The Dire Year: An Interview with Tamara Shopsin

By Samantha PealeJuly 22, 2013

The Dire Year: An Interview with Tamara Shopsin

AT THE END of a weekend visit, I found Tamara Shopsin’s Mumbai New York Scranton on the dining table of my parents’ house in New Jersey. The matte grass green of the cover beckoned me from amid the low piles of newspapers, library books, and one sleeping cat. My mother, insatiable reader of fiction, had purchased a new memoir? My interest was piqued. I read the first 30 pages standing up.

“Go ahead and take that to read on the plane,” said my mother.

Even though she had a bookmark halfway through Mumbai New York Scranton (and had mentioned she was loving it), I took the book from her. I had to because I was hooked. My neighbor on the flight from NYC to LAX struggled to concentrate on Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and slept for most of the six-hour journey. I, on the other hand, read Shopsin’s captivating memoir straight through to the end, and, then inspired, busied myself charting a course of new writing projects.

Mumbai New York Scranton tells many stories over the course of a year in Tamara Shopsin’s life. Using a bright, sharp present tense that is youthful and full of wit, the author illustrates the book as well. Her images — of elephants, food, signs, parts of the body — are as charming as her prose, and as deceptively simple. Their crisp black lines interrupt the written narrative with a strange, affable humor.

Shopsin travels to India with her husband and creative collaborator, Jason Fulford, whose photographs also amplify the story. She kisses him on the first page, in the Mumbai airport. If Mumbai were a novel, we might wonder about foreshadowing; here, we simply know that Jason is a good character.

Her husband had wanted to show Shopsin India since the couple first met, but the author comes from a close and opinionated family. “Minda made it clear she didn’t want me here,” writes Shopsin. “She’s afraid I’m too fragile for India, that I will end up shitting chocolate milk and come home weighing 87 pounds.”

Minda is Shopsin’s twin sister, a filmmaker. They grew up with three brothers. Their father, Kenny, is the chef and proprietor of Shopsins, an eccentric and deeply loved Manhattan restaurant where the author also cooks. A failing family is often the occasion for a book, so it is a change to read about how openly these people love and care for each other.

Shopsin and Fulford explore a southern route — Mumbai, Kochi, Ernakulam, Ooty, Mysore, Chennai — including some stops that Fulford visited and photographed a decade earlier. He leads Shopsin, and she leads us. They ride a rickshaw in a sudden downpour, have handwritten correspondence typed by a professional letter writer on the street, design souvenir pads of paper with friends’ nicknames printed on them, and visit the free currency museum and the Sir J. J. School of Art, where “no students or teachers are to be found.” All the time she’s sick with migraine headaches, exhaustion, and barfing. But she loves seeing India and pushes it — working from her hotel rooms on freelance illustrations for The New York Times and other publications, taking naps, and eating oranges and appam.

Shopsin’s creative life is wide-ranging — she draws, writes, cooks, and she is a maker of novelties such as 5 Year Diary and the 16 Ton Door Stop that she sells online at Shopsin’s General Store. She makes it difficult for the reader to reduce her into a social stereotype: she never mentions where she went to art school or university, just one long-ago snow day from New York’s P.S. 3. On the back cover flap, the author stands alone wearing the sort of billowy cotton parachute pants that one could buy at Canal Jean Company in the 1980s. Do they still sell those things? Mumbai New York Scranton has no acknowledgements. It floats between continents, decades, relationships, and mediums without burdening the reader with extra-cultural signposts. Shopsin insists she be viewed through the lens she created. With her, we make new discoveries as a tourist, take respite in backward glances to bygone eras abroad and at home, and witness the continuous hard work essential to making art.

When the author returns to New York, she doesn’t feel any better. Her symptoms continue. She tries to work but instead of ideas she gets headaches. Fulford travels for work to Las Vegas, and faithful Minda steps in to care for Shopsin. The first doctor says her vitals are fine and sends her to a neurologist who “looks so much like Sigmund Freud it has to be on purpose.” He diagnoses exertion headaches and prescribes medicine. Shopsin heads to the Met to see the Playing with Pictures exhibition and Romare Bearden’s The Block, a giant collage of Lenox Avenue in Harlem, 1971.

“Brightly colored and chock-full of action. The thing is six foot long. I love it.”

But at home in the Scranton carriage house that she and Fulford renovated themselves, Shopsin’s health continues to suffer. She can’t keep food down. The second doctor, who looks like Mrs. Santa Claus, suspects that Shopsin is pregnant. It is the third doctor who discovers the tumor in Shopsin’s brain. A hemangioblastoma located near her cerebellum, which controls balance and coordination.

“It wasn’t India that tasted bad and smelled like shit. It was me. The headaches I have been getting are because there is not enough room in my skull to think.”

She needs an emergency room. She needs CAT scans and MRIs. She needs her husband and sister beside her.

“I am going to die. These things happen. My mom got this same sort of call. She went to the hospital and was gone the same night.”

Shopsin needs three surgeries. She has half her hair and most of her pubes shaved. With the best neurosurgeon in NYC, her husband’s chin pressed gently and affectionately on her eye and her pinkie locked with her sister’s, Shopsin survives. It’s a rollercoaster though, with moments of empathic horror that she might leave her beloveds behind and alone. But thankfully, that’s not how the story goes.

I emailed Shopsin these questions from Twentynine Palms and she replied from Scranton.


SAMANTHA PEALE: Did the story of Mumbai New York Scranton occur to you as a story while the events were taking place, or after?

TAMARA SHOPSIN: It was after all the events occurred.

At first I was just writing to see what I could remember. And at some point I saw the whole thing as this dark joke with a narrative arc and foreshadowing.

SP: When you began to write the book did you see your husband’s photographs in the story, or did that happen later?

TS: The photos came later. Some lines of the book were written just because I wanted to stick a photo in. Either for pacing or because I loved the photo. I cut other lines because I realized Jason had a photo that represented the idea better.

SP: Did making the story into a book change it?

TS: According to my sister I made it less scary than it really was.

SP: In the actual drafting of the text of Mumbai New York Scranton did you start at the beginning and go to the end?

TS: I started at the end and worked backwards. When the land was laid I would bounce between the three parts.

SP: Do you make drawings that are not illustrations?

TS: I make cartoons, but I never just draw fruit or landscapes.

SP: What are you reading now?

TS: Up in the Old Hotel — a collection of essays that Joseph Mitchell wrote for The New Yorker magazine from 1930 to 1960. He is so talented at capturing people’s voices and character, and he is making me fall in love with the NYC of the 1940s.

And I’m hooked on Adam Curtis’s blog for the BBC. He makes documentaries and is probably best known for The Century of the Self, a three-part series about the evolution of PR.

Also amazing is his All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace about the utopian ambitions of the IT industry and how they have panned out. The film title comes from a poem by Richard Brautigan that talks of mammals and computers living together in mutually programmed harmony.

His blog is on the BBC’s website. They let him raid their film archive. He writes these long posts that are like James Burke’s Connections (a 10-part BBC documentary from the late 1970s) with social issues instead of science. The posts take me two or three days to read because often hours of footage is embedded in the text.

SP: What artists are you looking at now?

TS: I just saw the Claes Oldenburg show at MoMA. I’ve loved his work for a long time, but had never seen his Ray Gun Museum. It is a display case of 1950s toy ray guns alongside homemade ray guns and found ray guns. It is funny because by the end anything shaped like an “L” really is a ray gun. And you go home and for a while you see ray guns everywhere — boots, toothbrush, your laptop.

SP: The book is full of spare descriptions, such as “Brownian motion transports me uptown,” which likens your erratic movement through the city to a microscopic particle being randomly transported by surrounding molecules, as first described by 19th-century Scottish botanist Robert Brown. How would you describe the links or connections between your drawing and writing styles?

TS: When I draw I try to use fewer lines, and it is the same when I write.

SP: What are you working on now? Or do you resist being asked this?

TS: Writing is a big question mark; it isn’t resistance, it is a genuine unknown quantity.

I just did an illustration for a New York Times Op Ed piece about (Canadian politician) Justin Trudeau. And I recently finished a year as a fellow for Code for America, a nonprofit that is trying to bring open source software and open data policy to city government. I was there as a designer but picked up a lot of code on the side. There is a new crop of fellows this year and I’m excited to see what they make and how it affects cities in the future.

I’m also looking forward to the Scranton farmers market though it doesn’t start until July. And Jason and I are going to design and photograph a cookbook for a pastry chef in the fall.

SP: How is your sister, Minda? She sounds like a remarkable person. Is she making a film now?

TS: She certainly is that and more. Her movie The House I Live in won best documentary at Sundance last year. She has been doing post-screening Q&A’s trying to raise awareness about the biases of the drug laws. If she can find funding, her next project is a documentary on the photographer Robert Frank.

SP: Any surprising reactions to the book?

TS: I get emails. Just heartfelt emails. They are not creepy and it seems like each is nicer than the next.


Samantha Peale is the author of the novel The American Painter Emma Dial (Norton), which is being developed by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Emily Ziff’s Cooper’s Town Productions.

LARB Contributor

Samantha Peale is the author of the novel The American Painter Emma Dial (Norton). She’s at work on her second novel.


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