Art In Fiction

Art for Art's Sake feat. B. A. Shapiro, author of The Art Forger

September 21, 2021 Carol Cram Season 2 Episode 9
Art In Fiction
Art for Art's Sake feat. B. A. Shapiro, author of The Art Forger
Show Notes Transcript

Join me as I chat with B. A. Shapiro, the New York Times bestselling author of three fabulous novels featuring visual art: The Art Forger, The Muralist, and The Collector's Apprentice.  

Highlights:

  • The attraction of art, particularly late-19th and early-20th-century art, as a subject for novels
  • Genesis of The Collector's Apprentice
  • Writing the "bad guy " in The Collector's Apprentice
  • Cézanne and Matisse in The Collector's Apprentice
  • Reading from The Collector's Apprentice
  • The inspiration for The Muralist
  • The role Eleanor Roosevelt plays in The Muralist
  • Modern artists Pollock, de Kooning, Krasner, and Rothko in The Muralist
  • What is a cowardly writer?
  • Art forgery and seeing what we want to see in The Art Forger

Press Play now & be sure to check out B. A. Shapiro's novels on Art In Fiction.

B. A. Shapiro's Website

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Music Credits

Intro: Paganology, performed by The Paul Plimley Trio; composed by Gregg Simpson
Ad: Celtic Calypso, performed by Lunar Adventures; composed by Gregg Simpson

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Carol Cram:

Hello and welcome to Season 2 of The Art In Fiction Podcast. I'm your host Carol Cram, a novelist and avid reader of books inspired by the arts. This episode features B. A. Shapiro, author of three novels found in the Visual Arts category on Art In Fiction. B.A. Shapiro is a New York Times bestselling author. Her novel The Art Forger was a #1 Indie Next Pick and the winner of the 2013 New England Book Award, among many other honors. Barbara lives in Boston and teaches creative writing at Northeastern University.

 

Welcome to the Art In Fiction Podcast, Barbara.

B. A. Shapiro:

I'm thrilled to be here.

Carol Cram:

Reading your three novels about art has just been such a pleasure for me because I'm familiar with the work of so many of the artists you feature, like Degas in The Art Forger and Matisse in The Collector's Apprentice, and especially the abstract expressionist painters that you have in The Muralist like Lee Krasner and Pollock. 

So, let's start by talking about art. What is your attraction to these and other artists? So far, I see mostly late 19th-century, mid-20th century. 

B. A. Shapiro:

Well, those are my favorite. You know, that the art that was being produced at those times are my personal favorites. And people always ask me if I'm an artist. And unfortunately I'm not, I wanted to be an artist when I was a little girl and my parents were really supportive and my father built me a little studio in the basement. And my mother took me to art classes at the local museum, but unfortunately it became clear really early on that this is not where my talents lay. 

So, I became an art appreciator, and we travel a lot, both for business and pleasure, and I'm always heading right to the art museum and to the galleries in whatever city we're in. And so, I was floundering in my career and I had published five novels that pretty much nobody read. And then I had written three others that I couldn't get published. And I decided to take a last stand and write a book about art, because that was what I really loved. And voilà, The Art Forger and everything changed.

Carol Cram:

Isn't that amazing? Yes. I noticed that you had written thrillers prior to The Art Forger, so that's kind of interesting, isn't it, that when you really followed your passion, which was art, that's when things really kind of came together, it sounds like.

B. A. Shapiro:

Yep. It, it did. Who knew, but it did.

Carol Cram:

I just think it's, it's actually a good lesson for all of us to follow your passion. We'll talk about The Art Forger a little bit later, because I'm going to go in reverse chronological order. 

So, let's start with your latest novel, The Collector's Apprentice, which takes place mostly in the '20s in Paris and Philadelphia. What I love of course is how you combine real characters with imaginary ones. Can you summarize The Collector's Apprentice for us?

B. A. Shapiro:

The Collector's Apprentice is based on the real-life characters Albert Barnes and Violette de Mazia. Barnes was a huge collector, has one of the most fabulous museums, probably my favorite museum in the world, in Philadelphia. And they were both the real characters. And I love the art in that museum. Post-Impressionist art is the closest to my heart. And the first time I walked into that museum, which is called a foundation, not a museum, I looked around the gallery and there was Cézanne and Matisse and Picasso, and I turned in a big circle and this is kind of embarrassing, but the first thing I thought was I could never be too rich being surrounded by that art would just be fantastic. 

So, I decided I wanted to write a book about them, and it started more straightforward, you know, kind of a novelistic biography, but that didn't work.

I had to throw in a character who is actually my favorite character in the book. He has about five different names in the book because he's a con man and he becomes different people for each one of his different cons, but his main name is George. And I just love him. And I hate him, and I'm fascinated by the workings of his mind and by the absence of his soul. 

And I threw him into the mix and the story takes place in the 1920s, mostly in Paris and Philadelphia. And I incorporated my fictional characters with real characters like Matisse and Cézanne and Gertrude Stein, who is just a hoot, and created this story that turned out to be, so it's partly murder mystery. It's partly a thriller in terms of the cons. And then I didn't realize it until after I wrote it, it also is a coming-of-age story that explores the development of Post-Impressionism. My main character is having an affair with Matisse and she's good friends with Gertrude Stein, and it was just a really fun book to write.

Carol Cram:

It must have been incredibly fun to write. It was certainly fun to read. And it's interesting that you say that George Everard, the con man, is your favorite. He was actually my favorite as well. And I'm sure a lot of readers feel that.

Isn't that interesting, though, that he's not a nice guy. He's a con man, as you say, like you have a background in sociology, right? Why is it that we're attracted to the dark side, I wonder?

B. A. Shapiro:

Well, the other thing about George is that he's also very charming and he is very upfront with himself most of the book about what he's doing and he's, you know, not making excuses, he's just telling the reader, this is who I am. This is what I do. And aren't I cool?

Carol Cram:

Well, and he kind of is.... you, you can't wait to see who he's going to be next.

B. A. Shapiro:

Yeah. He was really fun. I have taught writing in a number of different places and I always tell my students that they need to love their villains. And you need to understand that each character, including the villain, has their own story and they are the hero of their own story. And if you really want to get into who they are, you have to understand that story. And so I figured out George's story and then just went with it.

Carol Cram:

That's really great advice, actually. It's very true. You do have to really get into the head of your villain and actually, as you say, nobody's a villain in their own story, right?

B. A. Shapiro:

They’re the hero and the more you understand that and their own hero's journey, then you can put them in conflict with all of the other characters who are on their own hero's journey and watch how it blows up.

Carol Cram:

Yes, he's not all bad. I actually had some sympathy with him at the end. Of course, no spoilers, but it was amazing.  I really enjoyed him. But I also enjoyed the interaction with Matisse. Actually, there was a line that you included that Matisse says that jumped out at me and because I know he said it in real life, but he says, Cézanne is the father of us all. I just love that you put that line in - it is one of my husband's favorite. He's always quoting Matisse. So, but what does that mean in the context of early-20th-century art?

B. A. Shapiro:

What happened in the late 19th century where Impressionism was what exploded and broke apart, all kinds of traditional art. And Cézanne and Matisse and Picasso, and there's a large number of artists who push beyond Impressionism. And the way I think of it is that Cézanne was the one who just came out the biggest and said, okay, we're taking this to another level. We are going to push and push and push beyond. And I think the work that he developed and the work that all of the Post-Impressionists developed following in his footsteps is some of the best art that's ever been created.

Carol Cram:

Yes, I would definitely agree with that. Of course, I love Cézanne as well. We actually went and visited his quarry or, not his quarry, but where he used to paint in the south of France. So beautiful. Because I mentioned to you before we started my husband's a painter, an abstract painter. And so of course he obviously loves Cézanne. 

Each of your novels is an exploration of obsession, but particularly The Collector's Apprentice, so, can you comment on that?

B. A. Shapiro:

I'm fascinated by the lines that people are willing to cross to get what they want. And obsession is behind that in the most extreme cases. And this just fascinates me how people are willing to make these decisions that they know on one level are wrong or illegal or immoral, but that they want something so, so badly that they're willing to do it and convince themselves that what they want is more important than breaking the law or the immorality of what they do. And for some reason or other, that seems to find itself into all of my books.

Carol Cram:

Well, I think that's an attraction in your books is that your main characters are really living large. And I think that's why I'm enjoying the novel so much. They don't want to lead ordinary lives, you know, they want to be extraordinary.

B. A. Shapiro:

Right. And they also are willing to cross those lines to be extraordinary. And that, to me, is the really interesting part of their stories. And they're also not perfect people. They all have, you know, one or two pretty serious flaws, but don't we all?

Carol Cram:

Exactly. Yeah, they do. And, but that is the attraction. Absolutely, like Pauline or Viviane, your main character in The Collectors Apprentice. She's not all good. She's a bit of a manipulator. But I thought that was very well done, actually. And again, it's a great inspiration for authors to see how you handle a flawed character who is nevertheless, she is your hero.

B. A. Shapiro:

That's what I wanted her to be. That's what I want all of my protagonists to be, it seems.

Carol Cram:

And I think that's what we need to aim for as writers, you know, because I, like all writers, when I'm reading a novel, I'm looking at it in terms of gee, how can I do this? What can I learn from what you're doing? As well as actually enjoying the story. 

So, you mentioned earlier that you would like to do a reading from The Collector’s Apprentice

B. A. Shapiro:

I have just a very short chapter, which of course is from George's viewpoint because he is my favorite. Okay. So, this is actually Chapter Five and it's George slash Benjamin as he's transitioning from one character to another, and this follows the con that he perpetrated on Pauline slash Vivienne. Everybody changes shapes in this novel, and he's reflecting on what he has done and what he's planning to do next. So, this takes place in 1922.

Lisbon is a very agreeable city, and he wonders why he never thought to come here before. Not as dirty as Paris or London, much less frenetic, safer. He's sitting on the terrace of an elegant hotel, overlooking the harbor, enjoying the breezes and the pretty women. Granted, the skirts here aren't as short as they are in Paris, but they're short enough. 

He thinks of the suitcases full of cash in his room upstairs and smiles. He'll be boarding his ship in the morning, heading back to the good U. S. of A. New York City, this time another financial scam, but with a different tenor. He has it all worked out. In fact, he's already slipped into his new persona, Benjamin Talcott, American magnate. Needless to say, he isn’t Benjamin Talcott any more than he was George Everhard, nor is he British as he's claimed for the past five years. 

He slips in and out of identities and nationalities as easily as another man might shed a business suit for the weekend. One of his talents, of which he has many.

Everhard Sureties was his biggest con yet. So simple really. Buying International Reply Coupons in Italy where the exchange rate is low and cashing them in England where the exchange rate is high. Too small a return for the ordinary man who thought small, but no one could ever accuse him of thinking small or being ordinary.

He saw the potential, enticed investors who were so enamored of their paper returns that they never cashed out and then encouraged their friends to invest, the newcomers feeding in from the bottom, he taking it all off the top. Child's play. Marks are everywhere. and they have only themselves to blame when disaster befalls them. 

Maybe he'll find another comely, rich girl like Pauline Mertons to help with Talcott Reserves. Too bad she didn't want to leave with him. Such a live wire, smart and sexy and good in the boudoir, if naïve. From her reaction to him in Paris, still crazy in love with him, if a little angry at the moment. He's guessing Pauline will accompany Edwin Bradley when he returns to Philadelphia. The two have been working well together. She appears to be in awe of Bradley while Bradley appears to be completely infatuated with her. Now won’t that be nice? A ready-made conduit to one of the wealthiest men in America, just as she was a conduit to one of the wealthiest men in Belgium. 

Philadelphia is right around the corner from New York.

Carol Cram:

Oh, that's great. Thank you. I'm glad you chose that one because that was just what we were talking about. Like, he doesn't want to be ordinary, right?

B. A. Shapiro:

Yep. No, he doesn't. 

Carol Cram:

I think that's why we like him, even though we know we're not supposed to like him, but we kind of do, you sort of admire somebody who's got that much chutzpah.

B. A. Shapiro:

Yep. Chutzpah is what that man has.

Carol Cram:

So, I also wanted to talk about The Muralist, which is actually the first of your novels that I read. I was totally blown away. I think it's because, well, for many reasons, but one reason was because it was one of the first novels I've ever read that actually featured some of my favorite abstract expressionists, like Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock and Rothko. I've just never seen them all in a novel together. So, what is the genesis of The Muralist?

B. A. Shapiro:

Well, after I wrote The Art Forger, I got a contract to write two more novels for Algonquin, my publisher, and I had really enjoyed writing about art, and the book was very well received. And so I thought, okay, I'm going to write another novel about art. And I'd always been interested in the Depression. And so, I Googled art and the Depression. And the first thing that came up was the WPA, the Works Progress Administration. And I discovered that they had a branch that actually paid artists a living wage to produce art. And I found this, like, so fantastic. It's like, God, why don't they keep doing that?

And then I started looking into it and I learned that Rothko and Krasner and de Kooning and all of these other wonderful abstract expressionists were working for the WPA in New York City in the late 1930s.

And they were all unknown, crazy, jumping in and out of bed with each other and partying and getting drunk and smoking pot. And I thought, wow, I'm going to write about these people. This is going to be really fun. And I've always really liked abstract expressionism, but I didn't know that much about it. So, getting inside all of these real artists and understanding what it was that they were doing was really interesting to me, but I needed more. 

And so, I dug deeper into the WPA and I discovered that Eleanor Roosevelt, one of my very favorite people in the entire world, was integral to not only getting Franklin to include artists in the WPA program, but she took part in it. And she went down where they were painting murals and she climbed ladders and looked at them and talked with the artists.

And I thought, cool, I'm going to have Eleanor Roosevelt in the book, along with all these artists, but how are they connected? So, I started reading about her and I discovered that on her death bed, she said to her son that her greatest regret in life was not forcing Franklin to allow more of the European refugees into the United States before World War II, primarily the Jews. Ah ha, okay, I'm going to combine these two stories and figure out a way to tie it all up in the mystery, thriller, love story, historical back-and-forth thing.

Carol Cram:

I just love the way you brought all that together because you know, writing is really all about finding connections, isn't it? And you just described that perfectly, although I'm sure it didn't go quite that smoothly. 

B. A. Shapiro:

I could tell you about the part where I spent two years writing it and then gave it to my editor, and, uh, she didn't really like it at all. And then went back to, you know, back to the beginning and spent another two years rewriting it all. But The Muralist is my favorite book that I’ve written.

Carol Cram:

I can understand that. Yes, because one of the things that I loved is how you depicted their discussions, like Alizée with Rothko, for example, about what they were trying to do. And, you know, because abstract art is not terribly easy to understand for a lot of people. So that was very interesting. I imagine you talked to quite a few artists.

B. A. Shapiro:

I did. There were a number of artists through each book. There were different artists that were very, very generous to me with their time. A lot of them I sat with in their studios and watched them work. And they described to me what they were doing and answered my questions ad nauseum. 

But one thing, and you probably know this because you are married to an artist, but I found the process that artists were describing and that I was watching was very similar to the process of writing a novel, and that we go through the same struggles, and you're rewriting and rewriting and rewriting, or you're redoing and redoing and redoing and you lose confidence in yourself and then you have too much confidence in yourself and you're questioning what you're doing while you're being driven to do it. And so, in some ways I poured the writer, the frustrated writer part of me, into these characters in all three books.

Carol Cram:

I totally got that. It is interesting because a lot of the struggles that you're depicting and, you know, likening it to writing, these are the conversations my husband and I have every day. We go off to our separate corners, he's in a studio, I'm in my office, and then we come together, and I go, oh, I just can't get this part right. And he goes, oh yeah. I just painted over a whole part of my painting. I can't quite get. Right. So yeah, we talk about that.

B. A. Shapiro:

That must be so much fun.

Carol Cram:

Well, it is actually. And, and it's funny earlier that you just mentioned about, you know, that your editor didn't like the first draft. You’ve written an essay about that and I totally resonated with that. And I'm thinking, how do you get through those times? You know, when your baby gets criticized?

B. A. Shapiro:

I don't know. I mean, there are so many times, and I'm sure this is true of your husband too. You say, why am I doing this? The book I'm working on now is a ridiculously difficult book that I took on myself and it's really, really hard. And like, I came to the dinner table last night and said to my husband, why do I do this to myself? You know, I could be retired.

Carol Cram:

Me too, I don't actually have to do this.

B. A. Shapiro:

Right. And yet I'm driven to do it.

Carol Cram:

Yes. I think what might drive us, I think what drives me, is always wanting to be better each book you do so, like you're saying, the book you're working on now is, you know, ridiculously difficult, but I would imagine that's why you're enjoying it so much even though when you're not enjoying it.

B. A. Shapiro:

Well, that's true. I have a book that's coming out next spring and that was ridiculously difficult, but I finally, after four years, managed to pull it off and then I came up with an idea for the next one that's, like, quadruple as difficult.

Carol Cram:

Oh, I can hardly wait. I find it also interesting that you mentioned in one of your essays that you wrote that I found on your website, that you call yourself a cowardly writer. And I love that because I thought, oh yeah, I resonate with that. You don't like to begin a book until, you know, there's an end. I've talked to a lot of authors that are fine with that. I'm not. And then I'm thinking, well, what's wrong with me, but tell us about your struggles with getting a novel going.

B. A. Shapiro:

Well, for me, I am a cowardly writer. I, as I'm sure, you know, many writers who just have a vague idea, or they have a character, or they have a place, and they just sit down and start writing without knowing where they're going. But I can't do that. I need to know that the story has a beginning, a middle and an end.

You know, I'm a statistician. And I use all of these crazy statistical methods to write my books with, you know, with normal curves and bubble grams, intention charts, and all kinds of crazy stuff. And I need that to feel like I can start. Then of course, when I start, it all changes, but I don't care. That's, that's okay. As long as I know there's at least one through line. Only one novel have I ended the way I thought it was going to end and I've written, this is now, I'm on my 13th novel. So, you do all this planning and then you don't use it.

One piece of advice that I always give to writers is that you just have to write it wrong. You have to let yourself write it wrong, and then you can rewrite and rewrite and rewrite until you get it right. But if you try to write it right, quote unquote, as if you even knew what that was at the beginning, you're never going to get beyond the beginning. 

Carol Cram:

I think you have to realize that there's no wasted time.

B. A. Shapiro:

Right? Exactly.

Carol Cram:

You know, because I, sometimes they go, I just wrote like, you know, 5,000 words that I'm just going to now throw out and that took me a month or whatever. But yeah, it's not wasted, is it?

B. A. Shapiro:

Well, we have to believe it's not, don’t we?

Carol Cram:

It just makes us feel better to believe that.

B. A. Shapiro:

So, like, I spent 10 years writing three novels. So, I had five published by major publishers, you know, Avon Books and HarperCollins. And then I spent 10 years writing these three books. None of them got published. And then, as I said before, I wrote The Art Forger and I have to believe that that 10-year period of writing those three books is what got me to finally write my breakout book.

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And now back to the show.

Carol Cram:

So talk a little bit about The Art Forger. Like The Collectors Apprentice, it explores the idea that we often see what we want to see. This really relates to forgery. Can you expand a little bit on that?

B. A. Shapiro:

As I said, this was going to be my last book. Um, after the three had gotten rejected, I convinced myself to write one more and then this was going to be it. I was going to start another career. I've had many careers. So I thought I would start another career. And we had just moved into the city of Boston and suddenly I was walking distance to all of these fabulous museums and galleries and artists' studios. And that's why I decided to write a book about art. 

And so I decided I was going to write about the Isabella Stewart Gardner. Again, this was, it was going to be like a novelization of her life, which didn't happen. And then I got really intrigued by the heist that happened at her museum in 1990, where half a billion dollars of artwork was stolen and it's going on 30 years. and none of it has been found. 

And so I started with that and then one day I just stumbled onto a website about art forgery, and I got totally, completely pulled into that world and then just kept digging deeper and deeper and deeper. And over and over again, the way that the forgers succeeded was by giving people what they wanted to believe was real. And basically making them see something that wasn't there. And I just thought that was just such an interesting idea. And so I started twisting it around. 

So in Claire’s story, there's one way that she's creating something that is what people want to see. And then there's a past story where it's the opposite, where the whole thing is flipped on its head because don't we all see what we want to see? 

I mean, isn't, you know, what's happening. I don't want to get too much into politics, but the partisanship that we're experiencing as a country now is because people are looking and listening to what they want to hear and see. And other people are looking at and listening to what they want to see. And that becomes their reality.

Carol Cram:

Yes, very much so. I was actually thinking how timely that is, this concept of seeing what we want to see. I mean, how do we break out of that? I don't know. I mean, of course that was what was happening in the novel as well. 

B. A. Shapiro:

We're human beings. We're a very, very flawed species.

Carol Cram:

We certainly are. I was also struck by, at the end of the novel, Claire, your main character, gained success as a visual artist, which as I know is no mean feat, but I was wondering, there's a bit of a parallel there to the success you've achieved yourself. You're now a New York Times bestseller and widely read. How does the success make your writing easier or harder?

B. A. Shapiro:

I think it makes it easier in many ways, because I know when I'm writing a book that it is going to be published, unless I totally and completely screw it up. So now I have contracts and I've taken money and my publisher is going to publish this book, whereas pretty much up until The Art Forger and including The Art Forger when I was writing it, I did not know. And I often was unfortunately made aware of the fact that not all books get published, so that makes it much easier. 

It's harder because I know the scrutiny that everything that I write now is going to come under and you probably experienced this too in this world of, you know, websites and emails and, and then all of the Goodreads and Amazon and all that stuff, people are going to pick apart every single thing that you do and then grade you on it.

So the novel that's coming out in the spring has a variety of different characters in it who come from different walks of life and they're rich and they're poor and they're black and they're brown and they're white and they're gay and they're straight and all different ages. 

And writing a book as a white woman from the viewpoint of all of these different characters in today's moment is very stressful. I don't know. I mean, it's kind of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation. So my editor and I have been working really closely on these issues, but the characters are who they are. They're not me.

Carol Cram:

You have to write your story. So let's talk about the new novel. What’s the sort of overview of that one? Does it have anything to do with art?

B. A. Shapiro:

Well, originally after writing these three, I decided I wanted to write something completely different. And I was going to write a novel that took place in Boston, where I lived, that took place in the present day that didn't have anything to do with art. And that had one main character in one main story. I was just going to streamline everything. So the book does take place in Boston and it does take place in the present day, but it has six viewpoint characters, each with their own storyline. And it's about photography.

So I got to explore photography and I also got to explore, which is kind of the day. I mean, it's, it's a thriller and all kinds of, you know, stuff happens and it's a usual BA book, but it also explores the issue of class in America, not just class, when you think about the rich and the poor, but it's about how the class that you're born into has such a huge piece of where you're going to end up, which is antithetical to what we tell ourselves about America, the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps stuff. So each of these characters comes from different places and they each have different problems and get, you know, enmeshed with each other. And then at the end, everybody ends up where they were at the beginning.

Carol Cram:

So we are very influenced by the class we come from? Yeah, we think we're the same in Canada. We think, oh, we don't have a, you know, we're a class of society. That's totally not true. Never has been.

B. A. Shapiro:

So that's the theme of this book, which right now we're calling Metropolis, but publicity and marketing haven't gotten a hold of it yet. They're the ones who end up deciding on what they're going to call it.

Carol Cram:

And that is coming out in next year.

B. A. Shapiro:

Yeah. It should be sometime, I'm pushing for late spring next year, figuring that, you know, things should be opening up. And, uh, I should be able to go on a book tour and that it's a lot easier to go on book tours in the spring and summer. So that's what I'm pushing for. But again, marketing and publicity may have their own ideas and tend to get what they want.

Carol Cram:

That's true. Yes. I just want to talk a little bit about research because your novels rely on such an incredible amount of research. Can you share some advice for authors on your research methods?

B. A. Shapiro:

Sure. Um, well, I'm actually an academic. I am a trained academic. I have a PhD in sociology, so research comes naturally to me, but, you know, when you do academic research, you have to go to every last detail of everything anybody has ever written on your subject. But when you write a novel, you just go to where you're not interested in anymore and then make the rest of the stuff up. So it's so much more fun, but the important thing for writers, and I learned this the hard way, is my advice would be, don't do too much research upfront. So my earliest books I did, uh, the first book that I had published, it's called Shattered Echoes. I spent a year researching Boston in the late 19th century. I had probably read, you know, I don't know, 50 books. I would walk up and down the streets of the area of Boston called Back Bay.

I studied architecture, I got it. You know, I did all of this stuff. And then I learned when I did this again for the next couple of books. And then I learned over time that you spend, you waste a lot of time doing that, that you need to find out, which is what I do now, find out where the information is. So I still have a huge number of books, but I don't read them from front to back. Um, I skim them and make notes of where information is. I do the same thing on websites. And then when I'm writing, I see what research I want to use and then delve more deeply into it. On the other hand, to just complicate this, I have found research is my greatest source of ideas, as I was saying about doing the research for The Muralist. You know, that's when I found out about the WPA, that's when I found out about Eleanor Roosevelt. So those are two major stories of that book. So it's a balance, and it's a tough balance, to know where to keep digging and when to stop. Okay.

Carol Cram:

There's one of the fun things about research is when you're kind of reading around your subject, you actually don't know what you're looking for. And then suddenly something pops in like, like what you said with Eleanor Roosevelt. Those are the fun times, but of course you can't always predict when that's going to happen, but yeah, that's good advice. Don't actually do too much.

B. A. Shapiro:

It also is the great procrastination.

Carol Cram:

Oh my gosh, absolutely. 

B. A. Shapiro:

You know, we're all prone to do it. Um I have worked with a writers group for many, many years and we have a bunch of different sayings and we bring our work in. And one of the sayings is your research is showing. 

Carol Cram:

The dreaded info dump.

B. A. Shapiro:

Yup. And this is another piece of advice is that when you do all this research, you get really interested in it and then you write it, but you write almost always, I'd be amazed if this wasn't the case for the vast majority of writers, when you first write it, you put in too much because you know, more. And so I always see the research as the tip of the iceberg is what goes into the book, the very tip and all of that other stuff, holding it up is good for verisimilitude, but don't put it all in.

Carol Cram:

No, because basically what is it that readers want? They want a story. But yeah, I find it an endlessly difficult thing, research, because of, you know, uh, I keep thinking, oh, I should read, you know, 10 books before I get started, but I don't want to, I want to get started writing the novel. So I'm always, I'm always fighting with myself. Should I spend time on research? Should I be writing?

B. A. Shapiro:

What I've learned is that I do both. Like right now for my new book, I have probably, there are nine books sitting on my desk, which are full of tags and highlights. And I know what's generally what's in each of the books and I'm, you know, 200 pages into the book and then I'll grab one of those and continue the research, write that chapter that I needed for go onto the next one. Maybe grab a different book.

Carol Cram:

So actually that's a good segue. What are you working on now? Or can you share that?

B. A. Shapiro:

I can share it. This is my ridiculous idea. So it's set up as a standard murder mystery in many ways, but it turns out that the suspect in the murder is an artist who actually has multiple personality disorder. So it's an examination, it's a legal thriller. It's also a psychological thriller. My main character has four different viewpoints. She's really four characters in one.  And each one does a very different kind of art. And so there's a forensic psychologist who used to be an art therapist that's working with her and then there's her lawyer and all three of them are interacting. And then there's all this other stuff going on, which is making me crazy at the moment. 

Carol Cram:

It's, so it's contemporary.

B. A. Shapiro:

Yes, but I'm doing a lot of research on the psychological piece and the multiple personality piece and the legal piece. But fortunately I have, you know, I have friends who are lawyers and judges and psychologists. And so I have a lot of people who are helping me. It's still a mess. 

Carol Cram:

That's another piece of advice for writers is, you know, get help. 'Cause people are very generous with their time, I've always found.

B. A. Shapiro:

Yeah. Well, my theory of that is, yeah, I found that very generous. So my theory of that is, is that most people go to work every day or these days stay at home and work every day. And then you get to the dinner table and you start telling your family or your partner or whomever about your day and their eyes just start to glaze over. You know, they're just not all that interested, but when you approach somebody and you want, like I'm sitting in these artists’ studios with them asking them questions about what they do, and everybody loves to talk about what they do, a lawyer I'm working with spends way more time than I need him to spend giving me all of these details of everything because he loves the law, and he wants to share it. So yeah, don't be afraid to ask anybody, you know, I mean, whether it's a prof or a lawyer or a psychologist or a historian or an archivist, or...

Carol Cram:

They're there, they're always excited as, particularly academics like, oh wow, you're actually interested in, you know, early 19th-century theater. Like, even my students don't care.

B. A. Shapiro:

Right. Right. Well, that's the whole point, you know, as the people in your world don't care nearly as much as some author who wants to write about what you do.

Carol Cram:

Thank you so much for chatting with me today, Barbara, this has just been delightful.

B. A. Shapiro:

I feel exactly the same way. So thank you for inviting me.