Interviews

The Psychological Stakes Of Emotional Connection

An interview with Deborah Shapiro about "The Summer Demands."

Deborah Shapiro’s debut novel, The Sun In Your Eyes, featured a dynamic and fresh relationship between two women. Now three years after her 2016 debut, Shapiro has a new novel with The Summer Demands, a thematic follow-up that does not disappoint.

The story of The Summer Demands follows Emily and her husband David after they inherit an abandoned summer camp from Emily’s aunt. The couple are on the mends from a miscarriage and fertility treatment frustrations, and find themselves enchanted by Alder (the name of the camp), as well as Stella, a young woman who has been living in one of the bunks. Stella is young, mysterious, and magnetic — the perfect distraction and addition to Emily’s life as she tries to sort out her feelings and find her place in the world.

With beautiful prose and sultry passages that see the passing of summer days on a secluded lake and in front of a bonfire, Shapiro has woven a tale of nostalgia and longing complete with deep introspection and desire for both the past and the future.

I was lucky enough to speak with Deborah about her draw to writing women relationships, how to deftly put emotions on the page, and how perspective changes as we move through time.

Sara Cutaia: Your first book, The Sun In Your Eyes, focused on two women characters, much like The Summer Demands does as well (though the relationships themselves are quite different). Could you tell us a little about what these female relationships draws you in as a writer?

Deborah Shapiro: As a reader and a viewer, I’ve been interested in those relationships and those kinds of stories. I suppose part of it is curiosity and wanting to see some variation of my experience represented narratively. Female relationships can be so complex and intense, freighted with love, admiration, envy, sadness. And they can be so romantic, whether they’re sexual or not. It’s all there. I’m interested in the different roles women take on for each other and how, in depicting those female relationships, there’s often a doubling or merging that takes place. As a writer, I find that hard to resist.  

But what I find frustrating is the way these stories are often marginalized out in the world. I saw a copy of my first novel at a library and though I was happy to see it there, it had a sticker on the spine categorizing it as “Lives and Relationships” which I guess is another term for “women’s fiction.” I’m not even quite sure what “women’s fiction” is, only that it’s not taken as seriously as “fiction” without that gendered qualifier attached to it. On the one hand, I thought: okay, what novel isn’t about lives and relationships? What do we have if we don’t have lives and relationships? Still, it annoyed me to see it labelled and coded in that way. Partly because some of the best readers of that book and this new one have been men.

SC: I love Emily for her self-awareness and her deep introspective spirals. Such authentic and honest thoughts feel so true to life that I have to ask if there’s any part of yourself that you wrote into Emily, or if these are human traits you think are universal?

DS: Oh, of course! She’s not me and her experiences are not mine or if and when they are, they’ve been extracted and refracted into fiction that isn’t thinly veiled autobiography. But her thoughts and sensibility are near to mine, just concentrated and amplified and twisted a bit. And her emotions are certainly ones that I’ve struggled with. Especially the sensation of feeling stuck and longing for a way out of it but not seeing how to make it happen. That seems pretty universal to me. Most of us have probably felt that way at various times in our lives, for different reasons.

SC: The epigraph at the beginning is where you got the title of the book, right? Had the idea for this book already taken hold (to have it take place over one summer, at an abandoned camp), or did it work the other way around, with the John Ashbery line inspiring the book?

DS: The title happened after I’d written the book. I initially called the novel ALDER, which is the name of the camp where it all happens. Sense of place is important in this book and I’d wanted the title to reflect that. I liked how it looked on the page, but ALDER, when you say it, it doesn’t really stick. It kind of sounds like “older” (which, maybe, is appropriate given the novel’s themes). So I worked with my editor to come up with an alternative. I’ve always loved Ashbery, especially for the ambiguity of mood in his poetry. There’s a dreaminess and a specificity. And it resonates with me in a way that’s more instinctive and experiential than intellectual. Those lines at the end of “As One Put Drunk Into The Packet-Boat” conjure, for me, the atmosphere of the novel so well. It fit. And I love how “demands” becomes both a verb and a noun in this context.

SC: I found myself completely absorbed while reading this, and yet in retrospect, I don’t know if I can point to a specific moment where the stakes felt anxiously high. I credit this in part to Emily’s fascinating character, and also to the seductive and captivating prose. Was that intentional, to have the plot mirror the leisurely nature of summer? Or was the intention to highlight the emotional connection between Emily and Stella?

DS: I did want it to have that summery, languid feel, for sure. But I hope that the emotional connection between Emily and Stella, as well as the connections other characters have in the book, make the stakes feel high enough —  at least psychologically. That’s what I’m most interested and invested in. I think we all have these moments in our lives that, from the outside, don’t necessarily look all that huge or momentous, but the internal shifts that result are very significant.     

SC: Your previous novel played with point of view a little bit, but in The Summer Demands it is consistently tight first person with Emily. Though I think the limited POV was just right for the novel, sometimes I found myself wondering how Stella saw Emily, or how Stella saw herself, the world, the camp, etc. (Which is purposeful, I feel, as we are supposed to think Stella is quite a mystery.) Was there ever a time where you considered letting us hear from Stella in this way?

DS: No, I didn’t! That’s the challenge of first-person, right? It’s limited, and its limitations can be productive. After playing around with perspective in my first book, I wanted to keep it simple this time, in that respect. But I did try to create scenes or moments where, while we don’t get Stella’s direct perspective, we at least understand that Emily’s POV is just that subjective and hardly omniscient and maybe even, at times, wrong.

SC: And touching on point of view there is so much watching, observing, and judging that happens in this book. Though we’re with Emily’s perspective, even she can see how others observe and judge. And the difference in these actions is deftly captured throughout the generations of women written in this novel. How have you seen your own observations of the world change as you get older and move through different life experiences?

DS: There’s a lot of observing, yes, and not just of other characters. Emily watches a lot of movies and she does it as someone who is more than a film buff. She’s someone who wanted to make films but who didn’t. Or hasn’t yet, if you want to be optimistic about it. But that desire or thwarted ambition or whatever you want to call it, still influences how she observes and what she makes of the world around her. There’s a scene in which she watches a film by Chantal Akerman, which she saw years earlier as a student. It’s a film she thinks she understood on an analytical level but was never attached to, emotionally, in the way she is when she watches it now. (I don’t think the reader necessarily needs to know Akerman committed suicide in 2015, but that does affect, I think, how one subsequently views her work that layer of loss).

So, definitely, our understanding of both art and life changes as we move through time. I’ve seen my own observations change in the sense that my relationship to time has changed. There was a piece in Frieze by Olivia Laing a while back that has stuck with me. She was writing about reading Anthony Powell’s cycle of twelve novels, A Dance to the Music of Time, which he began writing at age 40, and how this age is when you begin to notice the strange ways that time moves. There’s a kind of looping and repetition and you start to hear echoes — or as Powell put it, “secret harmonies” — in your own life.

SC: There is a heaviness and a grief to Emily that is palpable. We’re told it’s the miscarriage and the frustrations with fertility treatments, but there’s also, under the surface, struggles with aging and with identity and with finding purpose. It feels like Emily has a hard time saying anything substantial about this with David, and yet finds plenty of ways to speak about these things — even in metaphor — with Stella. Is there something to be said about how women communicate with each other that is different from men and women, even those that love and know each other intimately, as David and Emily do?

DS: I want to avoid being too reductive or essentialist about the way women and men communicate. I’m not sure, in this case, that the openness between Emily and Stella is due to their gender. I think Emily can communicate well with this younger woman, in part, because they’re initially strangers, they don’t share a past. But, also, Emily sees herself in Stella, or her younger self. And, of course, she doesn’t have this particular dynamic with her husband. So, the nature of the dynamic with Stella brings out these concerns about aging and identity, of what it means to be a young woman and what it means to be older. And I do think that Emily’s age, turning 40, tends to have different implications and complications for women and men, culturally and socially.

Still, Emily and Stella are women in the world we actually exist in, in the country we currently exist in, where a frightening number of people (men and women, evidently) would be happy to live in a patriarchal theocracy, more or less. Given those conditions, I think Emily and Stella relate in certain ways that Emily just doesn’t with her husband.

This may be a tangent, but it reminds me of the year or so after my son was born. A number of great novels and essays have explored how new motherhood can really do a number on your sense of self. It definitely did for me. I’m not aware of a similar spate of recent writing on fatherhood and identity. Anyway, I was really lucky to be part of a parents group in my neighborhood at the time (shout out to Jackson Heights, Queens!) — it included mothers and fathers, all very involved and loving — but as mothers, our experience was just different. Physically, of course, but in other aspects, too. It bonded us. My husband is a wonderful parent and an incredibly supportive partner, but in so many ways, it was those women who saved me.

FICTION
The Summer Demands
By Deborah Shapiro
Catapult
Published June 4, 2019

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