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Author Interview: Brett Shapiro

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Diane Lunsford is talking with Brett Shapiro, author of Late in the Day.

FQ: Thank you for the opportunity to discuss Late in the Day with you. I found this to be a captivating read. You captured the essence of all three characters beautifully and I wonder of Honey, Hank, and Seth, who would you relate to most and why?

SHAPIRO: I’m so pleased that you felt I’d made my three characters come to life, especially since all three of them are fictional characters. In order to let them unfold in all of their complexity, I had to be able to “relate” to all of them, to fit myself in their skin as much as possible. Seth was the easiest fit for me, particularly because of two essentials: he is male and he is not religious. Hank and Honey were more challenging, since their essences were more foreign to me. But they needed to be rendered as fully as Seth if the story was to work, so I had to figure out how to relate to them even more; otherwise I risked manipulating them to arrive at my desired end rather than letting them lead the way.

FQ: Your bio portrays some amazing places you have lived. Twenty-five years in Italy is a lifetime in and of itself. While I have not read your memoir L’Intruso, I’m curious why you selected this title?

Author Brett Shapiro

SHAPIRO: The word l’intruso can mean either “the intruder” or “the intrusion” in English. I had “the intrusion” in mind. The memoir is about a chunk of my life during the AIDS crisis of the late Eighties/early Nineties. My partner (an Italian living in the States) and I were living in New York at the time with our two children—two boys, ages two and nine. My partner was HIV-positive and when the symptoms were taking over—or should I say taking away—his life, he wanted to move back to Rome to be close to his family. We uprooted ourselves as a family unit, complete with our cats, and moved to Rome. I had few if any resources to help me cope with this new life and language, not to mention my partner’s rapidly deteriorating condition that consumed him every minute of the day. Naturally, I felt that AIDS was intruding upon our life; but often I felt that it was me who was intruding upon my partner’s relationship with AIDS. The intimacy of these three relationships was the foundation of the book, but there were other equally important dynamics: family (including of the non-traditional kind); Judaism; parenting; love; and, of course, death. I can’t tell you how surprised I was when the book became a top-ten bestseller in Italy, and went on to become an award-winning film and theatrical production. The fact that the universal themes could prevail, even with a foundation as provocative as AIDS, and be appreciated by such a large and varied readership was enormously gratifying. My only regret was that the book was never published in English.

FQ: Tell us a bit about your experience as a "...veteran writer for the United Nations..." Is there a particular piece that stands out for you and why?

SHAPIRO: I have been writing and editing reports and books for the United Nations for more than thirty years. Almost all of my work revolves around some aspect of rural poverty in developing countries—women’s empowerment; child labor; climate change; access to health care, markets, credit and education; farming systems; and the list goes on and on. There are countless projects that I worked on that stand out, but one in particular was most meaningful and eye-opening for me. Without going into too much detail, I was asked to travel to a series of remote villages in several African countries in order to meet with the women in the villages and gain an understanding of what they perceived to be the factors in their life that were preventing them from rising out of poverty. It was an extremely arduous project that unfolded over a period of two years. It was also a project that needed to be carried out. So often, development agencies intervene by imposing their solutions on different societies and cultures. The United Nations is no exception. But in this case, the tables were turned. As a representative of the U.N., my job was to sit under a tree (or in a field of maize) for hours with up to 40 women at a time in order to listen to them and to learn from them. It was an extraordinary experience, and I only hope that the documents I produced as a result of the project made a difference in the lives of those women—and the many other women who live in conditions of extreme poverty and marginalization.

FQ: It’s clear the beach is the anchor setting in Late in the Day. In many respects, it was the healing draw for all three characters and, without too much of a spoiler, the destiny for the outcome that bonds the three together. What spiritual fulfillment do you get from the beach?

SHAPIRO: A sunrise beach walk for me is the equivalent to morning prayer or meditation. I go out each morning before sunrise (except on the rare morning when it’s raining hard) and spend at least an hour at the beach, where the only sound I hear is from the waves, and the only visual is a vast expanse of sand, sea and sky. I do greet passersby from time to time, but I try to keep to myself without seeming rude. It’s my period of catching up with my quieter self in order to prepare myself for what is usually a not-so-quiet day. It’s an extremely humbling experience, and I’m a firm believer in humility.

FQ: In line with my previous question, I spent several years living along the Gold Coast of Florida and have fond memories of riding my bike to the beach in time to catch the sunrise. If you had to choose, what would be one of your top five beaches to visit in Florida and why that one?

SHAPIRO: I’ll admit that I’ve not visited much of the state since I moved here almost ten years ago. I feel content in the microcosm I’ve created here. When I do feel the need to break away from my daily life, I tend to set my sights further than Florida. I’m extremely fortunate to have a very quiet and off-the-beaten-track beach as my front yard. There are few people at any hour, the beach is wide, and it’s not lined with high-rise condominiums and hotels. I’d list my very own beach as one of my top five, if not first on my list. At least in Florida.

FQ: The dynamics among the three characters was interesting. On one hand you had Seth (who is gay), Hank, a widower and struggling with the loss of his wife, and Honey who is trying to work out when and how her marriage became so complacent. There is a sublime nuance particularly between Seth and Hank in that on one hand Hank seems to be uncomfortable with Seth’s homosexuality, but it works given one of Hank’s sons is gay. How difficult was it to weave the storyline with this premise given the "climate" we live in today?

SHAPIRO: I never really thought of the storyline as being difficult in terms of today’s climate – probably because I never considered today’s “climate” when I was writing the story. Although many LGBTQ issues are on the front burner in the news, they are on the front burner because the LGBTQ community has made such significant strides over the past few decades. I find that there is the “political” position and there is the “personal” position, and I usually have more faith in personal positions. They are more heartfelt and flexible. My book is in no way political, so there was no difficulty for me along political lines, since it was not a dimension that I considered. The challenge was to create a storyline that was credible and unifying, given the different experiences and temperaments of the three main characters. But that was the whole motive for writing the novel in the first place.

FQ: In line with my previous question, were there times when you hit a wall and had to set your pen down? How did you overcome the drag and restart your writing engine?

SHAPIRO: Of course there were times when I hit a wall. But there were never times when I set my pen down. I have a very rigid writing schedule. I sit at my desk at the same time each day for two hours to write. Sometimes I manage to write a few pages; other times I write only one sentence, and a bad one at that. But during those two hours, the pen does not get set down. That is my time to work seriously, regardless of what ends up on the page when the session is over. If I don’t commit at least one word to paper, I have nothing to react to when I face the page the following day. Nothing to propel me forward. Don’t get me wrong. I do have bad writing days, but the easiest way for me to keep moving is to root around in the draft and find a few sentences that I love, the kind of sentence that makes me think, “Did I really write that? Where did that come from?” A small push like that is all it takes for me.

FQ: Is there a place in your life when you came upon an abandoned house and your initial reaction was: "...this is great would it be if I could breathe new life into it..." Was this something that happened in your life? I ask because the descriptions of the beach house in Late in the Day are quite vivid and credible.

SHAPIRO: When I was living in Italy, I traveled to Lesbos frequently. A dear friend of mine was originally from the island and spent her summers there in what was know as the “aristocratic” house of her small village. I became enchanted with the place, and she helped me find an abandoned house on a small plot of land. Actually the house was not a house. It was once a stone stall for small livestock. I worked with an architect to design a simple but beautiful home. The project was approved by the municipality. My plan was to spend a good deal of time there, but then I moved back to the States and my life took a different direction entirely. I still own the plot of land and the rubble. I’ll leave it to my son in case he wants to breathe life into it one day.

FQ: I enjoyed how you portrayed each character maintaining ‘hope.’ What is your ‘go to’ when you feel as though nothing seems to be "going my way”?

SHAPIRO: This may be hard to believe, but I don’t recall ever feeling as though nothing seems to be going my way. My days are extremely full and varied, and if one thing isn’t going particularly well, there’s always one other thing that is moving along swimmingly. That said, when my overall mood seems to be veering downward, a quiet walk at the beach or a soulful conversation with the right friend usually does the trick.

FQ: What energizes you most when you pick up your pen? Do you enjoy the dialogue exchanges, or the scene set up? What comes more naturally to you and why?

SHAPIRO: When it’s time for me to go to my desk to write, my overall feeling is that I can’t wait to spend time with my characters, to see what they’re up to. It’s like I’m about to knock at the door to pay a visit to a few good friends, but instead of holding a bottle of wine, I hold a #2 lead pencil (with a full eraser on its tip). Nothing comes naturally to me when it comes to writing. All of it—scene-setting, dialogue, character development, narrative, point of view—is excruciating work. But the flip side is the satisfaction when you’ve nailed something just right.

FQ: In line with my previous question, do you dream about your characters? Do you miss them when the story ends?

SHAPIRO: I think about my characters a lot during the day. They are kind enough to leave me alone when I sleep at night, bless their souls. But I do miss them terribly when the story ends. That’s why it’s so important for me to have another solid story idea in mind before I finish the story I’m working on. I don’t how I could cope with a day when I didn’t have one or more characters to think about.

FQ: Thank you again for your time and the treat of reading Late in the Day. Clearly you have a gift and I’m hoping you’re working on your next book. If so, could you share a glimpse into the work?

SHAPIRO: I am one chapter away from finishing a solid first draft of another novel, provisionally called Henry’s Version. It’s a shorter work, about 200 pages, and it’s my first novel written in 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 percent invention (at least I think so). I’m not ready to disclose what the novel is about, but I will say that I believe it’s my best work to date. And my cohort of trustworthy beta readers feels the same way. I’m very excited about it and hope to have it finalized and ready for publication in about a year. But who knows? Maybe one of the characters will surprise me with an unexpected path and it will take longer. In any event, I’m having a great time with it!

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