A Conversation with Dani Shapiro
Interview by Alexandra Bradford
At the age of 54 writer Dani Shapiro made a startling discovery--her late and much-adored father was not her biological parent. In Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, Shapiro’s tenth book and fifth memoir, Shapiro unspools the truth of her paternity while discovering the impact of family secrets.
Girls At Library: Your previous memoirs share a theme of family secrets and lies. In Still Writing you wrote: “Secrets floated through our home like dust motes in the air. Every word spoken by my parents contained within it a hidden hard kernel of what wasn’t being said. Though I couldn’t have expressed it, I knew with a child’s instincts that life was seen by both my parents as a teeming, seething, frightful hall of mirrors. Something had made them scared. They tried to protect me from themselves, from their own histories...”. You clearly grew up with a powerful sense that something wasn’t quite right in your family and you wrote memoir after memoir trying to uncover the truth. What have you learned about the impact of keeping a secret for an entire lifetime?
Dani Shapiro: Wow, I am sitting here, smiling and shaking my head because I am not in the habit of going back and rereading my earlier work. I don’t think any writer is; you do so at your own peril. But I did read through some of my previous books while I was thinking, exploring and writing Inheritance. I typed that exact paragraph from Still Writing into an email to my editor, like "oh my God." [That paragraph] was the unthought known writ large on the page. I think that is true in all of my work even my first unpublished work of really bad short stories that sit in my basement. There was a sense that I was trying to uncover something that I couldn’t get at.
[There was the] theme of the coercive power of family secrets, and I understood that there were secrets in my family. My parents behaved like people who had secrets, and I knew what some of them were. I discovered that my mother had been divorced before my mother married my father. I knew about my father's first marriage because I had a sister [from it] but [I discovered that he had also] been married to a woman who had died. I attributed great meaning to those discoveries, more meanings than I think they ultimately deserved because I was looking for reasons for why it felt there were secrets hanging like dust motes in the air.
One of the things that I think is unique and interesting too on the level of the unthought known and what the unconscious is conscious of, is that my work serves as breadcrumbs. I don’t have to wonder if I knew this on some level. It is there. And yet it was a stunning, shocking discovery for me. It was not something that I ever thought in the back of my mind, “Well, maybe my father." No, never.
GAL: If you had been told the truth as a child about your conception do you think you would have still found your calling as a writer?
Shapiro: I have thought a lot about that. I don’t know what makes us writers. I don’t think writing can be taught. There is a gift involved. I know plenty of people over the years, [writing] students even, who have
been gifted but not obsessed. I think that there ultimately has to be an obsession which we would also call theme, in some way for the writer to endure what it is to be a writer.
As I write in Still Writing, it is not manual labor; there are a lot of things that are harder to do. But [writing] is sitting alone in a room with the contents of your inner life and it is a path that is strewn with boulders both in terms of the outer world with publishing and the inner world of solitude. In order to walk that path, there has to be something propelling the writer and I do see that what was propelling me were these questions and this desire to understand and seemingly the inability to really get at it, to get all the way there. I wondered for years why I turned from fiction to memoir. I started as a fiction writer, I wrote three novels, and then there was a moment when I realized that there was a story that needed to be told as memoir. So, I wrote Slow Motion, and I thought it would end with that. I was really writing Slow Motion as a curative for my fiction. I felt like my fiction was haunted by this story that kept seeping in. And so I wrote Slow Motion, and then I went back to fiction, but then again memoir appeared. It was not like I was sitting down and having the abstract intellectual thought of writing another memoir. I did not want to be writing memoir. I felt that I veered away from what I thought I was and wanted to do as a writer.
Ironically, I am known so much more for my memoirs instead of my fiction. The image that I have now is of this big grassy summer field and little mounds of dirt. I am going to dig here for a while and see what is here and now I am going to dig over there and see what new things I discover there. And that is what it looks like to me visually.
I didn’t send away for a DNA test because I was searching and I could have easily not sent away for it...which is something I find really haunting. And when I found out, I understood for the first time. There is that line in Inheritance: “I always knew there was a secret, but what I didn’t know what that secret was me.” I just didn’t know that the secret was me.
GAL: Now that you know the secret do you think you will still have this drive to write memoirs?
Shapiro: That is the big question. I feel like Inheritance is possibly the end of a body of work that was very much leading to it. On the other hand, I don’t know. I have fallen in love with the form. When I wrote Hourglass I thought I had arrived at a voice and form for a certain kind of creative nonfiction storytelling that felt unique and original to me. It really began with an essay that I wrote in 2003 called Plane Crash Theory. I was sitting with a writer friend, Mary Morris, in a Starbucks in Brooklyn. I just had come out of a scary time with my son who had been very sick as a baby, and he had also had an incident in which his babysitter had fallen down the stairs while holding him and dropped him. I said to Mary, "I haven’t written a word since Jacob fell down the stairs," and Mary said, "that's your first sentence." I went home and wrote the words “These are the first words I’ve written since J. fell down the stairs,” and then the next sentence said, “unless you count lists." The piece ended up being in list form and unlike anything I have written before. It took a very very long time to get it right but it was an exploration of what whitespace can do and juxtaposition and bumping up against different seemingly discounted ideas and creating meaning out of them. It was really exciting to me and it was exciting for me to be writing again because I had felt so lost and stuck.
That became a form for me where when I wrote my memoir Devotion it began again in bite-size portions of 102 small pieces that make up that book. As I was writing Devotion I thought "what in God's earth am I doing? Who is going to read this?" I am taking straightforward narrative the thing that I have always been told I do best, and I am putting it aside and I am saying that I am not going to use traditional narrative here. Then when I wrote Still Writing it also came out, it wanted to be structured in these brief titled chapters. Then finally when I wrote Hourglass it felt to me almost more like a mobile or like many balls that I was juggling all at once that I needed to keep juggling to understand what the pattern was and then to catch them all at once. It was a high wire act, the writing of it. I really felt at that point that I was done with traditional straightforward narrative. Then weeks after I finished Hourglass this huge narrative story came swinging like a wrecking ball into that idea.
Inheritance was a story, and it deserved to be told like a story and have at least part of it in a linear fashion. I was interested in how to slow the narrative down, how to move it to the past and future. I was still playing with time but what continues to really compel me are the forms that I feel like I have found for myself in which to explore ideas and the material of my life in that way that has to do with shaping chaos and shaping randomness. Creating out of puzzle pieces and fragments something that makes sense and has coherence.
GAL: One of the things that I loved about reading Inheritance is that it is so clearly a memoir but it also reads like a journalistic investigation. Not only do you delve into medical records but you interview elderly family members and friends to try to put the pieces of what your parents knew together. Because of that, was the physical writing process of Inheritance different from your previous books?
Shapiro: That is an interesting question. I have written other journalism, but that is something that I had done many times before so it didn’t feel notably different from other work I have done. What felt different was that it was a story that I was trying to slow down as I was writing it. I have had people constantly tell me that it reads like a thriller and that they read it in one sitting and I am glad because I know that is a compliment. But what I was trying to do is slow the story down as much as possible because there was so much depth to it. I was conscious of the fact that it was a big story, and the fact that it was my story was secondary to the fact that it was a big story. In a way, everything has lead to this book and this discovery, and I just wanted to do the story justice. I didn't know if I could, but it felt like my responsibility. So, that was really different from anything I have written before. The other thing that was different about it was that I was writing not from a place of trauma but very close to trauma. And when I first started writing, I was writing from the center of the experience I was having, and I realized that I couldn’t. I had a realization that I don’t think it is possible to write prose from trauma. Prose needs breathing room because prose requires the capacity to distill and to comment and articulate and pivot towards and away from the event to create a refractive point of view and you can’t do it from the white-hot center of it. So, I had to find that place.
One more thing that was different about this writing process is that I generally don’t recommend to writers to think about what is universal about their story when writing it. But in this case, I did need to think about what was universal about my story or what I could extrapolate from it. I was aware that it was a really bonkers [story], and most people would not have had the experience of discovering that at the age of 54, their dad was not their biological father. I was aware that I was going to have to make people understand what it would feel like to one day wake up and have something as fundamental as your identity be revealed to you as not being it. There is a moment in Inheritance towards the end of the book where Rabbi David Wolpe says to me “we all feel as we we’re other, any thinking person knows we are other. Only you’ve come back with something to teach us.” And I really took that to heart.
GAL: How has your understanding of identity and what makes a family changed?
Shapiro: Well, I think like many of us, I never had to think about it before. My parents were my parents, and I spent a lot of time creating a blind narrative about why they were the way they were. For example, a theme that runs throughout the book is that I look very different from who I was told I was, and that was a big part of my own mythology surrounding me. I was an orthodox Jewish girl who didn’t look Jewish. That was literally what people said about me. And I was formed by what I didn’t know. I think in the ultimate liberation in discovering the truth of my identity and to be able to look back and say “oh, I see.” It hasn’t changed my identity in that now I walk around thinking “oh I am half Jewish, or I have ancestors who came over on the Mayflower or even my father wasn’t my biological father,” all of that is kind of settling into its own corners inside of me. It's more a feeling of making sense. That I now make sense to myself in a way that I didn't entirely before.
GAL: One of themes that I have connected with while reading your memoirs is the love you have for your father. I lost my father when I was very young and so spend my life collecting stories about him and in that way our relationship has continued. Your memoirs are love letters to your father and I have heard you described him in the past as the person who loved you into being. How did your connection to your father evolve throughout the discovery process of how you were conceived?
Shapiro: To me, that is the beating heart of the book and of the journey up until this very moment. Even as you said that about my father I felt the chills that have always been an indication in some metaphysical way that he is nearby. Do I actually believe that intellectually? I don’t know that I do. But I can say that I feel it.
In the beginning and in the shock and betrayal of wondering what my parents knew, I thought “how could anyone do that? How could you not you let your child know the truth of their identity? It is a terrible and even dangerous thing to do.” Within 24 hours of making that discovery, my mother’s best friend said “well, no matter what Dani, your father is still your father,” I really did not know what that meant. Many people said that early on and it made me want to punch a wall. When I found out that biologically [my father] wasn’t who he was it was such a disorienting experience. I really did feel that I had lost him again and that I was grieving him again and not only him, but every ancestor who I was not biologically connected to. I didn’t know how I could put that back together again and what that would look and feel like.
One of the first things that happened that was a shift was when I met my biological father, and he didn’t feel like my father. He felt very familiar to me. It was a marvel to look at him and see his gestures and experience spending time with him and see so many of my traits and recognize myself in him. But he didn’t feel like my father because he didn’t raise me. And my psychological and emotional history not only of the years that I spent with my father but as you described all of the years that I didn’t and how our relationship has continued over all of these years, and that is ultimately what makes a father a father. It took some doing, it took time and three years is not a lot of time but it took time for him to start to reemergence for me in my inner life as not only the dad that I had internalized but in a deeper way because as I understood more and more about the landscape that my parents conceived me in. I found myself loving my father more, respecting him more and understanding that he was heroic to have made a family in that very unusual way at that time.
GAL: I am reading Devotion right now and have in the past read your piece in Elle about seeing a spiritual healer. You have been so honest about your spiritual journey and so I am curious if your understanding of your spirituality changed during the discovery of your conception and during the writing process of Inheritance?
Shapiro: I think that is evolving and spiritual journeys are these ongoing paths. When I finished Devotion I wanted to just keep writing Devotion; the book ended where it needed to end but the journey is ongoing. As we speak right now, it is Passover and for a variety of reasons I am with my family. My son is back from college and my husband is here but we are not doing anything tonight. We are not celebrating and there are plenty of reasons why we are not doing that but I still have this longing or discomfort [but] my spiritual life and my religious life, which is non existent, are separate.
That was probably one of my biggest discoveries in the years that I was writing Devotion is that my spiritual life and practices could be as individual as the person for whom is practicing it. Having this additional information and knowledge genetically about where I come from and the idea that my two biological parents would have never met. They came from different parts of the country, they were different ages, different cultures, and ethnicities. They would never had encountered each other. It is sort of like stardust in some way. There is more. Not less. It is the evolution of a feeling and idea that has a spiritual basis to it that I think a lot of my ongoing spiritual evolution is going to be about that and will likely find its way into my writing because that is the kind of thinker and writer I want to become.
GAL: I can’t wait to read that. I think you were so meant to be born, that is very clear.
Shapiro: Thank you. I am very glad I know [my conception] but I had a period where I was wishing it wasn’t so. And I don’t feel that way anymore because if it wasn’t so I wouldn’t be here. We don’t choose what is going to haunt us, it chooses us and we have to make something of that.
GAL: A memoir is about writing from your own life but there is also a responsibility in memoir to, as Annie Dillard says, “not let rip.” In your work, how do you tell your truth without disregarding the feelings of those you are writing about?
Shapiro: I am always conscious of what the line is and the line is different with every person in every book. With my son, certainly I have written about him. He told me that he always has people asking him what it is like to be in my books and he will say, “I don’t know, I have always been in her books. I have grown up being in her books.” He recently said to me, “you know we are a really private family and you write about us.” And what he meant by that is that my writing doesn't change the fact that we are private. I am a private person and in memoir I take what I can shape into something that might perhaps have meaning. I would never write a word about my husband or my son that I would have any sense that they would feel uncomfortable with. With Hourglass there were a few passages that Michael (Dani’s husband) said, “think about this one and think about how this will sound if someone uses it as a pull-quote,” and I thought you are absolutely right. And when it comes to my parents, I became a writer after my father died and I am not sure what he would have thought about my writing. He might have hated it, I don’t know. I know my work has been a love letter to him but it is also the result of him not being here. I can’t know but I know that I have tried to honor him. My mother, she was such a formidable opponent in life and my work was the one place where I felt most myself and most able to articulate myself and I still was careful when she was living. She didn’t feel that I protected her but I did. I went only so far and that was okay for me because she and I were always in such an epic battle with each other and I would never weaponize writing but it was my salvation from her and my protection.
GAL: What about for your biological father and his family, they were clear that they did not want to be identified in your book. Given today’s social media environment, where anyone can be tracked down, how do you write about them in a way that provides accuracy without complete exposure?
Shapiro: Yeah, that is a great question. It was all of us who wanted to keep them private. It wasn’t them who demanded it. From the very beginning when it became clear that I was going to write about this I said from very early on that I would protect their identity and privacy. So when I changed details in the book they were identifiable details that wouldn’t change the readers understanding of this family. I’ll give an example, my biological father is in fact a medical ethicist. I would not have made him a medical ethicist because that would have been a cheap shot. But he does have a sub specialty in medical ethics that I didn’t include because to me that would have narrowed the field. You know just details that would have been easy for someone to google and figure it out. I don’t want to challenge anyone to try but I don’t think it is possible. And then yet, for other parts of the story it was essential for the details to remain factually correct because this is my story. I sent my biological father a manuscript to read before the book went into galleys because I wanted to make sure he felt his identity was protected, I wanted to check myself to make sure I hadn’t missed anything that [could make him] known.
I think it was also really interesting with all the attention the book has gotten that the story really ended up being so much more about the deeper story about my parents and me and less about the big wow. That has been a big relief to us all that the main focus of the attention hasn’t been on that.
GAL: Let’s pivot and talk about your reading style. How do you like to read? A Kindle or paper?
Shapiro: I like to read physical books. I don’t like reading a screen. Even when I have to read a manuscript for someone I ask for a hard copy to be sent to me in the mail. I like to scribble while I am reading and I often write in my books. Books feel like a dialogue to me and I read a lot of hardcover books and it is cumbersome but I really prefer to read on the page.
GAL: Do you read one book at a time or simultaneously?
Shapiro: Lately I have been reading multiple books at a time which is new to me. Normally I read one book at a time. I have also become willing to stop reading a book that is not interesting me which I had been unwilling to do in the past. I always felt like I had to get through it. But if the language is really not engaging me I will put it down. I want to read good sentences. I am reading multiple genres, right now I have a book of short stories, a book of poetry, a memoir that I need to finish. Because of my podcast I have reading to do for that as well and given the state of work that I am doing, I am reading books and thinking about what I want to ask that person which is a different type of reading to do. And when I read for the podcast I am reading and underlining to look at a particular aspect of the book that has to do with family secrets. These days I can’t bare to be without something to read and so if I am standing in line or at a doctor’s office I like to read and engage with words, it makes me feel better about waiting.
GAL: Do you feel like you have to consciously pick up the book and put down the phone?
GAL: Good, that doesn’t make me feel so bad.
Shapiro: My son who is 20 and is a great reader has taught me a lot in this regard because he has a better relationship with his phone then I do. This morning I walked into a room and he was reading Heavy by Kiese Laymon and he was curled up on a chair and his phone was across the room. If my phone is next to me I reflectively pick it up. It is bigger to me--it's like I have a relationship to it which so many of us do and it is unhealthy and it creates interruption in concentration in the flow of reading and writing. So when I write I use the software program Freedom which shuts everything down. When I am seriously writing I always have Freedom on my computer because I don’t want emails coming in or to see what is going on in the rest of life and I feel like that needs to be same thing with reading because reading is a practice.
GAL: My boyfriend and I just instituted Saturdays where we have no technology at all. It is time together and it is so nice.
Shapiro: That is so great. It's a technology Sabbath.
GAL: Exactly! Time away from technology feels grounding. What is the first book you fell in love with that turned you into a lifelong reader?
Shapiro: Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.
GAL: Please name three books every GAL should read and the reasons for your choices.
GAL: Why those books?
Shapiro: Virginia Woolf's diaries have so much wisdom about what it means to be alive, observe and witness and they are about being a writer but she was just such an incredible observer of landscape. Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, while she is writing about a stage of life that is further down the road from perhaps what GALs are experiencing it is so much about partnership and love and commitment and awakes the possibility of loss which might make young women create more of a perspective of fullness of time and relationships over time. And then Lorrie Moore’s books are just fantastic short stories of young female characters. She just really captures what it is to be starting out in life.
Dani Shapiro is an American writer who is the author of five novels and the best-selling memoirs Hourglass, Slow Motion, and Devotion. She has also written for magazines such as The New Yorker, The Oprah Magazine, Vogue, and ELLE.
She currently has a podcast called Family Secrets.
photo by Michael Maren