Susan Shapiro is an award-winning writing professor at the New School and The New York Times bestselling author of 10 books. Heliotrope publishes her new novel What’s Never Said this coming month. We were lucky to get our fabulous EIC, Royal Young, to sit down with the engaging author.
Do you think sex is always a power play?
No! I’ve been madly in love and lust with the same guy for 25 years. I tell my students to write about their obsessions and that “love letters and light slices of life rarely engender profundity.” You need need drama/conflict/tension. So I keep mining my old lovers. Luckily I was insane from age 13 to 35 so there’s a lot of passionate material to exploit. In my debut memoir “Five Men Who Broke My Heart,” I spilled the secrets of my old flames. But there was one story I could never tell – until now. In fiction. My memoir was a romantic comedy. I see “What’s Never Said” as it’s darker, fictional sequel.
Is poetry a dying art?
Not at all, it’s thriving. I’ve read gorgeous poems recently – by Deborah Landau and Brenda Shaughnessy – that reminded me of the younger version of poetry I adored by Louise Gluck and Sharon Olds in my NYU days.
Though I’m a failed poet. My mentor Harvey Shapiro (no relation) told me I had “too many words, not enough music.” Luckily he became my editor at the New York Times Magazines, where I launched my memoir “Lighting Up.” Harvey said “You have more poetry in your prose than you did in your poems.” I was lucky because it pays more. I could almost make a living with prose and books, teaching at night. Therapy taught me to be flexible, to listen and cultivate criticism to my benefit. Now I’m a memoirist writing fiction about poetry.
What is the difference between New York now and in the early 80’s when your character Lila Lerner comes to Manhattan for college?
I’m from a conservative Jewish suburban Michigan family I love – but when I landed in New York to go to NYU, I saw Greenwich Village as a crazy artistic carnival, like Lila did. Bob Dylan said when he first heard Elvis Presley’s music he felt like he’d busted out of jail. It was like that. I loved it so much, I wind up buying an apartment around the corner from my dorm. I guess where I live it’s now more expensive and cleaner. When I started writing here, my poems were really dim and depressing. As I got happier, the humor came out. A student was given assignment to interview a character from each area of Manhattan and asked if I’d be the Village character. I said sure. His first question was “How do you feel now that the whole art and literary scene has moved to Brooklyn?” I screamed “It took me 25 years to get a great apartment in the Village! It’s still here!”
How is our memory of love different from its reality?
The reality of living with real love for so long makes my memories more painful. I was so misguided and delusional. Though I’ve stayed friendly with many exes so at least I had good taste. The most helpful relationship advice my shrink ever gave me was “Love doesn’t make you happy, make yourself happy. Then you find love.”
Is success always good?
No, Daniel sees the complicated side when he says “as if achievement were redemption,” insisting it’s not. In my books “Lighting Up, “Speed Shrinking” and “Unhooked,” I write about quitting my addictions to cigarettes, alcohol, dope, gum, diet soda thirteen years ago with a brilliant addiction specialist, Fred Woolverton. But an addict usually doesn’t quit being compulsive, they just switch compulsions. At a certain point, getting book deals and doing book events became my new obsessions. And press became my heroin. It’s better than drugs, yet as Fred warned “Beware of anything that takes you out of yourself, because you always have to go back to yourself.” Luckily I’ve developed a good routine and have “core pillars” in place: my husband, my writing workshops, my classes, close friends and family, charity. If you want to take a lot from the world, I feel like – for karma – you have to give a lot back. So I hope teaching knocks the edge off my obsessive ambition.
EXCERPT WHAT’S NEVER SAID
SET-UP: In Susan Shapiro’s new novel WHAT’S NEVER SAID, the newly-married poet Daniel Wildman attends a book party for Howard Fell, a lifelong colleague he’s competitive with, in Greenwich Village in 1982. Daniel is annoyed his nemesis, Cormick, is throwing the fancy soiree where he’s shocked to bump into Lila, his former student and secret ex-girlfriend.
Howard greeted Daniel with a big shake and back slap, as if they were comrades now playing together on the winning team. “Let’s get drinks.” Howard led him to the make-shift bar.
Daniel asked for a Heineken from the bartender, who poured it into a long glass. Cans of Bud apparently wouldn’t do tonight.
“Come on man, have a shot of Jack Daniels Black Gold,” Howard pushed.
Daniel shook his head. Ronit’s plane was due in at six. He’d planned to pick her up at the airport and bring her to the party to show off his new bride. But a flurry of messages said her flight was cancelled, she was catching the next one.
As he turned to find the phone, he saw Lila walk in the living room. He couldn’t breathe.
Her lovely dirty blond hair was now shorter. She removed a black gauzy wrap from her shoulders. Under it was a low-cut top, a short black leather skirt, spiky high heels. She looked older, slimmer, more sexed up than the innocent Midwest girl in his memory. Daniel suddenly felt vulnerable, untethered, all the work and love failures he associated with Lila slamming back into his brain. Why didn’t Howard warn him she was coming?
Daniel ducked back into Cormick’s kitchen, spying on Lila, hiding behind the pillar so she couldn’t see. Her all black silhouette looked too skeletal. He liked his version of her better – more curvaceous, disheveled, clashing in the bright colors of the tacky Baraboo tops her mother sent her. With those scary spikes, Lila would tower over him now.
He made a bee-line for Howard, by the table where an assistant was selling Howard’s new book. There must have been fifty copies. All hardcover.
“Could we speak alone for a minute?” he asked.
Howard led him into the Cormick’s bedroom, where coats were piled high on the bed and chairs. “Why didn’t you tell me Lila would be here?” Daniel demanded.
“Didn’t I mention it?” Howard asked.
Daniel finished his beer, craving something stronger.
“This isn’t high school. Go say hello,” Howard urged.
“I haven’t seen her since we split.”
“You’re married to Ronit. Why does it matter?”
“Why does it matter that my best friend doesn’t let me know he invited my ex to his book party? She wasn’t your student. She was my student and my advisee. Not to mention my girlfriend.” Daniel glared at the man of the hour, uncharacteristically dressed up in classy gray slacks and a dark tweed blazer.
“You’re being weirdly proprietary for a newlywed,” Howard answered.
Was it Daniel’s imagination or was Howard speaking more than usual? The Knopf gold star on his forehead had emboldened his quiet friend.
He headed back to the kitchen for another drink. Where had Lila gone? Had she left already? Howard stopped him, pointing to the foyer, where three men were walking in. “Look.”
There was a stir as everyone watched The New Yorker poetry editor enter with the infamously reclusive imp-like editor-in-chief and the new publisher. The rare appearance by this trio caused a palpable hum. Howard and Daniel looked at each other, knowing this book party had just become legendary.
“Boy, you must be a big shot if the Three Musketeers turn out,” Daniel mused, in awe.
“I’ll drink to that,” Howard said. He reached for the fancy whiskey on the table, pouring two shots.
“If I didn’t hate you so much for showing me up, I’d be proud of you right now,” Daniel joked.
“Thank you for being envious,” Howard said. “You made my night.”
“If I’m seething with jealousy, would that make your week?” Daniel asked.
Daniel needed to leave this scene where he no longer belonged. He should call Ronit and find out what was going on with her damn flight. He staggered to the stately blue bedroom and found his raincoat on the bed. He grabbed it from under a pile of more expensive jackets and furs.
“Daniel. When did you get back?”
Hearing her voice, he spun around quickly. All of a sudden she was beside him.
“Lila. Yes. Last week. I am. Um, back here. In New York. For now, I mean.” He was dizzy, stammering like a high school nerd, dropping his coat back on the bed.
“I saw you in the kitchen. I waved but you didn’t see me,” she said, inching closer. Was she lying? Was she always so much taller than him? Daniel stood up straighter.
“So, how was Israel?”
“Good. Really good.” He pulled himself together to sound cheerful, puffing his shoulders out. Man, she looked beautiful. Definitely older and thinner. Still too much of that horrible perfume.
“I’m leaving too.” She reached over and found her gauze wrap, threw it around her shoulders. Her legs were bare, tan, no hose. “How’s everything been?” she asked, looking at him with those big endless round blue eyes he feared he could still fall through.
“Everything’s good,” he said. Shit! An acclaimed poet couldn’t find a better word to repeat than good? “I hear everything is good with you.” Damn, what did that even mean? That he’d been checking up? Or stalking her? He tried not to teeter, putting his hand on the regal bed post to steady himself.
“Your poem blew me away,” she said.
“Good.” Damn, he was stuck on the fucking word. He couldn’t say anything else.
“It is true, we cannot keep the brilliance of this moment/that burns both of our flesh like sunlight…” she recited.
Caught in his own maze, he was embarrassed in front of her by what he’d confessed in the poem, as if he was admitting he still had feelings for her now.
“I wrote it in Jerusalem,” he finally was able to muster.
“I thought you were staying there?”
“Did you want me to stay there?” He was drunk; that came out louder and meaner than he’d meant it to.
“What? I never wanted you to leave.” She seemed confused, as shell-shocked to be this close to him as he was to her.
“I have to go.” He turned to look for his coat. Ronit could be landing any minute.
“It’s hard to see you,” Lila said. “I think I had too much to drink tonight.”
“Yes, with your new friends,” he mumbled, turning back to her. “When did you and Howard become such good buddies?”
“Oh god, I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt you,” she said, starting to cry. Her tears stunned Daniel. What did she mean?
“I didn’t either.” He flashed to her graduation night, when she came to his apartment to stay over for the first time.
“It was about you,” she was saying.
What was about him?
“I was missing you,” she cooed in his ear. “That’s all it was about.”
All what was about? He smelled cigarettes and vodka on her breath.
“I was missing you too,” he admitted. “When I wrote the poem.”
“You were? I never got over our fight or the way you left,” she said. “I never recovered.”
“You didn’t?” He longed to run his fingers through her soft blond strands, as he’d done in his bedroom two years before.
“It was my fault,” she was saying. “For getting stoned. I ruined everything because I was
scared. I’m sorry I was such an idiot.”
She leaned against him, tears flowing, her breathing jagged, her head collapsing on his
shoulder. He felt out of time, away from his body and lost, wrapping his arms around her back.
“Don’t cry, Lila. I’m sorry. It was my fault. I screwed up.”
“You did?” She sniffled.
He patted her soft hair; he just wanted her to stop crying. “I never stopped loving you, Lila,” spilled from his stupid mouth.
She turned and surprised him by kissing his ears, his neck, his face. Within seconds she was pushing him down, fumbling on top of him as they fell on Cormick’s king size bed. She was kissing him harder, saying “I always wanted to be with you too.”
Before Daniel could think or stop himself, they were making out on top of all the coats, landing on a white rabbit jacket, the room a Tilt-a-Whirl of colors. She stretched her left arm to turn off the lamp, rubbing herself against him. He was soaring through the past, to the summer night in his bed, almost two years before. She kissed his lips, her gauze cover-up falling off her shoulders, her shoes dropping until her feet were bare, her leather skirt inching up, her legs wrapping around his waist.
“I was just afraid,” she whispered.
“I was afraid too,” he was telling her as the door burst open.
The light blared as he heard Howard yell, “Daniel, your wife is on the phone.”
“Your wife?” Lila’s voice shrieked. Lipstick stained her cheek, mascara smudging under her eyes like a raccoon. “You’re married?” She was screaming, pushing Daniel off of her.
He fell to the floor, smashing his elbow, the bright angry bulb blasting his eyes. He felt caught in the wrong bed, the wrong city, the wrong train, the wrong direction. What was he doing here, dizzy on the plush carpet of Cormick’s bedroom, the white rabbit jacket and striped fox tumbling on top of him? From upside down, he spotted The New Yorker magazine’s brass crowding the doorway to see what the commotion was. They stared inside as Lila rushed past them all in tears, her spiky shoes in her hands. Daniel was going to throw up.
“Oh,” Howard said. “Sorry to interrupt.”
Learn more about Susan susanshapiro.net
And be sure to check out her upcoming book events.
SPEED SHRINKING FOR LOVE CHARITY EVENT
Monday August 3 from 7-9 pm
at Housing Works NYC 126 Crosby Street
free & open to the public
HousingWorks.org event page
SHRINKS ARE AWAY READING
Tuesday August 4 from 7 to 8:30 pm
at St. Mark’s Bookshop 136 E. 3rd Street
with Sue Shapiro, Kate Walter, Neesha Arter
Royal Young & Kenan Trebincevic
SECRETS OF BOOK PUBLISHING PANEL
Wednesday August 5, 2015 from 7-9 pm
with great book editors & literary agents
The Strand Bookstore Rare Books Room
828 Broadway at 12th Street
StrandBooks.com event page