Books: Her words dance lightly

Books: Her words dance lightly

Dani Shapiro, author with NJ roots, leaves space for reader’s imagination

Dani Shapiro’s writing supplies contextual patterns that highlight the significance of her personal stories. She is the author of four memoirs and five books of fiction.
Dani Shapiro’s writing supplies contextual patterns that highlight the significance of her personal stories. She is the author of four memoirs and five books of fiction.

Dani Shapiro confesses that if, at the outset of her writing career, she had foreseen the life she is living now in her 50s, “working with my dream publisher, traveling all over the world, teaching, giving readings,” she would have thought it an “idyllic” prospect. “I’d have thought [my future self] had it made.”

She is clearly grateful for all that, but actually not much has changed from those days of uncertainty. Even after publishing nine books, she says, it never gets any easier. “It’s like looking up from the base of the mountain and not knowing if I can climb it again, no matter how many times I’ve done it before,” she tells NJJN in a phone interview.

Shapiro will be outlining a writer’s joys and terrors, and discussing her latest memoir, “Hourglass – Time, Memory, Marriage,” at Words Bookstore in Maplewood on Wednesday, April 19, at 7:30 p.m.

Maplewood will be a return to familiar turf. She grew up just a few miles away in Hillside, and attended what was then the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union, now the Golda Och Academy, and then Pingry, the private school that used to be just blocks away from her home and is now in Martinsville.

Though she enjoyed Schechter, she felt out of place. With a father who was Orthodox and a mother who was only nominally observant “and probably an atheist,” religion was a contentious issue in her home. At Pingry things were no better. She found herself acutely aware of being one of the only Jews. “I had culture shock,” she says.

That outsider status, Shapiro muses, probably equipped her for the writing life. “Being a witness, having your nose pressed to the glass, helps you see things with a necessary detachment,” she said. 

That has proven true even when she’s writing about her own life, providing contextual patterns that bring out the significance of her personal stories. It is a delicate process, designed to convey what fascinates her and, hopefully, have meaning for thousands of strangers, while protecting those close to her.

In “Hourglass,” which comes out in early April, she describes the chance encounter when she and her husband, journalist and scriptwriter Michael Maren — or “M” in the book — met. It was love at first sight. But with raw honesty, she goes on to discuss how over the 18 years since then their confidence has eroded and financial fears have grown — as they do for most people, as projects fail and future prospects shrink.

Yet clearly, it has been an extraordinary partnership. In 2000 they co-wrote a screenplay based on her first memoir, “Slow Motion.” Her husband reads every word she writes and nothing would get published without his approval. “My marriage is more important than material for a book,” she says.

With that in mind, she writes in “Hourglass” a about a time she asked him to review a passage she had written. His response delighted her.

I show M. pages in process, even these. He’s stingy with praise, my toughest critic. I find he’s usually right.

“I do have one comment,” he says.

Now I gird myself. M. has told me he’s fine with me writing about him — about us — but I don’t know. Maybe all this is getting a little too close for comfort.

“You’re making me out to be too good a guy,” he says. “I mean, I’m okay. But you need to be harder on me.”

While she writes openly about her terror when their son Jacob almost died as a baby, and of her pride and pleasure in the teenager he has become, she skims more lightly over the details of his life. Her paramount concern, she stresses, has been to ensure she never writes anything about her son that might upset him later.

Her Jewish identity is also something she barely touches on this time around, though in “Devotion,” a previous memoir, she explored it in depth. She has come back to a deeper connection to religion, she tells NJJN, while her husband, also Jewish by upbringing, remains an atheist. Evidently, they deal with their differences a lot more harmoniously than her parents did.

In all of this exposure, Shapiro says, she leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination — “white space” that allows them to make their connections. That same style comes through in her fiction. In both her memoirs and her novels, Shapiro dances lightly, bowing to “the patterns that make themselves known,” rather than trying to force them to emerge.

She is living her life with a similar wait-and-see approach. Ups or downs, they might all be grist for the mill. As she talked from a taxi, en route from one appointment to another, she took comfort in the blithe phone message that had just come in from her husband, who was in Hollywood for a meeting of his own.

“He just texted me a picture of his cappuccino,” she said with audible pleasure.

read more: