Saturday, August 13, 2016

Q&A with Deborah Shapiro

Deborah Shapiro is the author of the new novel The Sun in Your Eyes. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Open City and Washington Square Review, and she has worked at New York, Elle, and Self magazines. She lives in Chicago.

Q: Your book deals with female friendship. Why did you choose this topic, and how did you come up with your characters Viv and Lee?

A: Friendship is such rich territory. I wanted to write about a sustained and sustaining relationship that’s not sexual (at least not overtly) but is nonetheless incredibly romantic.

And I wanted to look at a formative relationship over time, taking into account the major life changes that create fissures but also the ongoing, micro-level tensions that are there all along – that paradoxically make it work and make it difficult.

As I was writing, I happened to read a 1973 novel by Eleanor Bergstein called Advancing Paul Newman. I came to know about this book after reading an interview with Claudia Weill, who wrote and directed the wonderful 1978 movie Girlfriends, which explores the ties between an aspiring photographer in New York and her friend, an aspiring writer who gets married, leaves the city, and has a child. (It’s an amazing time capsule of Soho in the late ‘70s).

Weill cited a line from Bergstein’s book as an inspiration. “This is the story of two girls, each of whom suspected the other of a more passionate connection with life.” One thing I love about that book is that what these two friends envy about each other is ineffable. It’s not that one has something quantifiable that the other lacks. It’s more mysterious than that.

I wanted Viv and Lee to be two distinct characters but to some extent they’re also aspects of the same woman, at least in my head. They merge, they sort of try each other on, they shift and trade places.

Q: You write that your character Jesse Parrish, Lee’s father, is “an imaginary, impossible combination of a number of much mythologized icons,” particularly Gram Parsons. Why did you decide to include a musician as a main figure in the book?

A: Music can move you in a way that is purely visceral. It can support criticism and analysis, being intellectualized – some of the best writing I’ve read is about music – but your enjoyment of it doesn’t necessarily rely on that analysis.

As someone who tends to be very analytical, maybe more analytical than I’d like to be, that interests me. Psychology is something that drives me, as a writer. Not so much in providing clear-cut motivation for actions, but in trying to create complicated characters that feel real to me.

I like the idea of Lee being very much Jesse’s daughter -- highly intelligent but not especially cerebral. Not needing to interpret everything in order to make sense of things, as Viv does. To not have an extra layer of abstraction between herself and her surroundings.

And there’s an immediacy to music that doesn’t diminish over time. Part of what drives Lee to want to track down her father’s lost music is this immediacy.

Writing about a musician is also a reflection of my own obsessions with music and fandom. With these performers who either mythologize themselves or inspire mythologizing on the part of fans.

Music fandom is different than any other kind. It’s this intense identification, not so much with a celebrity (though that’s part of it), but with their creative output. People talk about songs saving their lives and I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration.

Q: The novel goes back and forth between the perspectives of Viv and Lee. Why did you choose to write Viv’s in the first person and Lee’s in the third person?

I started with Viv and first person suited her. She’s in her own head a lot. But beyond that, a book I had in mind when I began working on this is The Great Gatsby.

I sometimes tend to forget that it’s written in the first person, from the perspective of Nick Carraway, this seemingly level-headed and clear-eyed narrator, immersed in this glamorous, dreamy, deceptive world. He’s not an innocent but he’s not entirely of the world he’s describing.

I initially wanted to do that with Viv. To have her be our relatively reliable guide to the world of Lee and her family. But Viv is not the most reliable narrator and the book became more about Viv and Lee’s friendship.

And about halfway through, I wanted to hear from Lee. What is it actually like for her? Part of choosing close third person for her narration was simply to differentiate it from Viv’s first person.

But Lee is more opaque. I liked having a little distance with her. She doesn’t use language like Viv does. Viv needs language to understand what she’s feeling, to work it out through words.

Life is a little less mediated for Lee, in that way. She’s not thoughtless, (if anything, she’s more thoughtful than Viv), but she doesn’t overthink the way Viv does.

Q: How was the novel’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: Having the sun in your eyes – as a sensation it hurts but there’s also something pleasing about it. It’s warm, golden, dazzling. You can’t see straight. You’re blinded. You could look away if you chose to, but maybe you don’t. It’s about knowing better, and still…

Within the book, it’s a lyric in a Jesse Parrish song, the one he writes for his daughter. For me, as an image, it conjures old photographs -- those square, matte snapshots my parents have from the ‘70s, perhaps one with a kind of hazy sun glare.

And the book’s epigraph is “Remember it happy; the sun in your eyes.” It’s the last line of Nicholas Mosley’s 1965 novel Accident. I love how he employed the phrase.

It’s hard for me to describe Accident. Formally, it’s something of an experimental novel; it’s a philosophical meditation but it’s also literally about covering up a car crash and it deals with infidelity (so there are echoes to events in my book). 

It’s a novel that interrogates identity and memory and does so beautifully. How we make our memories into what we need them to be. The closing line struck me as incredibly melancholy, ironic, paradoxical – a tone I hoped to achieve.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on another novel but I haven’t yet reached the point where I can really talk about it in any coherent way.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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