Welcome to TRB Lounge. Today, I’d like to welcome author of Those Around Him, Brett Shapiro, for an author interview with The Reading Bud.
About The Author
Brett Shapiro is an American writer and the best-selling author of L’Intruso – a memoir published in Italy (Feltrinelli) that was later produced into an award-winning film and theatrical production. He is also the author of two children’s books, one of which was the recipient of Austria’s prestigious National Book Award. Several of his short stories have been performed in theatres throughout Italy, where he lived for 25 years, and his essays and articles have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers in Italy and the United States. While in Italy, he made many guest appearances on Italian television, including as commentator for 60 Minutes, and was a regular guest lecturer at the University of Siena. Brett is a veteran writer for the United Nations and currently lives by the beach in Florida.
You can connect with author Shapiro here:
Welcome to TRB! Please give our readers a brief introduction about yourself before we begin.
Now this is a challenge: an introduction (brief or otherwise) about a life lived for 66 years and still going strong! I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and moved to Manhattan after university to pay my dues as a budding writer who thought he could change the world – and to make the necessary connections to do so! After 11 years in the Big Apple, I moved to Rome, where I lived for 25 years with my partner and our two sons. When my partner and I uncoupled (very amicably), I decided to return to the USA, where I chose a quiet beach spot in order to shift into a lower gear.
I wake up early each morning and walk to the beach with my dog to watch the sun rise. I spend no more than three hours a day doing my “bread and butter” work – drafting and editing documents for the United Nations and giving writing webinars for UN staff all over the world. The rest of the day is mine to do with as I please. I am semi-retired, after all! In those free hours, I always put in at least two hours of writing each day.
Please tell us something about your book other than what we have read in the blurb?
Those Around Him is a meditative book. I was more concerned with how people think about the things that happen to them; less concerned with the things that happen in themselves. Of course, there is a plot and an arc, but they tend to be unremarkable undulations, as life often is. There is a lot of “interiority” going on in the book, but of the accessible kind. Promise!
What is that one message that you’re trying to get across to the readers in this book?
I’m not sure there is a message that I’m trying to convey in the book. It’s more of a mood, a rhythm, a way of turning things about in our heads that I’m trying to capture and tame so that readers think “Oh my gosh, I can relate to that,” detail after detail, page after page, and in an enriching way.
Who is your favourite character in this book and why?
I’m sure I sound like a parent when I say that I don’t have a favorite. I really care about all of my characters, complete with their various crimes and misdemeanors. I have to care deeply about each and every one of them; otherwise, their complexities won’t emerge and they’ll wither on the page.
What inspired you to write this book? An idea, some anecdote, a dream or something else?
I would say it was an idea that inspired me more than anything else – the power that youth and beauty can have over someone whose own youth and beauty have long since faded. The power to create minor disturbances and to unsettle. A “Death in Venice” kind of theme, but the similarities stop there. Thomas Mann is Thomas Mann.
How long did it take you to write this particular book?
There was about one year of what I call “writers’ avoidance”, where ideas about the book were percolating in my head but not spilling over onto paper. Once I overcame that, it took me two years to write it.
What are your writing ambitions? Where do you see yourself 5 years from today?
My only writing ambition is to continue playing with words every day. I wouldn’t even call it an ambition. For me, it’s more of a necessity – like continuing to eat clean or to walk along the beach at sunrise. I’d be perfectly content if, five years from today, the routine of my daily life remained unchanged and I was still in excellent health – and with another novel or two under my belt.
Are you working on any other stories presently?
I completed another novel – Late in the Day – about eight months ago; after making the rounds of publishers, it should be going to press this summer or autumn. I am also about one-third of the way through the first draft of another novel, provisionally called Henry’s Version.
Why have you chosen this genre? Or do you write in multiple genres?
My novels fall into the category of literary fiction (although I’m not really sure what “literary fiction” means). I didn’t choose the genre and then proceed to write myself into it. I write, and my writing consistently falls into that genre. I don’t think I could write in multiple genres. I’m not in my skin with a lot of “multis”. I can’t be working on multiple stories at a time. I can’t be reading multiple books at a time. But I’m a whizz at putting together a five-course meal in no time flat.
When did you decide to become a writer? Was it easy for you follow your passion or did you have to make some sacrifices along the way?
The writer imperative struck when I was a teenager. I always enjoyed reading books as entertainment, but during adolescence I realized that books could be so much more (thank you Virginia Woolf, Thomas Hardy and a slew of others). As I was reading and marveling over these books (and reflecting on them long after I’d closed the back cover), I was also thinking, “I want to do this too. I must do this too.” Against my parents’ wishes, who wanted me to be a doctor, I majored in literature. All I wanted to do was read great books, analyze them and write papers about them. My parents refused to pay tuition for such “nonsense”, and I had to work full-time while going to university. This double life, which seemed so unfair at the time, actually served me extremely well, as it was a division that I’d have to face and manage carefully even after graduating: I needed to work, I wanted a family, I needed to write, and I wanted to do all of them well and with pleasure. During the years of raising my sons, my writing output certainly decreased. But the books I managed to have published during those years were successful and kept me in the writers’ loop, which was important to me – if only to stave off my parents’ admonition, “What nonsense”. When my sons left the nest, I dug back into writing longer works, and I carved out a space of time each day in which to do so.
What is your writing ritual? How do you do it?
My writing ritual is quite simple. I write best when I feel that all the business of the day has been taken care of. For years, I have made 5:30 until dinner time my writing slot. By 5:30, I’ve finished my quota of UN work, my errands, my phone calls, and my domestic chores. I can afford to be untethered and spin off into my creative zone. Of course, this means that I might eat dinner at 7:30 or I might eat it at 10:00. (Fortunately, I eat a light meal.) I take my computer and whatever scribbles I may have made during the day to the screened-in front porch. Then I sit down and I write. I have a large back yard, with a deck and a pool. But it’s private, and I like to observe the occasional passerby while I’m writing. I’m not sure why. I think it has something to do with reminding myself that people are my main characters and that any idea I’m trying to elaborate needs to come through the characters in my book and not through an invisible but intrusive narrator. The front porch has beautiful shrubbery wrapped around it. Anyone who is walking down the street can’t see me, but I can observe them. Very sneaky.
How do you prefer to write – computer/laptop, typewriter, dictation or longhand with a pen?
I prefer using my laptop. I can see the words as they would appear on the page of a book, which helps me to scrutinize them better. Using a computer also enables me to keep the copy from getting too messy. I don’t work well with messy copy. I keep a sheet of paper and pencil by my side to make notes about things that might need addressing but that I don’t want to address during that particular writing session. I type up the notes on a separate document and review the notes the next morning to decide whether I should incorporate any of them when I return to the front porch in the evening.
What are your 5 favourite books? (You can share 5 favourite authors too.)
Trying to choose five favorite books is an impossible task. As soon as I set myself to thinking about it for more than thirty seconds, I find myself facing a mountain of titles. I’ll offer a knee-jerk reaction: American Pastoral; To the Lighthouse; Enormous Changes at the Last Minute: The Hours; and The Magic Mountain. I read these books years ago, some of them decades ago, and I still can’t shake them off. As far as authors, my knee-jerk reaction would be Philip Roth, Virginia Woolf, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor and Grace Paley. I ask forgiveness of the scores of books and authors who didn’t make the list. You know who you are.
How do you deal with Writer’s Block?
I’ve never experienced writers’ block. When I sit down to write, something always gets written. It may only be one sentence in an hour, or it could be an entire page. But the page is never blank. What I used to experience was what I mentioned before: “writers’ avoidance” – continually finding reasons not to sit down to write. This was magically overcome when I attended a one-week writers’ retreat. There was something about a community of writers gathered together to share their work, critique the work of others, have discussions about writing in general – and, most importantly, disperse themselves onto verandas and benches and lawns to write for two-hour intervals each morning, afternoon and evening – that calmed me down and made me realize that the effort was a human effort, not a superhuman one.
What advice would you give to aspiring non-fiction writers?
There is only one piece of advice, and it’s so commonplace that it seems almost banal: Write. Even if it’s only ten minutes a day (to start). Thinking about writing is a lovely idea, a noble idea, but it’s only an idea.
Thank you, author Shapiro, for your insightful answers!
About the Book
Those Around Him
Andrew returns to the beachside town of his father, Charles, who is dying. In the throes of middle age, Andrew is trying to come to terms with the fact that not everything is still possible, that horizons shrink and parts break, and that he may no longer be desirable – or desired. On one of his routine sunrise beach walks, he is greeted by Lex (whom he calls “Ex”), a young man whose physical beauty and emotional warmth and exuberance completely unsettle the quiet and measured rhythm that Andrew is trying to establish in his new home and his own advancing years.
The intimate relationships between and among the three generations of men, each with his own needs and hopes – and darknesses – unfolds during hurricane season. When the season is over, carrying off much with it, Andrew has begun to understand his place along the continuum and the quiet balance that he has been seeking amidst his wisdom and foolishness, and through the arrivals and departures of those around him.
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