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Family History: A Novelby Dani Shapiro
Author Q & A
A Conversation with DANI SHAPIRO
Q: Your last book was a memoir. Was it difficult to go back to fiction with
A: Let’s just say I was glad the memoir was my fourth book, not my first. I spent several years writing non-fiction and delving deeply into my own history and family material–both in Slow Motion and a long piece I did for the New Yorker called “The Secret Wife”–which exposed me more publicly and intensely than I could have imagined. In order to write very personal non-fiction, one has to convince oneself that no one will ever read it. It’s sort of a trick–one tricks oneself. It’s very different to work from memory than from imagination. By the time I got back to fiction, I had forgotten how to do it–even though I had a vague notion that it could be done. Which was a good thing, I think, because writers always need to forget and remember, to learn and re-learn in order to get better.
I also had my first child about a year after Slow Motion was published and was finding my way back into fiction, I felt an enormous pressure not to waste time–not to fritter away those precious hours away from my baby. Whenever I sat down at my desk, I felt that I had to make every moment count, and I had to make the book that came out of those many hours away from my baby count. I needed to write about the deepest fears I had as a parent. What would happen if I couldn’t protect my child? What would happen if the happy family I had finally created for myself was somehow threatened or shattered? If fiction comes from obsession, as it certainly does for me, then my obsessions had changed–I had changed–and my fiction had to change along with me.
And then, when my son was six months old, he was diagnosed with a rare and deadly illness. I am someone who worries and imagines the worst, even in the best of circumstances. And now, the worst was upon me. Forget about writing. The whole idea of sitting around making up stories seemed beyond frivolous.
Q: How do you write in the face of real life tragedy?
A: How do you do anything in the face of real life tragedy? In the months that my son was desperately ill, I longed for an office job–that is, when I wasn’t wishing I could go back to school and fulfill my pre-med requirements. Instead of writing, I’d stare out the window and calculate how old I would be before I could become a doctor. Eventually, I realized that I would just be too old (not to mention having no brain for science). For close to a year, I wrote nothing. But then, finally, miraculously, my son beat the odds and got better. So when I was able to think about fiction again, there was only one thing that felt important enough to write about. I wrote a novel about a family that gets hit with a terrible thing, like a meteor falling from the sky. There is no rhyme or reason to why this family, why this meteor, but they are left quaking in the damage of its wake. It was a sad story to immerse myself in, a terrifying story, a domestic story–ultimately, the story of a mother’s loss of innocence.
Q: Family History deals with the crises of two different children in the same family. Was this family in any way based on your own?
A: Yes and no. The part of the book that relates to a mother’s fears about her infant son was very, very close to me. As an infant, my son had been dropped down the stairs of our Brooklyn brownstone by his babysitter and had to be rushed to the hospital. Two weeks later (in unrelated circumstances) he got sick. My entire understanding of the world, my place in it, and what mattered, all shifted completely in those few weeks–I doubt it will ever shift back. And even though my son was on the road to recovery by the time I started Family History, my every waking minute was filled with concern for him and that permeated the book.
Kate, the 13-year-old daughter in the Jensen family, came from another place entirely. I
imagined her largely out of who I had been as a teenager, and now, as a mother, exploring my worst fear: what if my precious, perfect child woke up one day and was a stranger? I wanted to write about the tenuous psychological state of adolescence and what happens when the grip a young girl has on her life unravels. Her parents have the best of intentions, but they make choices, and those choices have consequences. At one point in the novel, Rachel Jensen says “everything we do matters. Every single blessed thing.”
Q: Speaking of choices, you and your husband and son moved out of New York City to rural Connecticut shortly after September 11.
A: Our friends were shocked that we left. In the weeks after September 11, we put our brownstone in Brooklyn on the market, and bought a house on ten acres in a town we had never heard of. We were a very unlikely couple to leave New York–my husband is a former war correspondent and he doesn’t scare easily. But I think the accumulation of anxiety and trauma, along with the very real sense of having dodged a bullet with our son, made us long for a more peaceful life.
Q: Husbands and wives–even in good marriages–don’t always see things the same way, or even want the same things. In Family History, Rachel and Ned Jensen seem like such a great couple, and yet their marriage reaches a breaking point. Why did you write about this?
A: I really wanted to write about the strains within a “good” marriage. I suppose it came out of where much of my work originates. These “what if” type questions. What would it take to unravel something so solid? What if the worst happened? What would be unimaginable? And then I try to imagine it.
Q: Well, you certainly imagined the mother-in-law from hell.
A: Ah, Phyllis. She came to me fully-formed. It was important that Rachel have a context–that being a good mother was even more loaded for her than it might be for another woman. And in Rachel’s case, being the daughter of an extremely difficult–well, impossible–mother made her own response, when her daughter Kate becomes unwell, even more complicated.
Q: And then another layer of Family History explores sibling rivalry.
A: Well, I’m an only child myself, so in part I was interested in exploring what happens when a child raised as an only child for thirteen years is suddenly confronted with a new sibling. In Kate’s case, it’s a longed-for thing, to have a sibling, and yet she becomes intensely jealous of the new baby, spurred on, in large part, by terrible fears she has in the hospital while her mother is giving birth. She feels that the baby is literally stealing her mother from her–and, in fact, almost causes her mother’s death.
And not to over-analyze this, but I was also interested in exploring–in a personal way–the idea of hubris. You have a child; in my case, a child who has survived a trauma. And then you have the chutzpah to go ahead and try for another one? When is enough enough?
Q: Could you talk a little about why you chose the title Family History?
A: It has several different meanings beyond the obvious. In the book, there is a scene in an adolescent psychiatrist’s office in Boston, where Rachel and Ned have gone to discuss Kate, and whether Kate belongs in therapy. The psychiatrist–a humorless fellow–takes what is called a “family history” of each of them. Ned recounts his family’s rather bland psychiatric history (waspy parents who drink too much, but that’s about it) and when it’s Rachel’s turn, she talks about the depression on her side of the family, and her own mother’s very troublesome psychological state–and in recounting her own family history she begins to melt down, because she suddenly feels at fault. As if there is a rogue gene, an invisible code that has been passed down from generation to generation, and has landed squarely on her daughter’s shoulders. She blames herself. One of the main themes I wanted to explore in the novel is the way, when something goes wrong with a child, parents tend to blame themselves no
Q: In the end, Family History really is a meditation on maternal love, isn’t it?
A: Absolutely. And along with maternal love goes maternal guilt, maternal self-doubt,
maternal blame…and the feeling that your heart is living, existing independently, outside of your body in this little being who–ultimately–you cannot completely protect from harm. No one tells you this when you have a child. No one can–you’d never believe it.
Q: Since finishing this novel, what are you working on now? Another novel about a mother caught in a family tragedy?
A: Oh, God no. I’m writing a dark comedy set in an upper east side hair salon. After
Family History, I needed to laugh a little.
From the Hardcover edition.
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