INTERVIEW: Janice Shapiro

Janice Shapiro actually wanted to be a director. She went to UCLA, where she studied film and quickly demonstrated a talent for storytelling. Many of the short films she directed found their ways into film festivals around the world, and she won an AFI Filmmakers Grant. Then, in her senior year, she won the Samuel Goldwyn Screenwriting Competition, a huge award that diverted her course away from directing and toward writing, opening another storytelling avenue to explore. She found that her knack for storytelling transferred to writing scripts, and wrote them for numerous studios and independent filmmakers, including co-writing with her husband Adam Dubov the cult film “Dead Beat.”

Over time, however, Shapiro found herself becoming frustrated with the screenwriting process. She had problems with the notion of writing by committee. “When there is a room full of people adding and subtracting elements to what you want to believe are your characters, your stories, the end result often doesn’t resemble your original concept. I began to feel that I was losing my creativity,” she said.

To maintain control over her own ideas and to keep a strong grasp on her individual creativity, Shapiro would go home and write little stories, stories over which she exercised complete and total control over the characters and what happens to them. This effort to save or maintain her own creativity has mushroomed into a collection of short stories, titled Bummer, newly released by Soft Skull Press. Written during the course of 20 years, the 11 stories in Bummer each focus on rebellious young women, catching them just as they reach a point of self knowledge and self-determination, just as they begin to understand their own power as women and as individuals, just as they begin to make better sense of the world.

During a recent interview, Shapiro discussed Bummer and her other projects, including a cartoon comic drawings that will be part of a graphic novel and a novel, with writer Rosalia Scalia.

Rosalia Scalia: All the stories in Bummer are first person. Is this an aftereffect of having studied film?

Janice Shapiro: No not at all. In fact, it’s the opposite effect. In film, scripts have to be written completely in the third person. I like the first person point of view because it is a way to access a different voice, a more interior point of view. I’m an instinctual writer and start by thinking of an image or a situation. I often hear the first line of a story in my head. Those first lines are usually in the first person. I tend to trust my initial instinct and go from there.

RS: How hard was it to make the transition from film to prose? Some writers who make the transition say that dialogue comes easy to them but narration is a challenge.

JS: Well, script writing is writing by committee. I came to writing prose by going home and writing my own mini movies, little films where I had complete and total control over everything and no one else was going to be around to change anything. Meanwhile, I was really excited by the short stories that were appearing in the New Yorker. In fact, I’m reading that new collection of Anne Beattie’s, The New Yorker Stories. It has been such a thrill to revisit those stories. I’m just as blown away by them now as I was then. It really was an incredibly inspiring time for short story writers.

RS: When you say, “little films” I can totally see that. All the stories are highly visual and fast paced. What elements of filmmaking do you think influence your prose?

JS: In film and when you’re working on a script, you have to have economy, you have be able to move the character, the scene, and action forward succinctly and on many levels at the same time. They aren’t called motion pictures for nothing. Things have to keep moving, so that does affect one’s sense of storytelling. I admire those writers who can create those beautiful moments that stay in one place, but it’s almost instinctual in me to keep that story moving.

RS: In Bummer, what is your favorite story and why?

JS: It would have to be the first one, the title story of the collection where Alison goes to Las Vegas with her boyfriend to get married and of course, it doesn’t happen. In that story, she’s competing with her sister, who seems to have everything. Alison seems to think she has nothing. She sees herself as a loser, but she’s actually found a way to be proud of this. She certainly has a lot of spunk

RS: She sure does have adventures. She ends up sleeping with a stranger, a Latino man, and then worries about her health after the fact.

JS: Well, she’s a rebellious girl. She doesn’t want anyone telling her what to do. She stubborn and independent and she feels this is admirable, even with all her mistakes. In the end, you get the sense that she’s going to be okay.

RS: Well, in the end, when her boyfriend rejects marriage again, she realizes that he is doing her a favor. She’s filled with an overflowing love for him because she knows he’s going to say NO to the marriage and she knows it is the right thing for her and the baby NOT to be married to him. On the surface, however, it appears that Sean thinks he is the one rejecting her, whereas she is allowing him to think this. The same thing happens at the end of Ennui.

JS: Yes, Harry Gifford [Shannon’s married professor with whom she’s been having an affair] wants her to kiss him and she doesn’t want to.

RS: All of the stories are deeply funny in many ways. I’m assuming this is deliberate.

JS: Yes. People who know me very well know that I can be a closet comedian, viewing the world in an absurd and ironic way, and it does influence my storytelling.

RS: Your characters find themselves in lots of funny or unusual situations. In “In Its Place,” the narrator character begins entering her son’s best friend’s home when they’re at work. What inspired that story? Do you ever get stuck about what’s going to happen next?

JS: I wrote “In Its Place,” when we were living in Reston, Virginia. We lived there for two years and it was the only time in my adult life that I’ve ever lived in a suburb. I learned that I am not a suburban person. I felt really alienated there, always on the outside, watching the people around me but did not feel a part of them. I think the breaking into the neighbor’s house was a metaphor for my psychological state at the time.

RS: Do you ever get stuck, as in what your character does next?

JS: Like every other writer I do get stuck. But when that happens I accept it as being the end of what I have to say about that particular moment and situation and try to make a big leap and start telling the story from another point in time, either an incident that takes place before or after. By jumping, I hope to find my way back into the story and it often works and actually leads me in surprising directions.

RS: Can we talk about your cartoons?

JS: I love comics and graphic novels and always have. Because of the film background, and because I always wanted to be a director, I’m highly comfortable telling stories using words and pictures. My original plan was to write the words and work with an artist to do the drawings but when we moved to the east coast, I started doing the drawings myself. I”m in the middle of a graphic memoir called, Crushable—My Life In Crushes From Ricky Nelson to Viggo Mortensen.

RS: The idea is genius. Every woman can relate to having crushes on celebrities while growing up.

JS: (Laughs). Yeah. It’s my life in crushes.

RS: What is your work process like?

JS: I’m not a morning person. I have to waste my mornings—I use mornings to run errands, work out, swim. I literally don’t sit down to work until after lunch and then once I start, I work for about 4 or 5 hours. I’m happiest when I’m working. I love to write.

RS: What else are you working on?

JS: I have lots of projects in the works. There are actually two graphic novels and a novel and a second collection of short stories. I’m obsessed with food, so I’m also compiling a collection of food essays called, Eat Like Me. I’m going to start posting the food essays on my website: janiceshapiro.com

RS: Can you speak about your novel?

JS: It’s another story in the p.o.v of a young woman, a belated coming of age story during which the young woman comes of age in her 30s.

RS: What advice would you give to new writers?

JS: If you truly believe this is what you want to do, if you love it, you should definitely do it. There’s no reason not to. But always remember you aren’t writing for yourself. You’re writing for an audience. I know this is ridiculously obvious, but it’s easy to forget when you’re always sitting by yourself staring at your own words. Oh! That’s another thing. If you want to be a writer, you have to like spending time alone, because you are going to do A LOT of it.

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