel—about poets behaving badly—makes a strong argument for these academic restrictions. What’s Never Said is set at a Manhattan MFA program in 1980, where Lila Lerner, a nineteen-year-old wide-eyed Wisconsin Jewish grad student becomes infatuated with Daniel Wildman, her brilliant older professor. Although he refuses to screw around with a student, the attraction is definitely mutual—and dangerous. The story flashes back and forth in time, unraveling the romantic disaster—and sexual secret—that has haunted both Lila and Daniel for thirty years.
In her acclaimed debut memoir Five Men Who Broke My Heart, Shapiro spilled all the secrets of her lost loves. In a wildly prolific decade, she’s since published two more funny memoirs and two comic novels, and co-authored two nonfiction books (Unhooked became a New York Times bestseller). But there was one story she couldn’t tell—until now. What’s Never Said, her tenth book, returns to her roots in fiction; with a longer, darker edge, this is a page-turner about a woman stalking her old flame.
Anne Scardino (Rail): Susan, Congratulations on your exciting new book. As your former New School student, I know first-hand your passion for helping younger writers launch careers. Your male character Daniel, a graduate school professor, launches his student Lila’s career. Is the book autobiographical? And if so, why is a known memoirist writing fiction about poetry?
Susan Shapiro: I did get my MFA in New York in the 1980s and I did fall for my teacher. Like Lila, I was a failed poet. I was indeed told, “You have too many words, not enough music.” In real life, I tried a novel next. But when I showed an editor friend my first manuscript—about two sisters-in-law who switched lives—she told me, “You have no imagination whatsoever. Write a memoir. Sisters-in-law are boring; write about sex. And you’re ambivalent about his woman. You write best about people you love.” I went home crying and put my project away, swearing to myself that she was an idiot who didn’t know what she was talking about, though I hadn’t been able to sell that book for seven years.
Rail: So what convinced you she was right?
Shapiro: A book! The next day I was reading Nick Hornby’s hilarious High Fidelity, where the hero goes back to meet his old flames. I thought: when a man does this, he checks out if his ex-girlfriend is still hot and if he’d still want to see her naked under the covers, then he tries. If a woman re-met her top five lovers, she’d have thousands of pages in her journal recording therapy sessions, having saved the gum wrapper and movie stub from their first date. So I launched Five Men Who Broke My Heart, a nonfiction book about sex, drugs, and ex-boyfriends I loved, where I went back to do exit interviews with my old loves to find out what really went wrong. After thirty rejections from agents and thirty rejections from editors, I found a fantastic Random House editor, Danielle Perez, whom I adore.
So after all those people saying no, I wound up with a hardcover from a top publisher, on the Today Show, with a film deal, then a TV deal, then seven foreign editions. And Danielle and I did three books together. I used to have rejection-slip parties for my students, where they had to bring one or they couldn’t get in, and I pasted mine all over the walls. My favorites are from editors and agents who later took my work. In writing I always say, “No never means no.” It means revise it, make it better, and find a nice editor who’ll say yes.
Funny, when editing their pages, I tell my students to “follow their poetry.” But after decades of being broke, I started following the money. I decided I didn’t get to be a raging feminist poet without being able to pay my own rent.
Rail: Is confessional poetry your passion, just like Lila’s?
Shapiro: Yes! I’m from a conservative midwestern Jewish family where you’re never supposed to say what you’re really thinking about yourself or your family, or the Cossacks will come and get you. So of course I went crazy for the confession poets—Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, Ted Hughes, Maya Angelou, Phillip Larkin. I had a high school mentor, Jack Zucker, who turned me onto their work. I wrote about him in my memoir Only As Good as Your Word. I’d walk around my Midwest house saying “They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad,” and “I’m tired, everybody’s tired of my turmoil.” And “Dying is an art…I do it exceptionally well.” Bob Dylan said when he first heard Elvis Presley sing it was like busting out of jail. That’s how I felt.
After getting my MFA, I wrote and published poetry for fifteen years, without much luck. When I worked (as a peon) at the New Yorker for four years, I started a weekly workshop with a staff writer there named Gerry Jonas. He told me, “You’re a good critic. Why don’t you try book reviews?” I said, “How does one do a book review?” and he taught me how and introduced me to his New York Times Book Review editor where I started reviewing. I had luck publishing essays and humor in women’s magazines right away. Harvey actually became my editor at the New York Times Magazine. When he read my first memoir, I feared he’d think I sold out. But he said, “There’s more poetry in your prose than there was in your poems.” And he was awed by my advance, because most of the poets he knew were paid $1,000 for their books, even from prestigious publishers.
At one point I had my own book column and I thought about being a full-time critic. But pinpointing what was wrong with a book—after it was published—started feeling empty and sad. Especially trying to write my own books, knowing an author might have spent ten years on the project. I tell my students, nobody who has not published a book before is allowed to ever be flippant and say, “A tree should not have been cut down to make this.” Even a bad book can be difficult to finish and publish. What excited me about teaching was that I could read someone’s early work, see exactly what they were doing wrong and help them fix it. That was a thrill. So I segued into teaching more.
Rail: Isn’t having a crush on one of your professors a cliché? Doesn’t that happen all the time?
Shapiro: Yes, I was a walking cliché. I crushed out on professors several times, actually. I moved to Greenwich Village when I was twenty and didn’t get married until I was thirty-five. And I mostly liked creative men, so I dated a bunch of different poets and writers—who often taught to make a living—and then I wed a TV/film guy. In the book I combined characters. It was inspired by a true event when this ex-boyfriend of mine didn’t recognize me—or maybe pretended he didn’t know who I was. My husband was with me. He was sure my ex knew exactly who I was and was still angry. So that fascinated me. If he was still pissed off thirty years later, I thought: “Wow, that means he must have really cared.”
But in real life, my past relationship with that ex wasn’t very thrilling or unusual. We tried for a few months, but it didn’t work out and we broke up. It wasn’t dramatic enough for nonfiction. The brilliant Knopf editor and poet Deb Garrison once told me, “A novel that is merely autobiographical is a great disappointment. But a memoir that reads like a novel is a great surprise.” So I tried to make my memoirs page-turners and greatly embellished the autobiographical stories I’ve told in fiction. Lila is fatherless, for example, and I have a great father. Unlike her, I have no stepfather, never stepped foot in Wisconsin, never overdosed. I made up many of the characters, like Ronit, though I stole her name from an Israeli-born friend.
Rail: The sexy, late-night, alcohol and pot-enhanced exchanges between Lila and Daniel while they are editing each other’s poetry brings them close. She’s in awe of his position and stature. Is this sexual harassment, or do you feel that, at the age of graduate school students, the prof/student relationship is fair?
Shapiro: Daniel is very moral. Unlike the Irish poet character in the book and other teachers there, he refuses to touch a student. But Daniel couldn’t completely control his feelings. He did nothing wrong. Yet Lila was naïve and young, and the power balance was confusing for her. So she was really hurt, worse than him. I think that happens a lot. I did have a good shrink who helped me navigate complicated urban dating and mating rituals. When my young protégés ask my advice now, I steer them away from dating their teacher, boss, doctor or an older authority figure. Love is complicated enough without that problem. Picture if you lost your love—along with your job, paycheck, school credit, or your community. My shrink once told me that breakups can feel worse than death. I wrote about this in Five Men Who Broke My Heart, which I call my “breakup book.” Because if you’re widowed, you get respect and have good memories and closure. But after a breakup, your ex could move on to someone better in two weeks (as Daniel did) and then you have to live with seeing them happier with someone else.
Rail: In your novel, love seems to be a mind game. Do you feel that way?
Shapiro: No! I’m a big romantic who has been madly and monogamously in love with the same man for almost twenty-five years. There are many good marriages in the book. But both Lila and Daniel do keep one secret from their spouses, which is healthy. To maintain a hot attraction over time, there has to be mystery. I’ve fixed up thirty marriages and I was set up with my spouse, the topic of another book. But I’m always telling the single people I fix up: don’t make your mate into your best friend, parent, career coach, and shrink. You can easily get a best friend, parent, career coach, and shrink but it’s not as easy to find a lifelong partner. When I fix up young women, I ask them: what do you really need from a guy? Good sex, someone to pay part of the bills, and for a date to show up next to you for important events six times a year. Don’t overload the guy with unrealistic expectations or dilute the erotic energy by being too needy and over-sharing.
Rail: Are love and writing really about what’s left out?
Shapiro: Writing certainly is. What’s that Samuel Johnson line, “I’m sorry I’m writing you a long letter; I didn’t have time to write you a short one.”
Rail: Your first assignment in class is “Write three double-spaced pages on your most humiliating secret.” Why do you always give that assignment?
Shapiro: The addiction specialist who helped me quit smoking, drinking and start selling books gave me this advice to stay happy, clean and healthy: “Lead the least secretive life you can.” Plus, top editors publish that piece the most, which is exciting.
After spending $30,000 to get my MFA, I came out not even knowing how to write a cover letter to send out my own work. They say you should write the book you want to read and teach the class you want to take. So I do. I call my classes the “instant gratification takes too long” method. I teach cover letters and revision and how to contact editors and agents—all the things that took me years to figure out on my own. I’ve now had eighty-five students who’ve published books in the last decade, often starting with getting that assignment into the New York Times, or Psychology Today, or Tin House. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Rail: So what’s next?
Shapiro: Right now I’m doing some really fun book events—with a few students who have new books out too—in New York, Michigan, and Los Angeles, including a BRING AN EX FOR JUST DESSERT launch party. Then I’m back to work on a new memoir. I’ve been told my nonfiction books are better than my novels. Though my family says my nonfiction is fiction. First rule I tell my class is: the first piece you write that your family hates means you’ve found your voice.