Novelist Laurie Gwen Shapiro


* You did not disguise Sheila Nevins much. What's your relationship with her and HBO?

She can talk in a loopy grandmotherly way, but damn she is a sharp businesswoman. I coproduced two low budget docs that she bought for HBO about Frank McCourt and his brothers. She did put in a respectable bid for a feature doc (Keep the River on the Right) that my brother David and I ultimately sold to IFC for a theatrical release. But I do place a small bet with my film pals exactly how many minutes into the Oscar documentary section she will get a brown-nosed call-out as a saint. Hilarious. Documentary makers know how hard it is to get films commissioned.

* What did you learn from writing your first novel, Salami? Your style seemed to change after it.

I had ever so much fun writing Unexpected Salami. I wrote in six weeks during my lunch hour at an evil company simply to entertain myself. A top agent took it right away and sold it in a week. Seriously. I then labored for two years over a novel that was thoughtful and "well-written" but didn’t sell. So I’ve learned to keep pushing motivation on my characters (This comes naturally though as I get older) – but not to chuck light sentences that come to your fingers instantly.

* Anglophile was so much fun to read. Was it fun to write? Where did that book come from?

I think Matzo Ball Heiress is easier to like – Food, Dynasty Jews, Sex, Jokes. I have old and young fans for that. Unexpected Salami I’ve heard described as Seinfeld meets Spinal Tap (lots of male reader emails for that one). But The Anglophile, while humorous, it got into sexual fetishes and is a bit sadder. Not as wide a net. Attracts a little more intense quirky people. But that’s okay. Let me be the first to say nearly all of my favorite people are intense and quirky. It came from my completely indulging myself. I love all things British, except Chinese food in Liverpool.

* Does it matter that your books move from being fun to read to being literature? The writers I love to read for relaxation are fun but literary. Ben Elton. Hanif Kureshi. TC Boyle. Bill Bryson. Lorrie Moore. (Okay Ben Elton is not always literary, but when he is on, which is not always, no one is funnier. I embarrassed myself on a Manhattan subway when reading a passage in Stark that featured an elegant French Canadian cursing all wrong in English. ) The reason that I’m (for the time being) stopping adult fiction is that at Random House I have an amazing editor for my young adult novels who is pummeling me daily into not sailing on my natural comic ability but to delve deeper and deeper. I’m kind of shocked that she even talks seriously to me like this. Frankly, I’m taking less money for Young Adult simply because that’s all I ever wanted as a writer. Someone who believes in me in a big way. I think my other editors were simply amused by my quirkiness and could maybe get lucky on a breakout book.

* When you were a kid, what were your ambitions for your life?

I wanted to first be a magician, then a writer. My 4th Grade teacher, Miss Hayeem, an intense Jew from India told she had a dream I would be a writer, and I utterly believed her. My parents also thought I would be a writer. At my summer camp Camp Tranquility I never learned to swim, but I was the editor of the camp paper from the age of 10.

* Was there a point when you realized you would be a writer?

When I sold my first novel. I can never recapture the utter glee in that moment. Second only to the birth of my kid. My agent said, before she announced the amount, "keep your day job." But I didn’t. I hated it. Money went down, but happiness ensued.

* What crowd did you hang out with in high school?

I went to Stuyvesant, a math and science high school in NYC. It really wasn’t a pocket protector place you might imagine. It was in downtown Manhattan, at the time in the East Village. Lucy Liu and Tim Robbins went there other years, and if you can imagine them young, that’s what most of the people would be like. No mall rats or pom-pom girls, thankfully. Ultimate Frisbee much more important than football. Girls wore sexy short black dresses to the prom, which was an ironic affair. My brother’s year was even at the Playboy Club – mine was at the World Trade Center, RIP. I had friends, but I dated out of school. I had a thing for a guy much older than me, though we always stopped short before actual sex. Thinking I was ultra mature was in retrospect idiotic. He was just immature. What kind of 30-year-old man dates a 17 year old. A wanker. A near pedophile. When I reached 30 I couldn’t dream of being involved with a 17 year old. Shudder. My first teen novel will be published in October 2006 by Random House. (Brand X ) It explores this time.

I hung around with the people who hung around with English teacher Frank McCourt, that is to say the creative ones who somehow got into this hallowed math school despite a lean towards verbal over math ability. They were going to make their parents happy (the school is not just prestigious, it’s free) but miserable by the rigidity. I am really shocked that the talented creatives from my gang hardly followed though on creative careers. My reunion was lawyer after lawyer. They are well off though! (My husband and I have fantasy counterparts living in genteel rusticity in rural France with no bills. We took early retirement after a corporate lawyer life.)

* What do you love and hate about the writing life?

Love that I get the publicity off my own creative ideas. Hate that when I occasionally fall flat, get the publicity too. Love staying at home. I have nasty PMS and by I hated to go to work on those days. I once saw a long check list for PMS and I had everything on it (highlights on the list -- PMS dandruff, dizziness, paranoia and hunger). Luke, I mean I had every symptom on that effing list except suicidal thoughts. Now I can work extra hard on the days I am functioning and eat a steak and down three homemade screwdrivers during the worst of my hormonal cycle. I can blub at the drop of a hat with no one in the next cubicle to pity me, and once my daughter is in school I can go back to bed at 9:30 a.m. The other day was a bad PMS day and I caught the tail end of American Iron Chef’s "Battle Pea" –and watching the unthinkable chocolate-coated pea popsicle being considered by wary judges was my sole semi-intellectual activity for the day. Screw regular work. This week is good hormonally and I have huge productivity.

* What role has Judaism/god played in your life? Did you feel called by God to write novels and produce docs on gay cannibals?

I would say my morality is derived from an intensely questioning Jewish background. There are a lot of famous rabbis a few generations back. My family were Religious Zionists to Jerusalem in the 1890’s. We’re talking Mea Shearim, the most orthodox area. My atheist grandfather, son of a rabbi, came to America partly to get out of this lifestyle. My parents are not religious, but I went to Hebrew School twice a week after school, like many Americans. I was Bat Mitzvahed. I also was the first girl at my Conservative synagogue to read from the Torah. Then I went to Israel and was really turned off by the fact that women couldn’t be next to their son during their bar mitzvahs at the wall. My mother said I was a mini-suffragette for a year. I never went to Shabbat service again unless for a family thing. Maybe because of this Hebrew schooling, when I was younger, before Israel, I believed in God. My parents never talked about God. Later I found out they were agnostic, my father more so. I am agnostic though, not atheist. Who am I to know what everything means? Science is more of a God for me than a traditional God. I am baffled what I should teach. My daughter knows what a synagogue is, and that she is a Jew with a Christian father, but I have not yet brought the concept of God up yet. I wonder what to do all the time. I look to Alduous Huxley as a role model. He spent a lifetime searching, and all he could come up with a the end of his hardcore delving was "Be Kind." I think that is where I am now too. My religion in 2006 is that I don’t shit on people if I can help it, and I mean that figuratively by the way before you crack a joke.

So no, I am not a practicing Jew. But I happily identify myself as a secular Jew. For one, I was born and still live on the Lower East Side. I mean give me a pickle and I can immediately tell you if it is quarter sour, or three quarters sour. I knew in a millisecond when word came that Monica Lewinsky said "Schmucko" that she was not merely of Polish heritage like Tara Liapinski. I love Old School Lower east Side Yiddish, which my Dad can speak. The newer take in Hasidic Brooklyn is not salty as the old Socialist Yiddish. I love visiting old synagogues when I travel. But I don’t want to be kosher. Or go to synagogue other than the occasional special event. A little bit of synagogue is just right for me. I enjoy myself when I do go once or twice a year.

* Did you take your husband's last name? Any qualms?

Why should I take his name? He had his life, I have mine. Also, I didn’t want to be a Jew with the name O’Leary. My husband loves my last name so we briefly considered sharing the O . Laurie and Paul Shapir O’Leary looked weird though. My daughter took her father’s surname—although she has my "religion" and two Hebrew names to honor her great grandmas.

* What are the juiciest things your peers say about writing and their careers as writers (that they don't reveal in interviews)?

How obsessively they read Publishers Marketplace online for lowdown on advances. Jealousy is weird emotion to control. I suffer too. I finally canceled my internet subscription to get away from that place.

* In what ways are your perceptions of life keener than other people's?

Honestly I have decided that I have a very light form of ADHD which allows me to hyperfocus on what keenly interests me. (Never diagnosed.) I feel a little like my eye is akin to Glenn Gould’s ear – except instead of teeny rhythms all around me, I remember odd details. I can still tell you what color the piping on the tube socks this hot guy in my calculus class in 11th Grade had on. (Teal.)

* How has your choice of vocation affected you, relationships?

Pisses off some people. My family says, "Watch what you say around Laurie." Also it’s weird what people will read as themselves. I had three guys who I used to date all contact me and say hey so weird you put me in a book as the ex-boyfriend in your book. One was a Type A luging sex-obsessed Mayflower descendant, one was a hilarious perpetually-broke Jersey shore type, and one was pretty darn effete writer though 100 percent straight, like Lyle the Effeminate Heterosexual from SNL. All saw themselves.

* How do you know when you've done good work?

You feel it in your bones. I love my essay in the Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt. It was short. But I knew when it was done. On the other hand I chucked half a novel once because when I thought about it – it was crap. And this was a contracted novel with a deadline. I started over with a new plot, The Anglophile, which I raced to get in on time. If I could I would rewrite the end of the book. The last three chapters were rushed.

* What have you sacrificed to be a writer?

Not much except a regular bankable income. Everything now comes once a year or every to years. I was due to get half a million for a film deal, but that crumbled on the last day of an option after nine years. That stung. I’m not really stuck in a solitary situation as I make films too. No one who says they made a doc by themselves is telling the truth – even our small documentary had 80 people involved.

* What do you do best and worst as a writer?

I think I am on paper as least a reasonably funny woman. I think more men than women risk humor, but that may be changing. Sarah Silverman and Samantha Bee from John Stewart are fearless. Worst – I like my digressions, but often I go overboard. I fight for some though even if an editor begs me to take them out. Digressions are in my brain, and I think people my age and younger deal better with them and often they work. But a big red pen is a good thing for an editor assigned to me, whatever her age.

* Why do you write what you write?

I can’t do much else except talk on the phone rally well. I use to think I was someone really special. Did you feel that way as a kid? A sense of "I’m different." But again now I think I have a mild form of ADHD that would be different in a girl that gifted me with an intense creativity and a different nature from most. I was given an award by the Soros Foundation for being the most creative on a campus of 50,000. But they could have also given me an award for most things lost while enrolled. If you are a ditzy smartish woman with really bad handwriting – I think you have to look up ADHD. What has convinced me is that many ADHD women have a fear of escalators. I read that and I was like. WHOA. That is my exact phobia. I will take an elevator if there is one even a mile down a hall. I read girls almost never get diagnosed, and can achieve in a big way in what they like. Two highly successful creative women I hang out with have just been diagnosed and are taking action so they don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. They have stains all over their shirt and glowing press for their journalism and fiction. And hate escalators.

* Were there any events in childhood that prefigured your adult work?

I was quite popular in elementary school -- happy girl. I was just fine in high school, not an A lister but okay. But I have a scarring memory of being ostracized at the end of 8th grade. Partly because I wouldn't do drugs, partly because the last place pollyannas are appreciated is in eighth grade. It was brutal, and just a handful of people caused the torment, the rest were sheep. Sometime when I write, I simply really want to show those motherfu**ers. Revenge if channeled well, is a good tool to get you to write. But I’m sure none of the ringleaders give a shit about whether I sell a book or that I won the Spirit Award. But in my fantasy they do care, and I get my writing quota done. Whatever works.

* How has marriage/motherhood affected your philosophizing and writing?

Motherhood rocks, although I think I need another one. I obsess over her so much that she may hate me soon if I don’t bring another in to balance out my love. I write during the time she is in school. So in that way she has focused my writing more. No more dilly-dallying. Except during PMS days.

* What do you want from your kids aside from their happiness?

I want my daughter (so far only one kid) to have a sense of humor. Because when life is sucking, you need one. Thankfully she does. She is a cute funny little blonde without a traditional girly girly nature. She reminds me of a teeny Amy Sedaris. Also a sense of heritage. I want her to travel to Vilnius, Lithuania and Mea Shearim, and when she is older to Auschwitz, even though my family were in America before the war. She can already tell you every Aussie animal, and one day I want to take her to Cork, where the O’Learys once ruled. She listens to the usual Disney Channel music dreck, but she is very musical via her dad and we sneak in traditional Celtic music and Yiddish music on occasion, as well as alternative rock.

* What does philosophy teach you about dealing with a man with an angry erection?

All I can remember from Philosophy 101 is that Sartre thought lust was ill-fated. Indeed: all of my early experiences with angry erections, while memorable, led to nasty breakups. My husband and I started out as friends who slept together, and there have been far too many bungled sexual encounters that stem from excessive wisecracking in our bedroom, but we’ve lasted a long time.

* How often do you experience the consolation of philosophy? At moments of crisis since you became an adult, how often has it been as genuinely useful as a sympathetic friend?

Rarely. However. I do have two brilliant philosopher friends who comfort me during crisis – I figure they have done all the deep reading I could never slog through. During crisis I read humorous nonfiction. Bill Bryson saved me this year during a family crisis that has eased (someone close was very sick.) Jeffrey Steingarten too. I can never read fiction during crisis.

* Your husband and your writing. Does he read it in advance? Is he allowed to critique it?

My husband is an Aussie musician and by this very background finds it distasteful when I use a big vocabulary word. His idea of a perfect book is Catcher in the Rye – "Unpretentious." As I pointed out to him recently – that was also Mark David Chapman’s idea of a perfect book. I find not using a juicy vocabulary ridiculous if the word is used well. I like words. Not just fancy ones, but ones with good sounds which includes all words that start with P. I try to steer clear from him when writing: One bad look and I’m done for the day. Likewise, I am banned from his live performances. He says I am the pits as far as a live audience goes. Apparently when I went to his Melbourne gigs I would cross my arms and cringe even when I liked something very much. We are not a good collaborative unit. Stupidly, we are working on an experiment now – a bildungsroman (a word he of course abhors) of his life in Australia and after two weeks of collaboration I am ready to drop it. He wants everything to stay exactly the same, and I am all for combining events and characters. And I would safely say he hates me right now. I work much better with my brother. But my husband makes me laugh much harder. My brother and I produce good work but we are forever bickering over sibling crap.

* As you travel, what depresses you and what inspires you about Jewish life?

I was in Paris this spring working on a novel involving Jews, and it was an eye-opener to say the least. I keep forgetting that in NYC I live in a bubble, thinking there is no anti-Semitism. Even in Australia, I’ve heard quite a few people who are otherwise educated use Jew as a verb. They didn’t even realize what they were saying to me. What inspires me is history. Remembering occasionally that NYC is not center of universe. Jews can exist in China, and have no idea what a bialy is, but damn is their story interesting.

* Which contemporary writer is the biggest wanker?

I hate to slam people in public, I really do. I have two in mind though in a big way, both blog.

* Are there any exhortations or questions you repeat to yourself on a daily basis?

Two pages. That is the way to write any big thing. Break it down. I thank a post-college writing mentor Abigail Thomas for that wisdom. She used to say that if you simply wrote two pages a day for a year you’d have over 700 pages, so you can miss quite a few days and still have a novel’s worth in a year.

* What left you unsatisfied when you read Jewish-American literature?

It is almost impossible to write about intermarriage without hearing about it. Secular Judaism topics are thought of as immature and lesser. But the reality is that most American Jews are secular, and these lives are real. I don’t feel I have to have my Jewish characters apologize for not keeping kosher. I wouldn’t even though my great grandfather determined that he was the final word in Jerusalem for Ashkenazi Jews on what was kosher. I don’t hate my heritage because I love lobster. Nor do I think of myself as self-loathing simply because I love a man who is not Jewish. I truly love him. My grandmother, born Orthodox, fell in love with an agnostic Jew. She kept Shabbos more as a reminder of her youth, and she’d let me roll out the balls of ball of challah dough. Her dinners start with the cliché: chicken soup. We had jars of the stuff in our freezer. I loved her, and the smell of Jewish food is still blissful. How could anyone say I hate Jews in a review? Idiotic.

* Has the Holocaust changed literary structure so that the traditional linear narrative is no longer appropriate?

Interesting, and people gasp for air when I tell them this as I am known for light comic fiction, I am 2/3rds through a Holocaust novel that I just sold to Random House. My husband who has not read a word calls it my "Chick Lit meets Holocaust" novel to piss me off. But it is not that. I am simply stretching my skill set, challenging myself to go to a darker place, learn things I don’t know. I have been doing a lot of research, and conducted some harrowing interviews. But I still want to be entertaining in a noble way. I would imagine that even in the camps people would try to stay sane by looking for even the smallest shred of entertainment. Mainly I am reaching inside me to my sense of self as a Jew. I am confident I have found the voice I need, the language – but it is precisely the sinew of the novel that is still baffling me. Can I get back to you on the structure question in 2007 when the book is due?