In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing author and they choose their own interview by handpicking the questions (and how many!) they want to answer. Elena Mauli Shapiro is the author of In The Red. Here is what Elena had to say about reading, writing, and her obsession with memory.
Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?
Hello. My name is Elena and I am a novelist. Sometimes I write short stories, but they either turn into novels or are eaten by a novel which then incorporates pieces of the story within itself. Basically everything my brain does is in the service of eventually producing a novel. It’s a chronic condition. I have been writing stories as long as I remember. It just took a long time before I got good enough that somebody decided to pay me.
I’ve published two novels so far. The first, 13 rue Thérèse, is sort of a historical romance set in 1928 Paris. The second, In the Red, is a brooding Eastern European gangster thing. I am sometimes told that my stories are different enough that they feel as if they have been written by separate people. While I really enjoy expanding my range as a storyteller, I can tell you that every book I write will always feature sex in some form, and that my texts will always be obsessed with memory—be it the workings of individual memory or collective memory in the forms of history and myth.
I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you throughout the writing process?
I have been really into cake lately. I love how combining four cheap, pedestrian ingredients (flour, butter, sugar, eggs) in the right way can make magic in your mouth. It’s a miracle! It’s a little bit like writing a book in that it involves careful layering of ingredients to produce a satisfying whole, but it’s way more awesome than a book in that, with cake, you can have yumminess within a couple of hours. Since it often takes years for a book to take shape, it’s psychologically helpful to produce something delicious in a manageable amount of time! I just made a Crème de Cassis cake when a friend came to visit yesterday. Basically, find a good basic white cake recipe and add some tasty booze to the batter and you can’t go wrong. A cake that will make you cry it is so good is this Baileys Irish Cream cake. Strap in for some awesome.
Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be? How involved were you in choosing the name of the book?
Titles are weird in that I either get a good title immediately, or I never get one. I had the title for In the Red right from the beginning. I never had a title for 13 rue Thérèse. It drove me nuts. It was my agent who ultimately suggested the title.
Do you ever look back at your early work? How do you feel your writing style or approach to writing has evolved since you first began?
I very seldom actually look at my old texts. I even avoid looking at my published work. Once it’s printed it’s done, nothing left for me there. Sometimes I will salvage an old idea or scene from something I’ve written previously that didn’t turn out. That’s why even failed pieces are useful: you never know what you can take from them later. But when I do that I usually pull the idea or scene from memory and rewrite from scratch, I don’t consult the old text. I did have one occasion to look at old stuff before a move a few years ago, when I had to dispose of accumulated papers. I had tons of printed material, especially from college when I couldn’t trust floppy disks to preserve my data. I absolutely dreaded having to look at that stuff: I thought I would be horrified going through it, at how abjectly shitty my writing used to be. I was convinced I would cringe at all the expository dialogue, incompetent mechanics, and poorly rendered feeling. But I liked my former self a lot more than I thought I would–not because the writing was good. It was fairly hideous. But there was so much of it! Literally reams and reams, most of which I have no memory of composing. I was on fire; I was driven by something I did not understand but that I couldn’t resist. I was absolutely obsessed with the idea that I would write a good book sometime before I died. When I saw kids in my writing classes who were more talented than me, I was jealous and despairing: they were so much closer to attaining this thing I wanted.
Looking over my old crap, I understood that I had overestimated the power of raw talent. People who are exceedingly talented are often complacent. I was not. I remembered, looking over these papers, how incredibly hard they were to push out of myself, out of my half-formed young brain. The mechanics were infuriating–it was so difficult to even get characters across a room, to describe their gestures with any clarity. The medium was totally unyielding and I kept battering myself against it hoping it would, one day, open for me. Don’t get me wrong, talent is a lovely thing to have. Even then I wasn’t totally devoid of it. But I was misguided when I fretted that I didn’t have enough of it. In me there is a blunt force that in itself could be called a talent, and its momentum is greater than any innate language skill: I am very, very good at desire.
As a published author, what’s been the biggest surprise about life after the publication of your first book?
Even when your work is validated by publication with a major New York house, the doubt never goes away. At least for me, it never does. I always live in terror that I am writing complete shit. Every novel is its own private disaster. Past successes or failures mean nothing to the text at hand. I have to work out each book as if it were the first and as if it were the last.
Did you have to do much research when working on your books, and do you tend to write first or research first?
Long, long ago when I was a very young sprout I wrote a larval draft of what would later become In the Red. It turned out no good, and it took me a while to figure out that it was because I had not given the story proper context. I needed to do a bunch of research. Duh! Color me embarrassed. Now that I am old and wise I do the research before I write the book so that I don’t have to write it again a decade later. Hopefully.
Where do you most love to write? Are there places where it comes to you easier than others?
When I was a young sprout writing awkward, unresearched mush, I could write anywhere. In college I escaped my roommates to go write under awnings on dark and rainy evenings. I really liked to write in the dead of night in the Rodin Sculpture Garden at Stanford. I wrote in coffee shops, public libraries, benches in parks, wherever. I wrote on receipt tape between customers when I was working as a bank teller! Now that I am old and complacent I have a cozy home office with a wall of books and a nice wide desk and a rocking chair. That’s right—I said a rocking chair! With lace-edged, embroidered pillows! The office has lovely afternoon light and is five paces from my kitchen so that I can fetch emergency cake whenever necessary. I have realized Virginia Woolf’s dream: a tax-deductible room of my own.
Thanks for all the great questions!