EVEN IF YOU DON’T subscribe to The Chronicle of Higher Education, you may be aware that colleges and universities all over the country are putting in place guidelines regarding teacher-student love affairs. Perhaps we can understand why from the opening scene of Susan Shapiro’s witty and riveting novel What’s Never Said (Heliotrope Books). At a book event, Lila Penn greets the professor, a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet, with whom she had a life-changing affair 30 years ago. When he doesn’t recognize her, she bolts, mortified that she never got over a man who doesn’t even remember who she is.
Shapiro, herself a writing professor and bestselling author of 10 books, explores the heartbreaking and unexpected complexities of a mentor-protégé romance in a saga that sweeps through decades, countries, and points of view. If What’s Never Said seems to have an appealing authenticity to it, it may be because the story was inspired by her own May-December relationship in the 1980s. She is now married to a TV/film writer who’s also a professor at New York University. We spoke in her apartment, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.
HAIG CHAHINIAN: Why did you decide to set this novel in the world of poetry?
SUSAN SHAPIRO: I don’t get it when someone announces, “I am a playwright,” “I’m a novelist” or a “journalist.” I’ve always combined genres. I couldn’t make a living doing only one kind of writing.
I am a failed poet. A tough-love mentor of mine read my poems and said, “You have too many words, not enough music.” He was a New York Times Magazine editor who told me I’d never be good enough to write for him. I remember showing up to a party he gave with his gang of poet friends when I’d just published my debut memoir Five Men Who Broke My Heart (Random House, January, 2004). I feared he’d think I totally sold out with this sex, drugs, and marriage book. I walked in and there was this huge round of applause. He’d told everybody I got a big advance. Even with really good poetry you only get like $1,000 on signing. When he read the book, he said, “There’s more poetry in your prose than there was in your poems.” Then he started buying my work for the Times Magazine. A humor piece they ran — about how I quit smoking and drinking — turned into my next book, Lighting Up (Random House, December, 2004). I always tell my students that in publishing, “No never means no.” It means keep revising, make it better, try again, or find a nicer editor.
“Failed poet” doesn’t ring true. You’re still writing, poetically.
Thank you. But it is true, and feels important to share. For an artistic career, it’s good to embrace failure and reinvent yourself. My love of poetry helped me become a successful journalist and editor. I care more about how a sentence sounds and what it conveys, less about the rules of grammar and punctuation, especially for dialogue. I remember a review of my first novel Speed Shrinking (St. Martins, 2010) said I had “a clean, easy-to-digest style and dialogue that reads like a spiritual cousin to Aaron Sorkin’s walk-and-talks.” I was flattered and used that as a pull quote. I mull over every comma, every exclamation point. An extra semicolon really bothers me. I count syllables, hate clichés and repetitions. An editor told me: “Only use a word once in an entire piece.” For a book, it’s once in a chapter. I remember my writing group helped me figure out which “fuck” we could keep in for each chapter of Five Men.
Why do you tell your students to mine their failures?
Failure can be captivating as a subject, and I think there are interesting ways to fail. After a 34-year career, I’ve learned to embrace it. Once, after my writing workshop, a critic came up to me and said, “I can’t believe how bad your piece was today.” I laughed and told him, “You didn’t bring in any work this time, and you have zero books out. I have 10 acclaimed books published. Maybe there’s a correlation.” The secret to being prolific is that I’m not afraid to suck. My first drafts don’t have to be good, they just have to be on the page. That’s my job, every day. I give my students one writing assignment a week, on deadline. When I once complained of writer’s block, a bestselling mentor, the late Howard Fast (author of Spartacus), told me, “Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block. Don’t be self-indulgent, just get to work. A page a day is a book a year.” It’s actually a book and a half. I quote him all the time. In fact, I wrote a whole chapter about him in Only as Good as Your Word (Seal Press, 2007).
In What’s Never Said, after Daniel gives his feedback on her pages, Lila blurts out she’s falling in love with him. He laughs and says, “Everybody thinks they’re in love with the person who fixes their work.” You edit your students’ writing. Have any professed crushes on you?
People have blurted out “I love you,” “I need you.” Or “You’re the most fascinating person I’ve ever met.” I get it, it’s thrilling when somebody helps you get your first clip or helps you publish a book. A lot of writers feel misunderstood and frustrated. So when you meet somebody who not only understands you but can dive into your words and help your writing, it can be powerful. I’ve had tons of people, male and female and in between, who’ve expressed intense emotions.
When I was single and teaching a private class, I was asked out but never went. In my 20s, being the leader of a free well-known writing workshop was alluring, but also problematic. A few times I’d meet a cool artistic guy and he’d say, “I want to go out with you and come to your writing group.” I’d say, “Pick one.” Too bad it seemed like they always made the wrong decision.
I rooted for Lila and Daniel to get together in the party scene. But she hadn’t yet reached drinking age, and he was an upstanding faculty member. Shouldn’t Daniel have known better?
My story points out the complexity of the issue because Daniel did nothing wrong moralistically. He differed from his colleague who’d screw every co-ed in sight. Daniel never touched a student. It wasn’t until after Lila finished the program that he officially asked her out. The story is fictionalized, but that part is true.
Daniel might be a professor, and a Pulitzer-winning poet, but he’s also a guy. He’s 40, lonely, and there’s this young woman who loves him, she’s talented, and he’s needy. He tries to navigate the situation, never harassing her or acting abusive. Yet the age difference and power imbalance makes it hard to have an equal relationship. When you’re young and look up to someone in a position of authority, you imbue them with superpowers. It’s the whole feet of clay thing with an idol. A shrink I saw said, “If you idolize someone and build them up unrealistically, they can’t help but fall.”
In the opening scene Lila quips, “Graduate writing programs are notorious hotbeds.” Are they?
I try to make it clear this was a very small MFA program in New York City. It was a certain kind of confessional poetry. The Los Angeles literary scene is different. So is the one in Santa Fe, and Portland. Lena Dunham did that funny send-up of Iowa’s program on her show. Mine was a little world in Greenwich Village. One school, and one department in the 1980s. I wasn’t trying to make an overall statement about poetry in general, or all graduate programs. Although I will say as a writer for 34 years, who dated a lot of writers, I wrote certain in-jokes that still stand.
Which poets have influenced you?
Bob Dylan said when he first heard Elvis Presley, it was like breaking out of jail. That’s how it was for me with the confessionals, starting with Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Ted Hughes, Robert Lowell, Lucille Clifton, Louise Glück. I’m from conservative Jewish suburbia where if you say anything bad about yourself or your family, the Cossacks will come get you. I was lucky to go to an artsy school for weirdos at 13 and my English teacher turned me on to the confessional poets. I started walking around my house reciting lines I liked: “Dying is an art. I do it exceptionally well,” and “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” I didn’t know you were allowed to write like that. It was liberating. Poetry made my brain catch fire.
I was enthralled with Lila’s Armenian classmate, Sari, whose parents were from the remote region of Armavir. Her writing about her ethnic roots was stirring. The interactions between Lila, Sari, and the Turkish guy were surprisingly funny while bringing to light a lot of world history. There’s also a slew of Israeli characters. What inspired the international crew?
I don’t have much imagination. Sari is based on a funny, smart Armenian student I admired who complained that the Jewish Holocaust gets better PR than hers. The Turk is charming but sexist and sounds like Kenan, the Balkan co-author of my last book The Bosnia List (Penguin, 2014). Kenan said these sexist lines that made me laugh, like a woman should wear makeup and dresses and never swear. My response was, “Fuck you.” The Israeli is a combination of two Sabras I know, one whose name — Ronit — I stole. The famous Israeli poet is based on an Israeli poet I adore. The Jerusalem Post and Jewish News ran excerpts, so maybe that’s a good unforeseen side effect. My books have been translated into 10 languages but I hardly travel anymore, just to Michigan and Los Angeles.
I’m one of your 15,000 former students who fulfilled the goal you gave us to “write and publish a great piece by the end of the class to pay for the class.” How did you get started?
After spending $30,000 on an MFA, I didn’t even know how to write a cover letter to send out pieces I’d worked on with Nobel and Pulitzer Prize–winning authors. My Midwest Jewish parents said: “Move home. We’re not helping you pay your rent anymore.” What’s the line, “How are you going to keep them down on the farm once they’ve seen Paree?” I wanted to stay in the big city.
They say you should write the book you want to read and teach the class you wanted to take. So when the New School asked me to teach, I wanted to try something new. I was writing seven pieces a week for New York newspapers and magazines. I usurped Carrie Fisher’s line and called my method “Instant Gratification Takes Too Long.” The first assignment I tried was to write three double-spaced pages on your most humiliating secret. It cut through all the boring crap quickly and got right to the drama, conflict, and tension. I tell my students love letters and light slices of life rarely engender profundity.
I only gave students assignments I knew editors wanted to buy. I brought in editors to speak, and it was inspiring. In the first class I taught, of 12 students, eight got published, and four got pieces for $1,000 or more. I made a rule: if you sell an assignment for that much, I get dinner.
My students now write for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Yorker, Harper’s, NPR’s This American Life. Eighty-five have launched books in the last decade. It reminds me how it felt when I first saw print.
How do you juggle bureaucracy in higher education with your writing?
I told the New School my only condition is never having to sit in a meeting. And in 23 years the university has never made me go. I write by day, teach by night. Teaching is great karma. Every stupid mistake I want to punch myself in the face for making turns out to have been worthwhile because I can guide students to write and get published sooner and better. I don’t have kids, so I feel a maternal instinct. My shrink says if you want a lot from the world, you have to give back. I’ve achieved the New York trifecta: blessed in love, work, and real estate. How many people can say that?
But you’ve written that it’s been hard to “take others higher than you can take yourself.”
My Jungian astrologer’s prediction about that came true. I’ve had two students get $500,000 book deals, many who’ve had better advances, publishers, reviews. At first it depressed me. Therapy helped me see it as a gift. My husband has tons of students now writing for big TV shows. We joke that pretty soon our students will be the only ones returning our calls.
Any success stories you can spill?
I write for a few of my students who’ve become big editors. Katherine Goldstein at Vanityfair.com, Joanna Douglas at Yahoo, and Joy Peskin, now the head of FSG’s YA division, are doing panels with me. Che Kurrien, the editor-in-chief of GQ in India, told me I’m still his favorite guru. My former student Katie Naylon made her “humiliation essay” into the hilarious movie For a Good Time Call … Seth Kugel is The New York Times Frugal Traveler. Christine Kenneally saw her own first byline in my class and recently returned to talk about her new book The Invisible History of the Human Race (Viking, 2014), which was on the Times Book Review cover. I did some great book events in New York and LA with my 25-year-old protégé Aspen Matis, author of the new memoir Girl in the Woods (HarperCollins), which started in my class. Now Lena Dunham loves it and she sold it to HBO for a miniseries.
But over the years you and your husband have been in TV- and film-writing circles, too?
Yes. I have jokes about dating different creative types. I used to wonder if being dark and crazy is why you become a writer, or is trying to pay your rent as a writer what makes you dark and crazy? Poets were broke and depressed. Novelists were less broke, egotistical, and depressed. Journalists were broke, manic, and depressed. Lawyers, doctors, and MBAs were rich and happy but so boring they depressed me. At 29, I met Charlie in a group of film and TV writers who were less broke, and funnier about their depression.
His crowd was as smart as the poets I knew, but they could actually make a living. He worked on In Living Color, Seinfeld, The Daily Show, and Law & Order and turned me on to Los Angeles. Once, when he had a film deal, the producer put him up at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica and invited me to come. When he proposed, he said, “I’m afraid you’ll only marry me because you think I’m the type of guy who stays at Shutters.” I reminded him I first jumped him on his torn mattress on the floor of his tiny New York hovel. I’ve had a few of my books optioned but nothing made. I’m trying to talk him into collaborating on a screenplay with me. He says it’ll ruin our marriage.
In your novel, Daniel says poetry is about the feelings hidden between the lines, what’s never said. Did you intentionally leave a lot left unsaid in both of the marriages you depict in What’s Never Said?
Yes. There’s a big sexual secret that Daniel and Lila never tell their spouses. But you need mystery in a happy long-term marriage. Also, Daniel and Lila never speak about their past together. The reader knows Daniel regrets the way he acted, but he never expresses that to Lila. And Lila never gives him the envelope that explains what really happened the night they split up. The characters and their secrets overlap and clash. A smart Knopf editor told me, “A novel that’s merely autobiographical is a great disappointment. But a memoir that reads like a novel is a great surprise.” So maybe it’s an autobiographical novel that reads like an intimate, page-turning memoir.
I’m finishing a nonfiction book. My critics say my nonfiction is better than my fiction and my family says my nonfiction is fiction. I tell my students, “The first piece you write that your family hates means you’ve found your voice.”