|B.A. Shapiro, photo by Lynn Wayne|
B.A. Shapiro is the author of the new novel The Muralist. Her other novels include the bestseller The Art Forger. She has taught creative writing at Northeastern University and sociology at Tufts University, and she lives in Boston.
Q: In your Author’s Note, you say that the book's “mix of history and invention continues throughout the novel.” What do you see as the right blend of the two?
A: There’s no right or wrong blend, and I think every historical novelist does it differently – and does it differently for each individual book.
In The Muralist, I have actual historical figures – Eleanor Roosevelt, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, to name a few – interacting with my fictional characters. Some people might think this is too much of a stretch but I had so much fun with it. And I think – I hope – readers will too.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for the novel, and for your main character, Alizee?
A: I wanted to write a novel about art set in the Depression and when you put those two things together you get the WPA, Roosevelt’s New Deal program to get the country back to work.
I knew that my main character would be working for the WPA, and when I found out that Pollock, Krasner and Rothko were “on the project” in NYC, I knew she had to be friends with all of them.
When I discovered that Eleanor Roosevelt – my favorite historical personage ever – had been responsible for getting Franklin to include artists in the WPA – I wanted my protagonist to know Eleanor, too.
And when it turned out that Eleanor’s greatest regret at the end of her life was that she hadn’t forced Franklin to allow in more refugees before WWII, it was obvious that my character had to have family in Europe she was trying to get into the U.S. Hence, Alizée Benoit.
Q: How did you research this novel?
A: I did a tremendous amount of research for this novel, mostly from books: biographies, histories, historical novels set in the period, art books, etc.
I also spoke with a number of abstract artists about their work and watched them in their studios so they could explain to me what they were thinking and feeling while they were working.
The Internet is also a valuable source – I used it for everything from the latest research on the link between creativity and mental illness to discovering small facts such as how much artists made in 1939 working for the WPA or what was the most popular movie that year.
Q: The issue of refugees not being allowed into the United States before and during World War II is a key theme in the novel. Why did you choose to focus on that, and what do you think of the parallels being drawn to the refugee situation today?
A: I chose this theme when I discovered Eleanor Roosevelt’s greatest regret was leaving so many refugees in Europe. This touched me as I’m Jewish and had an uncle who lost most of his family in the Holocaust.
Although I was stressing parallels between now and then as I was writing The Muralist, I was more focused on our penchant for war. I finished the book over a year ago so had no idea it would turn out to be so timely.
But the question I purposely raised about war holds all too true for the current refugee situation: do we ever learn?
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on another book that has similar elements to both The Art Forger and The Muralist. It combines history, art, a mystery and has a dash of romance.
This one is set in the 1920s in Paris and Philadelphia and focuses on the post-Impressionists and early modernists – who are all hanging out in Gertrude Stein’s salon with Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
There’s a possible murder and a bunch of cons and conmen – and while in The Art Forger Belle might have had an affair with Degas, and in The Muralist Alizée has an affair with Mark Rothko, in the new book the protagonist is having an affair with Henri Matisse.
How lucky am I to have a job where I get to make up stories for a living?
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with B.A. Shapiro, please click here.