This week, Rachel Kramer Bussel--senior editor at
Penthouse Variations, host of In The Flesh Reading Series, SexisMagazine.com columnist, and editor of over 30 erotic anthologies, most recently, Orgasmic and Fast Girls-- asks Susan Shapiro--author of the novels Overexposed and Speed Shrinking, along with memoirs Five Men Who Broke My Heart, Lighting Up, and Only as Good as Your Word--five questions about ambition, jealousy, fiction, and speed shrinking itself.
1. You wrote in Publisher’s Weekly that your mentor told you, "You have no imagination whatsoever. Stop writing fiction," and you’re now known for your multiple memoirs and nonfiction writing. Why did you continue to pursue novel writing after your success with nonfiction?
Well my favorite books are novels (Great Gatsby, Possession
) and my fiction's fantasy parents are Erica Jong's Fear of Flying
and Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint
. Fiction seems a higher calling. They don't give Nobel prizes for memoirs. Plus I've already published three memoirs in my forties --and I have a fairly nondramatic life and don't want to jump out of planes in Afghanistan. So I'm trying to develop an imagination in my middle age... Also truthfully, none of my memoirs were bestsellers. After I quit all my addictions I got addicted to book deals. To keep getting them I had to reinvent myself.
2. Overexposed was born from a nonfiction article you wrote about being jealous of your friend, a fellow New Yorker editorial assistant, marrying your brother and ditching her career to live in the Midwest. How much did you change when you fictionalized it, and how was that process different from writing your memoirs?
I joke that it took me until 48 to write a happy, hip, successful 26-year-old character that pleased my 26-year-old editor... I changed the time frame and setting to make it faster and more dramatic. I've known the real "Elizabeth" 28 years, since the early '80s but Overexposed
takes place in eight years, from 2000-2008.
It's harder for me to lie and make up things. Happily, my undergrad students like my fiction better. I started publishing memoirs in my forties and they relate to me as a younger, single, poorer, hungrier character.
3.Overexposed explores female ambition and jealousy, as well as issues like urban vs. suburban life, motherhood vs. career, and wealth. Beyond telling an entertaining story, is there a message you were trying to convey to readers?
I wanted the photographer heroine Ricky to stay single and adore her career (which I do). My first female shrink, Patty Gross, gave me this brilliant advice when I was in my early twenties: "Love doesn't make you happy, make yourself happy. Then you'll get love." The minute Ricky pursues her passion and gives up on men, they all come back. But she's kind of too happy and busy to care.
4. Overexposed was 13 years in the making from your original idea to the publication date. What advice do you have for fellow writers who’ve written a novel (or novels) but success seems elusive?
Take my class or my Secrets of Selling Your First Book Seminar! Ha! But really, 40 of my students have sold books in the last 3 years -- fiction and nonfiction, with advances from $5000 to $500,000. So it's totally doable. Editors are dying for great new material every day.
I've gotten all the advice down to 4 hours. To sum up: Read what you want to write. Get a mentor. Study with an author you admire who will give you a tough critique. Start or join a writing group. Before you go to agents, pay a professional ghost editor (If you e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org I'll recommend the ones I use, my secret weapon for selling 7 books in 7 years.)
5. To promote Speed Shrinking, you’ve hosted and continue to host bookstore events where attendees get a few free minutes with a shrink. What’s been the most interesting thing to come out of those events?
I'm bringing speed shrinking to L.A. on August 19. My brilliant freelance publicist Barb Burg helped me come up with the idea. They say you can't get on TV for a first novel and she helped get me on TV five times. I always tell my students "No doesn't mean no." It means rewrite, revise, reinvent and then send it to someone else who'll get it.