Dani Shapiro on Secrets, Spirituality and “Beacons” | entertainment

Dani Shapiro, bestselling author of the memoir Inheritance, has written a deeply poignant new novel that follows two families as they wrestle with their own mysteries and tragedies over the course of three decades, and intertwine their lives in unexpected ways. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“Signal Fires” follows members of two families who live across from each other in a New York suburb called Avalon. Can you tell me about the Wilfs and the Shenkmans?

I was very interested in what is happening in a neighborhood on a particular street over time. The families, who have all chosen to live on Division Street and may not have much in common, have somehow cast their lot with each other. The Wilfs are a family who moved to Division Street, Avalon in 1970 when one child was a toddler and the other was not yet born. We see them in different places, but when we meet them in 2010, Benjamin Wilf, the father, is alone in his house. I was haunted by this image of a man looking out the window of the house where he had raised his family on the last night he would ever spend in this house.

He sees this 11-year-old boy, Waldo, out his window. He’s looking out his window for a completely different reason: because he’s obsessed with the cosmos. He’s brilliant and lonely, and he really was born to parents who don’t understand him. Just because we’re connected by blood doesn’t mean we necessarily know or understand each other.

Waldo is a boy who seems to have a special insight into the world, experiencing it in a way that Friedrich Nietzsche would call “the eternal return” but is also found in Indian and ancient Greek philosophy. How did Waldo come to this philosophy?

Waldo embodies a large part of the way I think about connectedness, which is the spiritual philosophy I have come to over the years. I have a long-standing meditation practice, and if I lean in any direction now, it’s towards Buddhist thought. Waldo reads Pema Chodron. Waldo feels most grounded and centered when he perceives himself as a tiny speck in an infinite universe. He also has a mindset about connections between people that aren’t obvious. I would say that of all these characters, Waldo is probably the closest to me. He is the glue of the novel; he is the one who sees.

Carl Jung says that keeping a secret is like “a psychic poison.” Secrets have long been a focus of your work, and you host a popular podcast called Family Secrets. What draws you to secrets?

I think I’ve been pushed into secrets all my life without knowing why. From the beginning, as a writer, I have written about the power of secrets in families. I knew I grew up in a family where my parents kept secrets, but they felt like pretty big secrets. Then, when I made the discovery I wrote about in Inheritance, that my parents had kept the truth about my identity from me, it was like I needed glasses and never knew I needed them. The world was a bit blurry and then I suddenly saw everything so clearly: my childhood, what shaped me without my knowledge, my feeling of being a stranger.

Writing has always been both a tool and a craft for me. It has an aspect of excavation. One of the most extraordinary things for me, when I go back and re-read my early work, is it’s all there. There were things I couldn’t think of that are embedded in these books. It was a live wire; it would have burned me to actually consider these things, to actually bring them into consciousness. On a deep, bone-like level, I knew my father wasn’t my father. Ironically, if I hadn’t taken this DNA test, I would never have known. I would have digged further and I don’t think I could have finished Signal Fires.

Readers who have read “Inheritance” may have noticed that your biological father shares the same name and occupation as the father in “Signal Fires.” Can you tell me something about this connection?

This is really very mysterious to me. Ben Wilf was a character that was fully formed in my imagination years before I discovered that I had another biological father and met him. The first segment in 2010, where Ben and Waldo meet under the tree, is almost unchanged from the time I first wrote it.

When I was writing Signal Fires in the present tense, it never once occurred to me to call my character the same alias I used for my birth father in Inheritance. They both have the same initials, which probably sounds completely bananas, but I never consciously considered it until my son, who is in his early 20s and is one of my early readers, stood in my office and pointed it out to me. What is that?

The filename for the novel when I originally wrote it was The Magic Novel. Coming back to Waldo, there’s something profound and mysterious about the way we’re connected. When I found out that my father wasn’t my biological father, I felt like I could be walking through an airport or at a crowded party or on the street and someone who could be deeply connected to me could walk past me and I had absolutely no idea. It’s a dramatic example, but I think we all have it. Why do we feel comfortable with some people and really awkward with others? Why does it feel like some people are part of our existence in some way? This has nothing to do with similarities. It’s like mirror neurons or something I can’t understand.

As I read this book, I felt it was written with a palpable maternal energy. How does parenting affect the way you think about your characters?

I think in a way I feel like a mother to all my characters. Most notably about Waldo, who was my son’s age when I started writing the novel. I hadn’t thought about it before, but there’s an omniscient narrator, and even if we move into the inner workings of the main characters, there’s still a knowing that in some ways mirrors this cosmic knowing that Waldo is describing. This knowledge is very motherly and is laid over all these characters like a blanket or like beacons themselves.

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