Teresa Burns Gunther: You’ve written five novels and two memoirs. Your first memoir was the experience of a daughter. The second, Devotion, is about being a mother. How do you think being a mother has changed you as a writer? How has it changed your work?
Dani Shapiro: I could feel a radical shift in my subject matter as a novelist when I became a mother. It was as if a new prism opened, and I had access to a part of life I hadn’t been able to see. My becoming a mother also coincided with the publication of Slow Motion, which was a book that had an effect on my life as a writer for a number of reasons: because it was a memoir, and therefore I became more public, and because the book was successful. I appeared on Oprah wearing seasickness bands on my wrists for morning sickness because I was three months pregnant with my son. And then, after the publication of Slow Motion, right around the time I was casting about for my next book, my infant son became very ill — we had a very frightening year — and that maternal anxiety became the only subject I could imagine exploring as a fiction writer, which eventually led me to write the novel Family History. I remember sitting at my desk, during that scary year, and thinking that being a fiction writer was the most frivolous thing to do in the world. I wanted to go to medical school. Or become a triage nurse. Or anything other than sit alone in a room making up stories. But eventually my son recovered, the feeling passed, and I was able to turn my maternal anxiety into fiction. And later, when I wrote my fifth novel, Black and White, I also was driven by motherhood, though in a different way. I had long admired the photographs of Sally Mann, a photographer who had taken provocative but beautiful photographs of her young children. But once I was a mother myself, I found myself wondering, from the child’s point of view, about how those photographs were composed and shot. I was unable to see them simply as beautiful, but also as possibly exploitative.
TBG: Your memoir and your essays are open, courageous and honest. As a successful fiction writer do you ever struggle with the choice of medium: fiction versus memoir? Did you ever consider writing Devotion as fiction?
DS: Whenever an idea comes to me, it also announces its form. Family History and Black and White were clearly novels. Devotion was most definitely a memoir — I was frightened enough of the idea of exploring my spiritual life as memoir, afraid it would be deadly boring — I couldn’t imagine exploring that material novelistically. It felt to me like a story that needed to be told in an inside-of-it, reported-from-the-front kind of way.
And also, on the subject of being open and courageous, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the question of how much I reveal (or don’t reveal) about myself in my non-fiction because so many readers ask me if I feel “exposed.” And I don’t. I’ve been mulling this over, and I think, if anything, that writers are more exposed through our fiction, because there is an element of fiction that remains hidden, even from the writer (especially from the writer!), so we may in fact be revealing more of our inner lives than we realize. Whereas in memoir and personal essay, the writer is choosing exactly what she wishes to reveal. In that sense, it’s a very controlled medium.
TBG: The structure of Devotion feels so organic though it moves back and forth in time and shifts from the external day to day activities of your life to your internal spiritual journey. Was finding the shape of the book a natural construction or more of a puzzle?
DS: It took me a while to find the structure of Devotion. It became clear to me early on that this wasn’t going to be straightforward storytelling, but I wasn’t sure how to go about it. It seemed to me that reading the journey of someone’s spiritual life was the equivalent of watching water boil. When the narrative began to break apart into pieces, I already was perhaps a third of the way in. I thought I was going to write seventy-two short chapters — because in the Kabbalah (the mystical approach to Judaism) there is a beautiful story about the seventy-two names for God — but increasingly I found myself boxed in by that abstract concept. Abstract concepts often box writers in. I had a breakthrough perhaps midway through the writing, in which I realized that I could reach the seventy-second piece, tell the story from the Kabbalah and then just keep writing. That was enormously liberating, and that’s when the smaller bits and pieces, like the lists and definitions, started to emerge. The process became very organic and with only a few exceptions, the pieces came to me in the order in which they appear in the book.
TBG: Tell me about the cover art for Devotion.
DS: I adore this cover. I think it’s my favorite book jacket ever. The paper scroll seems like the perfect metaphor for the book. It’s empty — waiting to be filled in, a personal Torah. I have found that readers think a great deal about their own stories, their own searches, when they read Devotion. The blank scroll is an invitation.
TBG: You maintain a deep spiritual practice. In your work, whether fiction or nonfiction, you wrestle with what is most difficult about our lives. You are devoted to your family. How do you move between these deep places into the everyday, from yoga and meditation to writing and into the world of household chores and mothering? How have you been able to blend these endeavors?
DS: What a great and beautifully phrased question! There is a moment in Devotion where I write: “Eventually three o’clock rolled around, or four, and it was time for Jacob to come home from school. I didn’t know how to transition from one to the other: from hermit to mom. From silence to homework. From inwardness to snack-making and Honey, how was your day. I struggled to get inside myself, and then — as if trapped there — I struggled to get back out.” To me, this is one of the most resonant passages in my book, because it is a struggle. Balance is a myth, an elusive goal with which we artist-mothers often punish ourselves. We think it’s possible to be everything at once. Increasingly, what I try to do is be completely in the moment, whatever that moment calls for. When I’m doing yoga or meditating, I try (and fail and try again) to be fully present. When I’m writing, same thing. And when I’m with my family, I try to simply be with my family. One very small practice I’ve put into place that has helped, is that during the school year I don’t check email or go online until Jacob has left for school. That way, at least in those early morning hours, my attention isn’t split. I don’t want to be one of those caricatures of a parent holding an iPhone while her kid wants her attention. Though honestly, that sometimes happens, too. It’s all a process.
TBG: How has your searching served your family? What would you most hope to give Jacob for his own spiritual life?
DS: I love this question. Comfort, perspective, solace, truth seeking, something to grasp onto in the middle of the night. It truly doesn’t matter to me what it is — I just want him to have a place inside of himself to go in moments of intense emotion. A bedrock of sorts.
TBG: What To Expect When You’re Expecting was a book you turned to often in Jacob’s early years, checking developmental milestones. Were you looking for signs of brain damage even after he’d been given a clean bill of health? Do you feel you are still waiting for that other shoe to drop?
DS: I was already someone who waited for the other shoe to drop, well before Jacob’s illness. It’s my nature. The author, meditation teacher, and therapist Sylvia Boorstein once told me a fantastic Yiddish word for this I hadn’t known: “to zorg,” which means to create needless worry. I worried for years about Jacob — I don’t worry in the same ways any more. I probably am closer to the baseline of normal maternal worry. We all have it, I think. Someone once described motherhood as forevermore walking around with your heart outside your body. So true.
TBG: Is there a book you think every writer-mother should read?
DS: Oh, there are so many! Any book that helps us to feel less alone in the struggle to live our lives fully as mothers and artists. Writing A Woman’s Life by Carolyn Heilbrun is a beautiful and fascinating book. Though she famously wasn’t a mother, Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being is indispensable. And a contemporary writer I admire is Rachel Cusk, whose memoir A Life’s Work takes on motherhood as its subject.
TBG: What are you working on now? Do you see the lessons learned and so beautifully chronicled in Devotion at play in your choice of subject matter for your next book?
DS: Right now, I have several ideas brewing. One is clearly a play — quite a surprise to me, since I’ve never even considered writing a play before. Another may be the beginnings of a novel, another is a short story. I’ve traveled so much since Devotion‘s publication, giving talks and readings that I’m finding it hard to settle down and write. But slowly, it’s coming. I have a feeling that writing Devotion will very much affect the fiction that comes next, as writing Slow Motion also affected the fiction that came after it. In my writing life, my memoirs seem to be dividing lines. I certainly took a leap as a novelist after Slow Motion and would welcome another leap now.