Author Dani Shapiro discusses her latest memoir, a searing look at life, love — and marriage.
The life of memoirist and novelist Dani Shapiro is pretty much an open book. Exploring her responses to events both profound and mundane, Shapiro has written the best-selling memoirs Still Writing, Devotion and Slow Motion, and only last month ended her blog of 11 years.
But her husband, screenwriter, director and former Africa correspondent Michael Maron, got Shapiro thinking about a different perspective when he came across the journal she kept on their honeymoon, 18 years ago.
The result is her most recent memoir, Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage (Knopf; 2017), an intimate, piercing and life-affirming story about marriage and memories. Drawing upon observations from her happy marriage and jumping around from past to present, the book invites readers to confront with her both the life she dreamed of and the life she made, reconciling the girl she was and the woman she’s become.
In Hourglass, Shapiro asks: “How do memory and time shape your intimate relationships?” To help answer, she intertwines her musings with excerpts from the journal as well as quotes from authors, including Adrienne Rich, Wendell Berry and Nietzsche.
“A searing, pared-down narrative,” wrote a reviewer for Vogue. “Shapiro’s retelling of her marriage is both distinctive and painfully relatable.”
Shapiro, who has appeared at the Detroit Jewish Book Fair, will discuss Hourglass, recently released in paperback, Monday, May 21, at the Metro Detroit Book and Author Society’s 92nd Author Luncheon in Livonia.
Based in rural Litchfield County, Conn., Shapiro also has five novels to her credit, including Black & White and Family History. She’s been published in the New Yorker, New York Times and Los Angeles Times and appeared on Oprah’s SuperSoul Sunday program and NPR’s This American Life.
While Shapiro enjoys public speaking, “writing books is my strongest form of communication. My books are about questions.”
Shapiro, 55, was born to Orthodox Jewish parents, Irene and Paul, in New York City.
“The way I was raised, it was all or nothing — ‘us versus them,’” Shapiro said.
Growing into a feminist, Shapiro found it “confusing” that an Orthodox woman couldn’t read from the Torah. She eventually concluded “there was no place for me in denominational religion” because she couldn’t relate to her parents’ parochial view of the world.
Educated at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, N.Y., Shapiro wrote three novels before receiving her first real recognition as a writer for Slow Motion.
In an Elle magazine article, she describes the memoir as “a coming-of-age story about my Orthodox Jewish upbringing and ensuing rebellion.” The terrible car accident that killed her father and badly injured her mother when Shapiro was 23 was “life-altering and forced me to grow up,” she said. The tragedy spurred her to making some positive changes.
Shapiro’s life changed most, she said, from writing Devotion.
The impetus was her son, Jacob Maron, now 19, asking Shapiro questions about God as the time approached to prepare for his bar mitzvah. Despite her “complicated relationship to organized worship,” Shapiro decided to find an authentic Jewish setting for Jacob’s milestone.
When no synagogue within 50 miles of Litchfield felt right for their family, Shapiro put out a call to a rabbi for someone to come once a month to teach kids in her home.
The result was the Mishpocha Group, comprised of families with children she recruited.
Jacob’s bar mitzvah was “the happiest day of my life,” Shapiro said. He wore his father’s tallit and grandfather’s tallit clip. Female rabbis officiated.
“I played piano, and my son played ukulele. It was a combination of traditional and eclectic and inclusive and modern,” she said. “It felt like a full circle to me of what could be possible. And it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t written Devotion. I realized that you didn’t have to be all or nothing.
“I am definitely more of a spiritually connected person today.”
Shapiro worried initially that her topic wouldn’t be relatable. Then notes began arriving from people from all walks of life, ages and religions.
“They said: ‘You’ve told my story.’ I realized that when we tell the truth of ourselves, we’re more alike than different. I’m just like you; you’re just like me,” she said.
The busy Shapiro, “always working on my next project,” speaks at bookstores and conferences. She’s taught writing at the New School in Manhattan and universities, including Columbia, NYU and Wesleyan.
Shapiro leads a large writing retreat in the Berkshires of Massachusetts twice a year for beginning and seasoned writers, an opportunity to attend “an intimate workshop, limited to between six and eight women,” in Salisbury, Conn.
Shapiro and Maron also co-founded the Sirenland Conference for writers, held in the seaside village of Positano, Italy. No more than 30 students are accepted — with guests, the group swells to 50-60. Participants have included Andre Aciman, whose novel about a visiting writer in Italy, Call Me by Your Name, became an Oscar-nominated film last year.
“Twelve years ago, we met the owners of the hotel at a dinner party in Connecticut, and they invited us to bring other writers to Italy,” Shapiro recalled. Taking along their son, “we realized we were good at creating a community.”
Dani Shapiro will speak at the Metro Detroit Book and Author Society’s 92nd Author Luncheon 11 a.m. Monday, May 21, at Burton Manor Conference and Banquet Center in Livonia. Sharing the stage will be emcee/event organizer Alan Fisk and novelist Jessica Knoll (The Favorite Sister) and nonfiction writers Michael Hodges (Albert Kahn in Detroit) and Tiya Miles (The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits). $40. (586) 685-5750; bookandauthor.info.