Deborah Shapiro is the author of the new novel The Summer Demands. She also has written the novel The Sun in Your Eyes, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times Book Review and Los Angeles Review of Books. She lives in Chicago.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Summer Demands, and for your character Emily?
A: There were a number of ideas and themes I was thinking about that coalesced into the character of Emily and her story.
I was interested in having a character who is in a moment of transition. And turning 40, whether you want it to be or not, is a turning point. It’s not immediate, but it signals a shift, I think, in the way you conceive of time and yourself in time. At least, entering my 40s has been that way for me.
I was interested in occupying that psychological space and particular consciousness – and dramatizing it through Emily’s encounter with Stella – this younger, magnetic woman.
What ties into that age and complicates it, for women, is the disappearing window in which it’s possible to have a biological child. There are all kinds of ways to become and to be a parent, of course, but the biological component starts to play out in ways that can’t easily be discounted for many women around that age.
And part of what I wanted to do was write about motherhood and identity from a somewhat slanted perspective: what do you do with those feelings if you don’t have a child?
But, at the same time, while Emily deals with a loss of possibility and potential, she also encounters the unexpected, the surprises (good ones!) that life has in store.
Q: Why did you choose to set the novel at an abandoned camp in Massachusetts, and how important is setting to you in your writing?
A: The setting, in this novel, was really important to me. I can’t pinpoint exactly when or why I landed on an abandoned camp, but it’s evocative for me.
I wanted a place that had some mystery to it and also a place that was somewhat isolated – where a kind of hermetic environment could take root, allowing for certain situations and connections that wouldn’t occur otherwise. But the camp itself is located about an hour outside of a city, Boston, so it’s not completely removed from the larger world.
It’s also a place that offers Emily a window into her past, connecting it to her present, and letting memory become an almost active force.
I also really wanted to conjure the dreamy atmosphere of summer. For me, it’s a season that feels both out of time and slow but also one where you’re so aware of its passing, that anxious anticipation that it’s going to end before you want it to.
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: I didn’t really know where it would end up from the outset. I don’t create a detailed outline and write to it (though it might be helpful if I did). I wrote this book fairly quickly, at least compared to the time it took for me to write my first novel. But once I had the ending, that was it. It didn’t really change. Getting to that end point, though, required some revisions, of course. Some detours.
Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: I originally called this novel Alder, the name of the abandoned camp where so much of it takes place. I liked it on the page but when I started to say it out loud to people it would elicit something like “What? Older?” So my editor and I worked to find something else that would capture the book.
“The summer demands” is a phrase from John Ashbery’s poem “As One Put Drunk Into the Packet-Boat” – a couple of lines serve as the novel’s epigraph. For me, it evokes many things but in particular it speaks to this specific period in the narrator’s life, what this time gives her and what it requires of her.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: What I hope turns into another novel! But it’s too soon to say much else about it.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Deborah Shapiro.