Thursday, May 14, 2009

Q & A with...Writer Susan Shapiro

Q & A with...Writer Susan Shapiro
Interview conducted by Maria Schneider
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Susan Shapiro is a Manhattan journalism professor who has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Newsweek, The Nation, and The Daily Beast among others. She’s also the author of four memoirs including Only as Good as Your Word, Lighting Up, Secrets of a Fix-Up Fanatic and Five Men Who Broke My Heart.

She turned to fiction for her most recent book project. Here she shares the process of writing her first novel, Speed Shrinking.

You’ve just written a novel after being known primarily as a nonfiction writer. What made you decide to turn to fiction?

My 2004 memoir Lighting Up chronicled my therapy with a brilliant addiction specialist who helped me quit cigarettes, alcohol, dope, gum and bread—until the only thing I had left to quit was him. I started to write a sequel about how I was giving him up when he quit me by moving away.

I was devastated. I didn’t relapse on tobacco or drugs but as a “substance shuffler,” I became hooked on sugar (particularly cupcake icing) and feared I’d bloat up to a balloon. He charged $200 a session but the shrinks on my new insurance network were only $25 a pop. Desperate to find my head doctor’s clone fast, I decided to see 8 shrinks in 8 days—instead of speed dating, speed shrinking. That’s how I got my title “Speed Shrinking.”

I wrote the first draft as nonfiction. My editor thought it was well written and hilarious but said it wasn’t dramatic. Turned out there were several new food addiction books by authors who had gained or lost 150 pounds and I’d gained 12 pounds. Plus the shrink came to New York once a month when I’d see him which was annoying but not epic or heartbreaking enough to wrap a memoir around. A novelist friend suggested I put the characters on crack (metaphorically) and turn it to fiction, which I did.

Did you find the fiction writing process more or less difficult than nonfiction?

I didn’t really know how to write fiction. I have no imagination whatsoever according to a mentor. So I tricked myself by writing it first as nonfiction.
How does a writer decide whether to pursue a memoir-type story as fiction or nonfiction? Any guidelines?

I didn’t know whether to call my first book Five Men Who Broke My Heart a memoir or a novel since I’d made a few changes to the story. A brilliant Knopf editor friend told me “A novel that’s merely autobiographical is a great disappointment but a memoir that reads like a novel is a great surprise.” So I called Five Men a memoir and added the author’s note: “Names, dates and identifying characteristics have been obscured for literary cohesion, to protect privacy, and so my husband won’t divorce me.” Interestingly, I’m now working on the movie version which of course has to be fictionalized.

From a marketing perspective, do you anticipate having to find a new audience for your fiction or do you think your nonfiction readers will follow you over?

Speed Shrinking uses the same voice (though it’s in present tense.) It’s really a fictional sequel to Lighting Up so everyone who liked that book seems interested in seeing what happened to the shrink. I’m also trying to “play in Peoria” and hope it’ll reach a bigger audience.

What’s your advice to writers who are trying to get published in this difficult publishing environment?

Even in this economy I have students publishing in newspapers, magazines and getting book deals every day. There were more books published in 2008 than 2007, so there are still plenty of opportunities. Maybe the work just has to be even better.

My advice:

• Read what you want to write.
• Take classes with authors you admire
• Hire a great ghost editor (If you email me at:, I can recommend excellent ones.)
• If you can’t afford classes or ghost editors, start your own writing workshop.
• Never give up. Keep writing. As my mentor Howard Fast (author of Spartacus and 80 other novels) used to tell me when I’d say I had writer’s block: “Plumbers don’t get plumbers block. A page a day is a book a year.”

Please visit Ms. Shapiro’s wonderful website:
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