Imagine tracking down a former love after thirty years, only to find that the object of your intense longings doesn’t even remember you. That’s what happens at the start of Susan Shapiro’s poignant, sly new novel What’s Never Said (Heliotrope Books). It’s the story of Lila, a nineteen-year-old Wisconsin native, who starts an MFA program in New York City and falls for Daniel, her older poetry professor. Shapiro’s tenth book unravels the sexual secret that has haunted them both all this time. Ms. Shapiro nails the literary scene of Greenwich Village in the ’80s, echoing her own life as a poetry graduate student. Yet What’s Never Said seems a serious departure from her acclaimed humorous memoir Five Men Who Broke My Heart (Random House), as well as her comic fictional debut Speed Shrinking (St. Martin’s). Here, she crafts complex characters laden with ghosts, as Daniel and Lila each lost a parent to suicide. Throughout the story, academia serves as a rich backdrop.
It’s a scene Ms. Shapiro knows from both sides, since she has been a wildly popular New School writing professor for two decades. She has amassed a cult following for her fast-paced evening classes, where she shares the inside scoop on crafting cover letters, finding editors and agents, and breaking into the New York Times and top publishing houses. In the past decade alone, she has helped eighty-five students land book deals, in both fiction and nonfiction, from acclaimed houses. A former student, I caught up with Ms. Shapiro recently at Washington Square Park, where we blazed one of her infamous walking/talking office hours to discuss her latest novel and how she came to develop her unique teaching style.
The Rumpus: Why did you set What’s Never Said in a fictional MFA program in New York City?
Susan Shapiro: That’s where it happened. I moved to New York in 1981 to get my graduate degree in poetry at NYU. The book’s autobiographical. When I tried to write my first novel, a mentor said, “You have no imagination whatsoever. Stop writing fiction.”
Rumpus: So a well-known memoirist is now writing a novel about poetry?
Shapiro: Ha! Everybody says my nonfiction is better than my fiction, and my family says my nonfiction is fiction. Truthfully, I never understand writers who say “I am a poet,” or “I am a novelist.” Most writers I know have to switch genres to stay in the game. I certainly did. Early on, I couldn’t pay my bills with poetry, especially since I’d spend years on one poem. Then a woman’s magazine editor paid me several thousand dollars for a first person essay on the same topic that took a week. They say journalism is literature with ADD, and I could almost make a living with it. John Updike published short stories, novels, essays, book reviews, art criticism, bad poetry, and he drew his own pictures in the New Yorker. In my career and classes, I mix it up. I’ve helped several fiction writers launch their debut novel by publishing an essay.
Here’s how I describe my new novel, “In Five Men Who Broke My Heart, Susan Shapiro spilled all the secrets of her former flames. But there was one story she could never tell, until now.” In my classes, the first assignment I give my students is to write about your most humiliating secret. So this was one of mine. But I couldn’t tackle the story in a memoir. I’d already published three in my forties. I don’t have a dramatic life, just dumb addictions and relationships problems. I moved to New York, did therapy, and married someone great. That’s the whole shebang. Truthfully, an affair that failed decades ago isn’t really dramatic enough. So I fictionalized.
Rumpus: Eventually, Lila gives up poetry to become a critic, is that autobiographical?
Shapiro: Yes. I always make it clear, I’m a failed poet. After my MFA, one of my poetry mentors said, “You have too many words and not enough music.” Then I was a book critic for a decade, with my own book column. I was fired and failed at that, too. In 2003, when Random House published my memoirs about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, I feared my old poet crowd would think I was selling out. But they were delighted and in awe of my advance. That same mentor, Harvey Shapiro (no relation), my editor at the New York Times Magazine, said there was more poetry in my prose then there ever had been in my poems.
Rumpus: Yes, I noticed that when reading your novel. The poetry blended throughout adds depth to the story. What does poetry mean to you?
Shapiro: Growing up in a conservative Midwest Jewish suburbia, if you said what you were really thinking, the Cossacks would kill you. So I fell hard for Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Maya Angelou, Philip Larkin, and Anne Sexton, who said terrible things you weren’t supposed to say. I’d walk around my house reciting, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” and “I’m tired, everyone’s tired of my turmoil,” and “Dying is an art… I do it exceptionally well.” At thirteen, I became obsessed. When Bob Dylan first heard Elvis Presley, he said that it was like busting out of jail. Like that.
Rumpus: At the end of the novel, I wanted to read Lila’s poem. Did you consider writing it?
Shapiro: No. Daniel and Lila never talked after thirty years. Lila’s husband and Daniel’s wife don’t know the sexual secret of Daniel and Lila’s relationship. Daniel tells Lila at one point that poetry is about what’s between the lines, what’s never said. I felt justified at the end to have a poem you never see. It’s the theme of the book, what people don’t tell each other. Plus, remember, I’m a failed poet. It was too much pressure.
Rumpus: Do you still write poetry?
Shapiro: Yes, but I stopped submitting. People feel badly when I say I’m a failed poet, but it’s great because I really went for it for fifteen years. Picture your first love, the one you adored, but it wasn’t meant to be. They say the worst risk is not taking a risk. I took it.
Last term, Deborah Landau spoke to my class about her gorgeous new collection The Uses of the Body (Copper Canyon Press), called “a cross between Sylvia Plath and Dorothy Parker.” I thought I’d be jealous, since that’s the kind of book I’d once hoped to write. And she has three kids and now runs NYU’s writing program, where I’ve also taught. But I was thrilled for her. I realized I get to write all day, every day, in my fantasy apartment in the Village, with my dream husband, and I only teach six hours at night. There are lots of ways to be successful. I felt really lucky. I think $200,000 worth of therapy kicked in.
Rumpus: You’ve chronicled seeing head doctors in three genres, your memoir Lighting Up (Random House), novel Speed Shrinking (St. Martin’s), and your addiction book Unhooked (Skyhorse). In What’s Never Said, is Daniel’s psychiatrist, Dr. Zalman, supposed to give insight into Daniel’s soul?
Shapiro: Yes! He’s based on my former shrink, the hero of Lighting Up, who got me off of cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs. I intentionally talk about therapy a lot in my classes and my work because I want to encourage young people to go. The more you want in life, the harder it is to get. That has been my secret weapon for finding joy in work and love. By the way, when Lila is with Daniel, she doesn’t do therapy. But their breakup throws her into the arms of a shrink. That’s true. My professor did inspire me to take to the couch.
Several book editors told me that shrinks don’t play in Peoria. So I let Daniel, the Woody Allen character, get shrunk most. A few editors at big houses liked my novel but suggested I take out the therapy and poetry altogether. “Can’t they be salesmen? Or lawyers? Anything but Manhattan writers overanalyzing everything?” But they couldn’t. Fuck it, that’s who they are, that’s who I am. I did cut some therapy so it didn’t overwhelm the book.
Rumpus: Why did What’s Never Said take you six years to write?
Shapiro: This is my tenth book in twelve years. My shrink said, “You already did a bunch of books fast that didn’t do as well as you wanted. So maybe now slow the fuck down and do something different.” I stopped being in such a hurry, trying to make up for lost time.
The inside baseball answer is this. I had a two-book deal with a great young editor at St. Martin’s Press who published Speed Shrinking. I joked that it took me until age forty-eight to write a successful enough twenty-four-year-old character to please a twenty-four-year-old editor. Next, I gave her What’s Never Said. She liked it but wasn’t in love, maybe because it starts with a fifty-year-old woman. I’d struggled for thirteen years to write a first novel, Overexposed (St. Martin’s), a younger single girl’s book. After tons of rejections, I’d given up. But turned out, she liked Overexposed and published that book instead, in 2010. After thirteen years, I was overjoyed. Instead of a book launch, I had a Book Mitzvah. I fantasized she’d take this novel next. But then Overexposed sold about five copies, and she left the publishing house and the state.
Rumpus: Did you want to give up?
Shapiro: Yes! I seem to fail, get manically depressed, and have to reinvent myself every five years. After Overexposed tanked, I was despondent. Then my former shrink, Fred Woolverton, needed help with an addiction book based on his thirty-year career. So I co-authored Unhooked, which briefly became a New York Times bestseller. When he moved away, I subconsciously took on the compulsion of every case study in the book, including a workout fanatic. I over-exercised to cope with his loss, tearing two ligaments in my lower back. I saw a physical therapist named Kenan Trebincevic, a Bosnian War survivor. When he told me his story, I said, “You have to write this.” English wasn’t his first language, he was a science major. He said, “I don’t write, I fix backs,” and I said, “You fix my back, I’ll fix your pages.” So we wrote The Bosnia List (Penguin). It was splashy. We had a great full-page New York Times review and Oprah.com named it book of the week.
Around this time, I worried I’d sacrificed my own personae to become a ghost writer for men’s stories. Funny for a motor-mouth raging feminist. Revising What’s Never Said, it felt cathartic returning to my voice. Every other chapter is told by Daniel, so co-authoring two books by males helped me to get in a man’s head. I was going for a Rashomon effect, from her stand-point, then his, with eternal miscommunication.
Rumpus: How did you find your publisher?
Shapiro: People think I help students get published because I’m nice, but I warn them it’s because it makes me feel successful vicariously and I’m going to steal their editors. So Naomi Rosenblatt, at Heliotrope, published Fame Shark, a provocative memoir by one of my favorite students, Royal Young. Naomi was expanding into fiction. She’s my age, lives in the Village, had a fling with a professor. She read What’s Never Said in a week, loved it, got it, wanted it the way it was. With big publishers, I’ve often had to wait eighteen months for the book to come out, an agonizing amount of time for an impatient, addictive personality. When Naomi said yes in March, I asked if the book could come out in August, when shrinks are away and I don’t teach, so I can travel for book events. Instead of six months of contract negotiations, we shook on it. No committees, no corporation, that’s what’s great about an indie publisher.
Rumpus: What advice do you give to your students about publishing a first book?
Shapiro: In my Sell Your First Book seminars, my students describe their project. I ask, “If you knew in advance that you weren’t going to get one cent for this book, would you finish it?” If they say no, I tell them that they’re writing the wrong book. If they say, “Yes, it’s burning a hole in my head, I just have to write this damn thing,” then I say, “That’s the book that’ll get published.”
Rumpus: What do you think of MFA programs?
Shapiro: I loved mine and love the ones I teach in. Yet I recommend having a specific goal of finishing a book by the end. And if there’s a choice, work by day and go to school at night, as I did. Take advantage of getting pieces workshopped by luminaries, meeting editors, agents, and other authors. But watch the expectation that you’re going to get a great job or a huge book deal right away.
Rumpus: There’s been much coverage in the news lately about the new anti-relationship measures between faculty and students at Harvard and Yale. How do you feel about these rules?
Shapiro: Even as a left-wing liberal, I think they’re good. Whether it’s a teacher, shrink, priest, principal, boss, or coach, you have to be careful when you’re in a position of authority with someone younger. It’s impossible to have an equal relationship. Teachers crossing sexual boundaries can be dangerous. In my MFA program, lots of professors were fucking around, coming onto everybody. It was tacky and misleading. Personally, I got hurt. It was confusing, and my teacher didn’t even touch me until after I’d graduated.
By the time I taught my first class, I was already with my husband. We’ve been monogamous, so I never dated a student. I’ve been asked out; so has my husband, who is now a TV/film professor. We both wear rings and make jokes about each other in our classes. It’s hard to have a long-term, loving relationship with another human being, especially for creative people. We’re trying to be good role models.
Rumpus: When did you start teaching?
Shapiro: In 1993, somebody at The New School asked. I said, “I don’t want to do Poetry 101, Fiction 101, Journalism 101.” I’ve heard that you’re supposed to write the book you want to read and to teach the class you want to take. They let me try my own method. The goal of the class was to write and publish a great piece by the end to pay for the class. The New School very generously, and wisely, let me give stipends to bring in top editors to speak, which made all the difference. In the first class I taught, of twelve students, eight got published and four made $1,000 or more. It rocked. I made the rule that if you get a piece for $1,000, I get dinner. The high score was a talented student who made $4,000 on her humiliation essay and then got a six figure deal from Scribner’s. I made her drive me to Boston for joint book events. That became a new rule.
Rumpus: Why did you develop your Instant Gratification Takes Too Long method of teaching?
Shapiro: I’d spent $30,000 on my graduate degree and didn’t even know how to write a cover letter to send out my poems. People mistakenly think an MFA is an end-all-solution, like medical or law school, where you get degree, a job, and you’re launched. For me, it was just the start. At twenty-two, I worked at the New Yorker for $13,000 a year. Soon I realized I couldn’t be a proud feminist if I couldn’t pay my own rent. It took me fifteen more years to make a living in New York, in feature journalism writing reviews, essays, articles, author profiles, much easier to publish than poetry and fiction.
I sold a poem to Cosmopolitan in ’80s with the first line, “If all your old lovers lived in a row of dark houses on the same street.” I always say to write about your obsessions. I obviously had unfinished business on this topic, which I explored in the New York Times, Glamour, Cosmo, Marie Clare, and MORE Magazine. It was exciting, getting as much as $5,000 or $10,000 for a piece, especially after I could spend five years writing a poem that would take two more years to publish and I’d get paid in copies.
Rumpus: Your classes remain popular, with several sections filling up fast each term, and I understand it has been this way for twenty-three years now. Why do you think this is?
Shapiro: I fill a need. I’m not the most acclaimed writer, but this is an area I ace. As Edie Brickell sang, “I’m not aware of too many things, but I know what I know, if you know what I mean.” I know how to write and edit a three-page piece. I’ve published thousands, a bunch that led to books. And my years as a critic helped make me an incisive editor.
In my private classes and seminars, I get lots of graduates from the MFA programs. I feel like a liaison from school to publishing. I didn’t get my first real book deal until age forty-three. I helped several of my students launch hard covers at a young age, the way I wish I’d done, with exquisite bios from the New York Times, Tin House, the New Yorker, WSJ, Slate, and books from Norton, FSG, and Random House. Beautiful resumes. Mine was a ridiculous garbage heap: Playgirl, Penthouse, New York Press, New York Post, with jobs in medical advertising, babysitting, anyone whose checks wouldn’t bounce. It’s thrilling to guide students into what took me too long to accomplish, almost like a second chance at grace.
Rumpus: Why did it take you so long to get your first book deal?
Shapiro: When people ask how long Five Men Who Broke My Heart took to finish, I say that I banged my head against the wall for twenty-three years, then it took six months. I didn’t publish it until I quit drinking, smoking, and drugs. My shrink felt I was going about my career like an addict, impatient and cutting corners. I had published a lot of shorter pieces. As an addict, you can’t stay with negative feelings very long. The minute something horrible, awkward, or weird happens, you smoke, toke, drink, or sniff it away to get rid of the feeling. When I cut out my addictions, I could stay with the discomfort. Instead of three pages, it became three hundred. He said that when you quit a toxic habit, there’s room for something beautiful to take its place. I wanted to quit teaching, but he pushed me to teach more.
Rumpus: Your signature assignment is the humiliation essay. Why do you make your students write about their most humiliating secret?
Shapiro: Writing can be a way to turn your worst experience into the most beautiful. It’s healing. And I’m coming from confessional poetry, the subject of my novel, which is usually filled with drama, conflict, tension. Love letters and light splices of life rarely engender profundity. Read Louise Gluck, Ann Carson, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Ted Hughes, Robert Lowell, Sharon Olds. It’s all pain and angst.
If I asked students to write anything they wanted, they’d come back with a boring piece about how cute their cat is or what they ate for lunch. I needed a prompt to cut out the light humor and crap. The worst insult for poetry is that there’s no blood here. I hoped to find a way to go deeper. But if you tell students to write about worst thing that happened to you, it’ll be about death or illness. When I said your most humiliating secret, people coughed up the wildest craziest shit, sexual addiction, spectacular failures, losing hideous jobs they hated, stealing from lovers. One woman confessed she’d never had an orgasm. Editors and agents went crazy over the pieces right away. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I’ve been giving that assignment for twenty-three years. It never ceases to be exciting. In fact, now when a student publishes a book, I often have them come back to class and read that initial piece. Then we interview them and my current students publish book reviews and author profiles.
Rumpus: At a publishing panel you hosted, your agent Ryan Harbage said that you’re the most generous author he’s ever met. I agree. You share editor’s emails and tell your students to use your name. How can you be so generous?
Shapiro: Ryan is fantastic and generous, too, and he’s has sold books by fourteen of my students. I think I’m both the most generous and most selfish person simultaneously. My shrink once told me, “Don’t expect anything from unhappy people because they have nothing to give. You’ll get more from a stranger who is happy and getting what they want.”
When I was forty, I had a mid-life crisis. I was going through infertility and marriage problems and I couldn’t publish a book. I was broke. My shrink showed me how to be more ruthless. In nine months, I quit cigarettes, alcohol, dope, gum, and bread. Within a year, I had three book deals and was making six figures. He taught to say no and divide the world into two parts. You’re part of the problem or you’re part of the solution. That’s all there is.
I made a very rigid schedule. Over the last thirteen years, I write seventy hours a week and only teach six hours at night. I don’t do breakfast or lunch, and I avoid restaurants, bars, dinner parties. When I’m working, I won’t pick up the phone. If somebody I didn’t invite over buzzes me, I don’t answer. I’m very OCD, a control freak. Yet within these confines, if I’ve nailed everything I want, then I have an astounding amount of energy to help others. Being selfish and taking care of myself helps me to be generous. When I get my work done, exercise, and have time with my husband, I feel fulfilled and magnanimous. I need to, with one hundred students a term and fifteen thousand former students who have me on speed dial. With so many students who’ve surpassed me, I don’t want to be resentful.
Rumpus: Tell me about some of your students’ recent successes.
Shapiro: I’m excited about Joseph Alexiou’s debut nonfiction book Gowanus (NYU Press) and Seth Kugel, the Frugal Traveler, with an upcoming book for Norton. I loved my former student Renee Watson’s YA book This Side of Home (Bloomsbury). Several books started with essays in my class: Victoria Moy’s study of Chinese soldiers Fighting for the Dream began in New York Press. Maria Andreu’s YA novel The Secret Side of Empty (Running Press Teen) was in the Washington Post. Kathleen Frazier’s memoir Sleepwalker (Skyhorse) launched in Psychology Today. Kenan’s story, The Bosnia List, started in the New York Times Op-ed page and Salon.
Rumpus: Any other highlights?
Shapiro: My former student Christine Kenneally, who broke into the New York Times Book Review in my class a dozen years ago, recently came back the week a rave of her impressive new Viking book The Invisible History of the Human Race was on the cover of The Book Review. That was awesome. And my former New School student Che Kurrien, whose first byline was in Newsday, became the editor-in-chief of GQ in India and wrote to me, “You’re still my guru.” I was also very moved to learn that my 25-year-old protégé Aspen Matis dedicated her upcoming memoir Girl in the Woods (HarperCollins) to me. Her humiliation essay turned into a New York Times “Modern Love” column on how she was raped the second day of college and then hiked a 2500-mile trail. Lena Dunham raved about it, and it has been sold to HBO.
Aspen and I walked around Washington Square Park at night, talking out her story. Then she read my novel and helped me re-inhabit a 20-year-old poet’s head. We’re doing book events together in the fall. I love that all my previous messy career mistakes get re-purposed to help my students. At first I just taught to pay the bills, but it has turned into a second calling. I was so excited at twenty to be in the writing program in Greenwich Village. I have a lot of gratitude towards the professor “Daniel” is based on, for saving me. It feels fated that my new novel is set here, and no coincidence that I now live two blocks from where I landed in 1981. I won’t leave. I’m like Icarus flying too close to the sun, though so far, luckily it’s not a tragedy that ends with me falling into the sea. Maybe teaching is what saves me.