In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing
victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing the which questions, and how many questions they want to answer! Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion: A Memoir, played along and answered seven questions. Here is what Dani had to say about reading, writing and using her life as a laboratory.
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?
I’ve written seven books over the span of twenty (yikes!) years, so I guess that averages a book about every three years. Five of my books are novels. Two are memoirs. I wrote my first novel while in graduate school at Sarah Lawrence College, and it was published shortly after I graduated. Ever since then my life has been one of writing books, teaching, reading, mentoring writers who are starting out. I would describe my novels (the most recent are Black & White and Family History) as stories about families, secrets, mothers and daughters, and ultimately, what we do with what we’ve been given. Life hands us whatever life hands us, but what do we do with it? Which brings me to my memoirs, which are both about what my own life handed me and my grappling with the big questions of love, loss, surrender, recovery, faith, and doubt.
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 thorough the writing process?
I am a creature of ritual and habit. One of the reasons why I like writing at home is because I also have a yoga practice which is an integral part of my writing day. I find that yoga and meditation are enormously helpful to my writing. Every day—usually midday—I unroll my mat and practice yoga for an hour. (If I leave my house to go to a class, it takes up half my day since I live in the country, quite far from any studio.) An ideal day for me would be writing all morning, then practicing yoga and sitting in meditation for a while (a while being, like, fifteen minutes) and then going back to writing. I find that it helps wipe the slate of my mind clean, frees me of a lot of the noise and chatter that takes up too much room.
People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time? What impact did telling this story have on your life? Did you find that it had changed you?
I always feel that as writers, our stories choose us, not the other way around. In the case of Devotion, I had no intention of writing another memoir. I was in that between-books state of waiting, trying to be patient and allow the next book to emerge, when one day the word Devotion floated before my eyes, as if in neon. There it was. Just that word. And I knew then that I needed to write a book about what had been going on with me. I had been waking up every night, in the middle of the night, in a state of panic, of existential dread. But nothing was wrong in my life. Quite the contrary, it was a time of great contentment, probably the most I had ever known. So what was going on? I realized I needed to explore what I believed, from inside my life, using my life as a laboratory. As a mother, wife, daughter. As someone who had been through a few very major losses and traumas. As someone who had been raised religious but didn’t exactly believe in God. As a writer—because the only way I understand anything about life is through writing and reading. Telling the story of Devotion had a profound, life-changing impact on me. I met people—teachers who have become friends—who are in my life on a daily basis now. Their wisdom has become part of the way I think.
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 don’t tend to look back on my early work unless there’s a reason, but I do know that my writing style has changed quite a bit since the beginning. I am a lover first and foremost of language—of the music of language—and when I was first falling in love with writing, it was with the meter and sound of the words themselves. A professor of mine in graduate school once said to me: Dani, you know how to write a beautiful sentence. You’d just better make sure it means something. And that was an enormously helpful piece of advice. I still think of language in musical terms, but increasingly, over the years, my writing style has become pared down. I try not to sacrifice meaning for beauty—but to retain the beauty, the music, while making sure that the sentences themselves are building to something.
How many works in progress do you have going at any one time? How do you know when one has potential and when one just needs to be scrapped?
I usually work on one big project at a time, which sometimes gets interrupted by smaller projects, assignments like book reviews or pieces for magazines. I don’t like dividing my attention too much, or the work starts to feel murky. As for the million dollar question of when you know when a work has potential or needs to be scrapped, only time will tell, and so we have to be willing to explore a piece of work, holding at bay the knowledge that it may not have a pulse. We can’t know it until we’ve built at least some of it. That’s one of the hardest, most painful things about being a writer. There must always be that willingness to fail.
Are there other books you love or writers you admire that are from your local area?
I live in an area that has a rich literary tradition. Arthur Miller, William Styron, Norman Mailer, Frank McCourt, Francine DuPlessis Gray, Philip Roth, Roxana Robinson all lived, or live, in the ‘hood. This makes me feel less alone on my hilltop as I sit alone in my room.
Anything else your readers and potential readers might like to know?
Since Devotion first came out, I have been traveling non-stop, doing speaking engagements about the book. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. I think Devotion struck a nerve because it was such a personal story of spiritual seeking, and we are all, deep within us, seekers of something. It’s been a strange and wonderful year, one in which I’ve met thousands of readers and had hundreds of intense, intimate conversations. I discovered that I am a speaker as well as a writer—something I hadn’t known about myself. And that though my natural habitat is, and will always be, a solitary one, there is something magical about being in the world, surrounded by readers.
About Dani: Dani Shapiro is the bestselling author of the memoirs Devotion and Slow Motion, and five novels including Black & White and Family History. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, One Story, Elle, The New York Times Book Review, The Los Angeles Times, and has been widely anthologized. She has taught in the writing programs at Columbia, NYU, The New School and Wesleyan University, and she is co-founder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. She is a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure. She lives with her family in Litchfield County, Connecticut.