Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.
Recently, we interviewed author Brett Shapiro , about his writing and his recently released, Late in the Day, a compelling novel that examines questions of aging, loneliness, and coming to terms with grief. (Read the review here.) His best-selling memoir L’Intruso was published in Italy, where he lived for 25 years, and later became an award-winning film and theatrical production. He is the author of two children’s books, one of which was the recipient of Austria’s National Book Award. His short stories have been performed in theaters throughout Italy.
Brett Shapiro is an American writer and the author of Those Around Him, a novel published in 2019. His best-selling memoir L’Intruso was published in Italy, where he lived for 25 years, and later became an award-winning film and theatrical production. He is the author of two children’s books, one of which was the recipient of Austria’s National Book Award. His short stories have been performed in theaters throughout Italy. He is a veteran writer for the United Nations and currently lives by the beach in Florida
Late in the Day is definitely a character-driven story. How do you create characters that are so lived-in and real, who feel like they could walk off the page?
My main interest – in writing and in my daily life – is, and has always been, character, both real and imagined. For me, small talk and small gestures reveal the most about who a person is. That’s where so many of the genuine in-the-marrow fears, frustrations and desires are to be found. So I concentrate on the small things: Will this character say “Yes” or “Yeah”? Will she brush a wisp of hair away from her face or let it hang there? Will he stroke his beard or let his hand rest quietly on the table? Will they walk hand in hand or simply let their arms brush up against each other from time to time? For me, the accrual of details creates the real and lived-in character.
Did any of the characters change drastically (or at all) from first draft to published book?
Being a male, I had to pay special attention to my female protagonist, Honey. It was imperative for me to not portray her as I wanted her to be, but to portray her as she needed to be, complete with the inconsistencies and contradictions – and guilty of the crimes and misdemeanors – that all of us have in one form or another. I started with broad brushstrokes. At a certain point, Honey took over and insisted on certain features, showing me that she wasn’t the resigned and despondent woman I’d assumed she needed to be (for my purposes), but rather the central life-affirming force in the novel. She surprised me!
Tell us a little about how this story first came to be. Did it start with an image, a voice, a concept, a dilemma or something else?
I’d say a dilemma of sorts. The idea took root in Rome, where I lived with my partner (an Italian) and our two children for 20+ years. A number of friendships with other couples solidified during those years. One summer, a few of us had gone to an off-the-beaten-track fishing village on a Greek island. The village was small, run down and stunning. We thought about gathering up a larger group of friends and convincing everyone to buy one of the small homes in the village. The idea was to establish a kind of retirement community but made up of good friends and not situated in a retirement facility. Some of us, including my partner and me, did buy a home there and began to flesh out the idea. However, my partner and I eventually uncoupled, and I moved back to the States. The idyllic Greek island retirement community never materialized, but the thought remained with me. That was the seed for the story, although it took a very different turn once I found myself back in the States after so many years and living in a town where I knew no one. The more critical question for me then became: Is it possible in advanced middle age to establish new and deep connections? Histories take a lot of time. And I didn’t have a lot of time. It was a compelling question for me, and I wrote the novel as a way of answering that question with a “Yes”.
What themes were important for you to explore in Late in the Day?
Aging is certainly an important theme, especially how solitude and loneliness take on a different hue as we grow older. And then there is the flip side of loneliness: attachment. How we lose or give up (voluntarily or involuntarily) the people and the objects that gave us a sense of home for so many years, and how we fill those vast and empty spaces.
What do you hope readers will take away from this story?
I’m not sure that there is a message that I want my readers to take away. It’s more of a mood, a rhythm, a way of turning things about in our heads that I’m trying to capture and tame so that readers think “Oh my gosh, I can relate to that,” detail after detail, page after page. I also would want my readers to miss Honey, Hank and Seth terribly after they close the back cover of the book.
You have published several books in various genres. How has your writing process changed over the years, and what is the most valuable thing you learned that you used in the writing of Late in the Day?
Yes, I’ve written children’s books and a memoir. Much to my surprise and delight, all of them were enormously successful. I’ve also written quite a few books for the United Nations on different aspects of rural poverty and on gender equality. However, with the exception of the children’s books, my writing revolved around documenting existing situations. I had no say in the story itself; my work was to find the best way to tell the story. Once I embarked on writing novels, there was no pre-set story. There was no pre-set anything. It was terrifying. But in the process, I discovered that there actually were rules. They were established by the characters themselves, and I only needed to listen closely to them in order to understand what they needed to do, what they needed to say, and how they needed to say it. I would say that was the most valuable thing I learned. It also made writing a joy, most of the time anyway. Every late afternoon when I sit down to write, I feel as if I am paying a visit to good friends, to see what they’re up to.
What authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?
I like to read authors who are as in love with sentence-making as they are with story-telling, and who are brilliant at both. There are scores of books that have had a strong influence on my writing, or on my way of thinking about writing. A knee-jerk answer to the question would definitely include the following titles: American Pastoral; To the Lighthouse; Enormous Changes at the Last Minute; The Hours; The Magic Mountain; and any short story by Alice Munro or Amy Hempel.
Who and what ultimately inspired you to become a writer?
That has a simple answer. Starting at pre-adolescence, nothing was as exhilarating for me as reading a gorgeous sentence, except for reading a sequence of gorgeous sentences that fed into the telling of something that I wouldn’t be able to shake off entirely. Whenever this happened, and I came back to Earth, my first thought was, “I have to be able to do this too.”
What’s next for you?
I’m almost through a solid first draft of a new novel, provisionally called Henry’s Version. It’s a slightly shorter work than my other two novels, and it’s my first novel written in the first-person. I’ve set myself two additional challenges: the first-person narrative is filtered through the main character when he is eight, forty and seventy years old; and the novel is 100% invention (at least I think so). I’m having a great time with it.
Categories: BookView Review Interview