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“How Wonderful They Still Were”: An Interview with Deborah Shapiro about Consolation

“How Wonderful They Still Were”: An Interview with Deborah Shapiro about Consolation

  • An interview with Deborah Shapiro about her new novel, "Consolation."

Chicago-based novelist Deborah Shapiro’s third novel Consolation came  out October 18, with an event The Seminary Co-op on November 1st. Her first novel, The Sun in Your Eyes, was published by William Morrow in 2016, and her second, The Summer Demands, by Catapult in 2019. However, she decided to create her own imprint, B-side Editions, to publish Consolation.

In keeping with Deb’s previous novels, which carry poetic authority, deft characterization, and a readerly sense of being held and carried through the story, Consolation is a luminous portrait of three women coming to terms with different stages of aging, connected through their grief over the car accident death of James, a famous photojournalist, whom creative director Justine knew from childhood and as a fleeting lover in their twenties; former dancer Holly knew as the nephew she helped raise; and erstwhile writer Marina knew as her somewhat older boyfriend until they broke up just before he died. This novel is timely in the characters’ attempts to reconcile sudden grief, a challenge so many of us have faced these past few years.

Deb and I started by talking about the challenges of independent publishing one night in August over a glass of wine, and after I’d had the chance to read an advance copy of Consolation we continued the conversation via email for this interview.

Jennifer Solheim

I want to begin with your decision to publish Consolation on your own imprint. I’m curious what it means to you to publish your third novel independently as a creative act and as a commercial act.

Deborah Shapiro

Where to start? Basically, I got tired of being out on submission and waiting for good news… or really any news at all. (“Submission”—it certainly is a good way to describe the powerlessness of the process). I guess this novel wasn’t deemed especially marketable, at the moment. “Not a breakout book” and “too quiet” was what I was hearing, which is valid, it is quiet, but I love quiet! I like subtlety.

I have a strong enough belief in my work at this point in my life, and an understanding that publishing, largely, is a business, and it may not make financial sense for an established publisher to put out this particular book when it comes to sales. But it can still make sense, creatively and (fingers crossed) commercially, for me to put it out myself. My agent, who’s been with me through a lot of ups and downs, thought so, too.

When I was considering doing this, I kept returning to this book of interviews with John Cassavetes—maybe not the wisest thing to be influenced by, but it was a comfort. You know, he made the movies he wanted to make, outside of the Hollywood system, though he’d work within that system, taking acting jobs and other jobs to finance his films, which weren’t cheap. Those films may be Criterion Collection classics now, but they weren’t well-received at the time in America; I think something like only 500 people saw Opening Night in the theaters, initially. But he did it anyway.   

Jennifer Solheim

We’ve talked some about the influence of ‘90s DIY culture, too.

Deborah Shapiro

Yes, I came of age with zines, so the ethos feels pretty natural to me. In some ways, this project seems like that. Really, there are a number of models for this, now. One of my favorite novels of the past few years is Emily Segal’s debut Mercury Retrograde. It’s so smart and sharp. From what I’ve read, she co-founded Deluge Books to release it, after getting frustrated with traditional routes. It’s do-able, though I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the invaluable guidance I’ve gotten from a friend who runs a small press (hi, Kathleen Rooney!).

In any case, I see this book as a continuation of the kind of writing I do, a next step, and I wanted it to be in the world in some satisfying way. I wanted an object people could hold and read. I’m learning as I go, and it’s something of an experiment, but it’s been incredibly energizing. And I’ve actually been into the post-editing, production stages—working with a typesetter, choosing paper stock, figuring out how to sell it in a thoughtful way, all of that.    

Jennifer Solheim

Consolation tells the story of three women whose lives intersect as a result of loss and grief. The drama in this story largely arises from each character’s changing perspective on herself, in terms of comparison to the other women and their memories of James, who not only haunts the novel, but gives the story an axis around which these three women circulate. How did you first conceive of this story? Who emerged first?

Deborah Shapiro

I’m not exactly sure now who emerged first—I don’t write in a very linear way and this novel went through different iterations. But probably Justine. On the surface, she’s the closest to me, in age and life experience. She’s a mother and I did want to get into that, to some degree, in this novel. Marina, in contrast, is wondering if motherhood is something she wants and Holly, by choice, never had a child. But like Justine, I had a brief encounter with someone when we were in our twenties and years later found out about his death through social media—we weren’t in touch and weren’t part of each other’s lives and it was just a very strange experience. I didn’t know what to do with my feelings, I wasn’t even sure what I was feeling. Was it grief? Was I even entitled to grieve? And why did I feel I needed to be entitled to grieve? And exploring that tangle of emotions seemed like a good place, to me, to start a novel.   

Jennifer Solheim

You grew up in Boston and spent your twenties in New York. You’ve lived in Chicago (more precisely, Oak Park) since 2013. So far, your novels are all set on the East Coast, and Consolation feels like a New York novel through and through. How have these respective settings—the place you grew up, the place you lived as a younger adult—played a role in your novels in terms of memory, imagination, storytelling, as you write from the Chicago suburbs, the Midwest?

Deborah Shapiro

I’ve lived in the Chicago area for almost ten years and I love living here—it’s been very conducive to writing, both in terms of having a truly supportive community of writers and book people and the best independent bookstores around, and in allowing me to have a work-life balance, for lack of a better term, that’s given me time to write. I didn’t publish my first book until after I moved here. But as much as it feels like home now, I’m still not sure I “get” Chicago, in the way that I do New York or Boston. How it works as a city, the history of the neighborhoods, the tone of the place. There’s some lack of authority on my part—like it’s not mine to write about. Chicago and more broadly the Midwest. I’ll read Bette Howland and think, “Oh, that’s how to write about Chicago. I don’t know how to do that!” But maybe it also has to do with the passage of time and the accumulation of memory. It’s possible that in another ten years I’ll feel capable of writing something set in Chicago, though it may still be from the perspective of an outsider.

On the other hand, the “Boston” and the “New York” that I know are, at this point, products of my imagination and memory. And memory—how we remember, how we misremember, how we continue, in the present, to act on those memories—is huge for me. Your childhood and your twenties – those are incredibly formative times, shaping how you read the world and understand it. You might eventually react against those readings, or they come to be more nuanced, hopefully. But those places, the East Coast, it’s just where my mind still goes.

Jennifer Solheim

You have a distinctive mark in your narratives: these wonderful turns at the end of paragraphs that shift perspective on the subject. The shifts are like poetic voltas, but they serve the narratives as well, offering character development and interiority—that singular thing that fiction can do that no other art form can. Here’s an example from Consolation, from Holly’s point of view:

Her legs couldn’t possibly be any less attractive than Susan’s. She still had the long-limbed proportions of a dancer, though not the muscle tone. But the tiny purple veins along her thighs, at her knees and her ankles, reminded her of marble, or of a rock wall once created by a flowing river whose waters have leveled off. On a good day, at least. In the right light. But… they were her legs! How wonderful they had been and how wonderful they still were, even if they couldn’t leap or jump the way they used to. Fuck you, Alex, she thought. Fuck a whole lot of things.

The shift here with that first “fuck” (if I may) is a tonal volta, moving from this wistful, elegiac quality to defiance and rage, anger about the social stigma around aging for women, as well as the ephemeral, fleeting quality of dance as an art form (as compared to the endurance of photography). How do you think about the paragraph as form, when you’re working on a novel? How do you land these turns?

Deborah Shapiro

I’m going to admit that I had to look up “volta.” But yes, that’s what these are. Now I have a name for it! And thank you for reading so closely. In my experience, that shift in emotional registers is just realism. I’m trying to realistically capture that human psychology. Wistfulness shifts to anger to shifts to making a joke. All pretty quickly. I suppose that’s how I conceive of paragraphs, as the course of that shifting, the rhythm of it. That moment when you instinctively feel something and then you start to analyze it. Or there are those of us who go straight to the analysis, the narrativizing as it’s happening, to try to get a handle on it.

Jennifer Solheim

See Also

Consolation concludes at the onset of the pandemic with a conversation between Holly and the aforementioned Alex, another famous photographer who was not only Holly’s former lover, but also used a naked Holly as the subject of one of his most celebrated works. Holly has remained in her condo with her cat; Alex is “calling her from his second home up the Hudson River, having fled Manhattan immediately along with everyone else who could afford to.” Let’s talk about art and class and gender privilege in this novel—and that may or may not swing us back to independent publishing…

Deborah Shapiro

It’s such a complicated knot. And I definitely can’t unravel it. But fiction allows us to pull it apart a bit and examine it from different angles.

I’m the type who goes down rabbit holes on the internet and I’ll read some obscure blog post about some scene in New York in the 70s or 80s, out of which one or two famous people emerged, and there’s invariably a couple of quotes from a woman who was a fixture of that scene and is now living away from the city, working in a profession that provides a stable life but has little to do with their former artistic ambitions. I’m always drawn to those women who become footnotes, effectively, in the lives of others. And that’s Holly. Alex is the one who gained recognition. Part of it is generational, I think, but Alex is someone for whom the system, as it has existed, has worked so well he doesn’t even see it as a system that could be any different.

It also has to do with notions of success under capitalism (I almost hate to say that—is it a cliché to blame everything on capitalism now? Cliches are cliches because they’re true, right?). In that framework, art is a commodity, it’s a product. And “success” in that context has a lot to do with careerism and a willingness to build an image of yourself to sell that product. That whole process is so fraught, you know? It gets into endless, unsolvable (and ultimately boring) arguments about “authenticity.”

And, of course, material comfort and privilege free up space to be creative, but it doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to occupy that space. There’s Marina, who has an MFA in creative writing that her wealthy parents paid for, and she probably doesn’t have to work to pay rent (though she does work, a kind of day job, as if to mask her creative hopes for herself). She could afford to be working less and writing more, but she isn’t. She’s stuck.

Even within the larger categories of gender and class there are more subtle divisions that determine how someone or someone’s creative work is perceived and received—and that anticipated reception (or lack of reception) can affect how we even conceive of our own work; it’s hard, if not impossible, to create in a vacuum.

There’s a great recent piece by Lili Anolik on the charged relationship between Joan Didion and Eve Babitz that delves into this and the role that reputation—or “brand,” as we’re calling it these days‚ plays. The article has a rather stunning quote from Julian Wasser, the photographer who took the now-ubiquitous photo of Didion looking cool in front of her Corvette. Wasser also shot the well-known photo of 20-year-old Babitz, naked, playing chess with Marcel Duchamp. Here’s Anolik:

Joan… who worked on her reputation as diligently, as carefully as she worked on her books… It was Eve who couldn’t be bothered. How having a well-managed versus a carelessly managed reputation plays out for a woman in practical terms: When I asked Julian Wasser if he’d told Joan how to dress or where to stand during their session, he replied, his tone reverent, “With a girl like Joan Didion, you just don’t tell her what to do.” When I asked him why he’d chosen Eve for the Duchamp photo, he replied, his tone contemptuous, “She was a piece of ass.”

For a long time, Babitz was reduced to that. She became a footnote. Years ago, before her books came back into print, I found out about her because she was literally a footnote in a Gram Parsons biography I was reading. But that footnote alone made me want to know more about her. I tracked down a falling apart copy of Eve’s Hollywood and it just lit me up and then I ordered every used book of hers I could get my hands on. They still existed. They were out there and if you looked for them you could find them. Maybe that’s just to say that there’s always interesting stuff out there, going on below the radar—it’s where so much of the interesting stuff has always lived. Which takes us back to…  independent publishing. There, I brought us full circle!

Jennifer Solheim

Ah, thank you, Deb! A final question: you work as a freelance editor, you’re a mother and a partner, and now you’re getting into the weeds with launching your third novel. I imagine there’s not much time to be working on a new project yet, but do you have thoughts on where you’d like to go next?

Deborah Shapiro

I’m just beginning to feel less occupied by Consolation, feeling twinges of wanting to get going on something new. I admire writers who always have a number of solid ideas and different projects they’re working on, at various stages, but that’s… not me. It usually starts, for me, with a relationship and a dynamic I’m interested in exploring and an atmosphere, a sense of place. If I give it enough time, maybe that place will be Chicago next.  

By Deborah Shapiro
B-side Editions
Published October 18, 2022

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