Dani Shapiro, SIGNAL FIRES: A Novel

Dani Shapiro, SIGNAL FIRES: A Novel

In this special episode (a live event for the Streicker Center!) Zibby speaks to national bestselling author and repeat MDHTTRB guest Dani Shapiro about the spectacular, 15-years-in-the-making Signal Fires (a TIME Best Book of the Year and a Washington Post Notable Work of Fiction). Dani talks about the powerful and unexpected connections between her characters, her profound compassion for them, and her story’s complex and kaleidoscopic structure. She also shares her views on life and what happens after it, which she explored beautifully in her memoir Devotion. Finally, she reveals the details of her book’s TV adaptation and answers questions from the audience. P.S. Dani is one of Zibby’s all time favorite authors!!


Marjorie Shuster: Good morning. I am Marjorie Shuster, coordinator of literary events here at the Temple Emanu-El Streicker Cultural Center. Welcome to the final session for this semester of Women on the Move. It’s a great session because we are very, very thrilled to welcome author Dani Shapiro. Dani is the author of eleven books, the host and creator of the hit podcast “Family Secrets.” Her most recent novel, Signal Fires, the book we’re discussing today, is named Best Book of 2022 by Time magazine, Washington Post, Amazon, and others and is a national best-seller. Her most recent memoir, Inheritance, was an instant New York Times best-seller when it was released in 2019. Signal Fires is currently being adapted by Dani to be a television series. Our moderator today is Zibby Owens. Zibby has her hand in just about every aspect of the publishing industry. Let’s see. She’s written three books. She owns a magazine. She is just about to own a bookstore. She has a publishing company. Apparently, that mom does have time to do it all. Please welcome Zibby and Dani.

Zibby Owens: Thanks, Marjorie.

Marjorie: Hello, Zibby. Hello, Dani. I really look forward to this discussion.

Dani Shapiro: Thanks, Marjorie.

Zibby: Hi, Dani. How are you?

Dani: Hi, Zibby. Doing well. How are you?

Zibby: I’m great. This is so fun. As you know, you have been my favorite author forever and ever. I should’ve pulled out — I have all your original copies of Slow Motion and all the other ones behind me. It’s so nice to be talking to you again today as a lifetime fan.

Dani: Both of us in our studies.

Zibby: Signal Fires, oh, my gosh, so, so beautiful. As you saw, I just recommended it on Good Morning America, but it didn’t need that. Everybody who’s read it is like, oh, my gosh, have you read Signal Fires? It’s the best book I’ve read in so long. It’s such a great novel. I totally agree. It’s just wonderful. I didn’t realize, because originally, I had the galley, but that on the hardcover you even have this little fingerprint and cutout of the tree situation here as well.

Dani: I know. That was such a beautiful detail. Knopf, my publisher, did such a gorgeous job with this book. What it looks like is what it feels like. At least, that’s what I hope. In my computer, when I was writing it and it didn’t have a title yet, my title for it, actually still is in my file, Magic Novel. Just Magic Novel. I didn’t have a title until I finished it. I think that design really captures some of that.

Zibby: Totally. Dani, for those who have not read Signal Fires yet, would you mind giving the quick synopsis?

Dani: Sure. The way that I think of Signal Fires is that it revolves around this constellation of characters. There are seven main characters that are comprised of two families, the Wilfs and the Shenkmans. The Wilfs and the Shenkmans live in a fictional town called Avalon that is something like if Dobbs Ferry met early Westport. That’s how I think of Avalon. The Wilfs first move there in 1970. The Shenkmans don’t move there until just before New Year’s of 1999. These families end up very powerfully connected to each other, not simply because they live on the same street, Division Street, but because there are these complex connections between them over the span of their lifetime. The novel takes place over the course of fifty years, but it’s not chronological. It moves in and around time. I think that the beating heart of the book for me is a young boy — he’s a young boy when we meet him; he’s eleven — named Waldo Shenkman, who really is the one who sees everything and connects everything both in this neighborhood and in terms of the history of what happened on this street in this town. A tragic accident does start the book out, but I’m really trying to not describe it that way because the book is not about a tragic accident. It’s about the aftermath. All of life is an aftermath, in a way. I was really interested in exploring how the impact of both having had something really difficult happen and then the choice to keep that a secret, how that was going to impact them over the course of decades and decades in their lives.

Zibby: I feel like the book has an accident, but it’s about the meaning of life and the meaning of family. It’s about everything, everything from the trees, the matter around us to the stars above to the people you love. It’s about everything, in a way. To tell the everything, you have to go really specific. I feel like that’s what you did as a point of reference.

Dani: I started the book a long time ago and sort of lost my way, which we can talk about if that’s of interest. The thing for me is that when I returned to it, which is not something I ever thought I was going to do — I never thought I was going to return to that manuscript. I thought I had just lost it. It was in the early days of the pandemic. One of the many things swirling around my head and my heart in those early days of the pandemic — I think this is true for so many of us — was the deep understanding of how connected we all are, the deep understanding of just the interdependence and interconnectivity of what it is to be a human being on the planet. The book was already about that, but it went into warp speed of really being about the ways in which we rely on one another both consciously and sometimes without ever knowing why. I was so interested in exploring that and the ways that our lives can glance up against each other with perfect strangers. Yet why sometimes do we meet someone and think, “I know you. You are so familiar to me”? That sense of deep and powerful connection, I wanted to explore that. There are people who are connected to each other in this book because they are family, because they had grown up together, because they’re related to each other, but there also are people who are connected in much more mysterious ways that become clear over the course of the book.

Zibby: Love it. I feel like this is your whole soulful, spiritual thing at play. I saw you at McNally Jackson with Amor Towles. You talked about how you had it in the drawer. You found it and said, what’s this kid up to? What would he be up to now if we fast-forwarded him in time to today? Talk about that. I found that fascinating.

Dani: I loved that realization because don’t we all want to do that in some way? I know I do. I’d just like a glimpse. Can I just see what — when I first started Signal Fires, the Magic Novel, my son was around Waldo’s age. He was ten, eleven years old. I could imagine little glimmers of who he might become. I mean Waldo, not my son. I was very focused on his life as an eleven-year-old boy. I was just in love with this character. When I lost my way in those initial pages it was because I was telling the story backward in time. I was very committed to that structure. The structure wasn’t working, but I was just hell-bent on making it work and having it conform to my will. It doesn’t work that way when you’re writing a novel. When I returned to it and reread those pages, I had the thought, now it’s 2020. Who would that eleven-year-old boy be? Oh, he’d be a college student, probably. He was a special, brilliant child. If he wasn’t broken by life, he would end up being this really remarkable young adult, which is what I wanted for him and what happened. This would be the beginning of the pandemic. Where would he be? Would he be back at home in his childhood room? What would have happened to his parents?

Another character in the novel is named Theo Wilf. He is a chef. When we meet him in 1999 and in 2010 in sections that I had already written, he is actually becoming a well-known chef with a tiny, little gem of a restaurant in Brooklyn. I thought, who would Theo be in 2020 right in the first wave of COVID hitting New York City? What would he be doing? Food is love for him. How would he be navigating the pandemic? It just really opened up in my mind. I thought, instead of telling this story in a linear way and instead of telling the story backward, which didn’t work, I can really unplug time, upend time, and tell the story in all of these different layers of time with these seven characters and these key moments in our lives. Not every year, not every day, not every month, not even every decade is necessarily the most profound, but we know the moments that are. I wanted to explore those moments but, as you said Zibby, in a very detailed, specific, very grounded way for each of the characters.

Zibby: It’s easy to say that theoretically. I’m going to play with time. I’m going to mix it up. You have so many pages of stories and scenes and material and characters. How did you do that? Did you print it out and put it on the floor and rearrange? Did you just cut and paste? How did you execute that vision?

Dani: It’s a great question. In the fifteen years between when I started this novel and when I returned to it, I learned a lot in my nonfiction writing, in my memoir writing about how to tell a story in a more kaleidoscopic way. My memoir Hourglass begins and ends in the same place. I was very fond of saying when that book came out, there is no plot. My publisher wasn’t so happy with me, probably, but there wasn’t a plot in the traditional sense of, is plot what keeps us turning the pages? In some books, yes. In mysteries, yes. I have become increasingly interested both as a writer and a reader over these years in the way that we experience time. We’re always bringing our pasts along with us. We are always every age we’ve ever been in some way. A smell or a sight or a sound or a moment or an event can be like a portal. A game of Chutes and Ladders is the way that I always think of it. You’re moving along, moving along, moving along, and whoop, actually, you’re back to square one. You’re back to that memory or that moment. Our memories are not chronological. When we think about our future, we don’t know what will happen, but we also have fantasies or dreams or fears or anxieties. All of that is always at play. We’re kind of carrying our futures and our pasts alongside us all the time.

I wanted to create that on the page. No, I did not cut and paste. I did not spread it all over my office floor. Although, in the case of others of my books, I’ve much more had to identify the pattern. In this case, and it was this really profound experience, those hundred pages that I had written fifteen years ago, they remained intact. They were in a time capsule. There were like an insect trapped in amber. They already existed, really, as they were. When I went back into the book with the knowledge of, I’m going to add 2020 to this mix, suddenly, I realized that the events that begin to take place on this one night in 2010, we can come back to that. We can move forward. We can move backward. As long as the reader is with me, as long as I’ve created — the way that I think of them is — it’s not a particularly literary term. It’s like lily pads. We’ll jump from one lily pad to another if the author has given us the faith and the confidence and the trust that she knows what she’s doing and is going to be able to guide the story and create the story. When I returned to the book, I actually wrote what is now the very, very opening, those few pages of the accident, of the tragedy that happens that takes place in a night in 1985. I wrote them. Somebody recently wrote something online about that opening page very admiringly, which was lovely, and asked me how long it took or something like that. I said fifteen years. That opening sentence took me fifteen years to write. It was building in me somewhere, even though I never thought I would return to it. Really, from then on, I understood the way that I wanted time to move. I wanted these characters to be carrying along their pasts and also inhabiting their futures as we were reading about them in whatever slice of life they were in.

Zibby: Wow. I remember taking a writing class at one point. We were all explaining things so much. I remember the teacher saying something like, don’t underestimate the reader. The reader can pick things up so quickly and figure things out. I feel like you’ve given so much respect to the reader here to be like, I’m in it. I get it. I can follow you wherever you go. It’s really masterful to pull it off. It might sound simple, but it is not. That was great. Interestingly, you were talking about memory and all of how our past experiences build into who we are at a certain time and going down these rabbit holes, if you will. Yet Mimi is struggling so much with even being in the here and now as her memories all slip. You have to inhabit her character and try to portray a world where everything is the ultimate time mash-up, is sort of how it is at the end. Talk about writing that.

Dani: There were two particular points of view that I was on the edge of my seat as I writing them because I thought, can I do this? Is it doable? Is it doable by me? One of them was Mimi. Mimi Wilf is the mother of this family, the Wilfs. When we first meet her, she’s younger. When we meet her again and we really enter her consciousness, she’s in the throes of Alzheimer’s. I knew something about that. I had a front-row seat to my beloved mother-in-law’s decline. I certainly was never sitting with her and thinking I would ever write a character like that. I never thought about it. When Mimi’s mind started slipping away, one of the things I thought about was that she no longer recognizes people. She doesn’t really know where she is. She’s kind of unstuck in time herself. She does know who she loves. She experiences love. She might not be able to recognize her grandchild or her child, but she knows that this is someone that she loves. In a way, what she’s trying to do is get home to them. With that understanding and also the unpinning of time so that she is really at every age she’s ever been in her mind and the ways in which — I don’t know that that’s what it’s like, but I imagine that that might be what it’s like.

So much of writing a novel is an act of the empathic imagination or compassion. One thing that really felt new for me in Signal Fires is that I had endless stores of compassion for all of my characters. In other fiction of mine, there tended to be — there are difficult characters in Signal Fires, but somehow, the narrative voice allows for us to really understand these people and to feel for them. I’ve always felt for all of my characters, but I’m not sure I had quite those stores of empathy. It’s as if the narrative voice of the novel itself is a maternal voice that’s holding all of these characters, can’t intervene, can’t fix things, can’t make their lives perfect, sometimes stands back and goes, oh, no, I wish she wouldn’t do that, but still has such love for them. I think that that’s how I approached Mimi, in that way. Then the other character where I was really on the edge of my seat writing was — I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s a scene where I’m basically writing in a newborn’s point of view for just a couple of pages. It couldn’t go on very long. I thought, can I do this? It’s exciting for me as a writer to access something that is both universal, familiar, and that isn’t something that I have direct conscious experience of.

Zibby: It’s almost like a maypole. You remember how all those things go? You have all the different things. Then by the end of it, you have a wrapped pole, if you will, that’s beautiful. I feel like that’s the way you threaded all the things. Even a character like Shenkman, who is not particularly a savory character, it took a lot to get you to — I feel like finally at the end, we can empathize a lot more. There’s almost this sadness and, not nostalgia, but it’s this melancholy feeling we have towards him. Opportunities lost, what did he miss out on? Even a character like that, whose behavior at some times is not the best, can be redeemed in the overall beautiful end product. That was a ramble, but go with me.

Dani: No, no, I’m with you. Shenkman, for me, was the character I’d be sitting back and shaking my head going, oh, Shenkman. Oh, Shenkman, get out of your own way. Do better. You’re better than this. You can do better than this. He couldn’t. To me, he’s actually a pretty tragic character. It’s not a spoiler to say, basically, he’s not a good dad. He’s not a good dad, paradoxically, because — he loves his son. He wants the best for his son, but his idea of what’s the best and his own insecurities don’t allow him to meet him son where he is. Also, his son Waldo is a very special boy. Specialness is not always rewarded in middle school. Who would really want to go back to middle school given the opportunity? I know I wouldn’t.

Zibby: That’s actually what the middle school head of my kid’s school — we had a pre-fifth grade parents’ seminar. He had all of us raise our hands and say, who would actually go back to middle school right now? No one raised their hand. A couple people raised their hand.

Dani: I did in front of a big audience at the Miami Book Fair a couple weeks ago. I asked the same question. I was interviewing Paulina Porizkova. She was talking about the misery of being six feet tall in middle school. I asked a couple hundred people, how many of you would go back? One person in the front row raised her hand. That was it out of — Shenkman wants Waldo to have an easy life. Shenkman’s idea of what that would look like is, be “normal.” Do “normal things.” Waldo wants to stare at the cosmos. Shenkman wants him to play little league. It’s like that. He’s not able to see the uniqueness and the brilliance of his son, and so he really, really messes up. The thing is, and the thing that makes him tragic, is he knows he’s messing up. He knows. He’s buying books on anger management. He’s trying. He knows his wife Alice is unhappy and disappointed in him and drinking too much chardonnay. He knows, and yet he can’t get out of his own way. In the end, he really does feel like he messed up the one thing I think we can all agree we most don’t want to mess up if we’re parents, which is, he wasn’t a good dad. That’s tragic. I did have such compassion for him because he came from someone who was like that, who came from someone who was like that. He couldn’t break the cycle.

Zibby: I think it represents that we all have something about ourselves that we wish we didn’t have. He is the representative of that. You know you’d like this little piece of you to change, but sometimes it’s just part of the package no matter what you do. I feel like he represents something like that as well. I really loved the character of Sarah Wilf, who’s also struggling. They’re all struggling in their own ways with so many different things, and identity. That’s why it’s so interesting. I just wanted to read this paragraph from her point of view if that’s okay. She’s describing a New Year’s Eve. Party like it’s 1999. You said, “It’s a cozy domestic scene, the pretty table, the husband back from the market, the twins, their fingers stained pink and blue. She observes it from a few angles, a wide shot, a slow pan. It is she herself, Sarah Wilf, who is missing. She’s here, sure, but some essential part of her is not fully present. This has been true of her for so long that she hardly even notices anymore, and certainly, no one else would notice. She looks the part. She knows that. She has always looked the part. She is tiny, delicate, very pretty. She thinks this with zero vanity. It’s just a fact. She inherited her mother’s striking coloring, eyes that change with the light, sometimes green, sometimes amber, a long tangle of dark curls, a heart-shaped face, an innate composure. It all adds up, the degree from the right school, the string of jobs each more excellent than the last. No one would know that she is only ever a few steps away from the abyss.” I loved that.

Dani: Thanks for reading that. I haven’t heard that read aloud. That’s Sarah. It’s so many of us. There’s pieces of that in so many women I know, myself included. There’s the old adage, write what you know. This is not an autobiographical novel, but I also think it’s not a novel I could’ve written any sooner in my life, even though I tried, because there’s that feeling of understanding that people’s shiny exteriors often don’t tell the whole story, in fact, never tell the whole story, ever. I think we could probably just say that. One of the things that literature gets to do in a very direct way is access the interior life in that way. We can see what those party guests might see when they look at Sarah Wilf. We can also have direct access to her own monologue, the things going on in her mind that are private and secret only to her.

Zibby: I thought it was really a beautiful passage. You’re right, we never know what’s going on. Also, that time of life is so hard, the juggling and how much is going on. It’s not always the most personally rewarding when you’re a caretaker nonstop. There are so many caretakers in your book who deal with it in different ways too. Benjamin Wilf, with Mimi, also becomes a huge caretaker. He has a very different approach. I’m just going to read one more paragraph. Then I promise I’m done. This is from Benjamin’s point of view a little bit later. He says, “His bride, his wife, his life, she slipped away slowly. Parts of Mimi remained present for so long that it had been possible to have minutes, even hours, of pleasure together. Her smell, fresh, milky, a hint of the oil, immortelle flower she spread over her face each morning. She had always hummed while cooking, gardening, showering, walking, and she still hummed. Though now the tunes had changed. It took Ben a while to realize what was different, and when he did, it was with a sharp pang. These were now childhood melodies. She was careening backward in time. Mimi nestled her head into his shoulder whenever he visited her. She spread her crocheted blanket across their laps as they sat on a sofa in the vast living room of Avalon Hills, tucked them in as if they were companions on a long ski lift ride keeping warm, dangling high above the mountains.” So beautiful. Trying to keep hold of her, not let her fall. All these different ways that they love and take care for other people despite what’s going on with them.

Dani: Thank you. I love hearing that. To go back to the whole idea of time and the way that time marched on in those fifteen years when those characters were basically asleep in the drawer waiting for me to find them again, in those years — this was already a preoccupation of mine. I was thinking about the way, when we’re beginning our families and the choices that we make to move to a particular neighborhood, to send our kids to a particular school, to live in a particular district, in a particular town, to live in the city, to live in the suburbs, to live in the country, that we are entering into a world with other people, the parents, the parents that you just described in the fifth-grade school opening, the communities that we’re in, these synagogues, the community centers, the Ys, and just the neighborhoods themselves. Often, we don’t really necessarily have that much in common with the people that we’ve basically moved to this place at the same time as, had kids around the same age as. Yet it’s just this extraordinarily potent, vivid chapter in a life. It’s such a potent and vivid chapter that when we’re in it, we don’t have a sense that it’s a chapter, that there were all these chapters before and there will be chapters, God willing, after, and that those chapters actually add up to more time and more life than the X number of years of active parenting, childrearing, being in the absolute thick of that. What’s the expression? The days are long, and the years are short. The days are long, day after day after day. It can feel like this is all of life.

With Ben and Mimi, I was really interested what their lives were like after their kids were grown, after their kids moved to far-flung parts of the world. They remained in Avalon for a variety of reasons. Ben’s a doctor there. He worked at the hospital. Mostly, they were really just entrenched. They couldn’t imagine a life somewhere else, and so they stay in their house on this street while the other houses turn over. The Shenkmans move in. The neighborhood changes. Fancier cars start replacing older cars. Gym additions get built. Kids don’t play in the streets anymore. They get carted around by nannies or their parents to their various lessons. There’s just the sense that there is this passage of time. This place and the trees and the stars are unchanged, but the humanity that’s moving in and out of this place is ever evolving. That passage that you read of Ben and Mimi on their metaphorical ski lift is that. They are living a much later chapter in their lives. Yet they’re still in the place where they were young parents, where they first moved in as hopeful, just-starting-out couple moving to Avalon from the city. All of these different phases all the way, they’re all rich. They’re all, in their own way, beautiful. I wanted to try to get at that. Even in their frailty and even in the loss that is inherent in what’s happening in their marriage at that point in the book, it’s come out of this great commitment and love for each other.

Zibby: I love that. As you know, I have four kids. My youngest is now eight, so I feel like I’m out of the woods. I just wrote this essay that says, “Confession: I’m glad I don’t have small children anymore. Can I even say that?” It’s so hard. Even just having an eight-year-old as the youngest is life-changing. You’re like, oh, wow. Okay, so now here I am. I constantly am thinking about the passage of time and how it seemed like forever, and then it’s not there anymore at all. No more diaper bags and all of that. I’m just wondering, because towards the end of the book and as you said before, the view of the universe as containing all and nothing at the same time and where we all fit in as people, what is your — you don’t have to answer this. I’m wondering what your view is of what happens after death. I know you’re Jewish. You include Yom Kippur references. Inheritance was a lot about your background and your Judaism and all of that. I’m just curious what your thoughts are.

Dani: My thoughts continue to evolve and to obsess me. I’ve been thinking about this probably all my life. I was raised orthodox. That was one set of beliefs, and not beliefs that I really ever adhered to, but they were my family’s. That’s the music of my childhood, in a way. The landscape of my childhood very much was orthodoxy and going to shul with my dad. Then I left all that very much in the dust and really thought, if it’s all or nothing, then it’s going to have to be nothing. I can’t do all. I wrote a memoir called Devotion that’s very much about, my son, probably around the same age as your youngest, asked me what I believed. It sent me into a total existential crisis because I didn’t know how to answer that question. I didn’t know. I hadn’t thought about what I believed in a very long time. I felt like I owed it to him to live inside those questions. That’s what I do when I want to live some questions, is I write a book. I wrote Devotion. One of the things that happened as a result of writing Devotion is — it was really a life-changing book for me. I don’t mean the publication. I mean the realization that we are all more alike than we are different. It cured me in some strange, mystical way of my fear of public speaking, which is a good thing because I’ve had to do a lot of it. I would look out in an audience and just think, you all have the same preoccupations and fears and secret shames and desires and concerns and anxieties as I do. We all do. We just don’t talk about them. It’s not social chitchat.

Understanding that in drilling into the specificity of my own history — I really thought when I was writing Devotion that I was writing a book that no one would read because it was so idiosyncratically me. You’d have to be raised orthodox, and I didn’t know the half of it, but raised orthodox and an only child and older parents. My father died young. My son was sick. All this mishmash of my life, I felt like you’d have to pretty much have that exact overlay to identify with that book. I thought, that’s okay. I’ve written a book no one will read. All right. Then the book came out, and I started getting piles and piles of mail from people who were Jewish and Christian and Catholic and Muslim and raised fundamentalist and raised atheist and old and young and men and women and all over the world. I thought, oh. First of all, it was a reminder that the specific really is what’s universal. Also, I thought, this really is this yearning. I remember going and speaking to a conference of female rabbis. It was a national conference of female rabbis. I believe they were reform rabbis. There were seventy-five of them. What I came away from that day with was, oh, the rabbis don’t have the answers either. They have to act like they have the answers because that’s their job, but in fact, they’re yearning too. What is this yearning? I was on stage with a wonderful rabbi, Laura Geller, in Beverly Hills during that period of time. Laura Geller actually said in front of hundreds of people, the God of our childhoods fails us. It just went through me. I couldn’t believe, as a rabbi, that she could say that.

What I saw on the faces of all the people in the congregation was relief. Not horror. Not, oh, my god, no, you can’t tell me that. You’ve got to tell me that God’s a man with a big beard in the sky, and he’s getting us parking spaces, or whatever. Just the sense that there is mystery, that we don’t know. Yet I guess what I would say is — I am rambling. In Signal Fires, Waldo, I said earlier he’s the heart of it for me. He’s the voice of that. In some way or another, I think he embodies something of what I have come to believe, which is that it’s all connected. If we can live in that way — I’ll speak for myself. If I can live in that way, when I am living in that way, I am at my best. I am at my most connected to myself, to the world around me, to those who I love, to the strangers passing me on the street. That feeling like — you used the beautiful metaphor of the maypole. It may be like this giant cosmic maypole. The invisible threads is the way that Ralph Waldo Emerson would’ve described it. It’s like a tapestry that connects all of us. When I can feel that, I feel that I’m at my most spiritual, which is maybe a tenth of the time, but it’s the goal.

Zibby: My son, my eight-year-old again, was asking me the meaning of life the other night. I was like, “Everybody has to decide that for themselves. I feel like ultimately, the point is –” He was like, “What’s the point of it all?” I was like, “I think the point of it is to love. That’s the only thing we can all do and make the world better for everyone else.” I don’t know. I think anybody who purports to know with such authority, it raises questions as well. How can anyone actually know when we haven’t been there? I want to know next, what you’re up to. There are so many questions here. I want to get to them too. What is your next project that we can look forward to, aside, I’m assuming, from the continuation of “Family Secrets”? You’re a number-one podcaster in the world, in case people didn’t know that as well. Aside from that and your movie and whatever, what can we look forward to?

Dani: What I am embarking on, or I already did embark but I’m returning to embarking on right now, now that I’m coming to the end of the tour for Signal Fires is writing the TV pilot. It’s in development as a TV show, as a dramatic series. I am writing the pilot, which is not something I’ve ever done. Creating the podcast gave me a real sense of liberation or permission to try things that I haven’t done before. When I started the podcast, I didn’t make a big study of podcasting. I had no idea how to create a podcast. I think you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Zibby: I know exactly what you mean.

Dani: Learning that this different form of storytelling was something that resonated, something that I love doing — it’s completely different from writing fiction or writing memoir. I’m approaching the series and writing the pilot with that spirit of just, wow, I get to try something at this point in my career that I haven’t before. I also get to continue living with these characters because in order to write a TV series, I have to imagine — there’s a lot of space in Signal Fires. There’s a lot of years where we move across decades, and whatever happened in those decades doesn’t appear in the book. I get to decide now where I want to take them and where I want to go with them while retaining the integrity and the magic of the novel itself and of who these characters are to each other. I can expand it out, and so I’m not losing them yet. They still belong to me. When you finish a novel and you launch it into the world, the characters stop being yours. For me, when a reader has an opinion about Shenkman or has an opinion about Waldo, I love it. I don’t say, you’re wrong. I love hearing people argue about my characters. It’s why book clubs are so fantastic. I really feel like they are now in the readers’ hands, not my hands, except that I still get to hold onto them in this way for a little while longer.

Zibby: Was it you who posed today, or somebody else, the Joan Didion quote about how first, you get to know your characters, and then you never want to see them go? It’s on Instagram.

Dani: That’s funny. No, it wasn’t me.

Zibby: Someone I follow. That was my first thing that popped up today. I have to find it and send it to you. Lots of questions here. Francine asks, “Why does everyone have a first name, but not Shenkman? Can you explain?”

Dani: I just imagined Shenkman as someone who — he has a first name. Now in the pilot, he’s definitely going to have to have a first name. I’ve decided his first name should be something that, constantly, people get wrong. That just feels right to me. Maybe it’s Alfred, but everybody calls him Albert or something like that because that would go along with Shenkman’s feeling like the world has done him wrong. I liked the idea of a character who, even his wife calls him by his last name.

Zibby: It’s funny. Joyce asks, “When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Did you know as a child?”

Dani: I wrote as a child. I was a voracious reader as a child. I did not know as a child that it was possible to be a writer. My parents weren’t friends with writers and artists. I didn’t make the connection between the books that I was reading and the idea that there was someone out there spending their lives writing them. It really wasn’t until I got, I would say, to college at Sarah Lawrence where there were working writers there as teachers. That modeled for me. Sarah Lawrence is in Bronxville. It’s near the city. There were people who lived in the city and came up once or twice a week to teach who were real working writers in the world who also had a teaching job. Grace Paley, for example, was my teacher at Sarah Lawrence. For me, it showed me that that was a possible life. It still didn’t feel like a possible life for me. It took some time. In the end, I was twenty-seven or twenty-eight when my first novel was published. Up until that time, I went from being a late bloomer to being called precocious when my first novel came out. Overnight, I went from, I have no idea what I’m doing with my life, to launching my life as a writer. In retrospect, I think it was what I was all along, but I didn’t have a language for it.

Zibby: Caroline asks, “Having such compassion for these characters in this book, will this continue as you create future characters in a future novel?”

Dani: I sure hope so, Caroline. Yes, I think so. I think so because I think that those fifteen years from the time that I started the book and the time that I completed it was a crash course in compassion for me. It was a crash course in opening myself to experiences and grief and hard things and unimaginable things that I had to learn to metabolize, as is true of everything. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. I also think what doesn’t kill us maybe makes us more compassionate. That’s how I approach life now, so I can’t imagine approaching books any other way.

Zibby: Katie asks, “Have any authors influenced you in your writing?”

Dani: Certainly, many authors have influenced me. The one that I return to again and again is Virginia Woolf. She just always has something new for me. In terms of contemporary writers, I worship at the altar of Joan Didion, which so many of us do. One of the things about that question is that the answer is often different depending on the day or the month or the year. There are so many contemporary writers who I admire and read and return to. Then there are certain books that I return to again and again. I return to Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. I have reread Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday multiple times because it taught me something about craft. There are times as a writer where I read something and think, “How’d he do that? How did she do that?” and reread a book because I read it for the first time just under a spell, read it again to actually try to understand the mechanisms of how it works. Not that you can ever engineer a book that way because you can’t. Books are not engineered, but it can be very helpful to understand certain things about craft and structure.

Zibby: Olivia comments, “Devotion is the book I return to over and over again, my touchstone. Thank you for writing it and for your continuing grace, which you so generously share with those who admire your work and your life path.”

Dani: Thank you.

Zibby: I have to go back and reread Devotion. It’s been a really long time. Linda asks — I think you kind of answered this already — “How much of the original manuscript did you edit?” You said basically nothing. Is that right?

Dani: Almost. That first 120 pages — the first section takes place on one night in 2010. The next section takes place on New Year’s Eve of 1999, so essentially, ten years apart. All of that remained unchanged. Most of the language remained unchanged. The one character who I needed to rethink when I returned to the pages was Sarah. It was really interesting the way I needed to rethink her because fifteen years ago when I wrote her, I wrote that character as a Hollywood wife. The power dynamic in that marriage was that her husband was a big-deal producer. When I went back to the pages and started thinking about the characters again, that just did not seem right to me at all. That did not seem like who Sarah Wilf would have become. Forgive my language here, but I thought, she needs to be a badass. She needs to be somebody who has accumulated and lived inside of her own professional power. I want the dynamic in that marriage to be more complicated than — the other one felt like, I’ve read that before. I’m very familiar with that. I want to flip it. Also, I wanted her to have more agency. I wanted her to have more agency in the choices that she makes in her life, even though some of them are pretty self-destructive. I wanted her to be the chooser.

Zibby: Love it. Ellen is asking, “I’m curious why you made the two families Jewish when they didn’t seem to have any connection to Judaism, nor does the story have that much Jewish content.”

Dani: Thank you for that question. I really appreciate that question. I thought about it. I actually don’t agree. I think it’s a very Jewish book. Many of my books are explicitly Jewish. Devotion is an explicitly Jewish book. Inheritance is an explicitly Jewish book. It could be said that Slow Motion is an explicitly Jewish book. I wanted Signal Fires to be a Jewish book that doesn’t announce its Jewishness. It is about an assimilated world. It is about a world in which there is this suburb where almost everyone is Jewish. Everyone is bar mitzvahed. The memories are all about things like puking in the bushes after Noah Kantrowitz’s bar mitzvah or about seders or about Yom Kippur. When Sarah and Peter are living in LA, they join a synagogue, Wilshire Temple. To me, this is the fabric of their lives. I think it probably will emerge more, even, in the series, as I think about it. One reader wrote to me and said, “I don’t understand. You made them Jewish, but then you have Theo eating treif.” I was like, and…? They’re not an orthodox family. They’re not a conservative family. They’re a Jewish family who live a Jewish life and who live in a Jewish neighborhood and in a town that changes over time. Ben Wilf, his memories and the way that he thinks about his life are profoundly Jewish. He was born on Classon Avenue in Brooklyn. He grew up in this world of immigrant families and immigrant parents and his own Eastern European immigrant parents. I do think of it as a very Jewish book. I’m very happy when I get to talk about that because I don’t think that — what makes a Jewish book a Jewish book? is just a really interesting question that we could unpack.

Zibby: I think we’re almost out of time. Two last quick questions. “Did you ever think of including Misty’s early life story? Can you explain the title?” which I know is in here, but maybe you can explain it.

Dani: No, Misty is really the character who — it’s not a spoiler; it happens three pages into the book — who, in losing her life, becomes the catalyst, the memory, the heartache, the guilt, the shame that these other characters carry around with them. I think she’ll have a whole lot more going on in the TV series because that’s the nature of the series. In the book, I didn’t want her to. Then very quickly, in terms of Signal Fires, to go back to the maypole, to go back to the starry sky, the sense of the invisible tapestry, I see all of these characters and indeed, really all of us as signal fires in the dark for each other, each lighting the way and out there. It’s in the epigraph, a beautiful part of a poem by Carolyn Forché where she describes — she uses the term signal fires. As soon as I saw it, I thought, that’s it. That’s the book.

Zibby: Thank you, Dani. That was amazing.

Marjorie: Thank you very much, both of you. That was absolutely amazing. I wanted to make a quick comment to Dani. When my kids were grown, but not too grown, we sold the house that we raised them in in the suburbs and moved to Manhattan, where we are now. In my mind, I look back on that street feeling my kids are still playing there and my next-door neighbors and across-the-street neighbors are the same people, but of course, they’re not. The entire neighborhood has turned over, which is one reason I related and really enjoyed your book very much.

Dani: Thank you. Thanks, Marjorie. That’s exactly what I intended and I wanted. In a way, they are still there playing. Zibby, I just want to thank you so much. That was a wonderful, wonderful conversation. I always love talking to you.

Zibby: I love talking to you too. Thank you.

Marjorie: First of all, Zibby, thank you for everything. Dani, thank you for everything. Everybody who’s listening, this is the last one until February 7th when we come back with six more fabulous authors. If anybody is free tomorrow evening, please join us in person at the Streicker Center at six thirty where we have Zibby moderating a terrific interview with Anna Quindlen, Lisa Barr, Jenny Mollen, and Idina and Cara Menzel. That will be a fun evening. Thank you very much, everybody.

Zibby: Thank you.

Marjorie: Buh-bye.

Dani Shapiro, SIGNAL FIRES: A Novel

SIGNAL FIRES: A Novel by Dani Shapiro

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