Elena Bowes

New York-London design & culture writer of a certain vintage looking for meaning and wholeness in life

Q&A with Acclaimed Author Dani Shapiro

September 27th, 2023
Books & Authors

I just read and loved Signal Fires by the uber talented award-winning author, podcaster and teacher Dani Shapiro. The New York Times bestseller was named a best book of 2022 by Time MagazineWashington Post and Amazon. 

Signal Fires could only be written by Dani Shapiro- and only now when she’s at the height of her powers. One gets the sense this is the story she has been building toward all these years; a parabolic family drama about the way certain moments echo through time. I’ll never stop thinking about it.”

That quote is from another talented writer, Mary Laura Phillipot. Signal Fires is a book that sticks with you. Not just because of the exquisite writing and unique story that is both haunting and hopeful, a story that crisscrosses time in a purposeful way. But the novel is also unforgettable because of what it implies about death and the universe, the stars, how when we die, it’s not the end. We’re all somehow connected.

The story opens in 1985 on a summer night with a teenage car crash in which one person dies, and the other two are culpable. This accident will become a guarded secret for the respectable Wilf family, shattering each of their lives in different ways. Several years later another family with no knowledge of this tragedy moves in across the street. Events ensue involving that family’s gifted, brilliant and lonely son Waldo that somehow bring grace and forgiveness to the accident that happened decades earlier.

 Here’s my Q&A:

 Dani, can you tell us about the fascinating genesis of this book and its connection to your memoir Inheritance?

 I began Signal Fires a long time ago, before I was really ready to write it. A cast of characters materialized for me who I loved and to whom I felt very attached, but I lost my way in the writing, and after about 100 pages I put the manuscript in a drawer. I was heartbroken, but never thought I’d return to it. I really believed it was the one that got away. But as the years passed, and I wrote more books (Still Writing, Hourglass) some big changes happened in my own life. Perhaps the biggest of these changes occurred when I learned, in 2016, that my dad had not been my biological father. He had raised me, and I adored him. I lost him when I was quite young in a terrible car accident and have missed him every day since. This sudden loss informed much of my work as a writer.

I also had the sense that my parents kept secrets – and I wrote a great deal about the corrosive power of secrets – but never did I entertain the thought that perhaps I was the secret. And this is what turned out to be the case. I was able to meet my biological father and wrote the memoir Inheritance about my discovery. It wasn’t until I completed Inheritance and brought it into the world that I returned to the Signal Fires manuscript. I re-read it and understood for the first time how the story needed to play out. It was as if the characters had slept in that drawer all these years, needing me to grow and evolve into the writer who deserved them.

You begin your story with the word And….

And it’s nothing, really, or might be nothing, or ought to be nothing, as he leans his head forward to press the tip of his cigarette to the car’s lighter. It sizzles on contact, a sound particular to its brief moment in history, in which cars have lighters and otherwise sensible fifteen-year-olds choke down Marlboro Reds and drive their mothers’ Buicks without so much as a learner’s permit.”

 The reader is immediately propelled into the scene that’s already started, knowing somehow, it’s not going to end well. Can you discuss your choice of the word and to start your novel.

When I returned to the novel after my long absence, I hadn’t yet written that very opening scene. And I knew I needed to do so before moving forward. The only thing of which I was certain, though I couldn’t have explained it at the time, was that the first word of this novel had to be “And…” because it felt to me as if it was a world already in motion, and I wanted to convey that to the reader.  I wanted the reader to step into a universe in which past, present, and future all existed at once.

You can read the rest of the interview here on 26’s September newsletter.

September, 2023

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