Susan Shapiro has written and published seven books in seven years. A professor, journalist, and author, she is credited with helping young authors to publish their own projects. Her most recent work, Overexposed, is a comic novel about careers, family, jealousy, and in its own way, feminism (and at times a lack thereof). But it’s also about a belief in the self. She agreed to do an interview about the new work, her process, and writing as life over e-mail, and the Rail was happy to have her.
Nicolle Elizabeth (Rail): Hi, Susan! Your most recent book, Overexposed, delves into what it’s like to be a young artist in New York making her way through both her career and her life, towards personal transformation. I know the book came after an essay you’d written 13 years prior about a fellow New Yorker editorial assistant. Your work has always been gritty in its honesty. From Lighting Up to Five Men Who Broke My Heart and beyond, you seem so fearless in content, no subject is off limits. Have you ever been met with scrutiny for revealing so much of your life, personally and professionally?
Susan Shapiro: The brother I wrote about in Overexposed recently hung up the phone on me. After 5 Men, my husband threatened to write a rebuttal called “The Bitch Beside Me.” When he read the advice from my shrink, “lead the least secretive life you can,” in Lighting Up, my father emailed me, “You’re wrong. Repression is the greatest gift of the human intellect.” I tell my students, “The first piece you write that your family hates means that you’ve found your voice.”
Rail: Is it really as unacceptable as people say to use the work place (for example) as fodder for fiction?
Shapiro: No. I say it’s your life. And writing is a way to turn the worst events in your life into the most beautiful.
Rail: Who are some authors that have influenced your own work over the years, and why?
Shapiro: So many! I love the humor in the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, Frederick Seidel, and Billy Collins. The honesty and rage in the work of Louise Glück, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell. I love Phillip Lopate’s nonfiction and agree with his stance that the problem with confessional writing is that people don’t confess enough. My favorite novels are The Great Gatsby and I love A.S. Byatt’s Possession. The fantasy parents of my novel Speed Shrinking are Portnoy’s Complaint and Fear of Flying for the humorous depiction of shrinks and sex and crazy Jewish families.
Rail: You are a “writer’s teacher,” credited by many in helping authors to publish their first novels by advice alone. What advice can you offer the young novelist (in addition to telling her to take your classes!)?
Shapiro: Write about your obsessions. Find tough critics or mentors who will tell you the truth. If someone tells you your work is brilliant, show it to someone else who tells you how it can be made better. Don’t send your book to agents too quickly. When you’re finished writing, pay a ghost editor to go over it line by line first, preferably somebody who has worked as an agent, book editor, or is a published author. I have a list of the top ghost editors. People can contact me through my website, www.susanshapiro.net, if they want recommendations. I highly recommend getting shrunk to get over your career blocks. Also, how can you understand the motivation of your characters if you don’t understand yourself and your own relationships? Through my popular “speed shrinking” parties (think speed dating with shrinks) I can also recommend great therapists. I had a brilliant shrink who saved my career. In fact, he inspired my memoir Lighting Up and my novel Speed Shrinking. He helped me triple my income. My insurance covers part of it and then it turned out the rest of the therapy was deductible as a business expense.
Rail: How do journalism skills help or hurt the early fiction writer?
Shapiro: I think it’s good to mix it up with genres and lengths and styles. In fact, I don’t know many authors who just stick to one genre. And journalism is literature with A.D.D. I’ve had students get published in the New York Times in one week. I think writing and publishing an essay on the same subject of your novel can help you focus, write, get an agent, and sell it. Plus it’s so much easier to commit to three pages than to commit to 300.
Rail: When writing fiction and non-fiction, how similar or different are your processes?
Shapiro: Very similar. I wake up and write for hours every day, and find it totally joyful. Secret of being prolific: I’m not afraid to suck. My first drafts don’t have to be good, they just have to be on the page. I don’t show them to agents or editors, just my writing workshop. As one of my mentors used to say, “plumbers don’t get plumbers’ block.” But then again, my fiction is autobiographical and my nonfiction is fictionalized (with an author’s note explaining my technique).
Rail: Had you been writing Overexposed throughout the nearly decade and a half since its first form of inception?
Shapiro: Off and on. After a mentor told me, “You have no imagination, stop writing fiction,” I put it away and published five nonfiction books. Then I tried again. I love telling people that it took me until age 48 to write a happy, successful 26-year-old that my 26-year-old editor liked.
Rail: The work, in addition to being entertaining, is a veritable exposé on jealousy, identity, and individuality, as well as familial duty. Did it develop on its own organically or were these clear talking points you wanted to come across to “say something?”
Shapiro: I try not to be profound or preachy. What’s that line—“Don’t reduce it to significance.” On the other hand, I’m a raging feminist who loves men and marriage. I’m a shrinkaholic. In everything I write there seems to be a Jewish girl from the Midwest who, with the help of a good therapist, makes it in the big city. I’m not sure if it’s repetition compulsion or wish fulfillment? Or maybe my mentor was right and I have no imagination whatsoever.
Rail: What comes now?
Shapiro: I’m working on a bunch of projects: a new, more literary novel called What’s Never Said. The Five Men Who Broke My Heart screenplay. A book with my addiction specialist called Unhooked. And there’s speed shrinking for love (Friday February 11, 2011, 7–9 p.m. at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, 126 Crosby Street, SoHo).
I thought now that I don’t have to teach to make a living I’d want to quit, but I actually love it even more and have better publishing karma. I teach at the New School and I recently launched my own “instant gratification takes too long” book seminars and five-week classes where the goal is to publish a great piece by the end of the class to pay for the class. If a student sells a piece for $1000, I get dinner. I get a lot of free dinners.