I am thrilled to be here today with Dani Shapiro. Dani Shapiro is a celebrated author who has written nine books over the past twenty years. She has penned essays in “ELLE,” “The New Yorker,” “Vogue,” and “The Oprah Magazine” among many other publications. She also shares her gift by teaching writing workshops all over the world. She now lives in Connecticut with her husband and teenage son. Welcome to Dani.
Let’s start back at the beginning with Slow Motion from 1998, which as I've told you already is one of my favorite memoirs of all time. Can you tell listeners what Slow Motion is about and then how you took all those life events and turned them into such a thing of beauty?
Dani Shapiro: Thank you. It’s wonderful to hear twenty years later that that was a book that resonated so much with you. Slow Motion at its core is really about two stories that braid together. One is that when I was twenty-three my parents were in a devasting car accident that ultimately killed my dad and badly injured my mom. Where I was in my life at that time was in a really spiraling, self-destructive place. I had dropped out of Sarah Lawrence. I was involved with a man that if you looked for the worst imaginable choice in a boyfriend on the planet, he might have fit the bill. He was much older. He was married. He was the stepfather of a very close friend of mine. He was quite powerful in New York of the eighties. I, despite attempts not to, got swept into a long and very destructive relationship with him, and dropped out of college, and was drinking heavily, and doing my share of eighties narcotics. Is cocaine a narcotic? I guess so. Whatever it is, that's what I was doing.
Then my parents were in this accident. It was this tremendous wake-up call, instantly. I describe it as a before and after moment at the very beginning of the book I receive this phone call. I was at a spa in southern California, where all good twenty-three-year-old college dropouts should be. I got this call that my parents had been in this accident. From that moment -- two weeks later, my dad died -- I began to extricate myself from that destructive relationship. I woke up. I had to. I did. I became a writer. I always was a writer but didn’t know you could be a writer. After my father’s death and after I helped my mother literally get back on her feet, I went back to college. I finished college. I went to graduate school at Sarah Lawrence. I started writing a first novel, which did come out and nobody should read. It was my attempt in fiction to grapple with some of this. I wasn’t remotely ready to.
Zibby: Was that Picturing the Wreck?
Dani: No. That was Playing with Fire. It was published in 1990. I was just fresh out of graduate school. I sold it while I was still in graduate school. It wasn’t a book I was ready to write. It’s actually very helpful to me as a teacher now to think about where the writer stands in relation to the work. I was way too close to it. I wrote this very autobiographical novel essentially so that I could write about that period of time. I've joked that if I had set that novel in Sri Lanka there still would've been a car accident in Short Hills, New Jersey. I had to write that. I wasn’t ready. I wrote two more novels.
When I started to write Slow Motion it was from a place of feeling like I wanted to dig in and understand my own relationship to the story, which was really the story of my life at that point, which was how does the worst moment in your life become the transformative moment and wanting to explore that. Those two stories, the story of the tragedy of my dad’s death and my parents, and the extricating of myself that resulted in that, that I don't know what would've happened if my parents hadn’t been in their car accident. I miss my father every day. I don't know what would've happened to me. Nothing was shocking me out of where I was. That did.
Zibby: What was so great about your book, especially for me at that time because I was graduating from college when your book came out -- finding yourself, as you say, in this way, that was the last choice you ever would've wanted as a way to find yourself but throughout the book, hitting bottom and then pulling yourself out and showing the reader how you did that…
Dani: We don't choose what's going to wake us up. That certainly wouldn't have been my choice. I'm glad I woke up.
Zibby: I'm glad only because of the books that came out, although I'm sure no matter what you would have been an amazing writer. It’s obviously in your DNA. In Slow Motion you talked a lot about struggling with substances as you were saying, narcotics. Did this continue to plague you at all throughout your career? Were you able to put that aside?
Dani: Drugs certainly were something I was completely done with, which was easy. In fact, I have an eighteen-year-old son. When you write memoir you do end up with your kids knowing more about you than you might choose. He and I have had very open conversations in which I've told him to do as I say and not as I did. One of the things that I will say to him is don't swallow anything, or smoke anything, or put anything up your nose when you don't know what it is. I think back to the young woman who did that, just did that. It’s so inconceivable to me that that would be something that the person that I am, and I actually think the person that I always was but had a lot of layers of other selves on top of her -- the answer is no. I didn’t drink for years. Then eventually I started drinking wine again. I do like it.
Zibby: No, no. I'm not trying to get into -- I just meant the big struggle. I'm not judging.
Dani: It’s funny because people will sometimes read Slow Motion and make the assumption that I'm in recovery. Life, if we’re fortunate, is long and full. I have written multiple memoirs, which is so surprising to me. I thought I was only going to write fiction. I continued to return to memoir. Readers of mine will read not necessarily in the order of the books that I've written but sometimes backwards and be stunned by Slow Motion. The woman who wrote the later books, it doesn't seem possible that she would've been that spiraling young woman. Sometimes we are that spiraling young woman and then we grow up. Then we become wiser. We become other things. There's this beautiful phrase that I believe I quote in Hourglass. It’s the English moral philosopher who describes the inner crowd, all of the selves that comprise the inner crowd, the crowd inside of us. Which one’s going to find her voice, or her strength, or her will for that moment?
Zibby: Going back to your mention of your son, how does he feel with so much of your life, and even with Hourglass, more of his life in addition, exposed in this way?
Dani: One of the things that was really important to me and that I really thought the day he was born, I looked at him and I thought, “You did not ask to be born to a mother who’s a writer. How am I going to deal with this?” I felt instantly changed, the way that we feel changed by motherhood. Instantly, I was now a mother. That, I remember thinking. I had been comfortable writing about my parents all my life. I'd been comfortable writing about certain other people. I take care to try not to hurt anybody. I've never felt like I didn’t have a right. Now, here was this baby who was entitled to his privacy.
What happened over time, because I did eventually and I do write about him some, is that I looked for my own set of rules about this. Chief among them was I don't want him to ever be thirty years old and turning to me and saying, “I wish you hadn’t written about me,” or “I wish you hadn’t written that particular thing about me.” That's been my compass. Even posting a photograph of him on Instagram, I check with him first. Actually when Hourglass came out, my husband and I were away. I knew that our son was reading it. I always give him the very first copy that comes from the publisher and inscribe it to him. I knew he was reading it. He texted me. He said, “I'm reading your book. It’s helping me fall asleep at night.”
Dani: I was like “Ha, ha, ha.” He can be a wiseass, but I wasn’t sure what he meant. I literally wrote back, “Ha, ha, ha.” He wrote back, “No, really. It feels like you and dad are with me.” It was the first time we had ever been across an ocean from him. Usually he was with us. That was probably the best reaction that anybody had about Hourglass, but of his, because it felt like he recognized his parents and our life and our family on the page. I didn’t want to embellish it or to in any way demean it. I wanted to try to capture it. Also, regarding my son, when he was growing up and he was thirteen, fourteen years old, he wasn’t a reader. He completely wasn’t a reader. We would take him to writer’s conferences all over the world. He knew so many writers, amazing writers. It never seemed to sink in. He just was friend with these folks.
When he turned about fifteen a switch got flipped. He started reading. Suddenly he would text me and say, Anthony Doerr for example, he's like, “Tony’s a genius.” Yes, he is. “I just thought he was this great dad I played football with,” or Jim Shepard. He started to fall in love with reading and writing and words. It’s certainly not something that we made happen or could possibly have forced, in fact, quite the opposite. It took him so long to fall in love with reading because it was all around him all the time. That respect too for a sense of what it is to try to capture something that's true between the pages of a book -- I don't know that he wants to be writer necessarily. He has a real affinity for it, therefore respect for what we do, my husband and I. My husband’s also a writer. Then every once in a while he’ll meet someone -- I've seen this happen -- he’ll meet someone and that person who has read my work will say, “I thought you'd be so much younger.” It’s like he’s frozen in time at wherever someone has read about him. I don't think, at least as best as I can tell, that he feels a sense of his privacy having been invaded in any way.
Zibby: That's one of the more challenging things as my own kids grow up. I want to confide in my friends or other people about the things that I'm going through in relation to what my kids are going through, but I feel I can't. Some of these things are now their issues. These are people. I'm not at liberty to spread all these things and talk about them. It’s almost like hiding, not secrets, it’s something that’s come in between ability to be close sometimes to other people. It’s my kid’s stuff. I have to protect their privacy. Tangent. Sorry about that.
You teach seminars now all over the world. In fact, I almost went to your one in Canyon Ranch, but I would've had to change all my custody and it ended up not being worth it. How do you teach students to write like you do, which is so beautiful? Which part of what you do is a gift versus something that's learned or something that you can teach, which I know you've written about? For people who don't have time to read it…
Dani: I just wrote about this recently. The thing that I arrived at in terms of the gift part of it which can't be taught is that it’s like having excellent pitch as a musician, or perfect pitch, or an ear. It’s different for every writer. Finding the truth of your voice and then at the same time the musicality or the lyricism -- maybe it’s not lyrical. Maybe it’s extremely hard-hitting and journalistic and take-no-prisoners, or whatever it is. When a writer is writing at the height of her abilities it has to do with having found that place, the essential, authentic place from which the work springs. As a teacher, I can certainly offer my students a lot of tools. There definitely is a whole big box full of tools in terms of craft.
The truly gifted writer never thinks about tools. That's a paradox. A bunch of years ago I was invited to teach undergraduates. I hadn’t taught undergraduates in a long time. This was at Wesley. The night before I was about to start teaching, I panicked. I thought, “How do I teach them craft?” I started going online and downloading manuals about voice, and sense of place, and point of view, and character. It was absurd. I don't even know how to talk about this because I just do it, and sense it, and almost in an animal way feel my way through it. The toolbox still can be unpacked.
The other thing that is possibly more important than the toolbox is courage. So many people embarking, the inner censor comes roaring to the surface. I write about this a lot in Still Writing. The sense of “What is the voice in your head telling you?” Is it saying, “This is stupid? So and so did it better? I have no right to write this? People are going to laugh? I should really spend a lot of time doing research about this before I embark on it?” Whatever the version is of it, shame, self-loathing, that inner voice which also keeps on shifting, never stays the same -- A writer alone in her room loses sight of the fact that everybody who’s alone in her room feels that, everybody.
There's a comparing one’s own experience to the books on the shelves and thinking, “Alice Munro didn’t go through that when she wrote that perfect short story,” or “Lorrie Moore didn’t go through that when she wrote Who Will Run the Frog Hospital.” It’s not true. Every writer at the beginning of a new piece of work is completely lost. It feels impossible. The only thing that makes it feel possible is day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, grappling with it. I have a particular ability to talk about that with students and empower them with the notion that what they’re feeling is not only typical and normal, but useful. It’s actually useful for the artist to feel all that discomfort and to feel like she has absolutely no idea what she's doing.
Zibby: Excellent. [laughs] That's great to hear. You mentioned earlier you went back and forth between fiction and memoir. What's it like for you writing the two different mediums? I'm sure you talk about this all the time. How does it feel to be delving deep inside yourself and figuring out what to include, what not to include, versus crafting a story? Even the structure, I've been hearing a lot about people spending so much time thinking about the structure of their books and how important that is. Does it differ when you do memoir versus fiction?
Dani: Every book announces its own structure at a certain point. The feeling that I have when working on a novel -- that said, it’s been a while since I've been working on a novel -- the first feeling as a fiction writer is that it’s all up for grabs. The entire universe is up for grabs. There's no parameters. The writer begins to build a world that's an imaginary world. When something takes hold and that starts to feel real, it feels as real as the world that I'm walking down the street in. It feels like it’s accompanying me and like I'm living a double life in a way. There's this world that I can side step into. It’s the world that I've invented. It is as real to me as the world that I live in. The landscape is real to me. I've been thinking about this a lot lately.
My novel Picturing the Wreck, which was published forever ago, the main character is a psychoanalyst who lived in a [indiscernible] on Riverside Drive. Whenever I pass that corner, I think about Solomon. It’s the corner where the yeshiva is and the corner where -- I've been down that block a thousand times in my real life. To me, Solomon occupies still that territory, still and always. It becomes real that way. Eventually, the confines of that world become defined. It’s not all up for grabs. It becomes narrowed into what is the story? Who are the characters? What is the landscape?
Memoir, it’s not all up for grabs. It’s not the whole universe. It’s something about an experience that has been lived or a aspect of memory that is asking to be plumbed in some way. The feeling for me is of doing this deep, deep, deep inner dive and going to this place inside of me that is very small and very compact. When I go there, it expands. If it expands all the time, anyone who’s doing this kind of work would have to be put into a straitjacket. You couldn't live in that way all the time. I thought a lot about this because people would ask me that. They would say, “You write about some really dark and painful things. You seem to have a relatively content life. How do you do that?” I really thought about it. How do I do that? It’s that when I'm there, I'm all in. When I leave, I can come back, bob back up to the surface, and put dinner on the table.
Zibby: Impressive. It’s almost like the difference between starting a construction project from scratch when you just have land. Fiction is like whatever. It can be overwhelming. A renovation is more like a memoir because you have to work with something.
Dani: I would say you're building a room. You're building one room. Is it the dining room? Is it the den? Is it the master bedroom? Is it a closet? Is it the basement? What's in the basement? Having written these multiple memoirs and surprising myself by doing so, it’s not that I think my life is so interesting. I don't. It’s that I have these questions that I want to explore. I use my memory as a tool to explore them. Hourglass was really about time and marriage. Devotion was really about a spiritual, existential crisis and asking myself the question, “What do I believe? Do I believe anything? What are the questions that I need to ask to discover that?”
Slow Motion was more of a classic memoir in the sense of it was a story. It was over the course of a year. It moved into the past and into the future, but essentially it began and it ended over the course of one year. It was chronological. I have an elderly aunt who I'm very close to who’s ninety-three. She's a poet. She would blush if she heard me describe her that way, but she really is. She said to me once, “My life is a museum.” She was talking about memory. I can wander into this room. I can wander into that gallery. I thought it was so beautiful and such an incredible thing to be able to say as a nonagenarian. It struck me as a very contented feeling and also probably a very true one, one to aspire to. When I write memoir, it’s about looking at a particular aspect of life through the specificity and idiosyncrasy of my life.
Zibby: When you write about a mid-life marriage and expose things -- expose is the wrong word -- when you share things about your marriage, how do you decide what you're going to put in and what you're not going to put in? Do you have an example of a scene that you debated putting in the book but decided for whatever reason not to?
Dani: First of all, the art of memoir is always what to put in and what to leave out, always. In writing about one’s marriage that one hopes to stay in, [laughs] it becomes a little more crucial. What came to mind when you asked that is that there were any number of times where I stopped at a certain moment where I thought, “Do I dare? Do I go there?” Because my husband is my first reader and because my process has always been that I read to him at the end of the day -- it took me a while to understand this after I finished Hourglass and people were asking me that question. I read to him every day when I was writing Hourglass the same way as I would as if I were writing any other book.
The thing that came to me later was that we weren’t sitting there like, “Now it’s time to discuss our marriage at seven o’clock at night after the day is done.” It was, “Now it’s time for me to read you pages of my book.” We’re going to talk about it as a book. My husband always has my back as a reader. He’s going to push me to make it the best book that it can be. There's even a moment in Hourglass where he turns to me and says, “I think what you're working on is great. I'm an okay guy, but you're not being hard enough on me.” I remember we were standing in the airport in Denver. We were about to each get on different planes. He said that to me. I thought, “He’s right. That's going into the book.” It’s actually a moment in the book where I become a little bit harder on us, not just on him, but holding our feet to the fire in some ways as a couple. I’ll give you an example.
One of the things that I came to realize about us as a couple is that our tolerance for risk is very different. Mine has grown over the years by virtue of having been with him for over two decades. It’s different. He was a war correspondent. His tolerance for risk involves flak jackets and bullets and explosions. Mine does not. There was an ice storm in Litchfield County, Connecticut, where we live. We lost power. We needed to leave the house. Our son was young, strapped into his baby seat in the back. We’re skidding down this -- the governor’s on the radio saying, “Stay indoors.” Trees are uprooted. It’s really catastrophic. We’re heading to a friend’s house where they have power.
My husband suddenly turns in a completely different direction from the friend’s house. I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “I want to see what's going on.” “No. Turn around.” It was not only, “How could you do this?” but “How could you not understand how deeply I wouldn't want to do this?” He turns around. He drops my son and me off at our friend’s house. We’re all getting cozy by the fire and drinking hot chocolate. He goes back out into the wild. He comes back a while later. The way that I had written it in the book was, “His cheeks were ruddy and his eyes were bright. ‘It’s like a war zone out there,’ he said.” The scene didn’t quite land. I kept on thinking, “What am I not doing here? What am I not being honest about here?”
Finally, one day I was working on the scene. He comes back in, his cheeks are ruddy, and his eyes are bright. I wrote the words, “I hated him.” Then, “‘It’s like a war zone out there,’ he said.” I looked at that sentence. I deleted it. I wrote it again. I deleted it again. Five times I did this. Finally I was like, “Okay.” When I turned the book back in to my editor -- this was really late in the game. This was the draft that was going to be published. She called me up. she said, “That is my favorite sentence in the whole book.” It rang of honesty. One of the lessons about it too though is now I can talk about that. Of course it’s ridiculous, the idea that we don't sometimes hate the people that we’re with. Of course we do. In that moment, what spouse doesn't hate that flash of “Oh, my god. I can't stand you right now?” It was this moment of “I can't go there.” For a writer, for any creative person, anyone trying to create something, that feeling is -- Didion put it this way -- that feeling is gold. That “This is too close to the bone, too scary. I can't,” that's where you have to.
Zibby: You told me at the library lunch the other day that readers often feel like they know you really well after they’ve read all your memoirs. In actuality, this is a you that is carefully crafted and selected. It’s not the whole you. What part of you would readers be surprised to unearth?
Dani: That's a great question. I don't know that it’s so much about the facts of me. That's a really good question. The reason why I'm stumbling is because I do share it. I don't think readers would be surprised to find out that I am anxious sometimes or that feeling of -- I write about it a lot in Devotion -- of the other shoe, the other shoe dropping. It’s not so much even emotional truths of me and certainly not facts about my life. It’s more that it’s very different to sit across a table from someone and get to know them than it is to read them on the page where everything has been so carefully crafted. I don't craft in a self-protective way. I craft in a way that has to do with making the book be the best book that it can possibly be. If it belongs in the book, I don't worry so much about whether I'm exposing myself.
When we moved to Connecticut from New York, I was getting to know new people for the first time -- I was a young mom -- mom friends, new friends in Litchfield County, just people. I was noticing that nobody was asking me anything about myself. It took me a while to figure out why. It was because they thought they already knew. Simultaneously, people were telling me their deepest, darkest secrets. I kept thinking, “Why is this happening? Do I have some big ‘Confess to me.’ sign over my head?” Those two things together, I came to realize they were telling me their secrets because they felt like they knew mine. I don't think it was conscious. I think it was completely an unconscious process that went on. It’s the very strange world of the memoirist in that way. It left me a little lonely. I felt like, “But wait, you're not getting to know me.” Don’t mistake my books for the human interaction of becoming friends with somebody. That's really different. That's what I meant by that more than anything.
Zibby: That's funny. I wrote this essay about how sometimes after the kids go to bed I find myself eating over the kitchen sink or whatever. I went into my son’s school the next morning. I had all these people coming over and being like, “Oh, my gosh. I eat Girl Scout cookies. I ate an entire Costco bucket of whatever last night.” I was like, “Okay. Great. Nice chatting with you.” [laughs] I loved it. Don’t get me wrong. I loved it.
Dani: It’s odd and funny and interesting. The poet Jane Kenyon describes the writing of a poem and the reading of a poem as the poet reaching out to the reader, reaching a hand out and saying, “Me too. I've been there too.”
Zibby: I love that. That's so nice.
Dani: That's what reading is. That's what writing is. It can certainly feel like, “Whoa, how did you know that -- oh, right.” There's the self that's writing is not the self that's doing drop-off. That's part of that inner crowd we were talking about. The self that's doing drop-off is like, “Wait a minute. What?”
Zibby: Do you find a difference in how you write now that you're in Litchfield County versus in the city where you used to be? Do you feel the pace of your writing has changed with the pace of life out there?
Dani: What's most different about it -- now it’s been a while. I've written several books since we moved there -- is that I have to make my day there. I have to make the shape of my day. The day will not have any shape. Shape won't happen to my day unless I make it happen. I remember really early on living up there, and opening the door onto our porch, and looking out into the meadow, and realizing that nothing was happening. It’s not opening your door and life is just happening in every direction all around you. That then requires a certain amount of conscious discernment. I was always disciplined. Actually, I don't like that word. People often say to me, “You must be really disciplined.” I've always written the way that I've written because I feel so better if I do.
Zibby: What is the way you write?
Dani: It’s changed a little bit. When I'm working on a book, daily. Earlier in my writing life, five days a week, weekends off. It was like I really had a Monday through Friday. Before family life, before children, getting up in the morning, basically rolling out of bed, making myself a cup of coffee and getting to work, and not letting anything get between that dreamy state and getting to work. Then I had a child. I had to recalibrate how am I going to get up in the morning, be there for my son, make lunch, take him to school, and then get to work, and be present for him, not be in this “My head’s in the clouds. Mommy’s already working?” Didn’t want to do that.
I had to learn how to restart the day. A meditation practice has been enormously useful to me in that regard. Still, I would need to start the day, do drop-off and then get to work, not do drop-off and then go hiking with a bunch of moms and then get to work. I've never been able to work out in the morning as much as that means often, it means I don't work out. If I work out in the morning, I'm already feeling too much like the day has gotten underway. A difference now is that I write all the time. My son, he’s a senior in high school. I have the liberty to do that seven days a week. The only thing that remains the same is trying to start the day with it. I had friends early in my writing life who didn’t understand why I couldn't meet for breakfast or why I couldn't have lunch. One friend in particular would always be like, “You're so rigid. You don't answer your phone.” This particular person is a therapist. I'm always saying, “Do you answer your phone when you're in the middle of a session?” I'm working. Needing to really protect that time and make it sacred, that's the thing that remains true all the way through.
It’s hard enough to sit down and do the work. Creating a sense of sacredness around it -- the internet is not our friend in this regard. Finding ways to shut down the outside world, I could talk about this forever. The instrument upon which a writer writes is also the portal to everything else. You can still look like you're doing the same thing. If you're meditating and you stop and you get up and you go down and stare into your refrigerator, you know you've stopped meditating. Anyone observing you would know that too. If you're sitting and writing, all you need to do is click and you could be on Net-a-Porter buying a pair of boots. I'm not speaking of myself.
Zibby: No, no. Course not.
Dani: Course not. Even in the name of research, clicking on something because you think you really need to know about that particular sofa that they're sitting on at that moment -- no, you don't. That's what TKs are for. Staying in the discomfort, it’s a way in which the writing practice and a meditation practice are actually very similar. Staying in the, “You know what? I'm not comfortable. I really want to get up. My mind is racing. I'm going to stay here anyway because these are like passing clouds in the sky. It’s going to pass. I don't want to miss the thing that maybe I'm avoiding by going boot shopping at this moment.” For your listeners who are writers, there's an app that I use that I've turned a lot of people onto called Freedom. Do you know about this?
Zibby: I don't. No. Tell me.
Dani: It’s an app. You keep it on your desktop. If you want to shut everything down, you click on it. It asks you how many minutes of freedom you would like, or hours. It’s come to this. It’s sad but true.
Zibby: Infinity freedom. [laughs]
Dani: The first time I ever did it I thought, “Three hours.” Do you know how long three hours is without any interruption? Our brains have stopped being able -- if they were ever able to, they’ve really stopped being able to do that because they toggle back and forth so much between different --
Zibby: -- Can't you cheat? Can't you put Freedom on the laptop and then have your phone?
Dani: If you have your phone with you, then you're cheating. If you put your phone in the other room, or you can also put your phone on Freedom -- I do it for myself literally in half hour increments. I do a half an hour. It’s amazing to me how quickly that half hour goes by. A little ding happens. It shows you your time is up. You can just re-up it. I do that multiple times often not then going and checking my email, or feeling like I need to look at Instagram, or find out what's going on in the world. All of that can be so enormously distracting. There's this relatively new field of information science. It’s been studied that being interrupted by a single phone call will set you back eleven minutes in terms of where your attention was. That's a phone call. That's one phone call. If you think of what we all do with our devices all the time, we’re never recovering. We’re never catching up. Every writer friend of mine who I talk to about this is grappling with the same thing. It’s there on the instrument that you're writing on.
Zibby: I was feeling stressed. I'm trying to write a book now. So far, I've only been able to write when I'm on an airplane.
Zibby: I was telling my husband this. “Maybe I’ll just make that my thing. I’ll just write the whole thing whenever we travel. I’ll just write it on planes.” I can't seem to get that -- at least with lots of kids.
Dani: Creating the bubble.
Zibby: Having schools call, I feel like there's always something.
Dani: It’s very hard for you to put your phone away in that situation. A friend of mine, a writer named Alexander Chee who just had a new book come out, a couple years ago he tweeted something about “Wouldn't it be great for Amtrak to offer residencies to writers?” Amtrak did.
Dani: Yes. I don't know if it’s still ongoing. I think it might be. A couple of years ago it was really a thing. It very well may still be ongoing and very competitive. People applied for this basically fellowship to be able to get onboard the train in New York and ride the train across the country. Doesn't that sound divine? Looking out the windows…
Zibby: You'd definitely get a lot done.
Dani: You'd get a lot done, that sense not only of not being interrupted but not being uninterruptible. I was at a writer’s colony called Hedgebrook, a women’s only, amazing writer’s colony on the West Coast in the Pacific Northwest last year or the year before. I remember sitting in my little cabin there and thinking, “I am uninterruptible.” There's no internet here. If there were an emergency, somebody would know how to contact me. Other than that, you're interrupted by the owl at the window. That's pretty much it. That is a tremendous luxury for anyone who’s a busy mom, or working more than one job, or whatever the particular responsibilities of a life are. There's always this sense of “How long do I have?” writing in the corners and in the margins. Planes, trains, colonies, a weekend away. Joan Didion used to check into hotels. It’s very romantic. I love that. Nice hotels too.
Zibby: Awesome. Good for her. You told me that you recently handed in your next book. You couldn't really say anything other than you had uncovered a family secret. Now I'm like, “What could this possibly be?” Can you give us any more hints, any more to that at all, when it’s coming out?
Dani: I can tell you the title, which is Inheritance. It’s challenging to figure out how to talk about this right now. Right after I finished Hourglass I stumbled upon a really, really massive family secret and one that actually changes everything about the way that I think of my life, my childhood, my ancestors. I can't really talk about it all that much more. It was something that I started working on and writing pretty much the instant that I made this discovery, which was very accidental. It wasn’t like, “I know there's still another secret that I don't know.”
Zibby: Come on. There's got to be a book in this attic. What can I find? [laughs]
Dani: I really thought that I was done with memoir and that Hourglass would probably be my last memoir and looking to go back to fiction. Then this huge wrecking ball came sweeping in. I'm very grateful for the timing. If it had happened a couple of months earlier, I wouldn't have finished Hourglass. It was of the nature of changes everything. It’s taught me also a tremendous amount -- I really look forward to being able to talk about this at some point -- about the creative unconscious. When I look at all of my work from my very first novel up until Hourglass -- because Hourglass didn’t have much to do with the family that I come from, it had the family that I've made -- I can actually see that in a profoundly unconscious way, this was something I knew. It’s all over my work. It’s one of those things that is both stunning and liberating and so complex and humbling.
Especially when I talk to students who are writing fiction, the idea that we’re in any way in control of what we’re writing -- ultimately, we are. We can shape it. The sense of what drives us -- why do you write about what you write about? Why do I write about what I write about? I've been writing about secrets within families for my whole entire career. My novel Family History was about a family secret. My novel Black & White was about a family secret. Why was I writing about family secrets? If you had said to me, “Do you think that there's a family secret that you don't know about?” “No. I think this just really interests me.” Knopf is publishing it. It will be out at some point, my guess is early next year, early 2019. We’re doing things like book jackets now, and copy.
Zibby: That's exciting. I can't wait to read it. Thanks for that cliffhanger.
Zibby: No, it’s awesome. Thank you so much for all of your time. I feel like I could chat with you all day long.
Dani: It’s such a pleasure. It was really fun, Zibby. Thank you.
Zibby: Thank you so much for sharing everything.