The Booger in the Pool: An Interview with Leanne Shapton

January 18, 2013   •   By Rachel Hurn

After twenty years I still reach for the dumb focus I had as a competitive swimmer. After a hundred workouts I might be faster. After a hundred lengths I might be healthier. After a hundred pages, a hundred sketchbooks, when will it feel right?

— Leanne Shapton, Swimming Studies

IN LEANNE SHAPTON'S MEMOIR Swimming Studies, the former Olympic hopeful (and current illustrator, writer, and publisher) reveals the key to her artistic coups. It is not, as one might have assumed, freakish, God-given talent. Nor does it stem from a lightning bolt of inspiration. The answer is simple, actually: she gets to work.

Both in and out of the pool, what has consumed Shapton is not the answer to the question, “When will I be great?” Rather, they’ve been, “What do I want to be great at?” and “How do I get there?” Over the past 10 years, Shapton has published two books of drawings, a graphic novel, and a fictional auction catalog. She is also the former art director of The New York Times Op-Ed page. And in 2000, she founded J+L Books, a nonprofit publisher of artists’ books, with her business partner Jason Fulford. And she was once one of the top 10 fastest breaststrokers in Canada.

Swimming Studies is Shapton’s first prose-heavy book, much different from her previous works, such as Important Artifacts in which the story of a romantic relationship is told through a couple’s possessions post-break-up. Swimming Studies, though it contains Shapton’s illustrations and photographs, is a more traditional memoir, filled with vivid descriptions of pools and practices and the contemplative focus that is found underwater.

I met with Shapton at a garden patio in SoHo to discuss Swimming Studies, and the first thing she asked me was, “Are you a swimmer?” I wanted to shout, “No!” Because Swimming Studies is not just another athlete’s memoir. It is a book by an artist who happens to also be an athlete. As Shapton writes, “Artistic discipline and athletic discipline are kissing cousins, they require the same thing, an unspecial practice.”


Rachel Hurn: When I describe Swimming Studies, I usually say it’s about being good at something but wanting to be great at it. This transfers to being a competitive swimmer but also to being an artist or a writer. Or, frankly, a human being. As a kid training in the pool, you said that knowing you were fast was proof of your talent. Do you find yourself, now, needing to prove yourself as an artist?

Leanne Shapton: That thing about being good at something and wanting to be great — I was good at swimming, but swimming wasn’t what I wanted to be great at. It took me 20 or 30 years to find something I wanted to be great at. It comes down to this question that’s come up a lot in talking about the book: where your talent lies and how sometimes you’re talented at something you don’t want to be talented at. It takes a while for things to shake down and shuffle down. People have numerous careers and find what it is they want to be great at, even though they can be good at other things. That, to me, has been one of the most interesting things as I was thinking about the book. Why I didn’t want to be great at swimming. Why I didn’t tattoo the Olympic rings on myself, or wear badges and pins like my teammates. I did tape Morrissey’s picture up in my locker; I didn’t tape the swimmer Steve Lundquist. I was going in the direction I wanted to go, but at the same time, what was offered to me as a suburban athlete was this one option.

Do I feel I need to prove myself now? No. Not really. To myself, I suppose. I have my standards, and they’re pretty high standards. I am constantly disappointing myself. What is different between that and wanting to prove something in the athletic realm is that you can prove it to everybody in the athletic realm. You can prove it to the clock. You can prove it to the world of physics. Whereas in an artistic or creative realm, you’re just saying, “That’s right or that’s not or that’s close to what I want to say and maybe someone will pick up on it.” It’s more an effort of trying and trying to get something right. It’s not judged by anybody unless a critic steps in. At least with athletics you actually can prove something. You can go to the Olympics. You can say, “I’m the fastest; I’m the best.” Whereas with art you can’t say you’re the best.

I watched a Woody Allen documentary on the plane to London, and he was talking about how he doesn’t go to the Academy Awards because he says, “Who is to say I’m the best? If I win a race, yeah, but I’m not in a race.” So proof is funny.

RH: You say [in your memoir] you remembered the moment you knew you were not going to the Olympics. A page later you say you barely remember the Olympic trials, that you actually remember a booger in the pool more vividly. Memory is a big part of this book. Why do you think you found yourself recalling certain memories more than others?

LS: The booger in the pool is way more important to me than what place I came in at the 1988 or 1992 trials. All I have are these weird little flashes that are very vivid — the color of the cinder blocks, the smell of Finesse conditioner — all of the things that loomed way bigger than the moments that are supposed to be defining. The moment where I knew I wasn’t going to the Olympics, that was a weird thing because I didn’t stop swimming. I didn’t stop going. I said, “Oh, that’s what a negative thought feels like. I have to figure out what to do with that. I have to deal with that.” It was a weird little quiet flash. Making this book was me trying to set down memories I have because I like them: This booger! This looming booger! When my life flashes before me, that booger is going to be in the slideshow. I didn’t want to forget the memories. I wanted to stick them in amber somehow. I wanted to see if I could write about them. It was a way of setting down images, which is a huge part of the work that I do.

RH: I read an interview where you said that when you realized you weren’t going to the Olympics, it wasn’t, “Oh my god, I’m not going!” It was, “Oh, I’m not going. Okay.”

LS: Well most people don’t go to the Olympics! It’s one of these things where if you’re on that path, you pretty much know where you are. Okay, I was top 10 for a very brief period. I was top 15, top 25 for a longer period. But you know that going from 15 to five is huge. So you’re always aware of how slow and fast you are. Fast in the Province, for example, but slow nationally. It’s not, “Oh, maybe someone someday will read this book and think I’m a genius.” It’s not like that at all. You say, “I’m 15th.” You have a very matter of fact quality about your skill. It’s nice and clean.

RH: Which is maybe a relief even?

LS: Yes. That’s probably why athletes don’t complain as much as artists. Because they can say, “I know where I’m at.” And there’s no contesting. “That person doesn’t deserve to win!”

RH: As writers, artists, creative people, we want to feel we have talent. We want someone to tell us we are good. But you touch on something so important: we have to sit in the chair and write. Or stand at the canvas and paint. Or hold up the camera and shoot. Do you have advice for people struggling with this particular fact of life?

LS: I think it has to do with patience, frankly. Athletes are very patient. And you know, inspiration doesn’t come in a lightning bolt. It actually comes by waiting and trying and reading, searching, and really paying attention to who you are. Going pretty deep and being really patient with yourself and with time. It reminds me of something that David Rakoff said. He was talking about the musical Rent, and how the characters in it are all artists who live in lofts, but they don’t do any work. There’s no proof. And he basically says, “To make art, you can’t go out. You have to put in the hours and the time.” I’m paraphrasing. He says it more beautifully and hysterically. But it’s the idea that inspiration is not going to come to you because you want it. It’s going to come to you because you work for it. The idea of patience.

I’m such an impatient person, so if I see evidence of patience in somebody’s work — in a painting, say — I’m really moved. That is the funny thing. We don’t actually get to see how patient athletes are, and I don’t think we understand how patient artists and writers have to be. There’s a reason the Olympics are every four years. You have to start that far out to actually accomplish something. So if you just think about that, “I’ll start now, and maybe in four years I’ll have something worthwhile.” That would be a nice little piece of math.

RH: If I just sit at my computer every day for four years...

LS: Yes. Just to see where you’re at in four years! You can go to the “trials” in four years and not have a good piece of work. So then you start over again. But it is years.

RH: To talk about the book specifically, it — the blue, jacketless object — feels like a piece of art. You include many of your paintings, and also photographs of your old swimsuits. Color and image are deeply linked to the text you write. Literally, at one point, you do inkblots and describe which smells they represent (a teammate’s hair, your mother’s breath). You’ve said that when you made your two-book deal with Blue Rider Press, that after publishing Important Artifacts, you didn’t want to do another picture-heavy book. So did you start with the paintings and then add text? The other way around? Does it matter?

LS: That Times painting series [“Swimming Studies”] included the earliest paintings that were done. I knew I wanted to illustrate the idea of laps. Un-literally illustrate the idea of series because that’s how I work. I started writing this book in 2007, but I had started working with the material in 2003 and 2004. Because I wanted to see these images again, I thought a screenplay would be the best way of trying to do it. That palate, you can use film, you can use language. But I have no idea how to write a screenplay. So it didn’t happen. I thought, “If I just try to get these down, describe these as strongly and as well as I can, then maybe that will be a way to write something.”

This book started with a lot of text. I knew I didn’t want to illustrate the text directly, yet I wanted it to be like my other books — how we read images and how reading of images can be more emotional than the literal read. I realized when I did those “Swimming Studies” images for the Times, that I could use that as a chapter. In another book those would have come in and out, in place of the text, but I realized I wanted people to experience being pulled through, one after the other. That backed up the idea of immersion, not just in the swimming metaphors, but in this repetitive lap thing that I talk about later in the book.

RH: So, you are the former art director of the Times Op-Ed page. How much artistic power were you given? Who got to make those decisions?

LS: I loved the job because, again, it was reading text and image at the same time. And the opinion section is the best because people are saying, “Here’s what’s in the paper? Think about this. What if we turn that upside down and say the opposite?” The conversations I had there and the quality of the writing that came through made me a much better reader, and I hope a better writer. I would send a piece to an illustrator, whoever was available to turn it around in five days, four days, three days, or one day. Often I had a favorite sketch, but I had to take two or three up to the editor, and he’d look at them and say, “This does not make sense. That looks like a penis; you can’t put that on the Times Op-Ed page.” So it was a process of him explaining what needed to be emphasized more than what the illustrator was emphasizing, or me saying, “This is a worthwhile opinion on top of what the writer is saying. This illustrator is contributing.”

RH: Do you feel that your endeavor to write something longer than, as you’ve said, “a caption or a small capsule” was successful? Do you think you’ll write more books of prose?

LS: I want to do more. But whenever I finish a project I don’t know how I did it. I don’t know if I can do it again. I went to the Olympics to cover swimming, and this was after not writing for probably a couple of months, and it was really hard. I had a deadline in basically a day. I want so badly to be that deft a writer, but I’m not yet. So I look at the book, and I think, “How did I do that?”

I’ve spent the last few years working on this book, so I’m out of shape so to speak with painting. I have to get back. So much of it is being in practice and in a zone with writing and painting and drawing. I’m kind of out of shape right now. I don’t know if the writing was successful, but I’m glad I did it. I love writing. I love reading. I wondered if I could do it. To get positive feedback on the writing has been so important to me because I thought people would say, “Leanne should stick to drawing.” It’s been nice to have a little bit of positive reinforcement. I have more confidence. But it’s something I have to keep limber with. I’ll only be as good as how much I’m doing at the time.

RH: At one point in the book you describe watching Roger Federer play tennis on TV, and how Federer doesn’t have a coach. You turn to your husband James and say, “I don’t need any more coaches.” Then you say how James is the opposite of a coach, and how he says he doesn’t have to shut you up in a room to write because “you do that to yourself.” That part made me think about relationships — specifically romantic relationships — and how hard it is to navigate being artistic, having a partner (possibly an artistic partner) and combining both learning from them and not needing them. Do you find yourself having trouble with this?

LS: That part about being shut up in a room was about Mary McCarthy. Her husband would lock her in a room for hours until she wrote a story, and I just thought, “Oh how romantic! He believes in her talent! That’s so lovely!” An artist sent that to me, and we both thought, “Isn’t this great?” But then I told James, and he said, “That’s awful.” I realized he was right, even though it is sort of romantic in a controlling way. But James and I don’t have that, I just say, “I gotta do this! Leave me alone!”

RH: It’s hard to give yourself enough space, but also to be influenced by the people around you.

LS: Yeah, well, with me this is inextricably linked to coaches and having had a coach figure in my life, very early, and for so long. They were all male. I think it set me up for putting men who I was working with, who were in a position of authority, on a pedestal. I’ve always wanted to please. It’s taken a while to get free of that.

Talking about my own or other people’s relationships is funny because I can’t say one thing’s better than the other. In my case my husband is not my first reader. I go to him for advice because I know him, and respect him. But sometimes I take his advice and sometimes I don’t. I think of the Ted and Sylvia, or the Joan Didion and John Dunne version, where they were so involved in each other’s work. Sometimes I think that’s kind of lovely. But I’m glad I don’t have that because I think I would be too porous to someone’s influence on my work. 

A friend once pointed out that I’ve done good work while in this relationship. But that’s not to say I wouldn’t have done good work in another kind of relationship. Being in a relationship really keeps you on your toes about who you are. It is always interesting to defend yourself and your work to somebody you really love. 

RH: I know you are friends with Sheila Heti. I recently read her novel How Should A Person Be?, which draws on her own life and relationships. I was wondering, did you see yourself in her book at all, or your friends? What is that experience like, to have a friend who is writing about the people she knows?

LS: Well, I have the best and most interesting conversations with Sheila. We’re working on something now where we walk around tape-recording what we talk about. I trust her. I will stand behind what I say. She’s not taking anything down. HSAPB is so full of love for her friends and respect for the big questions she’s contemplating. So it’s not as though it’s a Truman Capote Answered Prayers thing, wanting to pillory anybody. What she’s attempting and has accomplished is very openhearted and brave and very interesting. I wasn’t a part of that book, but I like what Sheila is trying to do. 

RH: Or doing.

LS: Yeah. And doing. There is no mean spirit there. I think that’s the difference between someone going, “Okay, I’m going to let you hang yourself by what you’ve said.” She doesn’t do that. You either use people as satire or as inspiration or to sort of make a point. I don’t think Sheila uses people to make a point. I think she uses them as art and respects people as art. 

RH: Because of your auction-catalog novel, Important Artifacts, you’ve been called a “possession-obsessed novelist.” In Swimming Studies, you do a little bit of what you did in your last novel by cataloging your old swimsuits. For your memoir, did you find yourself having to hold back cataloging your whole life?

LS: There’s that quote in my book by the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, where he says, “Our excesses are the best clues we have to our own poverty, and our best way of concealing it from ourselves.” I’m really interested in that. I think we must be in denial 50 percent of the time. It’s like working on the op-ed page — “What do we think we think and what do we really think?” I’m interested in the patterns people’s lives make through possessions. What we are drawn to constantly, these magnetic pulls in terms of what we consume.

RH: I love that quote — the excess and poverty — it is really beautiful.

LS: What do you collect? What’s your excess?

RH: I accumulate things to read. Old New Yorkers. I don’t know where people get the time to read everything.

LS: Or the confidence to not read everything. To go, “I’ve read enough to hold my own at a dinner party.” Is that the sense of security we need in New York? There was that lovely piece on The Paris Review site where the editors talked about the books they hadn’t read. Someone described how, in a conversation someone went, “Oh, you know, that part in The Great Gatsby?And the person nodded as though they had read it.

RH: It’s so embarrassing, but I will find myself doing that. Because when someone says something with such authority, you’re going to look like the biggest asshole if you haven’t read it.

LS: But it’s so much more interesting if you say, “Actually, for the record, I’ve never read Moby-Dick! Thessaly La Force talked about a drinking game at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop that involved admitting to the books you should have read that you hadn’t read. It is funny when you find yourself nodding because you want someone to think you’ve read something.

RH: It’s the ultimate self-consciousness.

LS: That’s why we keep our old New Yorkers.